Since the election, Back to the Future Part II has been playing in my head on loop. Specifically the part in the middle where 1985 has become Alternate 1985, a dystopian hellhole tyrannized by hypermasculine thug Biff Tannen. In 2015, Biff got hold of a sports almanac, stole Doc Brown’s time machine, went back to 1955, and gave the almanac to his younger self. Flash forward to Alternate 1985, and Biff has cheated his way to despotic dominance. He’s used his gambling dough to create Biffco, a corporation which deals in nuclear energy and—get this—real estate. He now owns the town of Hill Valley, even its police force. Education is a thing of the past here, ever since the high school was burned to the ground. Also a thing of the past, it seems, is peace of mind: every Hill Valleyite is an armed, paranoid militiaman, ready to shoot their neighbor at the first tinge of suspicion. Gone too is the courthouse with the clock tower. That’s now been converted into—wait for it—a high-rise casino hotel plastered with Biff’s name in big stupid lights.
Once Marty realizes that this horror show was caused by a simple matter of time-travel trickery, he and Doc Brown get in the DeLorean, go back to 1955, snatch the almanac, and voilà! Problem solved. But all I can think right now is: we have no DeLorean. We can’t go back to 1955 and take the almanac back from young Biff. No, Biff is our next president. And I know how it happened.
Ever since the 2008 campaign, I’ve been saying that, in order to win a presidential election, you have to be a rock star. It’s how I quelled my nerves about McCain and Romney. Neither of them could win, I’d argue, because they were mealy, and Obama was like Prince. Or Madonna. Or Michael Jackson or Bob Dylan or Beyoncé. Obama was cool. Obama was a rock star.
Rock stars electrify people. People feel a little tingle in their bellies when they see them on TV. They’re charismatic, they’re funny, and, most of all, they’re fresh. We’ve never seen anyone like them before. And people love them for it—or they love to hate them for it. Regardless, there’s love.
Most every president in the age of television—that is, from Kennedy on—was a rock star. (Perhaps Nixon, Carter, and H.W. Bush weren’t, but Nixon’s elections came in tumultuous years, clouded by Vietnam. Carter was elected in the wake of Watergate. H.W. Bush rode in on Reagan’s coattails. And none of them had a rock star opponent.)
Bill Clinton was a rock star. So was Reagan. And Kennedy. And LBJ. Even George W. Bush was, in his own way. So too, I’m afraid, is Donald Trump.
Like a diabolical Robert Downey Jr., Donald weaseled his way out of every trashed hotel room with an idiosyncratic shit-eating grin. He did so much so wrong so often that it became part of the fun. We all loved—or loved to hate—having him on our screens all day long. He was the rock star reality show candidate of our dreams. And sober Hillary couldn’t catch a break. Like an overqualified intern who knows every right answer, most people didn’t like or trust or understand her, but they all knew that, at the end of the day, she was the ablest person in the office. Like the race between Taylor Hicks and Katharine McPhee, it came down to likability, not talent. We like the down-to-earth Average Joe, but we’re irritated by the polished know-it-all.
So, all of the noise? None of it mattered.
It didn’t matter how offensive he was. It didn’t matter about his taxes. It didn’t matter that the Republican National Convention was a shitshow. It didn’t matter that he stoked violence. It didn’t matter that eleven women accused him of molesting them in precisely the way he described. It didn’t matter that he only got a handful of newspaper endorsements, including one from the KKK. It didn’t matter that the establishment ran from him. It didn’t matter that he had relatively no campaign. It didn’t matter that Putin was working to get him elected. It didn’t matter that his debate performances were unintelligible. It didn’t matter that he lied and then lied about lying. It also didn’t matter that he talked on a debate about the size of his dick.
Similarly, “Stronger Together” didn’t matter. The Democratic National Convention didn’t matter. President Obama’s high approval ratings didn’t matter. All of her newspaper endorsements—some of them historic—didn’t matter. Her ground operation didn’t matter. Her debate performances didn’t matter. Her honesty didn’t matter. Her life of selfless public service didn’t matter. She was the most experienced presidential candidate since George H.W. Bush. That didn’t matter, and it didn’t matter that she was the personification of feminism—its bruises, its sacrifices, and its accomplishments.
None of it mattered. All that mattered was that—and it shatters my heart to say this—Hillary Clinton is not a rock star. She’s not cool. The majority of this country doesn’t feel a tingle in their belly when they see her on TV. Donny made everyone laugh—even those who found him abhorrent—while Serious Sally forced us to think. Donald can work a room, while Hillary can simply work.
Because we embraced Obama, I thought we were living in a post-Barnum era, where substance outweighed style. In the polls leading up to the election, a majority thought that Clinton was fit for the presidency, whereas a minority thought that about Donald. But that didn’t matter either. I now understand that this country loved Obama not for his big ideas, because Clinton’s ideas were nearly identical to Obama’s, and, in many ways, they were bigger. No, America voted for Obama because he was like a song they could hum. Donald is similarly hummable. Hillary, on the other hand, is a dense, heavy book. You can’t hum a book.
If you don’t see that this all has to do with gender, then I urge you to look closer. If not for gender, why was sloppy Donald so digestible, but meticulous Hillary was so unsavory? Why was Donald given the benefit of every doubt, but Hillary was relentlessly doubted? Why did Hillary’s handful of flaws matter, but none of Donald’s literally countless flaws did? Perhaps it’s because, as Jacob Weisberg often says on his Trumpcast, Hillary had one issue we heard about a thousand times, and Donald had a thousand issues we heard about once. Who could keep track? But it’s indisputable that there are certain things that straight white men can get away with that anyone who’s not a straight white man simply cannot. (Nicholas Kristof and Van Jones have both spoken eloquently about this.) Imagine if Hillary or Obama had done the things that Donald has done. They’d have been crucified. Perhaps Hillary’s cosmic purpose as our first female nominee was to take a beating on her resilient skin, warts and all, so that our next female nominee might have an easier time.
Rebecca Traister wrote my favorite article of this election cycle, in which she examined the thorny, complex legacy of Hillary Clinton. The climax of this piece has haunted me for months:
But if, as in this election, a man who spews hate and vulgarity, with no comprehension of how government works, can become presidentially plausible because he is magnetic while a capable, workaholic woman who knows policy inside and out struggles because she is not magnetic, perhaps we should reevaluate magnetism’s importance. It’s worth asking to what degree charisma, as we have defined it, is a masculine trait. Can a woman appeal to the country in the same way we are used to men doing it? Though those on both the right and the left moan about ‘woman cards,’ it would be impossible, and dishonest, to not recognize gender as a central, defining, complicated, and often invisible force in this election. It is one of the factors that shaped Hillary Clinton, and it is one of the factors that shapes how we respond to her. Whatever your feelings about Clinton herself, this election raises important questions about how we define leadership in this country, how we feel about women who try to claim it, flawed though they may be.
Why do so many of us view Donald as one-of-a-kind, but view Hillary—who, as a woman, stands alone in her accomplishments—as just one more frigid opportunist? And why does this lead us to slam the door in her face? Why can’t we love, hate, admire, and support a woman all at the same time, in the way that—based on opinion polls—so many of Donald’s voters so complicatedly view him? Is Hillary really humorless, or are we just incapable of taking a woman seriously while also finding her funny? The question is not whether a woman is capable of galvanizing this nation. It’s whether we are capable of letting a woman galvanize us.
For proponents of progress and believers in justice, the results of this election should be devastating. But there is a sliver of good news: Hillary won the popular vote by over 2 million and counting. In any other democracy, she would be our next president. The argument that America isn’t “ready” for a female president can no longer fly. For the first time in history, more Americans voted for a woman for president than for a man.
So how did she lose? She lost, because America continues to bear out the clichéd maxim that “Democrats fall in love, and Republicans fall in line.” As of the most recent count, Hillary got around one and a half million less votes than Obama did in 2012, but Donald got around that same number of votes more than Romney. The Clinton campaign believes that James Comey lost them the race. I believe that his meddling didn’t help. It reminded Democrats that they weren’t in love with their candidate, and it encouraged Trumprehensive conservatives to fall in line—anything to stop the Clintons. But, had Clinton rock star appeal, were she “lovable,” then she’d have weathered this perfect storm.
Rock star or not, we had a monster at our door, a diabolical, megalomaniacal monster rapping at our door, and we didn’t bolt the lock. Too many of us were hiding in our rooms, telling ourselves that the monster could never make it in. And now he’s here. If you hid in your room—if you didn’t vote for Clinton, or if you didn’t vote at all—then Donald’s victory is as much your fault as it is his voters’.
What do liberals do with this devastating reality? The obvious answer is to beat the Republicans at their own game. Left-wing ideologues should wise up and unite behind the candidate that gets them closest to their ideals. Stop worrying about falling in love. Start falling in line, especially in dire times. But I don’t trust liberals to behave this rationally. If we were ever going to learn this lesson, it would have happened after the Gore/Nader disaster in 2000. The “fall in love/fall in line” adage exists because liberals want to be right where conservatives want to win.
The solution, I think, is to find a dazzling candidate. We must find our next rock star, a hip, fresh, legend-in-the-making who has the soul of Bob Dylan and the presence of Beyoncé. Let’s find someone hummable, without a speck of dirt on them, who transcends the Electoral College map, who transcends race, who transcends gender. Donald is entering the White House a widely loathed international leper who lost the popular vote. In fact, the Republican has lost the popular vote in six of the last seven elections. There’s more of us than there are of them. The wind is at our back. Let’s give this superficial country someone they can fall in love with.
Maybe our rock star is Elizabeth Warren. Maybe it’s Bernie Sanders. Maybe it’s Kamala Harris. Maybe it’s Kirsten Gillibrand or Cory Booker or Julián or Joaquín Castro. The hunt for our rock star begins now, and we must hunt like lions. My money’s on Kamala Harris.
2020 can’t come soon enough. Until then, though, we’re stuck with Biff.