We woke up today in disbelief, bewilderment, and grief. Whatever happens next, we live in a country that Donald Trump understands in ways that escaped liberal experts, reformers, and moralists.
Most liberal commentary before November 9 relied on Trump’s victory being unimaginable. Events have outstripped the imaginings that we officially permitted ourselves. But even before Trump won, unofficial imagination was bringing anxiety dreams, bursts of anger, the terror of little children who have been told something awful is coming and now wonder whether their parents are strong enough to keep the world safe.
What has won? Racial fear and animus, xenophobia, and misogyny. What else? A grotesque vision of masculinity, power, and success as a zero-sum game of winners and losers, in a candidate who is a gargoyle version of all the worst things this culture and economy celebrate: wealth, acquisitiveness, self-promotion, “disruption,” and a celebration of all the appetites money can feed.
Political nihilism has won. Trump intuited that his supporters believe politics has failed as democratic self-rule, which meant he could rework politics as a crass form of entertainment. Politics-as-entertainment is an American cliché, but he perfected it with the shamelessness of the pro-wrestling and reality television where he practiced his dubious but formidable prowess. American public life looked to him like an unused TV channel or an empty lot, a great staging ground for something loud and exciting. Trump likes to repurpose public spaces and resources into private marketing opportunities, and in 2016 he made a bid on American civic life itself.
Trump has put us where he put his followers all year: frightened, in a besieged place, a country we do not feel we recognize, in need of a champion. For lack of a less dramatic way to put it, we have to be one another’s champions.
What does this mean? In the coming months, especially if Trump delivers on his promises of torture, attacks on the media, stepped-up deportation, and religiously selective exclusion, massive displays of peaceful resistance and refusal will be absolutely necessary. This may be four years of vigils. It will be time for serious discussion about the ethics of civil disobedience, not as an academic question, but in lived practice. On the one hand, we will be trying to keep the country whole, to appeal to the people against themselves, as Thoreau put it in his defense of civil disobedience.
The first concern must be for the immigrants, women, people of color, and so many others that Trump attacked and belittled throughout his campaign. This means protection and solidarity against both official and private bigotry and targeting.
We also must prepare for the likelihood that Trump will move from attacking the most vulnerable to betraying the rural and white working people who turned out for him. He won in part because he told them they had been betrayed by Democratic elites, and the Democrats did not succeed in refuting him. But he has nothing for those voters except a vicious identity politics that cloaks standard right-wing tax-cutting, government-slashing, and regulation-gutting. He told them they lived in a merciless world, and they agreed with him, but he has no mercy to bring. You do not have to forgive the votes for Trump, or excuse the reasons behind them, to understand that, as ever, political majorities need allies, and Trump in time will prove to be a true friend to very few people.
An indispensable resource then will be the movement that arose within and almost took over the Democratic party this year under the banner of Bernie Sanders’s “political revolution.” Sanders’s “socialism” was the welfare-state politics of Franklin Roosevelt plus modern feminism and anti-racism. (Some good-faith critics on the left found Sanders’s treatment of gender and race less persuasive than his class politics, but those generational and regional differences should not limit the movement that grew up around him.) By calling himself a socialist, Sanders took his stand against the power of finance, the culture of acquisitive self-interest over solidarity, and the reign of money in politics. He won more than 13 million votes, or 43 percent of the total, and twenty-three primaries and caucuses. (That is, by the way, almost as much as Trump, who won a hair over 14 million votes and almost 45 percent of the total on the way to the Republican nomination.) He did best among young voters, and also among the white, working-class Democrats who voted for Obama twice but seem, based on initial reports, to have left the Democrats for Trump and broken the expected “firewall” in Pennsylvania and the upper Midwest. Those voters—not the committed bigots and bullies and fetishists of wealth and power who have always known the modern Republican party is their home—are the ones we will need to reach.
The traumatized exchange of blame among Democrats and the left in the aftermath of loss is hard to resist. It also risks poisoning the next steps of our effort. Careful analysis of what the election means for the intra-party clashes of the last year will be essential, but let it wait until feelings have cooled just a little.
Still, two things need to be said. First, the problem is not “democracy.” It’s quite true that people do evil things collectively, and sometimes democratically, but by the end, Clinton may well have the national popular vote—and would certainly have it if voter turnout mattered everywhere, as it does not in California, New York, and other big, overwhelmingly blue states. Moreover, the politics of elite influence, ubiquitous money, and legislative gridlock that Trump succeeded by attacking—even though he will make them all worse—is a failure of democracy. People understand this, even if they are desperately wrong in the response they chose.
Second, the Democrats need to reckon very hard with their failure to defeat a man they regarded as a laughable buffoon, or even to recognize his odds of victory until much too late. Everyone in the party did what they thought would save the country from fearmongering strongman politics and preserve what they see as legitimate and responsible government. The thing is to understand how they were so fatally wrong, while there is still time.
Jedediah Purdy teaches at Duke and is the author, most recently, of After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene (Harvard University Press, 2015). He is a contributing editor at Dissent.
This is the first in a series of responses to the election results we will be posting throughout the day.