The first week of the world of now

On Route 4 between Grafton and Danbury, there is a farmstead—perhaps a former bed and breakfast—called The White House. Sometime this past summer, a “Make America Great Again” sign appeared below The White House’s wooden placard. This was a foreboding symbol, but surely this would be the only White House swearing allegiance to Trump, we thought at the time. As the summer turned into fall, the entire stretch of highway between Canaan and Bristol became an unbroken corridor of those hateful navy-blue signs. And we began to wonder whether the confident pronouncements of the commentary class—the reassuring promises that demographics, math, basic decency, and the trajectory of progress all made a Trump presidency impossible—were out of step with reality.

So I was slightly less dumbfounded than many of my citybound friends when the news hit that a sinister buffoon had been chosen to sit in the world’s most powerful office. But even though I’d feared this outcome, I wasn’t any less devastated by it. The American people, assisted by an antique electoral system, a starstruck media apparatus, and a feckless Democratic party, have inflicted upon themselves an awful, and perhaps even fatal, wound. We have allowed our frustrations and our suspicions to utterly overwhelm both the liberal virtue of progress and the conservative virtue of caution. In selecting a charlatan to run this country, we have taught ourselves and the future a dangerous lesson: that we are not only willing to be fooled, but indeed begging for it.

In June, just after Brexit, I wrote that I feared the world had then “passed over an ominous threshold.” Now the man who once bragged “They will be calling me Mr. Brexit” has completed the tragic destiny of 2016, and ensured that this year will be remembered as the moment when the postwar Western consensus finally collapsed in on itself. That comfortable order of things, without question, was riddled with hypocrisies and injustices, overseen by a vacuous class of élites for whom politics is an extension of high-school Mock Senate and the public interest is an embellished form of zookeeping. In many ways, then, this outcome was scripted into the contradictions of the era, and the now-deposed lanyard liberals deserve much of the scorn which has been heaped upon them. But the saddest story of history—one which has been repeated many times—is when people with legitimate grievances pin their problems on the wrong villain. It is simultaneously heartbreaking and infuriating to read about the people who thought Trump could save their jobs and are already finding themselves betrayed. Americans rose up against complacency, and found themselves shouting for a catastrophe.

What will be worse—the practical consequences of a Trump presidency or the symbolism of it? Why bother to wonder about this, for both will be shockingly painful. Trump’s vaunted business acumen and dealmaking skills are a cynical hoax: his companies are frauds, his investments duds; his sole genius, in sales as in politics, lies in his ability to sell gilded trash to those who wallow in cheap imitations of luxury. The federal government is probably the most complicated and consequential organization in the world, and it will now be run by a man who is not only profoundly lazy and inattentive to detail, but, worse, surrounded by psychopaths and yes-men. Ben Carson for Secretary of Education? Giuliani for Secretary of State? They’ll get along well with Defense Secretary Hulk Hogan and National Park Service Director Yogi Bear. If the United States didn’t control a stockpile of nuclear weapons or hold the fate of millions of uninsured sick people in its hands, all of this could be comical. We take for granted the dull, boring work of a competent bureaucracy—and now we will see what happens when we can take it for granted no longer.

Like many, I’ve tried to find comfort in the fact that Trump himself is an ideological cipher who, as near as I can tell, holds no genuine beliefs other than an unshakeable faith in his own greatness. To that extent, he can do things, like promote debt-financed infrastructure projects, that would send conservatives into a howling rage if they were proposed by Democrats. But even if the policy outcomes of a Trump regime are not as bad as we now fear, the humiliation of being ruled by a con man will sting just as badly. I was so looking forward to waking up on November 9th and not having to hear or think about Trump again. Now countless words, thoughts, and fears will be constantly drawn back to the fact that not only does he exist, not only is he in our newspapers and on our televisions, but he is our President. For the rest of history in which a United States of America of exists, first-grade classrooms will include his picture on the wall in their list of presidents.

That’s why it’s important going forward not to treat this like something normal, as if it were an inevitable part of the ideological pendulum-swining in American politics. Teju Cole shares Ionescu’s play Rhinoceros in order to remind us that when the unthinkable becomes thinkable we are more likely to accommodate it, and question our own beliefs, than we are to resist it. It’s always a good idea to scrutinize one’s own beliefs, especially at times when you realize they are not widely shared. But we must never confuse what is popular with what is good—that’s not what democracy means and that bend-with-the-wind relativism offers no framework whatsoever for evaluating between what is acceptable and what is beyond the pale. In any case, Trump isn’t even popular. We should hope that Trump’s rule isn’t an absolute nightmare while constantly reminding people that his elevation to the presidency is a catastrophe. We should give no ground on the assertion that he is a dangerous, malicious, and incompetent man who, together with the Republican Party which enabled him, falls well outside of the boundaries of what is acceptable.

Now begins the project of rebuilding a Democratic Party which has proven itself to be humiliatingly ill-equipped as a guardian against the far-right politics which are now on the march. Somebody joked before the debates that Hillary Clinton was the last thing standing between Earth and a giant asteroid impact. Well, she failed. There are any number of ways to explain this failure away—the unfair apportioning of the Electoral College, the discrepancy between polling and turnout—but whatever the case may be, Clinton lost, she lost badly, and she lost against the worst candidate in modern history. Though I voted for Sanders in the primary, I genuinely believed Clinton would be a good president, and I did what I could to make that happen, knocking on doors and joining the local Democratic Party office in my new hometown. But there’s no need to be polite about what happened; Clinton, and the whole Clinton wing of the party, absolutely blew this. For more than two decades now, liberal centrism has created a mythos for itself which is entirely based upon the proposition that it knows how to win: they are the “progressives who get things done,” the pragmatics who concede ideals in order to achieve results. Now that promise has been totally shorn away, and the centrist raison d’être lies in ruins. It must be convincingly and permanently rejected—not because compromise is bad, nor because ideological purity is good, but because lanyard liberalism simply does not match with political reality outside of a very small class of well-tempered professionals.

I share the belief that the Democratic Party needs to turn to the left, to a more robust vision of social democracy, if it is to escape the death sentence of Clintonism. But the failed candidacies of Zephyr Teachout and Russ Feingold, along with the continued prostration of the British Labor Party and many other social-democratic parties across Europe, makes me skeptical of the idea that a familiar diet of twentieth-century left politics is enough to bring the Democrats back to health. The left needs an aggressive and optimistic plan to address the economic concerns of everyday workers, and it needs to leave behind the fussy tut-tutting about deficits and entitlement reform that excites only the population of airport business lounges. And while labor unions are absolutely a part of this fight, these cannot be the romantic labor unions of midcentury, for today’s working class is very different from that of fifty years ago. Workers from hotel custodians to graduate students, from electricians to piecework computer programmers, all are beginning to realize how precarious their lives are under a capricious and unjust economic order. It is time to expand the vocabulary of economic justice, building on the templates that were developed on factory shopfloors but moving beyond them. It is time to realize that economic security cannot be computed in a spreadsheet, and cannot be ensured simply by well-calibrated subsidies; it is time to begin trying to answer the hard questions about how we share the resources of the modern world with one another.

Much has been said about the need to understand the white working class, the decisive demographic group that broke against Clinton, and this has already become a proxy war for the clash between the identitarian and economic-justice wings of the left. Part of this clash, I believe, comes from failing to recognize the difference between understanding and apology. We on the left are very good at extending understanding without apology to many groups whose exploitation is obvious and well-documented. For instance, when we see gang-related killings or drug trafficking in black communities, we correctly realize that these unhappy behaviors are the product of many poisonous forces, from residential redlining to racist policing practices. In fact, it is that understanding that defines a leftist critique of the legacies of exploitation, and we correctly raise a dispute when we see a conservative pin the blame for these same things on moral laxity or inherent criminality.

We must extend that understanding to the white working class. If they fear minorities and immigrants, if they accept a sexual predator as a presidential candidate, if they gobble up conspiracy theories, then we should try to understand why—which we can do without saying that these things are acceptable. Partly we should do this because it is tactically wise; as we’ve learned, there are still a lot of white voters, and we lose them at our own peril. But more importantly, we should do it because the opposite impulse—the one that assumes bad people are Satan’s marionettes, that they are deplorable in their very hearts—is exactly the same impulse which makes suburban whites think that all black people are lawless drug dealers or that makes Irish–Americans think Mexican–Americans aren’t working hard enough to integrate. Resisting the narratives which explain people’s behaviors in terms of evil impulses is foundational to the liberal view of society.

Where to go from here, then? At one level there is great comfort in carving out parts of our lives which are autonomous from politics: we seek out the companionship of our friends and loved ones, and build tiny republics which are impervious to the viciousness of Trump’s America. But if this era ends in turning activists permanently against the state in the same way that they did in the Nixon or Reagan eras, then Trump will truly have undone everything that Obama labored so hard to build. The government is the architect of great good as well as great mischief, and if we do not fight for the former, then we shall surely suffer under the latter. But that fight can’t be prosecuted as if it were an episode of The West Wing. It must be conducted everywhere, at every level, from the neighborhood newsletter to the congressional elections now less than two years away. It will require many uncomfortable conversations, and it will require us to rediscover neighbors long forgotten. However unclear the path, however uncertain the victory, it is a fight that we cannot abandon.