In the end it was filmmaker Michael Moore who got it right. It wasn’t Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com, with his sophisticated polling models, or Nobel Prize winning economist and liberal pundit Paul Krugman, who confessed on election night that “I truly thought I knew my country better than it turns out I did.”
“Trump’s election,” Moore declared in October, “is going to be the biggest ‘fuck you’ ever recorded in human history.” A “fuck you” to media and political elites who, Moore observed in July, inhabit “a bubble that comes with an adjoining echo chamber where you and your friends are convinced the American people are not going to elect an idiot for president.”
How telling that the candidate who launched his presidential run assailing Mexican immigrants as rapists ended his campaign and became President-elect as an icon of rape culture. Trump opened a Pandora’s Box of racism, misogyny, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, homophobia, fat-shaming and anti-immigrant hatred. He hinted that the opposing candidate might be assassinated and declared outright that she ought to be thrown in prison. He called for inflicting tortures “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding” on terrorism suspects and asked three times in a one-hour briefing why, if we had nuclear weapons, we couldn’t use them. He tweeted and retweeted the ravings and ugly memes of fringe alt-right white nationalists and neo-Nazis and these, in turn, sent online death threats to Jewish journalists and started a tweetstorm to repeal the nineteenth amendment to the Constitution, which gave women the right to vote. Trump attacked a former beauty queen, the family of a “gold star” veteran, and a disabled journalist and sneered that the father of one of his main primary opponents was involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. He stiffed contractors and other small businesses that worked on his buildings and supplied his casinos and golf courses. He opened a fraudulent for-profit “university” that extracted tuition from naïve students who fantasised about becoming real estate bigwigs. It became clear that Trump owed much of his wealth to legally dubious “stock-for-debt” swaps, a near-billion-dollar write-off of “net operating losses” on his federal returns, and a similar amount of local tax abatements for his garish New York buildings. He was hypocritically living off the public purse, notwithstanding his attacks on the undeserving poor who received modest, inadequate government benefits.
The harangues, lies, and exposés came so fast and furiously that it was easy to forget from one day to the next the delirious ranting of the day before. What does it say about the US electorate (or a big portion of it anyway) that none of these outrages constituted a tipping point? The only thing that briefly slowed the juggernaut was Trump’s remarks about grabbing women’s genitals and trying (unsuccessfully) to seduce a married woman. That’s when parents, teachers, and pundits finally started to talk about limiting children’s access to television news and debates.
In all of the handwringing that followed the election the fact that Clinton prevailed by a slim margin in the total popular vote passed largely unremarked. There are many questionable aspects of US elections, among them the indirect vote and the Electoral College (which permitted Clinton, the candidate with the most votes, to lose), the antidemocratic foundation of the Senate, which gives both Wyoming (population 0.6 million) and California (39.1 million) two senators each, the now unlimited flows of corporate money to political campaigns, the shockingly high levels of abstention, the spread of anti-poor voter ID laws, the massive disenfranchisement of African Americans, the media’s obsession with frivolous and secondary issues, holding elections on workdays, and the senseless federalism that allows each state to establish its own voting rules and primary and registration systems and to gerrymander congressional districts. The absence of a neutral, independent fourth branch of government in charge of elections, which many other countries have, is another major democratic deficit. When Trump began to impugn the integrity of the 2016 election, and not for any of the factors just mentioned but for unspecified sinister reasons, his critics pointed to the heterogeneity and decentralization of state voting systems as a reason why it was impossible to “fix” or “rig” a presidential election. Only rarely did anybody mention that congressional elections—and thus the composition of the House—really were rigged in advance by partisan gerrymandering.
Clinton was the fifth US presidential candidate to win the popular vote but lose in the Electoral College and the second in the past five elections. Trump will be the forty-fifth US president, so one-ninth of US presidential elections have had this antidemocratic outcome. Why not a run-off between the top two vote getters, as in so many other democracies (and in many US cities)?
And moving beyond elections, the use of filibusters to block legislation and of senatorial holds to obstruct executive appointments creates gridlock and further undermines democracy, yet these are the only legislative mechanisms that might now be used to put the brakes on Trump. Then there is the appalling reality that the nation’s capital, Washington, DC, which happens to be majority African American, does not have a voting representative in Congress. And that US citizens of Puerto Rico can vote in presidential primaries but not in the general election (even though they serve in the military and die in foreign wars launched or sustained by US presidents).
With Trump, bullying spiked in schoolyards and on the streets. Minority shoppers were targets of insults and threats in their neighborhood supermarkets. Armed Trump supporters in “open carry” states parked themselves ominously near Democratic campaign offices and rallies and flashed their guns. Some sported T-shirts with racist and misogynist slogans that were beyond offensive and disgusting (“I wish Hillary had married OJ”). Neocon and liberal pundits bemoaned how Trump “coarsened” US political discourse, but “coarsen” and similar terms don’t really capture the horridness of what has occurred and will occur or the extent to which millions of people feel scared and sullied by Trump’s mainstreaming of so many varieties of hatred.
It will take a long time to put the evil forces Trump unleashed back in Pandora’s box. The violent alt-right terrorists and their sympathizers who had negligible social media audiences now have millions of new “friends” and “followers,” and their biggest friend of all will be in the White House. They relish being in the limelight and are unlikely to slink back to the margins. After eight years of an African-American president, they are now gloating over the defeat of a woman presidential candidate. Their venomous rages are seething and will likely be acted out, if not against public figures then against their neighbors and those they detest.
Trump managed to unleash fury at the very elites in which both he and Clinton are major figures. Yet his inflammatory buffoonery is ultimately smoke and mirrors. How can he realize his promises of job creation and infrastructure renewal without massive tax revenues, indebtedness, or military spending cuts? Only something on the scale of a New Deal or a Marshall Plan could begin to address the suffering of so many Trump voters and others in those rural zones and postindustrial cities devastated by unemployment, low wages, home foreclosures, and the opioid and meth epidemics. This will be hard, given Trump’s commitment to sparing the mega-rich from having to pay taxes like normal people. He won’t cut the military. So huge debt increases will become a drag on the rest of the economy. Many of his grandiose promises will sooner or later be revealed as hollow demagoguery.
The presidential campaign and Trump’s election forced more of us to acknowledge many ugly realities about the divisions, deep prejudices, and institutional racism that pervade US society. The website of Immigration Canada may have crashed on election night, but for most of us there is no alternative but to try to live in this society as if it were the society we’d like to live in. Can we now harness the new awareness about US racism, “populist anger,” and social exclusion to a transformational politics and new approaches to educating the next generation? Can we secure resources for underfunded schools and underpaid teachers and eliminate the grotesque funding inequities that plague US education? Trumpism, after all, is in part the result of a highly unequal and frequently mediocre educational system, gutted by fiscal hawks, that discourages critical and science-based thinking and community building. Can we encourage children and adults who witness bullying, sexual harassment or assault, or “locker room talk” to speak out, to be “upstanders” instead of bystanders? Can we do the same with all of the bigoted banter that used to go on behind closed doors and that Trump’s campaign brought into the open? Can adolescents and young adults—and older adults who still haven’t gotten it—learn what “consent” really means and how to be sex-positive? These problems are now part of a national conversation, Trump notwithstanding.
The bully is about to ascend to the bully pulpit and only massive public pressure can rein him in. We could very well see the militarization of policing, the unleashing of paramilitary violence, the end of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) immigration status, an even more pro-business regulatory environment, and some 30 million left without health insurance when the Affordable Care Act is scaled back or eliminated. The Supreme Court will likely threaten reproductive rights and same-sex marriage and will not touch Citizens United, the odious decision that permitted unfettered injections of corporate cash into political campaigns, or the Voting Rights Act, eviscerated by the Court in a ruling celebrated by conservative state governments that immediately set out to suppress minorities’ franchise.
The deeper problems of US society and the planet require urgent action, but received scant attention in a campaign that lacked serious policy discussions and that was dominated by vitriol. Police violence, mass incarceration, genuine gun control, endless foreign interventions, and development and reconstruction not just of US “sacrifice zones” but also of migrant sending areas, such as Central America’s northern triangle, would be among the priorities in a more levelheaded administration. Trump’s cavalier attitude toward nuclear weapons and proliferation are among the stances that generate the most intense anxieties and that most call into question his competence for the job he is about to assume. His dirty energy plans and his promise to terminate the Paris Climate Agreement can only have terrible consequences for present and future generations.
It will be challenging to sustain hope in the face of this grim panorama. The forces of justice and decency will need to move from feel-good slacktivism to the streets, to face-to-face engagement, whether lobbying, community organization, or classroom dialogues. They will have to nurture each other and sign on for the long haul. This will not be easy, but the only alternative is to accept creeping and creepy authoritarianism and the rollback of the key social conquests of the past eight years.
Marc Edelman is professor of anthropology at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His most recent book is Political Dynamics of Transnational Agrarian Movements (Practical Action, 2016).