The first thing I was going to say was a response to the debate on the poll aggregation sites about declining volatility. As recently as 1992, Bill Clinton's Gallup numbers in the general election campaign varied from a low of 24 to a high of 57, while George Bush's swung from a low of 29 to a high of 48. This year, fivethirtyeight.com never had Hillary Clinton lower than 46.1 or higher than 49.9, nor Donald Trump outside a range of 40.8 to 45.5. And some argued that that didn't even mean that the two of them had 87% of the electorate locked up and were fighting over a handful of undecided voters — virtually no one was undecided, they contended, and the swings in the polls reflected only the extent to which each camp was enthusiastic enough to respond to pollsters. But whatever the swings reflected, what caused them? During the campaign it seemed like every day I'd read another article about something that had been found not to affect the polls: debates, local campaign events, TV ads… and for TV ads to be shown to have no effect in recent years represents a key shift, given that they swung a whole presidential race as recently as 2004 and still counted as one of the primary expenditures of a traditional campaign. But it made sense. The proliferation of channels has made the ratings of individual programs plunge, so airing an ad on a given channel at a given time means reaching about a third as many eyeballs as it did thirty years ago. And while in 2005 my landlord was shocked to walk into my apartment and find no TV set, these days ditching television altogether doesn't raise any more eyebrows than dispensing with a landline telephone. So I would have assumed that the polls would be just as unaffected by TV news as by TV ads. After all, as John Oliver pointed out after the election, a huge percentage of people now get their news from social media — which often means fake stories, many of them produced by Russian propaganda operations, that Americans uncritically believe and forward along to five hundred of their closest friends. A Boston Globe story earlier this month neatly captured what some are calling "the post-truth world" in which millions of Americans now live:
"We believe he was murdered," Myers said. (Scalia died of natural causes on a Texas ranch, although his family declined an autopsy.)
If Clinton were to appoint the next Supreme Court justice, Myers said, "She'd get rid of the Second Amendment. She'd get rid of the Constitution."
"Don't put nothing past that woman," said Pack, Myers's friend, who sported a black bleach-stained T-shirt that said "Redneck Priorities."
Pack passed on another rumor, considered shocking if false: that the government has ordered 30,000 guillotines that Clinton, if elected, plans to use "to kill us — Christians and people who believe in the Second Amendment."
"All you got to do is pull it up on the Internet," Pack said.
So I was very surprised to find that the one factor that made the polls rise and fall in 2016 was the TV news. Anything even slightly more sophisticated had no effect. At one point in the campaign Kurt Eichenwald of Newsweek announced that he had a story that would turn the race upside down, and followed up with a long piece detailing how Trump's business ties would be a nightmare for national security were he to take office. But the TV news didn't pick up the story, and it vanished with nary a ripple. Some argued that this demonstrated that the mass media was biased in favor of Trump, or at least in favor of manufacturing a horse race that would generate ratings; others shrugged that, no, it was just that the story was too complicated for general audiences, and pointed to the way the mass media did run with the "grab 'em by the pussy" story as a sign that it was happy to go big with stories bad for Trump if they were simple enough. But I think this misses the mark. Those who program the TV news were perfectly happy to spend two years incessantly harping on an esoteric story about the minutiae of IT security and government recordkeeping regulations. And the fact that few people understood it on a deeper level than "something something emails" didn't keep it from dragging down Clinton's poll numbers, for the same reason that a dog can tell whether it's being praised or scolded without understanding the nuances of English sentence structure. The dog is responding to tone of voice, and the small coterie of voters who swung the polls back and forth between Clinton + 9 and Clinton + 1 were responding not to the substance of the coverage, but its tone. After all, the three main stories that knocked Clinton's numbers off their highs had no real substance:
- Something something emails.
Kevin McCarthy gave away the game when he crowed about how Republican
operatives had engineered investigations specifically in order to knock
down Hillary Clinton's poll numbers.
So while they didn't actually care about the technicalities of email
routing, they took the opportunity to work themselves into a lather over
it in hopes that the manufactured controversy might keep Clinton from
running out to a 20-point lead.
They then worked themselves into an even frothier lather over the very
fact that investigators determined there was nothing there.
- Clinton says half of Trump's supporters are deplorable racists
First of all, this was something the media should have been reporting
on already, because Clinton's figure was actually a polite
Instead the story was about how racists and misogynists were outraged
at being called deplorable over their deplorable beliefs.
The irony here is that the single biggest talking point on the right as
the election drew to a close was that "Hillary is unfit to be president
because something something emails, but she says Trump is unfit because
he says mean things! Boo hoo!"
But projection has long been the primary hallmark of Republicans: whatever
they accuse others of invariably applies to them, and "libtards have
delicate feefees!!" would be near the top of that list.
- Clinton gets sick. Because if you're a Republican you can deliberately walk in on a roomful of naked teenage beauty pageant contestants and the evangelicals will shrug, but if you're a Democrat, being a biological organism susceptible to disease is a scandal. Especially if you're female, because we all know that wimminz is expecially biological. (Recall that when a lawyer at a deposition asked to take a break to pump some breast milk for her infant daughter, Trump screamed, "You're disgusting!" and ran out of the room.) More on this one in a moment.
So, yeah, basically a tasting menu consisting entirely of nothingburgers. But so long as the theme of the evening's newscast was "Clinton scandal! Bad day for Clinton!", it didn't actually matter what the details were. On the flip side, virtually every day some story came out that should have disqualified Trump — to pick a handful at random, he vowed that he would order the U.S. military to commit atrocities and would brook no refusals; after being sued for swindling tens of millions of dollars from poor people through a fraudulent university, he charged that the Indiana-born judge overseeing the trial was biased because "he's a Mexican"; he refused to release his tax returns, repeatedly lied that he couldn't release them due to an audit, and eventually conceded that he had paid no taxes for eighteen years. The tax thing alone should have made "Trump scandal! Bad day for Trump!" the theme of every newscast for fifteen months, but the only one of Trump's daily outrages that the media acknowledged as beyond the pale was his gleeful boast to Billy Bush that he sexually assaulted women with impunity.
Despite the mass media's insistence on portraying Trump's bigotry, stupidity, crookedness, and authoritarianism in the most anodyne terms possible, after the conventions Clinton raced out to a substantial lead. There was talk that she might flip states like Arizona, Georgia, South Carolina, even Texas, and win upwards of four hundred electoral votes. And Trump's army of trolls responded by… spreading rumors that Clinton had health problems. At which point I could fully understand why Google is so quick to autocomplete "I don't" with "want to live on this planet anymore". Their argument was that she's sickly? That's atavistic. We're electing a president of a continent-spanning republic, not Big Strong Chief to lead hunt, kill many mastodons. Personally, I wouldn't even go that far — I'm not voting for a president, but for an administration. Tell me that Clinton is going to die in office, and my response is, yes, and? In that case you get Tim Kaine, who picks up where she left off. But this is just another instance of the same thing I'm always complaining about: presidential elections are supposed to be our opportunity to select a team to implement our preferred set of policies, but far too many people treat them as if the news were a family sitcom and they're deciding who to cast as the dad. I don't have a lot of social contact, but this year even I found myself repeatedly getting into conversations in which the person I was talking to would echo the same refrain: "I don't like either of them!" It wound up being Oprah Winfrey, of all people, who most succinctly pointed out how inane it is to make decisions this important based on who you "like":
In the aftermath of the election, I saw that "dude bro comic" Bill Burr tried to make a similar point in support of the opposite stance, starting off with the tiresome refrain that "I didn't like either one of them" and elaborating that he didn't vote for Hillary Clinton because "she dresses like a real estate agent". Then he continued: "I don't understand why everyone's so upset. Like, what's going to happen to you? If you liked Obama — did he call you at all in the last eight years? Did he put a sandwich on your table?" And, no, he didn't. What he did was choose health insurance reform as the big piece of legislation on which to spend the political capital he won in 2008. In 2005, when my kidney first went wonky, I had to spend five weeks pounding the bathroom floor in excruciating pain and taking bootleg antibiotics because I had no insurance and couldn't afford to go to the hospital. But when I had a flare-up in 2016, I had an Obamacare plan that allowed me to go to the emergency room, where I was hooked up to a Toradol IV. Time from the onset of agony to relief: about three hours. And Obamacare knocked my $13,950.51 bill down to $725. You know what? That's actually better than most sandwiches! I was even able to follow up with a specialist — bill reduced from $1330 to $60.69 — who, after a horrible outpatient procedure, had good news and bad news for me. The good news was that he'd ruled out anything malignant; the bad news was that the malady he suspected was to blame was chronic and currently incurable. Managing flare-ups will be the name of the game. And with the incoming Republican administration salivating to repeal the legislation that makes my insurance affordable, if my subsidy gets taken away, I'm going to have to add hours to my work week and reduce the time I devote to personal projects accordingly — and it won't be a one-to-one correspondence, because more work time also means more recovery time. It's a direct hit to my quality of life. And I'm sure that for every person who will be taking a blow like I will, there are countless more who will suffer much worse fates — people who will die without their insurance, or who a DOJ headed by a virulent racist will unjustly send to fill up the private prisons whose stock prices skyrocketed upon Trump's election, or who will be the innocent victims of Trump's campaign promise to summarily slaughter the families of accused terrorists. Because the government is not a fashion show and its policies affect the lives of real people, even people who don't realize it without a personal phone call from the president to explain exactly how.
But in a country where we do pick our leaders based on who we "like", I suppose it is worth a look at why the voters found Hillary Clinton so goshdarn unlikeable. The caveat here is that the numbers make this look like an overstatement; Barack Obama, purportedly possessed of once-in-a-generation charisma, won 70 million votes in 2008 and 66 million in 2012, while Clinton is currently projected to win 65 million once the count is completed. Not exactly an epic collapse. (Though this is not hugely meaningful given the rate of population growth, it has been pointed out that Hillary Clinton received more votes than any white man who ever ran for president — including her opponent, who may not even top 63 million when all the votes are tallied.) Also of note is that while Clinton's unfavorables did jump when she entered the presidential race, her popularity was sky high during her tenure as secretary of state. Some have pointed to that as evidence of misogyny — that even people who are perfectly fine with a woman having power have been programmed to find something unseemly about a woman seeking power. And some foresaw how this election would unfold years in advance. I spent most of 2011 working as a junior screenwriter on a superhero movie. I mostly did character work and fleshed out scenes, trying to give them as much of a distinct voice as I could get away with within the confines of a big studio film. But the head writer chose the plot elements, and there was one wrinkle I didn't quite get at the time. I can't go into too much detail, but the setup is that our heroine has discovered that she has superpowers, inadvertently goes public by intervening in a local emergency, and becomes a media sensation. At which point the villain, who has an identical power set, engineers an international crisis that allows him to heroically intervene — and declare that he's come to our world to apprehend our heroine, who is actually an interdimensional outlaw. At which point the public automatically lines up behind the man. That much made sense to me: a big part of the reason I had agreed to devote a year of my life to this movie was that it seemed like a unique opportunity to shine a light on the sexism that even in our supposedly enlightened age continues to poison society. We wanted to depict how women have to be twice as accomplished to be taken half as seriously, even by other women. But then it came time to write a scene illustrating the public reaction to this controversy. I thought it best to be subtle — no over-the-top misogynistic invective, but instead sound bites like "he seems more like what a superhero should be" and "I feel safer knowing he's the one protecting the planet" and "he won't just give the bad guys a time-out, he'll kick their ass!". But the head writer seemed to want to take subtlety even further. He had a very precise idea of what people should say. "I just don't trust her." "There's just something I don't like about her." I thought these sorts of lines were too vague and blunted the point we were trying to make, and I went along with them reluctantly. But sure enough, five years passed and it was exactly the head writer's lines that I heard coming out of the mouths of people trying to explain their disdain for Hillary Clinton. Others have reported the same thing — here are three more examples I ran across while working on this article. So would any female candidate who had won the nomination instead of Clinton have encountered the same reaction from the public? It is immensely frustrating not to be able to run experiments to find out — not to be able to make like America Chavez and pop over to a universe where Elizabeth Warren or Kirsten Gillibrand was the nominee and see how it went. Even if the outcome were no better, observing the difference in the public's reaction would be instructive. And if the outcome were better, why come back?
While the question of what demotivated potential Clinton voters has garnered a lot of ink and pixels since the election, even more hotly debated has been the question of what motivated Trump voters. As Josh Marshall recently put it, "Is Trumpism largely about economic distress tied to globalization and neo-liberal economics or is it mainly driven by a white racial backlash against minorities Trump supporters believe are cutting to the front of the line in the race for economic preferment and cultural centrality?" Though there have certainly been any number of articles asserting that Trump won entirely because of racial animus or entirely because of economic anxiety, Marshall says that most people realize that these are not mutually exclusive explanations. But I think even that doesn't go quite far enough. From the beginning of this nation, racism and plutocracy have been intertwined, the double helix of a pathogen that has infected our society for centuries. Trump's rise is merely the latest outbreak, albeit the worst of my lifetime.
So which came first? It's tempting to say that it must be racism, given how deeply rooted tribalism is in the human brain. But while we may indeed be hardwired to despise members of rival groups, it takes more than that to graduate to considering them a lesser order of creature. And by looking at history we can actually see that malignant ideology take shape over time. That is, greed comes first. Europeans' early accounts of the indigenous inhabitants of what would become the U.S. were generally admiring; only after settlers set out to seize their land did those settlers decide that "the only good injun is a dead injun". And much the same was true of African slavery in the Americas. At its inception, it was not founded on racism per se. In fact, the concept of race itself had yet to fully develop: Europeans who thought about such questions at all tended to hold a proto-Lamarckian belief that racial characteristics were fast-acting responses to environmental factors, such that if a group of Europeans moved to the equator, and only had children with each other, their descendants would develop dark skin within a few generations. Big landowners did not import slaves from Africa because of some elaborate theory of racial hierarchy, but merely because those landowners wanted to lead lives of luxury while spending as little as possible on labor, and African slaves were available, were thought to be hardy, and lacked the indigenes' familiarity with the terrain. But unless you're a true sociopath, it's hard to live with yourself knowing that your hedonism and greed have condemned fellow human beings to decades of unremitting torment — human beings who aren't out of sight and out of mind on the other side of the globe, but who surround you, who often outnumber you, and who you know have every reason to want to kill you. How do you cope? It varies. Some convinced themselves that slavery was a "positive good", arguing not only that American slaves were much better off than free Africans, but that life as an American slave was paradise compared to life as a European pauper. Others said that the welfare of the slaves was immaterial — that white people were the master race, that black people were their natural inferiors, and that it was therefore the proper order of things that the latter be subjugated to the former. But the most visceral way to cope with the knowledge that you're hurting other people is to hate them. To stop trying to rationalize the suffering you cause and instead to delight in it.
This account of the origin of race hatred in the antebellum South raises the question of why poor whites adopted it as enthusiastically as the rich. After all, the Free Soil movement wasn't founded on compassion for the suffering of the slaves; its chief argument against the South's peculiar institution was that white workers couldn't compete against slave labor and were therefore doomed to desperate poverty so long as slavery continued to exist. As with all of this, there's more than one answer. One is simply that while ideologies may emerge from social conditions, once they have emerged, they propagate themselves via their own set of rules. (E.g., even before I became a vegetarian I never ate pork, because I was raised in a household that followed laws formulated in a different ecosystem on the other side of the planet millennia before the advent of modern food hygiene.) But another is that, contra Marx, there's more to life than material gain. Max Weber held that social standing was what people really sought, and in a society where class is purely a function of wealth, that standing is always precarious. But adding race into the mix gave poor whites a measure of security: no matter how much bad fortune befell them, they could never occupy the lowest rung of the social hierarchy. It was that social order, not the perquisites of the slaveowning aristocracy, that poor Southern whites fought for in the Civil War.
It was also preserving that social order that constituted the chief plank of the Democratic Party platform both in the years leading up to the Civil War and in its aftermath. When the Democratic Party first took shape, it was little more than a gang of Andrew Jackson's cronies, but once the Whig Party coalesced to provide some opposition, the Democrats developed a slightly more distinct philosophy. The Whigs were the party of business and industry, arguing for higher tariffs, infrastructure development, and self-discipline. In short, they were the party of Yankeedom. The Democrats thus became an anti-Yankee coalition. In the cities that generally meant immigrants, particularly Irish Catholics, but the Democrats' real home base was the South, where land and not industry was still the source of wealth. The party's principles were lower tariffs, rapid expansion, and self-indulgence. In the 1850s, two new parties rose to prominence to replace the Whigs, each directed at a different wing of the Democratic Party: opposing the urban Catholics was the nativist American Party, better known as the Know-Nothings, while opposing the Southern wing was the new Republican Party, whose core mission was to prevent the extension of slavery into the territories. Within a dozen years of the party's founding, not only had this aim been achieved, but slavery had been outlawed entirely. And for a century that made the Democratic Party the political home of American racism, encouraging the electorate to flock to "the White Man's Banner" and "redeem" the antebellum order of things. For generation after generation, millions of Southerners refused to vote Republican because the Republicans freed the slaves.
It took plutocracy longer to find a home. Cotton was no longer king, and the sectors of the economy gilding the Gilded Age were oil, steel, railroads, eventually automobiles — the industries that built the Rust Belt before it rusted. Not only was this Republican country, but the Republicans were the chief heirs of the business-oriented Whig Party, and they were clearly the party with whom corporate America would want to curry favor, given their political dominance. (Only one Democrat won the presidency between 1868 and 1912.) When financiers convinced Ulysses Grant to veto a bill to ease the debts of workers and miners, and the tycoons of the next generation convinced William McKinley that business-friendly policies were "right and fair and just", it added to the growing sense that the Republicans were first and foremost the party of the rich — but not every constituent of the Republican coalition was so malleable. The Republican Party was also the home of the religious left, of which Benjamin Harrison was a member, and he and House Speaker Thomas Reed pushed through one of the most impressive bursts of economically progressive legislation in U.S. history. And while Theodore Roosevelt was temperamentally conservative, he found the robber barons stupidly and contemptibly greedy and shortsighted, and took them on with his characteristic pugnacity. But in Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover the plutocrats found true believers in far-right economics, and they promptly crashed the economy. This meant two things: first, the next administration would be Democratic, as Hoover in particular had made the Republican brand poisonous, and second, that administration would have to turn to anti-plutocratic programs that would have been non-starters absent a crisis as profound as the Great Depression — public works programs, unemployment insurance, old age and disability insurance, securities regulation, limitations on speculation by bankers, tax hikes on the ultra-rich, and on and on. This put the plutocrats permanently in the Republican camp, but they had little company there. Racists voted for Democrats because the Republicans had freed the slaves; everyone else voted for Democrats because the Democrats had saved the country. Franklin Roosevelt won four terms, all by huge landslides. And when the Republicans did finally win the White House after twenty years of Democratic governance, the plutocracy was apoplectic to find that Dwight Eisenhower considered the New Deal a permanent fixture. With a two-party system firmly entrenched in the U.S., if the top 1% were to have any hope of getting their taxes slashed, they would somehow have to get one of the parties committed to tearing up the social safety net those taxes paid for, and somehow get that party to win elections.
Fortunately for them, the new Democratic Party was too big a tent to hold together indefinitely. A progressive approach to economics certainly can coexist with racism — Woodrow Wilson proved that — but as the policies of Roosevelt and his Democratic successors attracted social progressives and even African-Americans to the party, Dixiecrats began to find themselves marginalized. In 1964 they filibustered their own party's civil rights legislation, but their resistance proved ineffectual and Lyndon Johnson signed it into law. This presented the plutocrats with an opportunity. Perhaps "Republicans freed the slaves a hundred years ago" would finally start to hold less weight with racists when Democrats were ending segregation right now. On the presidential level, Southern states had already started to break away from the Democratic column; the problem was that they kept voting for avowedly racist protest candidates. Of course, getting disaffected Democrats to switch parties would do the malefactors of great wealth little good so long as the Republicans kept nominating candidates who believed in the so-called "liberal consensus". Nor would they get very far trying to convince voters of modest means to send Social Security and the gigantic new addition to the social safety net, Medicare, to the chopping block. But there were areas where the agendas of the racists and the plutocrats overlapped. Take welfare. People in the top tax bracket could be furious that the government is taking our money away and giving it to those people, while those who were only parting with a few bucks could still be furious that the government is taking our money away and giving it to those people. The fusion of their respective axes to grind would come to be called "movement conservatism", but as society evolved and "conservatives" didn't, the more they were more aptly termed reactionaries. What both these wings had in common was a desire to turn back the clock, the plutocrats to the Gilded Age, the racists to the Jim Crow era (before "all these problems", as Trent Lott put it). And anyone with that desire — anyone aggrieved that a more inclusive society meant a loss of privilege — could join the movement, with a hot-button issue in tow: abortion for those incensed that reproductive rights gave women more power of self-determination, school prayer for those who insisted that this was a Christian country whatever the Constitution might say, and on and on. The key for the plutocrats was to reframe all these issues so that the government was always the bad guy. Affirmative action? Busing? Government programs. Even inaction on the government's part could be spun. Like, not putting women in jail for terminating their pregnancies? Government overreach by activist judges! Using this framing, the economic far-right was able to stir up antipathy to government in general, and particular scorn for the notion that government helped people, among many of the people who received the most government help. (Case in point: the infamous "keep your government hands off my Medicare" sign.) Dog-whistling about "racial quotas" and "welfare queens" was called the "Southern strategy", but there were plenty of voters in the North and West, particularly in the suburbs, who were scared of and angry about the baby steps the nation was taking toward a more equitable social order and who were therefore receptive to such messages. Republicans won landslides in 1972, 1980, 1984, and 1988.
But not in 1992. Ronald Reagan had won two terms as the archetypal first-wave movement conservative, and while George Bush was more moderate, the premise of his campaign was that liberalism had been so discredited as a political philosophy that to espouse it in any regard was disqualifying. Having grown up in this era — in Wally George's Orange County! — I certainly had the sense that conservatism's hold on the U.S. was permanent, as permanent as the Cold War or the cultural centrality of shopping malls. But then the economy went south, George Bush became a one-termer, and suddenly the president was a Demmycrat. The Republicans, who under Reagan had begun the long-awaited process of dismantling the New Deal — cutting Social Security benefits and knocking tax rates down to 1920s levels, hollowing out the middle class and thereby causing the "economic anxiety" that commentators would cite thirty years later — now found that if they wanted to continue tearing down the government they would have to do it from outside the White House. In part this meant actually shutting down the government a few times, but mainly it meant trying to delegitimize and destroy Bill Clinton — and Hillary Clinton, who had became an even more hated villain to the right for not knowing her place and daring to think that she had something to contribute to her husband's administration. Following the news in the 1990s was largely an exercise in listening to the media dutifully and endlessly rehashing scandals ginned up by those who wanted to bring the Clintons down — chief among them Richard Mellon Scaife, who spent two million dollars on his "Arkansas Project" to tar the Clintons' name. These scandals ranged from conventional material like real estate deals and stock sales (though these were dredged up from the 1970s), to stupidly petty things like the price of their haircuts, to real tinfoil-hat stuff like the accusation that a White House lawyer who'd killed himself had actually been murdered by the Clintons. Over and over investigators found nothing to charge them with. But for a lot of people, the endless talk of scandal meant that the Clintons had to be guilty of something, and when one of the stories did prove true — that Bill Clinton was getting blowjobs from an intern — to many that retroactively validated the dozens of stories that in reality were just so much bullshit, including the ones about Hillary rather than Bill. So, yeah. It's unfair, but being the object of a smear campaign that lasts for a quarter of a century does tend to make a few too many people decide that there's something about that person that they just don't trust. So despite my former writing partner's prescience about the sort of reception any female presidential candidate might receive from the media and the public, I do suspect that Hillary Clinton had a particularly thick glass ceiling to crack.
Every time someone horrible gets elected president, I can't help but wonder whether it might have been better for an earlier election to go the wrong way and thereby prevent the later calamity. If Gerald Ford had won in 1976 and presided over the stagflation of the late '70s, it seems unlikely that voters would have given the Republicans a fourth consecutive term in 1980, and the country would have been spared Ronald Reagan. If Bob Dole had won in 1996, maybe we would still have been stuck with George W. Bush somewhere down the line, but probably not in 2000. And of course if Mitt Romney had won in 2012, "President Trump" would remain a silly Simpsons joke.
As much as I would love to live in a world in which no one from the Republican Party ever won any office, I recognize that that's not the world we live in. Since the end of World War II, the swing of the political pendulum has been pretty regular. Only once has the same party won three consecutive terms in the White House, the Republicans' 1980s trifecta. A win by Hillary Clinton in 2016 therefore seemed likely to guarantee a Republican win in 2020, especially given that the U.S. economy has been on an upward trend for the duration of Barack Obama's presidency, including a record-setting streak of consecutive months of job growth that must be bound to end soon. And 2020 would be a terrible year for Republicans to win, particularly in the statehouses, because that's a redistricting year, and Democrats will find it almost impossible to retake the House if they can't undo the Republicans' 2010 gerrymander. (In 2012, for instance, Democrats won 50.6% of the two-party House vote and 46.2% of the House seats. The United States is not very good at democracy.) So at the start of the campaign, I wondered whether this might not be one of those years that a Republican win could actually work out in the long run. Especially once Trump shot to the top of the polls! Trump is such a cretin that he seemed likely to spend four years making the Republican brand synonymous with embarrassing buffoonery. He also seemed likely to prompt endless infighting within the party, since he was all over the map politically — and the very fact that he didn't adhere to right-wing orthodoxy on every point made him look like he might well be the best of a rotten bunch. Being from California, I had experience with embarrassing buffoons with simplistic sales pitches getting installed in high office on the basis of lowbrow celebrity. I had vivid memories of Arnold Schwarzenegger declaring that "ve haff to make sure that everyone in Kaleefawnia has a FANTASTIC job", offering no specifics on how that might happen, and winning because, as a guy interviewed on NPR put it, "I don't care about policy blah blah blah! He's the TERMINATOR!" But as annoying as it was over the subsequent years to read about Schwarzenegger vetoing a lot of good legislation, at least he didn't fall into any of the scariest camps of the Republican coalition. He wasn't a Christianist theocrat like Ted Cruz, he wasn't an Ayn Rand acolyte like Paul Ryan, and as a governor, if he was an imperialist warmonger like Dick Cheney he wouldn't get a chance to show it. The state was kind of a shambles when he left office, but ultimately Schwarzenegger did little enough damage that Jerry Brown and Democratic supermajorities in the legislature were able to rescue it.
So with this data point in mind, in my typically obsessive fashion I did keep finding myself dwelling on whether the country would be better off with four years of Hillary Clinton and then eight years of someone like Scott Walker or Nikki Haley, or better off with four years of Donald Trump and then eight years of someone like Amy Klobuchar or Cory Booker. Obviously I was always going to vote for Hillary Clinton, but what convinced me that getting her into the White House would be worth handing the 2020s to the Republicans was the death of Antonin Scalia. Filling his seat with a progressive justice would have given the court its first progressive majority of my lifetime, and assuming that Ruth Bader Ginsburg (born 1933) and Stephen Breyer (born 1938) stepped down during Clinton's term, would have locked in five progressive votes for a generation to come — and if Anthony Kennedy (born 1936) were to retire or die, that would make six. And yes, it was certainly worrisome that Trump proved to be not merely a belligerent oaf but a walking personality disorder, an infantile narcissist whose style of politicking was less reminiscent of Schwarzenegger than of another, even more famous Austrian. I cannot count the number of times during the campaign and its aftermath that I found the political commentary sites stuffed full of articles warning that "This Is Not Normal": from Trump threatening to jail his political opponent, to going on Twitter benders to rage against anyone he felt had slighted him to even the smallest degree, to having his election celebrated by the Ku Klux Klan and actual sieg-heiling Nazis, to a foreign power actively intervening on his behalf, to the fact that not only is everything he says a lie but he doesn't seem to understand that truth and falsehood are different things, et cetera, et cetera, et multa cetera. Above all, commentators fretted that Trump had no respect for American political institutions and would turn the country into an authoritarian state like Russia under Trump's sponsor Vladimir Putin, and that this was most assuredly Not Normal.
The problem is, it is. It goes to show that Donald Trump is perfectly normal for a Republican. I mentioned the Supreme Court. Antonin Scalia is dead. He died with over eleven months remaining in Barack Obama's presidency. Even the most minimal respect for American institutions would require that Senate Republicans give the president's Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland — a moderate, an older man, in every respect an olive branch to the right — at least a hearing. They did not. This was not the action of one outlier of a presidential candidate, nor of a small caucus of crazies. This was every Republican in the Senate. The articles I've been reading lately have also been freaking out about the administration Trump has been assembling. For his chief advisor: Steve Bannon, head of Breitbart News, a dressed-up version of the 4chan and 8chan hate boards, who has explicitly cited Satan as a personal role model. For attorney general: Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, rejected for a judgeship in 1986 by a Republican Senate due to his long history of racism. For head of "homeland security": Kris Kobach, architect of Arizona's infamous "papers, please" racial profiling law. For CIA director: Benghazi zealot Mike Pompeo. For national security advisor: Michael "not today, Jews" "fear of Muslims is RATIONAL" Flynn, forced out of the Defense Intelligence Agency for his abusive management style and reality-averse worldview. For other posts, various billionaires who aim to dismantle the agencies they're put in charge of. And of course his choice for vice president — who will be in charge of domestic policy and foreign policy while Trump concentrates on "making America great again" — is Mike Pence, one of those Christianist theocrats it initially looked like we might be avoiding with the crass libertine Trump. A parade of horribles, to be sure. But Trump didn't recruit these guys from the Death Star. He got them from the Republican Party. And they weren't all minor functionaries, either. Pence was the Republican governor of Indiana, Sessions a Republican senator from Alabama, Pompeo a Republican congressman from Kansas, Kobach the Kansas secretary of state… they're the people who've been running the red states for ages, and we'd have gotten them or others much like them if any Republican had won, be it Marco Rubio or John Kasich or any of the other establishment favorites. Which is why I'm skeptical that Trump will draw attention to the attack on American institutions rather than just being normalized like these others. During Barack Obama's presidency, the Republican Party has not been acting like an opposition party. It has been acting like an insurgency, taking a sledgehammer to American institutions at every turn. And there hasn't been any effective pushback. I keep harping on this, but the Supreme Court thing — why wasn't the lead story on every newscast that the Republicans were openly defying their constitutional responsibilities? Why did the media treat this act of insurgency like it was normal? Why didn't the public boot every Republican senator up for re-election in 2016 out of office? Why did the public treat this act of insurgency like it was normal? One of Trump's favorite lines during the campaign was the sublimely stupid "either you have a country or you don't have a country". If the people don't buy into and safeguard the institutions that literally define the country, what makes it a polity rather than a few hundred million people who happen to live in the same corner of the world, then they don't have a country. And we don't. So now we have Trump.
From time to time I end these articles with a song. According to my web stats, most people don't play the song. But I hope you'll play the one at the bottom of this article. It's from Hallelujah! I'm a Bum, Local H's 2012 album about life in the Rust Belt during the Republican insurgency. The song is called "Sad History". It sounds like a relationship song, but the "you" in the song is the United States of America. I've loved it ever since I first heard it, but it sounds particularly resonant to me after November 8th. For one thing, I've been wondering what I should do now that Trump is on the verge of taking office. The cliché is to say, "That's it! I'm moving to Canada!", but in 2008 and 2012 I was in a relationship with a Canadian woman, and if the Republican ticket had won either of those elections, shacking up with her in British Columbia actually was the plan. If we were still together, I would already have given notice to my landlord. So naturally I've wondered whether the right move is to somehow get up there on my own, or to hope that California will function as an enclave with enough autonomy that life will be okay. As the song says, "Maybe 'wait and see' is the right way to be / To see if all this evil is just another fucking trend". But it doesn't feel like it. When the election results came in, it kind of felt like the end of everything. And they weren't the only reason. Part of the reason this article has taken three weeks to put together is that it's stupidly long; part is that I've been busy working; part is that I've been so depressed that I haven't been able to do much other than to escape into Masterchef Australia reruns. But part of it is that I've spent a big chunk of that time sick in bed, and as noted, this may well be a permanent lifestyle change for me, to whatever extent I can bring myself to stick it out. So having that sense that both I and the country are getting to the last few pages, I've found that the end of this song has offered at least a little bit of solace:
I know you're tired, I know you're scared, I know all this is getting old
Attention! Attention! Attention! Attention!
But believe it when I say that there's another story left untold
I hope so.