What This Means, How This Happened, What To Do Now

Dealing with the election of Donald Trump

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This morning, the people of Earth awoke to find that the fate of the human species has been placed in the hands of reality television mogul and unconvicted sex criminal Donald J. Trump, who has been given access to the nuclear codes. This is, to somewhat understate things, a deeply troubling development. Trump is a man embodying every single noxious trait in the human character, a man that even Glenn Beck finds unhinged. For those of us who abhor white supremacism and sexual assault, or who believe that climate change and nuclear war threaten the survival of the planet, this is a state of emergency.

There is no time to sit around goggle-eyed and slack-jawed. We should ask a number of straightforward questions, and try to figure out what’s what. First, how did this happen? Second, what are its implications? And finally, what the hell do we do now?

But first, let’s take a breath. Yes, this is a disturbing event of extraordinary magnitude. Remember, though, that the U.S. presidency, while extremely important, is only a small part of the existing world. Nothing has exploded just yet, nobody has died, and we have a little while longer to figure out how to interpret this thing and brace ourselves for its consequences. Nobody quite knows what is about to happen, and while it might be worse than all of our fears, it could also end up not quite being nearly as bad as expected. If there is one thing this election has shown, it is that we just don’t know what the future holds. All we can do is try to remain calm and analyze it as soberly as we can.

What, then, does the election of Donald Trump actually mean? Here is the important point: nobody knows. Anybody who says they know doesn’t know. This election is, first and foremost, a repudiation of the establishment, which means that the wisdom of pundits, experts, and elites has been proven hollow. So in trying to interpret this event, do not listen to those who insist they know things, or who confidently offer a new round of predictions for what will happen. We’ve entered the Age of the Unpredictable.

At least in the very immediate aftermath, the consensus among liberals about their loss seems to be as follows: they underestimated the racism and sexism of the American people, and the degree to which this country was full of a dark and rotten hatred. As Paul Krugman summed up his own take-away:

People like me, and probably like most readers of The New York Times, truly didn’t understand the country we live in. We thought that our fellow citizens would not, in the end, vote for a candidate so manifestly unqualified for high office, so temperamentally unsound, so scary yet ludicrous. We thought that the nation, while far from having transcended racial prejudice and misogyny, had become vastly more open and tolerant over time. There turn out to be a huge number of people — white people, living mainly in rural areas — who don’t share at all our idea of what America is about.

I have a strong feeling that Krugman’s perspective will become conventional wisdom among devastated blue-staters in the next few days. Trump won because of his appeals to racism and sexism, and his vicious misogynistic lies about Hillary Clinton. He won because a large percentage of the country is hateful and does not share progressive values.

This is a tempting story for people on the left to tell themselves, because it exonerates them of any responsibility for the outcome. It is also an extremely discouraging story, because it suggests that the majority of voters are bad, nasty, deplorable people. Fortunately, this story is almost certainly misleading. One of the main problems here is that many Democrats in coastal cities know very few Trump voters. Thus they have a hard time making sense of these voters’ motivations. In order to understand Trump’s base of support, instead of trying to speak to and empathize with these voters, they look at statistical data. From that data, they see that these people express anxiety about race and immigration, and that they are not disproportionately poor. They thus conclude that Trump voters are motivated primarily by prejudice, and mock the idea that it is economic concerns that matter most to them.

If you adopt this theory, then you reach a somewhat fatalistic conclusion about Trump supporters. You can’t persuade them, because they’re racists, and racism is an irrational feeling. Instead, you fight them, by mocking them, and trying to turn out your own base. By treating Trump’s support as largely the product of racism, one gives up on any attempt to actually appeal to Trump voters’ concerns and interests, since racism is not an interest worth appealing to.

This was what Democrats did. This was a campaign of mockery: Trump voters were treated with disdain. Hillary Clinton dismissed huge swaths of them as a “basket of deplorables.” To be a Trump supporter was to be dumb, a redneck, a misogynist.

Here’s the problem: if Democrats had actually spent time with Trump voters, as opposed to judging them by polls, they would have found this theory incomplete. They missed the fact that many Trump voters had a kind of undirected dissatisfaction and anger at the Establishment. For some, the source of this was most likely economics. For many, immigration. For others, it was probably simply an existential despair at the hopelessness of modern life, such as we all feel. But many of them simply didn’t know what they were angry at. They just knew they were angry. Trump came along and gave them a convenient narrative: the source of this anguish was ISIS, Mexicans, and Hillary Clinton. This was very powerful. Democrats didn’t have a good counter-narrative. They lost.

There are facts that complicate the simple “racist deplorables” explanation. As Nate Cohn of The New York Times noted, “Clinton suffered her biggest losses in the places where Obama was strongest among white voters,” meaning that this was “not a simple racism story.” There are plenty of people who voted for Obama in 2008 or 2012 who voted for Donald Trump in 2016. The important question is why? These are people who will happily vote for a progressive black president, but will turn around and vote for the Klan’s favored candidate four years later. What is going on?

The only thing we know is that this question won’t be answered easily or quickly. It depends on spending time with these people, understanding what truly makes them tick, and how to make them tick differently. Note that maybe it is racism that fueled their Trump votes. But it’s clear that racism is something that can be exacerbated by demagoguery. Just because someone is capable of being a racist doesn’t mean they will be one. We are all highly susceptible to social influences. Trump can make people more racist than they were otherwise inclined to be. The question for Democrats is how to get people to move in the other direction.

It’s important to recognize the extent to which the Trump vote was an undirected repudiation of the Establishment rather than an affirmative vote for anything. Liberals didn’t understand why none of Trump’s scandals (the fraud, the tax evasion, the sexual assaults) seemed to dim his support. They didn’t realize that Trump was a bomb being thrown at the elite, which meant that (in some sense) the worse he was, the more people liked him. A vote for Trump is a Molotov cocktail. It is not nuanced. It is designed to do as much damage as possible. Pointing out that the Molotov cocktail does not share the thrower’s values, or cheats on its taxes, is not an effective rhetorical strategy. Because a vote for Trump is an attempt to blow up the government, it doesn’t matter at all whether Trump is a sleaze, sex predator, or vulgarian. He pisses off the right people, and that is what matters.

The most important parallel with Donald Trump’s victory is the surprise U.K. Brexit vote, in which pundits similarly confidently predicted that the country definitely wouldn’t vote to leave the European Union, only to have the country decisively vote to leave the European Union. Elites in London simply couldn’t imagine that there were enough people willing to make such a suicidal choice for the mere pleasure of delivering a middle finger to the Establishment. But they underestimated how much people hated the Establishment, having rarely traveled outside their insular cosmopolitan bubble. Having failed to appreciate the degree of latent rage simmering outside the urban center, they were blindsided. Likewise, as Krugman’s words illustrate, America’s liberal press could not believe that Donald Trump could ever be president. The outcome was so unthinkable that their inability to imagine it affected their assessment of its chances of occurrence.

In fact, the most important lesson of this election is about the press. This disaster should cause a major reevaluation of political media, who failed utterly to appreciate the seriousness of what was happening. There is a good argument to be made that the media is responsible for creating Trump in the first place. But the press also thoroughly failed the country, by distorting reality to make it appear as if Clinton was more likely to win than she was. In doing so, they allowed people to rest easy who should have (and would have) been out trying to put the brakes on the Trump train.

Liberal commentators made a crucial error: instead of trying to understand how the world actually was, they interpreted the world according to their wishful version of it. Throughout the race, I saw dozens of commentators on the left insisting that Clinton was a shoo-in, and that the “horse race” was manufactured. Trump, they said, stood no chance. For example, Jamelle Bouie of Slate wrote in August:

There is no horse race here. Clinton is far enough ahead, at a late enough stage in the election, that what we have is a horse running by itself, unperturbed but for the faint possibility of a comet hitting the track. Place your bets accordingly.

Plenty of others appeared similarly confident. Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias of Vox were equally cocky. Yglesias insisted that Trump’s prediction of an American Brexit was a complete misunderstanding of the dynamics of Brexit. He also claimed to have insights proving that polls showing a Clinton lead actually underestimated her support. Klein crowed that Hillary’s exceptional debate performances had “left the Trump campaign in ruins.” Even a usually sober-minded leftist like Corey Robin of Brooklyn College confidently declared that “Clinton is going to win big-time in November.”

This complacency was extremely damaging. Liberal pundits bought into myth (fabricated by the Clinton campaign) of Clinton as an “inevitable” president. This idea should have been disposed of permanently in 2008, as well as by Clinton’s weak primary performance against a socialist upstart. But there seemed to be a belief among the liberal press that if they just repeated it enough times, it would be destined to come true. This was sheer stupidity. By either explicitly or tacitly reassuring people that Clinton would definitely win, they diminished the sense of urgency among progressives. People could feel as if they didn’t need to do anything, because nothing inevitable needs help coming to fruition.

The press’s insistence that Clinton was doing fine was so ubiquitous that it distorted every progressive’s picture of reality. I fell victim to this myself. In February, I believed Trump was being massively underestimated, and wrote an article predicting with complete certainty that he would be president. In May, I said that the Democrats’ nomination of Clinton was a “suicidal mistake.” But then the drumbeat of inevitability began to penetrate my consciousness. I began to feel I was being alarmist, that I was letting my biases interfere with my judgment. After all, the pundits had their polling data. And they seemed so confident. I still felt so uneasy. Something felt wrong. But when Trump was accused of committing serial sexual assault, I began to feel as if they might be right. Perhaps Trump was over. I wrote that while “we should make sure the threat is truly vanquished before celebrating,” since it would be unprecedented to put someone who had admitted to sex crimes in the White House, “perhaps” we truly were rid of Trump.

This was foolish. But I see how it happened. We progressives all fell into an echo chamber of wishful thought, just like the Republicans did during their primary. Trump couldn’t win, so he wouldn’t win. We forgot that there is a distinction between media representations of reality and reality itself. If the press had done their job, rather than just bullshitting, perhaps we would have been as alarmed as we should have been.

The election of Trump is therefore a serious repudiation of media “experts.” Pundits like those at Vox position themselves as “explainers” of reality, disguising the fact that they are making an awful lot of things up in order to cover gaps in their knowledge. Trump’s election has shown that believing these types of claims to expertise can be positively dangerous. And yet it is almost certain the experts will persist in claiming superior knowledge of the world, even as they refuse to leave their D.C. and New York enclaves. There are no consequences to false predictions, even if you end up getting Donald Trump elected president, and it is unlikely that Ezra Klein and Matthew Yglesias will lose their jobs. (They have “pundit tenure.”) Indeed, Yglesias has already begun making his next set of predictions.

It is crucial, however, that the following lesson be learned well by progressives: these people do not know anything. Do not believe predictions, whether from this website or anywhere else. No political commentator or forecaster can offer you any real certainty, because they don’t have any special magic that the rest of us don’t have access to. Nate Silver may have been somewhat less wrong than everybody else. But Nate Silver was still wrong, or at least useless. (His predict-o-meter flopped all over the place over the course of the election cycle, making it a poor tool for calibrating one’s behavior.) Sam Wang of Princeton was totally discredited, having laughably predicted a 99% chance of a Clinton victory.

The reason they do not know anything is clear: they are absolutely obsessed with empirical data. They love polls, even though polls by definition can’t account for the sorts of things that do not show up in polls. Many people treated Donald Trump’s contempt for polls as a sign that he was living in his own world. In fact, he was living in the real world, which is separate and distinct from the world of polls and data. The fundamental problem with poll-watching is that you really never do know.

Thus, going forward, we need to have far less confidence in the power of existing empirical data to predict and explain the world. There needs to be a complete reevaluation, not of techniques for estimating probability, but of the meaning and importance that is attributed to probabilities. The truth is that the world is far more unknowable than we think. Human beings have free will, or are at least highly unpredictable, which means that efforts to anticipate their behavior are destined to go poorly.

Could this all have been avoided? It’s worth saying that in retrospect, running Hillary Clinton for president was never a very good idea. Running Clinton against Donald Trump was an especially bad idea, because all of Clinton’s weaknesses as a candidate played to all of Trump’s strengths. Clinton gave Trump precisely the kind of fodder (mini-scandals, shady dealings, etc.) on which his bombast thrives. She also happens to be a very poor campaigner, and a complacent one. The weakness was obvious even in the differing campaign slogans. “I’m With Her” is about the interests of the candidate. “Make America Great Again” is about the voters. Let’s learn an important lesson here: do not run a widely-despised ruling-class candidate who has open contempt for the white working class. That is a recipe for electoral catastrophe.

Could Bernie have done better? It seems a reasonable hypothesis. After all, Clinton lost because of the Rust Belt. As a populist, anti-Wall Street candidate focused on jobs, Sanders was well-positioned to strongly counter Trump in these states. Biden might have done even better, and I hope he regrets his decision not to run. But ultimately, these speculations are both impossible to evaluate and immaterial to the situation in which people now find themselves.

What other lessons might actually be useful going forward, other than trying to understand voters, running better candidates, and never listening to a word pundits and polls say? Well, a small one is: never vote third-party in a swing state. Jill Stein ended up receiving very little of the vote, making it silly to attribute this catastrophe to her (as Paul Krugman immediately tried to do). Still, where margins are small, even tiny third-party percentages can make a huge difference. And since all Stein voters were probably just as horrified at last night’s outcome as the Clinton voters, the idea that there is no difference between “the lesser of two evils” is false. Having less evil is always better. Don’t vote third-party in a swing state. (And third-parties should probably find a new strategy for building their movement that involves more than just trying to sabotage a presidential election every four years.) Still, any Democrat who focuses their ire on Jill Stein is seriously missing the point of this election.

But a very limited amount of time should be spent on blame-slinging and “I told you so”s. Every single person who opposed Donald Trump should have many, many regrets. I have plenty of them myself. I regret that I didn’t do more for Sanders, and then that I didn’t do more for Clinton after Sanders lost. I should have been knocking doors. Instead I watched movies and wrote magazine articles and went to class. I wrote an academic article. An academic article! What on earth was I thinking? I regret that I allowed myself to be lulled into thinking everything would be alright, even though I knew deep down that there was no rational reason for feeling assuaged, and that the “experts” who were telling me Clinton would win didn’t know any more than I did.

The truth is, those of us on the left were complacent asses. All of us. When I wrote in February that Trump would definitely defeat Clinton, I believed that. But I didn’t act as if I believed it. If I’d really felt like I believed it, I should have been spending my every waking hour working to prevent this hideous outcome. I didn’t, though. And when all of us think of how uselessly we frittered away so much of our time, how much more we could have done, we may be kicking ourselves for years. Especially if the nuclear apocalypse shows up.

What’s going to happen now? For a leftist, liberal, or progressive, nothing good. There is complete Republican control of government. This means that even in the best case scenario, in which Trump turns out to be mostly bluster, as incapable at organizing a dictatorship as he is at running a hotel, we can expect to have every single progressive policy of the last eight years rolled back very swiftly. Goodbye, healthcare! Goodbye, moderate criminal justice reforms! Goodbye, mild attempts to rein in corporate malfeasance! It’s all down the tubes. Sayonara. (Probably. Again, keep in mind: nobody knows anything.)

The worst case scenario is very, very bad. Trump could be our Hitler. They laughed at the Nazis in 1928, the man with the funny moustache and his gang of silly brown-shirted thugs. They weren’t laughing so much in 1933. Things could be the same when it comes to the man with the funny hair and the orange face. Hah… Hah… Hah… Oh shit. We know Donald Trump is a man without a conscience. Yet we have just handed him near absolute power (in part enabled by the joint Democratic/Republican expansion of executive branch authority over the years). For all we know, there could be death camps on the horizon.

For the sake of our sanity, it’s necessary to assume that this isn’t true. We must act as if we are not all about to die, as if the sky will not fall. (And who knows? It might not.) If we become resigned, if we start to feel doomed and hopeless, we are liable to produce a highly dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy. This has to be a moment of action rather than despair.

Progressives are going to have to fight for their values. They are going to have to fight hard. But they are also going to have to fight differently. The left will be doomed if it does not seriously rethink its practices. We’ve just lost every branch of government, and watched the presidency be given to a misogynistic sociopathic fraudster. Clearly we have gone wrong somewhere.

The most fundamental part of a new plan is this: do not do the same damn thing all over again and expect different results. We need a new kind of left politics. We need something that has what Obama had: inspiration, hope. It was joked that Hillary Clinton’s campaign slogan was “No you can’t.” That’s no good. Trump inspires people. He may inspire people by appealing to their nastiest, most inhuman and unneighborly instincts. But he inspires them. We have to have an agenda that gets people excited. It can’t be like trying to make people eat their vegetables. “You’ll vote for me and you’ll like it, because you have no alternative” is not an effective way to get votes.

Progressives need to understand how people who are different from them think. No more writing them off as racist and deplorable. Even if they are, what good does that do? You need to understand racists not so you can sympathize with them, but so you can figure out what shapes people’s beliefs, and help them reach different beliefs. People on the left must reach out to people on the right. They must make their case. They must go into red states. They must take counter-arguments seriously and respond to them. It is not sufficient to have John Oliver eviscerate Trump on television and call him Drumpf. It is not sufficient to have Lena Dunham dance around in a pantsuit. It is not sufficient to line up a bunch of Hollywood celebrities to tell people how to vote. When someone asks “What kind of world does the left want to build?” we need to have a vision. When someone asks “Why should I vote for you?” the answer cannot be “Because I am not Trump.” After all, people like Trump.

The Clinton campaign was a disaster. Let’s never do anything like it again. Let’s never again have a campaign in which people were constantly having to defend the indefensible. Let’s never again run on “experience” rather than values. Let’s never again treat everything as fine when it clearly isn’t. (Let’s also never again underestimate Donald Trump. The man is wily. He may have never read a book in his adult life. But he knows how to win an election. Calling him stupid, or treating him as stupid, misses the point. For a “stupid” man, he sure showed the elites.)

Overnight, the world has changed. We may have thought history had ended, that nothing too terribly unexpected would ever shake us up again. But history never ends. The future could hold anything. It may hold catastrophe. But there is no time to think about that. What is needed now is a plan. In the immortal words of Joe Hill

Don’t mourn, organize!

Author: Nathan J. Robinson

is the editor of Current Affairs.