In November 2000, I stood outside a courthouse in Palm Beach County, awaiting a decision on whether democracy would function as intended. The outcome of that year’s presidential election hinged on just over 1,700 votes, and scores of partisans stood outside in anticipation of a recount process that dragged into infinity. I was there with family members, if only to bear quiet witness, but there was no blending into a crowd that was, on both sides, old and loud and white. As my cousin and I moved through the crowd, a stout man with a Bush/Cheney shirt took notice of us and whirled around to put us to the question.
“Who did you vote for?” he asked.
“That’s my business,” my cousin answered.
“Just remember who freed the slaves,” the man responded.
And before either of us could mount an argument about the Dixiecrats, the Southern Strategy, or the war on drugs, the man turned his back and resumed chanting with the crowd. There was no conversation intended, no understanding to be found. There was no intent in acknowledging us, other than putting us in our place, before putting our existence out of his mind.
I tell this story because this seems to be the sentiment behind the ascendance of Donald Trump, which almost every political pundit worth their salt had spent the last year either mocking or dismissing altogether. There is no coherent ideology behind Trump, no coalition that binds his surrogates and supporters other than anger and a will to reassert their dominance. Theirs is to Make America Great Again, and the time has finally come for liberals to sit down and shut up while they wind back the clock.
In the aftermath of this election, there will be plenty of blame to apportion for this result that, only a year ago, seemed like an exercise in speculative fiction. There was the endless fascination of media outlets with Donald Trump, and the normalization of his brazenly xenophobic politics, obscenely sexist attitudes, and fascist policies. There was the Republican establishment’s endless flirtations with populist white nationalism, which enabled the uneducated and the aggrieved to eat the party alive. And there was Democratic National Committee’s brazen favouritism toward Clinton—the one Democratic candidate whose name alone inspired a kind of hatred in the opposition normally reserved for tyrants and turncoats.
But assigning blame seems a pointless task when, at the end of it all, this election marked the death of conventional political wisdom. Donald Trump lied early and often, and though his lies fertilized a cottage industry of fact-checkers, none of it made a dent in his popular support. He demonized, insulted, and ostracized almost every group of Americans that don’t identify as white and male, yet he managed to win not only states that Barack Obama won in 2008 and 2012, but amass an even higher percentage of Latino voters than even Mitt Romney managed. On the other end of the spectrum, despite Hillary Clinton and the Democratic party’s roughly $1.3-billion campaign spend, and voters showing up in unprecedented numbers, it seems most of those voters showed up to put Donald Trump in the White House.
To those who believe in America’s better angels, its political system seems twisted to the point of being recognizable. But this is not out of step with American history; this is the country that answered the Civil War with the segregation era, fought for freedom in Europe only to give itself over to anti-communist paranoia, and has worked to undo every accomplishment in civil and reproductive rights through the school-to-prison pipeline, dismantling the Voting Rights Act, and systematically legislating women’s health clinics out of existence.
This election is already being spun as “voter backlash,” as if the most widely touted legislative policies and court decisions over the last eight years–the Affordable Care Act, same-sex marriage, the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell–don’t say something about the people who wish to reverse them. There will soon be conversations about the transformation of the American electoral landscape which dance around the deliberate naming of sexism and bigotry as the proximate cause for nearly causing president-elect Donald Trump. All of this misses the point unless that darker urge in American politics is finally identified and examined.
That urge to halt progress, to let people who traditionally have not held power know their proper place in the hierarchy, is a familiar one. That a man as unpopular, temperamental, and inexperienced as Donald Trump could pull this off speaks not only to the inevitability of this cycle, but to the fact that even the worst possible candidate can be the best possible president when the mood is right.
God help us all.
Andray Domise is a Toronto writer, activist and co-founder of txdl.ca, a mentorship and development program.