America The Exposed

It all worked.

The insults worked. The mockery worked. The bullying worked. The shouting worked. The threats worked. The conspiracy theories worked. The invented controversies worked. The anti-Semitism worked. The paranoia worked. The sexism worked. The racism worked. The fear worked. The rage worked.

Trump did it.

He won Florida. He won Pennsylvania. He won Michigan. He won poor whites. He won poorly educated whites. He won fairly well-educated whites. He won rich whites. He won female whites. He won big whites and small whites, young whites and old. He won just enough of everybody else to win. He did everything wrong. He did everything right. He embarrassed and humiliated and destroyed himself, again and again, all the way to the Oval Office. He made his own reality. We made his reality ours.

He did this because the old stuff doesn't matter anymore.

Preparation doesn't matter. Policy doesn't matter. Facts don't matter. Civility doesn't matter. Empathy doesn't matter. Love doesn't matter. Reality doesn't matter, because your identity is your reality.

Only one thing matters: The Show.

People don't want facts. They don't want policy. They don't want laws that might help them and theirs. Some folks are not even sure what's hurting them, or why, and they wouldn't believe you if you told them. Instead, they want excitement. They want thrills. A story, a plot, an enemy, a show.

That's what Trump understood. It's why he won. He wasn't running against a good American with whom he held sincere philosophical differences, but against an email-wielding, penis-pounding succubus trying to destroy the world. It's nothing personal. It's just the Biz. This is why he was so gracious to Hillary Clinton in victory, when the crooked evil goddess of chaos bound for jail and hellfire suddenly morphed into a Very Hard Fighter for whom we owe a Major Debt of Gratitude. The Show was over, because he won. Yes, elections are always theatre. But before, there were limits. Trump took it all the way. In the Trump Show, you can say anything to win. But soon -- in a week, or a month, it's hard to say exactly -- the Show will start again. It must. Trump can't govern. On some level, he probably knows that. So The Show will go on.

This election has exposed America. We thought we had progressed far beyond the dark atrocities of our past, but we were wrong. In some places -- say, Berkeley -- it might seem that racism barely exists. But in many other places, seething racial animosity runs through the American mental landscape like a stream of molten lava. The hate has just changed its shape, mutated into more virtual and digital forms. Some of us have assumed that as the nation changes, the racists and sexists will fade away. Trump has showed us the opposite. They will howl louder, and type faster on Twitter. We thought that with Trump's candidacy, we'd ripped off a scab to let the puss run for better healing. But we've only opened old wounds wider.

Those wounds run deep, too deep. Our original sins were slavery and genocide, and this past follows us, its slow zombie steps never far behind. Here in Europe, people have debated with me whether America at its founding was a beacon for democracy or a racist empire. It was both, of course. Only our juvenile political discourse assumes that two contradictory things cannot be simultaneously true. But this old contradiction just came screaming out of history to split open the modern body politic.

I often wonder if America is exceptional. Its institutions are. But are its people? Are we holy, and pure, and eternally free, just because we are Americans? Or -- in the right economic circumstances, with the right cynical and self-aggrandizing leaders -- could we also fall prey to the old authoritarian temptation?

What gives the game away is that nearly all groups of people think that they are exceptional. It's what makes them so common. Only a people that embraced its mediocrity would be truly exceptional. Unfortunately, that's not us -- at least, not yet. But maybe there's still time. Maybe, eventually, we'll cancel The Show.