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Everything mattered: lessons from 2016's bizarre presidential election

WTF just happened?

BEDMINSTER TOWNSHIP, NJ - NOVEMBER 20: President-elect Donald Trump waves as he arrives at Trump International Golf Club for a day of meetings, November 20, 2016 in Bedminster Township, New Jersey. Trump and his transition team are in the process of filli
This is happening.
(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

It’s been almost three weeks now. The news cycle has moved on. But I, for one, have not fully processed the news that Donald J. Trump is going to be president.

Those words still sound like nonsense to me. I can’t shake the sense of surreality. And I know I’m not alone.

Before we’re entirely swept up in the Trump Outrage of the Day, I want to at least pause, take stock, and attempt to answer a simple question: What the fuck just happened?

Boy was I wrong

To begin, I should acknowledge just how wrong I was about this election. I never once questioned my confident prediction that Donald Trump would never become president. “Just because Trump makes no sense doesn't mean common sense has become worthless,” I wrote after Trump won some early primaries. “One black swan does not foretell a flock of black swans.” (Yeah. About that.)

I was overconfident, even more so than most in media. US political and media institutions were just as unprepared for this result as UK elites were for the Brexit vote — but at least UK elites hadn’t already witnessed the Brexit vote. Almost no one really thought it could happen here, even after we watched it happen there.

donald trump on a gold elevator.
Remember this?
Tom Briglia/FilmMagic

The consequences of that overconfidence are only now coming into view. Given the evidence thus far, Trump’s administration promises a reactionary lurch in policy accompanied by historic corruption and incompetence.

That’s the median probability. With Trump at the helm of foreign policy — temperamental and easily provoked, the only world leader who denies the threat of climate change — there are long-tail risks almost too terrible to contemplate.

Like many others, I didn’t take this election as seriously as it warranted until the day it was over. I should have done better. In that spirit, I’m going to attempt here to puzzle it all out, piece by piece — what happened, what it meant, what there is to learn from it. Join me, if you will, on this dystopian voyage of discovery.

It was close

Hillary Clinton is going to win the popular vote by a sizable margin. As of this writing, she’s at 64.9 million, to Trump’s 62.5 million — a 2.4 million-vote lead. That puts her up by a margin of 1.8 percent. [UPDATE 12/1/16: Clinton is now at 65.2 million, Trump at 62.7, a 1.9 percent margin.]

There are still some outstanding votes to be counted. Ultimately, it looks like she’ll net around 65 million votes, maybe a little more. (David Wasserman, an editor at Cook Political Report, maintains an up-to-date spreadsheet of the popular vote tally if you want to follow along.)

These numbers indicate that the story of the election was not primarily about turnout, as many exit poll–based hot takes claimed in the days after. Overall turnout is up 5 percent (so far) over 2012.

But shifts within that turnout were significant.

The numbers in that tweet aren’t current any more, but they’re close. It seems the Dem vote declined slightly (a million or less), while the growth in turnout benefited Republicans and third-party candidates. In 2012, Obama got 65.9 million votes and won the popular vote by a 4 percent margin. In 2016, Clinton will get about 65 million votes and win the popular vote by a 1.9 percent margin, give or take.

Clinton’s popular vote margin is smaller than those of recent Democrats, but it’s bigger than those of many past winners, bigger than Bush’s in 2000, Carter’s in 1976, Nixon’s in 1968, or Kennedy’s in 1960.

If Clinton’s 65 million votes had been properly distributed according to the ageless geographical wisdom of America’s Electoral College, she would have won.

But they were not (more on that later). Clinton lost the Electoral College, mainly due to whisker-thin losses in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. As John McCormack points out, the cumulative difference in those states was 107,330 votes. [UPDATE 12/2/16: The cumulative difference is now just under 80,000 votes.]

Just under 80,000 votes, less than the capacity of a football stadium, in a country where more than 135 million votes were cast. Roughly 0.06 percent of the national vote. Let that marinate a while.

Clinton got the second-highest number of votes of any presidential candidate in history. Trump, who got 2.5 million fewer votes, won the 44th biggest Electoral College victory in history (out of 54 elections).

But he’s president. Life is funny.

The country hasn’t changed overnight and there’s no “mandate”

Lots of people on the left have been gripped by existential angst in the wake of the election, convinced that they fundamentally misread their country, that they don’t know America at all.

In one sense, that’s legitimate. I didn’t think my country would elect a crass, xenophobic accused sexual abuser and scam artist for president either.

In another sense, though, it’s overblown. Though the transition from Obama’s America to Trump’s is vertiginous, and understandably baffling to casual (much less foreign) observers, it doesn’t reflect some huge, sudden shift in the country.

When a country is divided in half by a deep partisan split, elections are bound to be close. They can fall one way or the other with very small perturbations, as we just saw.

Democrats have more people. Though they didn’t win more votes for House candidates like they did in 2012, they did get more votes for their Senate candidates and their presidential candidate. Republicans have lost the popular vote in six out of the past seven presidential elections.

But Republicans are spread out more evenly, over a wider geographical area, dominating great swaths of suburban/exurban/rural America. Here’s a county-level voting map, with shades of red and blue to show partisan intensity:

2016 electoral map (M. E. J. Newman)

All those puddles of blue are cities — the “urban archipelago.”

Of course, acres don’t vote, people do. Here’s the same map, weighted by population:

2016 electoral map (M. E. J. Newman)

Turns out those cities have lots of people in them.

Nonetheless, due to institutional inertia, US politics still gives geographical spread enormous weight, so despite getting fewer votes, Republicans now control every branch of government.

Trump will almost certainly attempt to govern as though he has a “mandate” (one of the more meaningless notions in politics). Governing institutions and policy are sure to make a sharp turn to the right.

But America today is still the America we all knew on November 7: a nation almost evenly divided, with a slight popular vote lean toward Democrats and a somewhat heavier geographic lean toward Republicans.

Demographic shifts within party coalitions sank Clinton in the Electoral College

For years, the left has been foretelling a coming triumph, based on ideas best laid out in The Emerging Democratic Majority, by John Judis and Ruy Teixeira. The story is familiar by now: Older white men are dying off; the country is rapidly becoming more urban and diverse; Dems have captured the hearts of minorities, single women, and other growing demographics; sooner or later, demographics will carry Democrats to victory.

In broad strokes, over some time horizon, this story is probably true. But the road to that victory is a lot longer and rougher than the left has been telling itself, and the vaunted “blue wall” is a fairy tale. In the short term, demographic shifts are actually screwing the Dems at the presidential level.

As Liam Donovan explains, according to exit polls, Trump only got 1 percent more of the white vote than Romney got. But there was a big shift in which whites he got. Relative to Romney, Trump was down 10 points among whites with college degrees, but up 14 points among non-college whites (the stand-in for the myth-encrusted white working class, or WWC).

As it happens, those new non-college white votes (some combination of first-time voters and voters switching from Obama to Trump, though we don’t yet know how many of each) are clustered right up there in the Upper Midwest, where Republicans need them.

where trump improved on romney's vote share (Real Clear Politics)

Meanwhile, as my colleague Matt Yglesias explained, Clinton largely made up in new Asian and Latino voters what she lost in WWC and black voters (who, perhaps predictably, did not match their Obama numbers).

But the distribution is all wrong.

Latino voters are clustered in Texas and California. There aren’t enough to put Texas in play (yet — though Clinton beat Obama’s 2012 performance by 6.7 percent there). And California is already in the bag, so more votes there (Clinton beat Obama by 6 percent) are useless for Democrats.

Same with New Mexico (already blue) and Arizona (not close to blue, though getting closer). Asians are clustered in California, Washington, and other already-won states.

where clinton improved on obama's vote share (Real Clear Politics)

Clinton’s coalition seems likely to triumph in the long term. Teixeira has claimed that “because of demographic changes alone, if Democrats in 2020 garner the exact same share of every racial group that they got in 2016, they will win Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida — and come close in Arizona.”

But as FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten argues, if Republicans can keep increasing their vote share among whites — get 90 percent of white voters in the Upper Midwest like they do in the South, say — they can hang on to their geographical advantage for a long-ass time.

It’s a delicate dance, as two demographic ships pass in the night. Republicans will eventually need more minorities to win, but Dems needed a few more whites to win this November.

One thing is clear: America’s archaic, unjust, racist Electoral College belongs on the ash heap of history.

Everyone’s got their own story about why Clinton lost

Because it turned on such subtle demographic shifts and small absolute numbers, it is possible to find evidence for almost any story about Clinton’s loss. Combined with the pathos surrounding the election, this creates an ideal habitat for confirmation bias. And sure enough, post-election analysis is filled with people confident that this outcome (which neither they nor anyone else predicted) proves they were right all along.

Here are just a few of the stories one might tell:

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Cal)
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 07: FBI Director James Comey testifies during a hearing before House Oversight and Government Reform Committee July 7, 2016 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee held a hearing 'Oversight of the State Department,' focusing
“Who, me?”
(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Like everyone, I buy some of these more than others. But there are bits and pieces of evidence for all of them. Some of them don’t hold up on their own — voter suppression probably didn’t swing the election, nor did third-party candidates — but all of them plausibly played a role or have some grain of truth.

Given the difficulty of picking apart causal threads around complex sociopolitical events, our inability to run counterfactuals, imperfect hindsight, and the strong temptation to motivated reasoning on all sides, the truth is that we’ll never know exactly which factors made the difference, or which narrative is “correct.”

The best we can probably do is echo Alex Pareene: Fuck everything and blame everyone.

Turns out everything mattered

The most agonizing implication of the narrow loss is that everything mattered.

Every decision to hype Clinton’s emails. Comey’s extraordinary violation of precedent. WikiLeaks. Clinton’s Goldman Sachs speeches. Her refusal to dissociate from the Clinton Foundation. Her poor retail politics. Trump not releasing his tax returns. Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan hiding out. Sanders tarnishing Clinton’s image among young people. Institutions standing by and doing nothing as Trump shredded democratic norms. The gamble that Trump’s misogyny and racism would render him unacceptable.

Fake news on Facebook. Epistemological bubbles. Elite self-absorption. Hot take after hot take delivered to the choir. Americans making the contest into a crass reality TV show fueled by Facebook memes. The press refusing to cover policy.

And whatever else you can name. The Electoral College turned on an 80,000-vote margin. All of it mattered. If you’re prone to haunting, crippling regret (luckily I don’t know anyone like that), that’s where you should focus your energy.

Hillary Clinton is over the Benghazi hearings.
“Disappointing, nation. Very disappointing.”
(Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency via Getty)

This is roughly what the models predicted, which is either exactly what you’d expect or completely crazy

As political scientist John Sides notes, the outcome of the election was, after all the Sturm und Drang, roughly what the pre-election models predicted. Those models are based on the much-bruited “fundamentals” — things like the rate of economic growth, the president’s approval rating, and the generally grim prospects of a party that’s been in office for two terms (“desire for change”).

It was based on models like these that Vox built its “Trump tax calculator,” which purported to show how far Trump was trailing what would be expected of a generic Republican.

In the end, though, there was virtually no “vote splitting.” About 90 percent of self-identified Republicans voted for Trump (89 percent of Dems voted for Clinton). He did roughly as well as a generic Republican. The GOP came home.

What should we make of this?

Trump is obviously not a generic anything. He said or did things almost every day on the campaign trail that would have disqualified any previous presidential candidate. (See James Fallows’s invaluable Trump Time Capsule series.) He had no real campaign beyond rallies, bought very few ads, did no fancy polling or data analysis, had no ground game to speak of, and ran a campaign staff of feuding amateurs.

By all rights, he shouldn’t have been a generic Republican candidate; he should have been a very bad one. And lots of people still believe he was; they think other Democrats could have won the race.

That’s one way of looking at it. Another is that the American chattering classes have once again underestimated the sheer tidal force of polarization — or more accurately, “negative partisanship,” a loathing of the other side — in American life.

partisan hate
Perhaps “rising tide of mutual antipathy” should replace “e pluribus unum.”
(Pew Research Center)

Many people assumed that certain norms and standards still transcend the partisan divide. Surely being accused of, and admitting on tape to, serial sexual assault. Surely swindling poor people with a fake university. Surely crude racial stereotypes. Surely running a charitable foundation as a slush fund. Surely encouraging violence at rallies or threatening to reject unwelcome election results. Surely celebrating torture or vowing war crimes.

Clinton bet most of her chips on there being some floor, some violation of norms too low even for today’s radicalized Republican Party. She thought responsible Republican officeholders would rally. She thought at least well-off, well-educated Republican women would recoil in horror.

She was wrong. There is no floor. Partisanship has been revealed as the strongest force in US public life — stronger than any norms, independent of any facts.

Ezra Klein sums it up:

Political scientist Julia Azari has written the single most important sentence for understanding both Trump’s rise and this dangerous era in American politics: “The defining characteristic of our moment is that parties are weak while partisanship is strong.”

Here is the problem, in short: Parties, and particularly the Republican Party, can no longer control whom they nominate. But once they nominate someone — once they nominate anyone — that person is guaranteed the support of both the party’s elites and its voters.

partisan broken teeter totter
Life in America.

Economic populism’s power over the white working class is more often assumed than demonstrated

Lots of people, particularly white male pundits, have reacted to this unprecedented and bizarre election by reaching for familiar story lines. One of the most popular, and most familiar, is the Heartland-versus-Elite narrative.

You’ve heard it before: The Democratic Party has been captured by decadent coastal elites and Wall Street, muting its economic populism. Instead, it spends its time appealing to urban special interest groups with “identity politics,” such politically correct fripperies as multigender bathrooms and microaggressions.

Meanwhile, it has lost touch with salt-of-the-earth Real Americans in the working class, the ones that make our eyes mist up when we watch those Chevy commercials. Because Democrats are offering those left-behind working-class folk nothing, they are turning to Republicans, who are at least acknowledging their problems and offering them easy scapegoats.

This narrative has been common on the right, and among centrist pundits, for ages. It dominated the ’90s and persisted well into the 2000s. It was the main argument Democrats had after John Kerry lost in 2004. Oddly, this cycle it has gripped the left as well.

Sanders, like many of the people rehashing this narrative, means well. They want Dems to offer the WWC better economic policies. They believe that doing so will bring at least some of the WWC back into the fold. And they may be right.

But we’ve seen this dynamic play out before. (Remember when Howard Dean said, “I still want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks”?) Whenever Washington pundits and politicians start talking about Dems appealing to the WWC, the result is demonizing minorities (see: Sister Souljah), passing punitive law-and-order policies (see: 1994 crime bill), supporting fossil fuels (see: Joe Manchin literally shooting cap and trade), and making a big show of, say, hunting (see: John Kerry, 2004).

It has never, in my memory, led to more social democratic welfare policies.

There isn’t a ton of evidence that an economically populist message — divorced of appeals to xenophobia or white resentment — moves the WWC. In fact, as Andrew Prokop notes, “In two of those crucial Midwestern states that flipped to Trump, Democratic Senate candidates [Russ Feingold and Ted Strickland] campaigned on economically populist platforms — but they did notably worse than Hillary Clinton.”

Why is that?

Perhaps because politicians know, though won’t say, that appeals to xenophobia and white resentment work. If I may coin a phrase: It’s the white resentment, stupid.

On that subject, I recommend this piece from Zack Beauchamp and this tweetstorm from T.R. Ramachandran:

The mythic image of the “working class” is out of date

Many narratives about the “working class” that still dominate American life are premised on the unspoken presumption that the working class is white — specifically, a manly white man, working in manufacturing or manual labor, living in a small town and driving a pickup truck.

This cultural paradigm is what fuels the notion that Dems are distracted by “identity politics,” which is what white male pundits call the particular interests of groups that aren’t the WWC. (From the left, see Mark Lilla. From the right, see Marc Thiessen and Ed Rogers. From Mansplainia, see Bill Maher.)

But it writes huge swaths of the working class out of the picture.

Members of today’s working class are just as likely to be urban minorities in service jobs — who vote Democrat, despite being, by most objective measures, worse off than the WWC.

So Trump did not appeal to “the working class.” Even among the white working class, he only really dominated in the South. His appeal was to low-education whites, not to any particular economic class.

If you acknowledge urban minorities as part of the working class, you have to acknowledge that they face unique barriers to prosperity. Being harassed and shot by police is not some boutique issue — it’s a huge drag on workforce participation among minorities. For a transgender employee, being able to use the restroom in peace is very much an economic issue. For a Latino immigrant, the threat of deportation is an economic issue. For gay and lesbian voters, the ability to marry and have children is an economic issue.

These are economic issues facing the working class. They are about giving every American full and equal participation in American cultural and economic life. (Read Jamelle Bouie on this.)

fast food workers rally for higher wages
The working class. Not a pickup truck in sight.
(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Calls for the Democrats to turn away from identity politics amount to demands that the interests of rural white voters be recentered and that the interests and votes of other demographics be viewed as vaguely suspect.

Non-urban white man and wife has become a powerful identity

As Matt Yglesias keeps writing, all politics is identity politics.

As other groups have risen in visibility and influence in America, non-urban white men have become more aware of themselves as a tribe. (Fun fact: White people in the US used to identify as Poles, Germans, Russians, etc., not “white people.”) They’ve begun to feel “group threat.”

The more the country urbanizes and the white share of the vote shrinks, the more non-urban white becomes a distinct identity. And all evidence points to the fact that voters do not make decisions based on “issues” or ideology, but on identity. We are tribal creatures.

Trump’s campaign was pure identity politics — white non-urban male identity politics. As Michelle Goldberg wrote in a righteous piece on this subject, “We should pay Trump voters the courtesy of assuming that at least some of them knew what they were doing when they opted for the politics of cultural revenge delivered by a billionaire in a gold-plated airplane.”

white slavery
An odd way to frame one’s economic woes.
(cometstarmoon, via Wikipedia)

Clinton ran on policies that would help the working class

Of course Clinton spoke to the economic insecurities of working-class whites. She ran on the most progressive economic platform in a half-century.

She wanted to raise the minimum wage, offer paid family and medical leave, create universal pre-K and subsidized day care, expand Social Security, accelerate state Medicaid expansion, offer tuition-free college, and create an infrastructure bank, all paid for by raising taxes on the wealthy. All those things would help working-class Americans, including the white ones. She even had a $30 billion plan specifically targeted at hard-hit Appalachian communities.

Voters never heard about it. Here, according to Gallup, is what voters heard about the candidates:

gallup 2016 word clouds Gallup

Almost all the information that reached voters about Clinton was about scandal — emails, the foundation, pneumonia, etc. The three big nightly network newscasts spent three times as many minutes on Clinton’s emails as they did on all policy issues combined.

It’s pretty silly to say that the WWC chose Trump over Clinton on policy grounds when they never heard a thing about her policies (and very little about his). The source of his appeal lay elsewhere. Hmm ...

Trump voters were distinguished by their white resentment

Why be coy or euphemistic about this? Study after study after study came to the same conclusion: What most distinguished Trump voters was not their economic status but their attitudes on race, gender, and immigration. Trump ran on white male resentment and won because white male resentment appeals to a lot of white people, including a lot of white women.

Some have asked how racial resentment could be to blame when many Trump voters are former Obama voters. But that mistakes how race works. Precisely because he was black, Obama could run a mostly nonracial campaign. When he did remind voters he was black, as in the Trayvon Martin eulogy, he came in for relentless criticism on the right.

It’s called “priming” — when you remind white people that they are white people, by drawing attention to other groups, their racial consciousness rises. They become more sensitive to in-group/out-group dynamics.

Clinton’s problem is that she couldn’t rely on her identity to tell the story of intersectionality, so she had to tell it out loud, paying rhetorical fealty to all the subaltern groups the Democratic Party represents.

And Trump reminded his non-urban white voters again and again that he was with them, against all the threats — indifferent elites, murderous illegal immigrants, pollution regulations, violent urban gangs, terrorists — they faced from outside.

The Trump/Clinton race was an extended exercise in priming.

A chart shows racial resentment among voters, depending on their candidate. Daniel Byrd and Loren Collingwood/TeleSUR

Another episode of Racism Without Racists

Predictably, after the nation’s white people elected a man who campaigned on race-based appeals and promised race-based policies, the top priority of many white pundits was to defend their honor.

Not the election of a xenophobic klepto-fascist. Not the surge of race-based hate crimes after the election. Not the appointment of Steve Bannon, who has spent years mainstreaming white nationalism, to a key position in the next administration. Nothing is more maddening than having the innocence of white Americans besmirched.

There have been dozens of #NotAllTrumpSupporters tweets and posts and videos flying around since the election, urging us not to make the terrible mistake of holding Trump voters responsible for damage he will do to vulnerable lives. He might be a racist, they say, but his voters aren’t.

This is how discussions of racism in America get derailed. You start by conceiving of “racist” as a binary category, something one is or isn’t. Then you define racism as explicit belief that one race is superior to another. Only a small fringe has those self-identified racist beliefs, so, voila, there are hardly any racists! (You can play the same game with “sexist.”)

Meanwhile, studies show that “implicit bias” — subconscious negative stereotypes about particular races and genders — is ubiquitous, even among people who would never consciously espouse discrimination. And statistics show that outcomes are systematically biased against women and minorities, whether it’s housing, income, or the criminal justice system.

So racist and sexist biases are rampant in America. Racist and sexist outcomes are rampant in America. But apparently there are very few racists or sexists in America. We just perpetuate systemic racism and sexism by accident. Oops.

Women and minorities in America will find this a familiar story. Somehow, vouchsafing the innocence of white people takes precedence over holding them responsible or protecting those who will suffer as a result of their choices. Systemic discrimination becomes a crime with no criminals. (Tressie McMillan Cottom has a good piece on this.)

Put it this way: If you can elect an authoritarian who ran on racial resentment and have the nation’s elites respond with gushing displays of empathy ... you may be white.

Yes, more empathy, please — in all directions

Much was made in this election, and is still being made, about how out of touch media and political elites are with the kind of people who voted for Trump. Elites cluster in cities, tapping on their laptops and sipping their lattes, while out in the hinterlands, people are suffering.

There is truth to this. The two biggest dividing lines between Clinton and Trump voters were urban versus rural and college-educated versus not. Virtually everyone in political media or national politics is on the former side of both those divides.

However, many people in (still overwhelmingly white) political and media circles come from Trump country. They have family and friends there, people who watch Fox News and voted for Trump. Those connections are a source of both anguish and fascination. How can people they know to be good believe such terrible things?

Yes, this familiarity can often breed disdain (and unproductive Facebook battles). City folks have been looking down on the country folks they left behind, or at least have been suspected of doing so, for as long as there have been cities.

But it also generates empathy, which has resulted in some truly spectacular journalism on rural and small-town whites. There’s Arlie Russell Hochschild’s book, of course, and J.D. Vance’s. I love reading Chris Arnade (see here and here) and David Wong (here and here). I even took a turn myself.

At this point, the genre of “talking to Trump voters to find out why they’re so angry” has become so common the Awl spoofed it.

density and the 2016 vote
Big, dense metros getting less Republican; everywhere else getting more.
(Jed Kolko)

What I haven’t seen are nearly as many tender profiles of working-class black families in cities. I didn’t read as much about second-generation Latinos struggling to pay for college. There weren’t a ton of thumbsuckers on single mothers in the Atlanta suburbs, Muslim families in Dearborn, Michigan, or seasonal farm workers in California. (This stellar New York Times piece on Latina hotel workers was a welcome exception.)

America is full of different kinds of people, many of whom are suffering, all of whom face difficult challenges. They all deserve empathy. They all deserve a living wage and decent public services and fair treatment under the law. They all deserve every consideration as Real Americans.

The problem is that US politics and media tend to draw from a very narrow strip of that American tapestry — still disproportionately white, male, educated at Ivy League schools, cosmopolitan in outlook, and (if it’s not redundant to add) privileged as shit. The media/political “bubble” is real.

This leads to a lack of empathy in all directions. But the direction that should alarm us most is downward, the lack of empathy for many of the lowest and most vulnerable.

What American mainstream pundits often cannot see is that the latitude they extend white voters — “they know not what they do, they’re good people at heart, they’re just hurting” — is the essence of white privilege.

Such latitude is not offered to other groups. Black people protesting police violence are offered no forgiveness from pundits because they’re “just hurting.” The occasional violence or extremism at those protests is never waved away as an accidental byproduct of good intentions. The US media did not parse the words of Black Lives Matter, seeking the most charitable interpretation. But they’ll do a fawning profile of angry white racists if they so much as put on a suit.

Yes, America’s elites, especially in journalism, could badly use more empathy. That doesn’t mean hiring a token conservative columnist. It doesn’t mean more profiles of the folks back home. It means more diversity across the board — education, class, race, religion, gender, and sexuality.

This is a disaster that is energizing the worst of America

The most terrifyingly prescient piece I read this year was Amanda Taub on the rise of American authoritarianism.

authoritarian support for trump

Whatever the disputes among factions on the left, whatever the intentions of Trump voters, the fact is that an unprepared, wildly corrupt authoritarian is headed for the White House, drawing his support from authoritarian-leaning voters.

Along the way, Trump has managed to revive or energize almost every sour has-been and soon-to-be-has-been in American life. Newt Gingrich. Rudy Giuliani. Chris Christie. Ted Nugent. Michael Flynn. Sarah Palin. Myron f’ing Ebell. He’s empowered the worst sort of racists and loons, like Steve Bannon and Alex Jones. He’s gathered up the worst of the media, Hannity and Limbaugh and the Breitbart crew. Now he’s sifting through the Republican Party establishment roster looking for diamonds in the rough like Jeff Sessions.

In retrospect, the 2016 election has rendered every venal, norm-breaking move by Republicans under Obama — from obstructionism during the economic recovery to government shutdowns to refusing to confirm Merrick Garland — politically astute. It turns out Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan played it exactly right by hiding in a bunker while Trump insulted Gold Star families.

Paul Ryan
A genius after all.
(Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)

Trump’s bullying misogyny, his mendacity, his contempt for the free press, his disregard for policy or preparation — all of it, we are now forced to admit, was brilliant. He won on it, when everyone said he couldn’t.

And so every ugly impulse, every broken norm, every fetid alliance has now been ratified, affirmed as good politics. Other politicians will learn these lessons. The press will set about normalizing them. The damage Trump has already done to the American democratic process is not inconsiderable, but it is only the beginning.

Every unpleasant American political memory is about to return to haunt us, unleashed under an unstable man-child president and a Congress controlled by Republicans who make George W. Bush’s GOP look like Obama Democrats.

What we can learn from this mess

At long last, let’s return to the original question: What did I learn from being so damn wrong?

My basic political Weltanschauung has not changed. I still think the American ideal of multiethnic social democracy is worth pursuing, and worth defending from illiberalism in all its guises.

I still think the primary problem in American politics today is the intersection of three trends: 1) Rural and suburban white men resent recent economic and demographic changes; 2) their rebellion against those changes, combined with political institutions distorted to favor rural and suburban voters, has created a dangerously radical major party mixing xenophobic authoritarianism and libertarianism; and 3) trust in American institutions, from media to political parties to academia, has declined for decades and is now in the dirt.

There are no longer mediating institutions capable of slowing our headlong descent into epistemological relativism and partisan nihilism. Or so it seems.

I’d say the election has changed three things for me (though I’m still processing it, like everyone else, and its meaning will only become clear with some distance).

First, it seems I’ll need to develop a much deeper appreciation of historical contingency, the vulnerability of institutions, and, for lack of a better word, tragedy. Shit, as they say, happens. The arc of the moral universe is long indeed. It bends toward justice, then it bends back.

This feels like a black swan event to me, an unlikely concatenation of circumstances that offers a last gasp to forces in American life that are inexorably fading.

But that feeling? That gut sense that “it’s going to be okay”? I no longer trust that feeling. At all.

Pretty compelling.
It might not be okay.

It’s possible that white nationalism is an ineradicable element of American life. It’s possible American institutions have failed so thoroughly that some sort of illiberal strongman is inevitable. It’s possible that further Republican gains could give them control of enough states to start passing constitutional amendments returning the US to the 19th century. It’s possible that a terrorist attack under the coming administration could cause panic and backlash that leads to a police state. It’s possible something as bad as or worse than internment camps will come along, or widespread racial violence.

I don’t expect that stuff to happen, and I’m certainly not predicting it, but you can damn well believe I will never again take those possibilities lightly. There are no guarantees America will be okay.

Second, it’s clear Democrats need to focus on doing identity politics right, rather than waiting for demographics to do the work for them. That means developing identities that cut across demographic barriers, sensitive to difference but rooted in inclusive values and broad-based economic prosperity. (Again, read Bouie.)

The way to do that is not primarily with “messaging” but with institution building, from the ground up. Democrats have to get into communities across the country, in every state, and organize people around a common vision, not just once every four years but continually, the kind of work unions and churches used to do (and still do, though not in the places or at the scale necessary).

Third, when it comes to writing about politics, I’m going to make an effort to do less prognosticating and more first-order analysis. What matters is what politicians do and how it affects people. Covering politics like a theater critic, speculating whether this or that move will play well with this or that group, has never seemed more inadequate.

Core American democratic values are being called into question. The political press is better off elucidating and defending those values than speculating about whether trashing them yields a bump in the polls.

What the fuck just happened? Things got very, very real. It’s time for everyone to do better.