An Election Post-Mortem For 2016

Man, disappointing result. I thought Hillary Clinton, for all her flaws, would win the presidential election over Donald Trump pretty easily. In any evaluation of qualifications for this job, there is no contest between her and Trump. I figured Americans would come to their senses and realize that, whatever their issues are with the "direction" of the country, Trump is not equipped to do anything about it.

But I've been wrong before.

Look, I mean, I don't want to vilify people who voted for Donald Trump. I do want to criticize them. If there are any of you reading this, can you put down a single, rational reason why this man is best fit to lead this country? I'd love to hear it. Send me a note. Really. I don't think you can come up with even one.

Don't like Hillary? OK. Fair enough. Think she represents business as usual in Washington? Probably. Question her ethics or integrity? The emails. The Clinton Foundation conflicts of interest. OK. She's a career politician, sure, a master at covering her ass. But you're willing to overlook the boorish, dishonorable conduct of a career asshole whose single claim to integrity is the capacity to say whatever comes into his mind?

This man? For real, what were you all thinking? Some vague, irrational idea about taking your country back or making America great again? Grow up. Admire him as a great captain of industry? He isn't. Think you're giving the finger to some perceived enemy -- coastal elites, Wall Street douche bags, politicians, black and brown people, foreign and domestic? I think Donald Trump just gave the finger to you. You just don't know it yet. Do you think this man cares more about you than about simply burnishing his reputation as a winner, about playing in the awesome new sandbox of The Most Powerful Office in the World? He doesn't. Maybe you feel an illicit thrill at Trump's transgressive rhetoric? What is wrong with you? Snap out of it.

You tell me. Maybe you just wanted to blow up Washington? Well, as Trump's rogues gallery of conservative nitwits (Newt Gingrich, Rudy Giuliani, Chris Christie) line up for cush gigs, it may just be business as usual. Or Washington, D.C. could finally go down in (metaphoric) flames. In which case, congratulations. Just be careful what you wish for.

But it's done. No question: Trump pulled off a stunning upset. He defeated Clinton, Obama, the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, and the mainstream American press at the same time. He's like Michael Corleone. Or the Manchurian Candidate. He did this with no political experience. With no ads. No ground game. No specific policy ideas. Just mean-spirited put-downs of everyone, dangerous rhetoric, inexhaustible self-regard (the only seemingly renewable energy source Trump might get behind), skillfully catering to a nation's insecurities and fears, and a profound talent for branding his political enemies as crooks and liars. Masterful, really.

We all know that the pageant of American campaigns is mostly pure bullshit. To his credit, Trump came closer to calling that out, and that was part of his enormous appeal. I thought if he had been less controversial on the campaign trail, he might have won big, because I've realized with greater intensity in the final months of the campaign how much people really do despise Hillary Clinton (a feeling that seems out of proportion, honestly, to whatever slights she may have committed against them). Yet it feels like he won big, anyway, and all he offered instead of bullshit-as-usual was his own singular brand of bullshit, an authoritarian cult of personality devoid of character, nuance and substance.

Donald Trump gave us a better brand of reality TV. And half the country thinks this is progress. That is an accomplishment. Count me among the many dupes who said, at every moment in Trump's improbable run, "He can't win ... a primary/the GOP nomination/the whole thing." This guy reveled in his demeaning attitude toward women, and yet 52 percent of white women voted for him anyway. There is some kind of dark arts magic at work here. Hillary may end up winning the popular vote, but this feels very much like a rout.

So where are we this morning in America? Maybe Trump will tone down his bully-boy persona now that he's won. Maybe a practical, "deal maker" temperament will quell his megalomania. Maybe that megalomania was as much theater as reality, playing to the crowd he needed to play to. That is possible. I can see a more pragmatic, situationally fluid, conventionally political Trump moving forward. Maybe his tamped down, straightforward victory speech marks his pivot to a more-or-less "Standard" Pragmatic Republican. (In which case he will disappoint his more ardent supporters even more than every other Washington politician.) That would be a best-case scenario.

Worst-case scenario? President Trump indulges his worst instincts and proves himself as petty, nasty and thin-skinned as he was on the campaign trail. Also: the political normalization of racism, sexism and xenophobia that are a problem in a world that is growing ever more interlinked. The acceleration of nativist, right-wing sentiment here and in Europe. Dictators and bad actors around the world who now see a kindred spirit (or a dupe) in the leader of the world's most powerful nation. Worse, for me, is the acceleration of a particularly distasteful aspect of the American consciousness: Our desire, as the world's most powerful nation, to also cast ourselves as its most aggrieved. A bully who feels himself a victim is dangerous.

As to the specifics, I have been less concerned than others about the literalness of his outrageous boasts -- banning Muslims, lock her up, build the wall, etc. I don't think these things will happen. But the makeup of the Supreme Court moving forward could change dramatically. Obamacare -- as imperfect as it is -- is at risk of being scrapped, and we have no sense of what would replace it or how we would all be impacted by it.

I don't know if Trump is a worse choice than, say, Ted Cruz, who really is a would-be demagogue. But, however you slice it we've just elected a crass, vulgar jerk who lacks, it appears, both the seriousness of purpose and the intellectual competence to be the president and commander in chief. We've just given the toughest job in the world to a guy who builds luxury golf courses and hosted a reality TV show. You really think he's up to this?

What will Trump do about crumbling inner cities? Income inequality? Nationwide stop and frisk? What will he do about Syria? ISIS? Iran? The Middle East? Russia? Nukes? The military? Climate change? The world? How about Dodd-Frank? Roe v. Wade? And if that all sounds like liberal hand-wringing, there's this: What will Donald Trump do to materially benefit the life chances of the white working class who have so powerfully rallied to his cause? No one knows.

For all his supposedly authentic honest talk, the man is a master of smoke and mirrors. Donald Trump hypnotized an immature, under-informed American electorate desperate for simple, reality show solutions to serious problems. He's happily played up huge racial resentment against Obama, against Mexicans, against immigrants, against Muslims, against China. He's stoked the anxieties of white working class voters who are losing out and found convenient enemies to direct that anxiety toward. Republicans have been doing this for years, of course. Trump just said, "Yeah, that'll work. Let's just crank the volume, have some fun with this, and see what I can get away with." Quite a lot, turns out.

For all the flourishing of knowledge and information that social media and the internet has made available, for all the confidence with which we go about our smartphone-addled lives in this connected world, this election feels like it was decided by a completely uncritical, ADHD electorate addicted to light and noise. (To be fair, of course, the entire Polling Industrial Complex didn't seem much more informed about this election, either.)

I'm not saying the anxieties of the working class aren't legit. They are. But the forces of globalization have been unfolding for decades, and those forces alone don't explain Trump. Still, Hilary and the Democrats were unable to speak to these concerns. And that's on them. Trump did, and people responded. (Bernie did, also.) But Donald Trump is not going to make the forces of globalization go away, no matter how good a negotiator he claims to be. If his career to date suggests anything it's that he's will continue to profit by them.

Here's the irony: The people who feel the rich and powerful are screwing them over have put their hopes in a rich and powerful man who's spent his career screwing people over. The wish here, I suppose, is that Trump will screw over other people on their behalf, people who have it coming. The danger, of course, is that Trump will just screw over the very people who have supported him.

Hillary is a card-carrying member of the same elite, but the difference is this: For all of the overly processed calculating that has marked Hillary's political style, at least she's tried to do something for other people. Donald Trump has only ever looked after himself. Voting for him is an inchoate flailing for straws. I imagine Heath Ledger's Joker with his head out the window, a gleeful chaos agent. That's whom we've just put in charge.

All politicians are in the business of selling fantasy, but Trump's promises to make America great again are particularly spurious. When it's 2020 and you realize Trump hasn't returned you to some purer, more innocent America, where everyone is in his or her "rightful" place, who will you point the finger at then?

But everyone should take a breath. Our institutions should weather this change. Clinton voters should be seeking out Trump voters to find out more about how so many people have such a radically different view of the country, its institutions and its prospects. Listen. Think. Study. Talk. Act. Win or lose, do what you feel you have to do to make your community and your country better.

In closing, what a pitiless end for Hillary Clinton. Four years of a Clinton Administration would have been historic, and she had the maturity to lead the nation, but this defeat should end her long and dramatic political career. She played not to lose. Just let Trump be Trump and watch him implode. A cautious but sensible strategy.

Only, he never did. Supporters obviously didn't care about his shortcomings.

They loved his brash, break the rules style. They liked a guy who grabs 'em by the pussy -- maybe that sparks their own belief that they can grab the world, or their own fate, with the same vigor. The genius of Trump as a businessman and now as president-elect is that he has linked his name with quality. He offers his customers/supporters the dream that their association with his name and brand reflects well on them and will benefit them. Let's see he how everyone feels in a few years.

Americans gonna do what Americans gonna do. That's our strength and our curse. And parties don't often win three terms in the White House. So there's that. A bad decision, yes, but America will survive. The wheel will keep turning. Old orthodoxies from both parties will be torn down and rebuilt, and that's as it should be. Hopefully they will be rebuilt better. I honestly don't know. I'd like to see a more productive, emotionally measured civic discourse in this country, but I'm not optimistic. Barack Obama is the very definition of emotionally measured, and his efforts failed. Hillary Clinton, such a lightning rod because of her politics and her gender, would probably have failed. I'm not sure Trump even has an inkling to try. I hope he has more capacity in this regard than he's shown.

So, to finish, I don't want to hear any knee-jerk jokes about moving to Canada. Please. We're all staying. If you're mad today, good. Stay mad. Do something positive with it. Find a way to get in the game. America, in reality and in the imagination, remains much larger than this election, regardless of who won.

The great experiment in self-government continues. See you out there.