Not a column I imagined I’d be writing, obviously—having predicted multiple times, and serenely, that Trump would not be president, that it wouldn’t even be close. Oops!
I could chalk this failure up to being enclosed within a liberal bubble, living as I do in a blue city in a blue state in the only thoroughly blue region of the country, New England.
But my confidence was bolstered by—was in fact based in—more than that, since not only an overwhelming preponderance of polls predicted a Trump loss, but indeed a unanimity of polls. Data-driven sites like The Upshot at the Times and Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight had Hillary's win chances at 94% two weeks ago, and at 81% as late as yesterday. Not a single poll, anywhere, predicted this.
Political commentary has been captured in recent years by wonkish young journalists wielding sophisticated tools of quantitative analysis. The likes of Nate Silver and Nate Cohn exude contempt for traditional punditry, seeing it as mere opinion-mongering lacking any basis in objective reality. They represent the Moneyball-ization of American political journalism, a switch to doing political analysis via the same kind of intense statistical analysis that has transformed baseball. Well, the statheads have some serious egg on their faces this morning, and I’ll be interested to see how they explain their error. (“We’re going to get some sleep,” Silver tweeted at 3 AM, “and we’ll have much more to say over the next days and weeks about how Trump won.”)
Anyway, for those of us who view Trump as personally unfit for office, it’s a perplexing moment, and a lonely one as well. “Listen,” one of my friends said last night, trying to dislodge the veil of gloom that had fallen over us as we watched the results come in. “Let’s not forget that this is still our country! More people are going to end up having voted for Hillary than for Trump!”
True, apparently; but that doesn’t count for much when, for instance, it comes to filling that vacant Supreme Court seat. Nor does it lessen (if you see things the way I do) your dismay and disbelief at the fact that half our country saw fit to choose an ill-informed, bullying, woman-despising narcissist to lead the nation—a man who openly mocks disabled people; who incites crowds to savage and mock his political opponent with frenzied chants of “lock her up!” I for one feel the sting of not having been able to persuade Americans on the other side of the political divide that this candidate’s personal deficits were uniquely disqualifying in a way that went well beyond politics. They weren’t buying that.
So what happened? Different segments of the Trump vote have different reasons for voting for him, and loathing of Hillary plays a big role. One conservative friend of mine, a libertarian and laissez-faire economist, confessed to a good deal of personal distaste for Trump, but viewed his flaws as merely personal, while she considered Clinton dangerous politically—not only reckless but lawless, as well as an incorrigible proponent of big government. She said she’d rather roll the dice on a Trump presidency than continue the Clinton dynasty.
But it’s a different kind of Republican voter who better helps me grasp the meaning of the election. I’m thinking about another conservative friend of mine, a white male in his 50s. He and I had a lively back-and-forth over many weeks, as I tried to dissuade him from voting for Trump. But he hung tight to his intention. Partly with him it was a wicked pleasure in Trump’s barbed sarcasm vis–á-vis the political establishment. My friend tends to believe that liberal elites have imposed on our country a regimen of political correctness, conceptualized in the liberal academy, propagated by liberal media, and enforced by a liberal administration in Washington acting by executive fiat. He loved how Trump tweaked liberal proprieties.
The second element in the one-two punch was, is, a sense of personal marginalization on my friend’s part, and a boiling fury at those who are not marginalized. My friend lost his job last year, has three young kids, and is barely paying the mortgage. As we shared a beer a few days before the election he spoke frankly about what was driving him to vote for Trump. His family’s economic insecurity had him lying awake at night, he confessed; he felt shame at his own inability to do better—and anger and envy at those he saw as sitting pretty. “On TV during the news I watch all these ads for investment firms that want to help you tweak your retirement plan,” he said. “It makes me crazy—I just think, Fuck you with your retirement plan! I’m 52 years old and I don’t have a retirement plan! I can’t stand it. I just turn the TV off.”
What did he think when liberals like me warned that electing Trump could be a calamity for the country? My friend was candid. “Part of me thinks, Bring it on! Let it all come down! At least they’ll know how I feel!”
This bitter and destructive anger is the legacy of three decades of growing economic inequality in this country, culminating in the great undoing of 2008—and specifically in its aftermath, when the big institutions were bailed out with taxpayer money while Main Street took the hit. The metropolitan elites who engineered the disaster with sophisticated financial tools designed to maximize self-enrichment got off scot-free, both legally and economically, and since then have gone on to ride the five-year stock-market wave to a far shore of glittering wealth, even as the “forgotten” Americans have languished with their upside-down mortgages, their upside-down lives. Let it all come down!
The broad enthusiasm for Bernie and for Trump revealed a desire for politicians who don’t sound like politicians, but also something much deeper: a fierce and abiding rage at elites. As Roger Cohen writes in the Times this morning, Trump proceeded by “a single formidable intuition: that American anger and uncertainty in the face of the inexorable march of globalization and technology had reached such a pitch that voters were ready for disruption at any cost.”
Enough of elites; enough of experts; enough of the status quo; enough of the politically correct; enough of the liberal intelligentsia and cultural overlords with their predominant place in the media; enough of the financial wizards who brought the 2008 meltdown and stagnant incomes and jobs disappearing offshore. That, in essence, was Trump’s message.
Leave it to Stephen Colbert, on the Late Show last night, to sum up the shock of how this message landed with liberals and progressives: “It’s like we’re trying to avoid the apocalypse,” he said, “and half the country just voted for the asteroid.”