In midtown Manhattan, Amtrak train conductor Joe Mazzola, 35, said that many of his fellow rail workers, all of them unionized, were voting Trump. He said he was sick of what he called corrupt, inept politicians. “I’m done with all this crap. I love my country but our government, uh-uh,” he said.
Quoted in the Toronto Globe and Mail
Well, put me firmly in the company of the legions who missed this thing by a mile. In the grey light of the morning after it seems both historic and surreal. It is impossible not to conclude that something has profoundly changed in American social and political life. We had the change election few saw coming. Now what?
As regular readers know, I’ve been dissing and dismissing Donald J. Trump for a year and a half. “Manifestly unfit’ was one of the milder things I alleged. I still believe that – perhaps more than ever – but today my mind drifts on to other, perhaps even bigger things.
If the president-elect attempts even a quarter of what he has proposed – abandoning existing trade deals, going squishy on NATO, overturning the Iranian nuclear deal, drastically reducing taxes, undoing Wall Street financial regulations, building his wall, weakening libel laws, replacing Obamacare, banning Muslims, using torture on enemies, indicting his opponent – you need to ask how the implementation of those objectives might alter the fundamentals of the 240 year American experiment?
Historical Parallels? Not in America…
To those looking for historical parallels, something I always attempt, you won’t find them, at least not in the United States. At a critical moment when the fragile bonds that have held together the American experiment – reverence for the Constitution, respect for the rule of law and the legal system, the influence of “the establishment” – were broadly discarded in favor of a man with what can only be described as harboring authoritarian tendencies. When we needed a Lincoln and his better angels we got “lock her up.”
The United Kingdom’s decision earlier this year to split from the European Union marked the unmistakable rise of a new phenomenon in western liberal politics – the radical populist, anti-immigrant, anti-elite, mad as hell and unwilling to take it any more crowd. The Trump victory brought the passion home. The ugliness of the campaign from both the candidate and some of his followers, the anti-Semitism, the disdain for women (particularly her), the boasts and the bald faced lies were never, we now know, going to be enough to derail a man tapping into deep anger.
He knew something, or at least mobilized something, that amounted to screaming “the hell with all of this.” Once revered and protected institutions from the Catholic Church to the military suffered his denunciations. Heck, Trump picked a fight with the Pope and claimed he knows more than the generals. Turns out he really could have shot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lost a vote.
So, sorry there are no American historical parallels and no parallels of any kind that provide comfort. For parallels we need to go to Europe in the 1920s or to a South American dictatorship any time.
The toxic brew of nationalism, white identity, economic and social dislocation, fear of the present and deep anxiety about the future has nearly always resulted in the rise of a strong man with all the answers. America, until Trump, had resisted such folly. Now we’ll see how this turns out.
One particularly critical question the day after is whether the “regular” Republican enablers of Trump – Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Chuck Grassley, Richard Burr, and all the rest of these “elites” now safely returned to power – will do what they inevitably will be called upon to do and what they so cleverly avoided during Trump’s rise and during their own struggle to remain in power.
Some of them may harbor the belief, still, that they can “work with him” or regularize his behavior. Not likely. And then what? Will they place position and power over country? This has always been the greatest question in a constitutional democracy: when do you stand up to great power? There will be a reckoning for all of them and for all of us.
I’m reminded of the old adage that America can always be assured of defeating any foreign enemy. After all we took care of the Nazis and Imperial Japan and once upon a time helped break apart the Soviet Union, but that the real threat to America will come from within. The ultimate unraveling of the country will come not through an invasion of Syrian refugees, but by a gradual or not so gradual abandonment of our imperfectly lived ideals.
Concentrated Power…the new American norm…
We are, for example, a good way down the road toward an ever more powerful American president, and in this regard Barack Obama followed George W. Bush in actually expanding the unilateral power of the executive. Where do we go with a man who campaigned with the authoritarian pledge that only he could fix what is wrong with the country? What are the real and practical constraints on the actions that lurk behind such boasts? Who protects the people from the president? Surely we will find out.
We have a Republic, Benjamin Franklin famously said at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, “if you can keep it.” We’ll see about that – again.
A reckoning is in order as well for all of us – yours truly included – who blithely went along with the fiction that nothing had fundamentally changed in the land that once elected a Reagan and an Obama. Too many of us bought the fiction that it would be enough to beat a skilled mass media marketing expert by nominating the ultimate technocratic insider, a consummate member of the elite.
You also don’t beat a celebrity TV star who long ago mastered the dark arts of media manipulation with an opponent who has a tin ear for authenticity and has been relentless defined, often by her own missteps, as dishonest.
The Clinton candidacy wasn’t even close to being enough to head off the heat of the half of the country that feels aggrieved by almost everything. It was always also going to be a stretch to replace the first African-American president with the first woman president and it turned out exactly so.
It is often the case in our politics that defeat brings out something in the defeated that had it been more obvious earlier might have changed the course of history. So it is with Hillary Clinton. “Scripture tells us,” Clinton said in her concession statement today, “Let us not grow weary in doing good, for in due season, we shall reap, if we do not lose heart.”
Clinton’s statement was profoundly patriotic, wholly gracious, bravely optimistic and seemed more genuine that most of her poll tested speeches during the long and awful campaign.
But for this American, at least for today, my optimism is muted. Oh, I accept the outcome, while not liking it, because we have only one president at a time. But accepting the outcome of an election is a good deal different than believing that the long American experiment will rumble steadily on.
I study history. I know the country has endured many things and triumphed through many, many trying times. I hope to high heaven it will again, but I’m not quite there today.