Editor's Notebook — From the January 2017 issue

Mourning in America

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A political orator wittily compared our party promises to western roads, which opened stately enough, with planted trees on either side, to tempt the traveller, but soon became narrow and narrower, and ended in a squirrel-track, and ran up a tree. . . . Unspeakably sad and barren does life look to those, who a few months ago were dazzled with the splendor of the promise of the times.

 — Ralph Waldo Emerson

It is the morning after. The sky is gray and pedestrians shuffle down the Manhattan sidewalks without lifting their feet off the pavement — it’s like being on Jupiter. There are low spirits, and even in public, there are tears. You sense the sort of stupor that follows a great calamity, which is accurate enough. After a presidential contest that seemed to last forever, Donald Trump has prevailed. He is the second Republican candidate in less than twenty years to have attained the Oval Office without actually being elected by a majority of Americans. Here is a crumb of consolation: he didn’t really win. Except that he did, at least according to the clanking, corruptible Electoral College, which Trump had earlier declared a “disaster for a democracy.”

His victory was, for slightly more than half the country, unthinkable. It amounted to a civic catastrophe. Surely no sane nation could choose this ridiculous figure, with his cockatoo haircut and flagrant contempt for the facts — for, let’s face it, reality itself. Perhaps more than a decade as the pouting ringmaster of The Apprentice had blurred any such distinction for Trump. Reality television is, after all, an oxymoron. What happens on the show, with its Darwinian charade of entrepreneurial combat, is rigorously staged, scripted, edited. It’s no less stylized than Kabuki — and you could argue that art and life, the real and the imaginary and the airbrushed, have long since converged for our next president.

Yet we all thought that reality would have its way with Trump on November 8. He had blustered and bullied his way through seventeen months of a perpetual media circus, had slandered women, Latinos, African Americans, Muslims, the disabled — he had even found entirely new demographics to slander, including those “stupid” Iowans, who nonetheless decided he would make a dandy president in the end. Now it was payback time. After some jittery moments in late October, the polls projected a comfortable margin of victory for Hillary Clinton. No doubt a vanquished Trump would soon go skulking back to his fifty-eighth floor aerie, with its smashing views and faux-Versailles décor.

Or so I believed on Tuesday morning, as I waited on a long line to vote. As it happens, I share a polling place with Trump. I’m talking about P.S. 59, a homey-looking elementary school in Midtown Manhattan, just about equidistant from Trump Tower and my own more modest dwelling. It took me three hours to set foot in the building, because the line stopped moving while the Republican candidate filled out his ballot. When he entered the building, I was still cooling my heels around the corner, so I was unable to hear the vigorous booing from the crowd outside. No matter: a low-res video of this reception was available on social media within minutes. Everybody was watching it. Shortly thereafter, an ABC News crew began trawling the line in search of a Trump voter to interview. Nobody volunteered.

Inside the building, the happy bustle of democracy, a bake sale offering doughnuts for a dollar, a hand-painted poster by the elevator: welcome to p.s. 59: an awesome school! Patiently we waited for the elevator, patiently we stood on yet another line and studied the multilingual signage.

Just before I was waved into the gym, where the booths and scanners were set up, Charlie Rose came through the doors, emitting that faint radium glow of fame. His presence, too, had an allegorical flavor. It was Rose who had interviewed the younger, pre-comb-over Trump in 1992, when he was bouncing back from the collapse of his casino empire. “I built the Taj Mahal,” Trump declared, “which everyone said, ‘That’s going to be his downfall,’ it’s over a billion-dollar building, and it’s turned out to be one of the best deals I’ve ever made.” But less than a month before Election Day, this dream palace, which fellow billionaire Carl Icahn took over in 2016, went belly up. It had been hemorrhaging cash for quite some time, even as its proprietors had raised the hourly wage for many of its employees by just eighty cents over the course of twelve years. How are the mighty fallen! The symbolism was delicious, and it put a spring in my step as I advanced into the gym, filled out the ballot, and fed it into the scanner.

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