What just happened, happened. At a time like this, writers write. That’s what we do, in this case more as a form of self-therapy and catharsis than as a standard effort to communicate something of interest or value to others. It may be possible to do both at the same time, however; we’ll see.
So is the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States a “black swan,” a “gray rhino” (that’s the newest fashionable locution), or just a Lord of the Flies moment that is likely to slime its way into the indefinite future? Mark me down as a Goldingista. Yes, it’s true that, politics being a vast province of irony, we Americans and the world along with us might end up somehow, however improbably, benefitting from the election to the presidency of the most government-ignorant person since at least the Civil War. But I doubt it.
In the meantime, we are about to see some amazing human dramas play out. Those Republicans who disavowed Trump during the primary season and the campaign are going to stage for us the Great Divide. Some are going to stick to their principles and leave the party. But others are going to make sucking up sounds on a galactic scale, and it’s too bad that neither Hunter S. Thompson nor Jonathan Swift are around anymore to describe it for us. Having never myself been a Republican, I faced no such dilemma, but that doesn’t mean I can sit back and leisurely enjoy the show any more than I am the sort of person who enjoys witnessing penitential self-flagellation.
One of the key questions before us, nonetheless, does concern the future of the Republican Party. It seems to me that the internal polarization of the party will dissipate much faster than many suppose, and it will do so despite the poor leadership and pervasive hollowness that have characterized the party in recent years. That is because Trump won fairly large; his coattails were positive, not negative, as so many suspected they would be, and healing is easier when you are a winner with patronage and power to dispense—power defined in this case as the trifecta of control over the White House, the Senate, and the House, not to speak of more state houses and, prospectively, the Supreme Court. We will be shocked, no doubt, at how short and fuzzy a lot of memories will get in a hurry.
Now, Trump and his closest associates may hold grudges against those Republicans who dissed the Donald, but, after all, they are going to have to somehow staff an Administration now. Maybe they can fill the spaces in the Prune Book without the experienced GOP professionals of administrations past, but if that turns out not to be hard, it is very likely to be ugly. So I predict a lot of extremely tendentious “healing” and “coming together.” I predict a lot of “reaching out,” an increasingly popular phrase that I loathe, since it projects dime-store psychological counseling language into places it has no business being.
That does not mean, however, that the importation of the sheepishly repentant into a Trump Administration (oh God, the very phrase makes me shudder) presages any sort of policy moderation. Cognitive dissonance being what it is, scads of frightened people this morning are trying to palliate themselves with assurances that the hyperbolic, fact-free, and transgressive language of the Republican campaign will “moderate” in the face of the sobering responsibility to actually govern. That may happen to some degree in domestic policy, where the power of the President is checked and balanced, and where Trump’s corporate persona may trump his authoritarian instincts. But those who think it will also happen in the domain of foreign and national security policy probably ought to think again. It needn’t, and it likely won’t.
At this point, dear reader, I beg your indulgence while I tell a tale out of class. At this point, I don’t think anyone could possibly still care.
Back near the start of the 2008 campaign season a former State Department colleague (who will go unnamed) asked me to come to Boston to meet Mitt Romney. He sought my help for some speechwriting task (which will go undetailed). In the campaign headquarters I got to know Governor Romney a bit. I liked some of what I beheld, but I was frightened by some other episodes as well. At one point, for example, the Governor said that he didn’t understand why so many people were perplexed about how to deal with al-Qaeda and related Middle Eastern problems. We have NATO for Europe, he said, so all we need to do is create a Middle Eastern version of NATO, with our Arab friends, Israel, and Turkey, to deal with the challenge.
That told me right away either that Romney really had no idea what NATO was and how it worked, or that he had no idea how the Middle East worked. NATO of course never was just a coldblooded military alliance; it could only exist, and its hallmark core of U.S. extended deterrence in a Cold War setting could only be credible, because of a deeply shared set of liberal democratic and related Western cultural values. To blithely superimpose the NATO model onto the Middle East struck me as a little like saying that you could readily use a set of golf clubs to play ice hockey.
But it wasn’t the vacuity of the notion that really bothered me. It was the utter confidence with which he uttered it. That and a couple of other exchanges led me to conclude that this was a man who was a lot surer of himself than his experience gave him any right to be. People like that can be dangerous.
Little did I realize at the time that Barack Obama would turn out to have an eerily similar flaw. Several of those who sat with him repeatedly in small-group settings have attested to me that this may be the smartest President, just in terms of raw intelligence, that we have ever had. But his intelligence often led him either not to seek or to ignore expert advice on what most people would consider esoteric issues, because he was sure he knew better than all the “establishment” types he so flippantly dismissed in his interviews with Jeffrey Goldberg.
I see the same character flaw in Donald Trump. He is rock-solid sure that he knows better than everyone else, and the fact that he got elected is likely only to reify that self-image. The difference is that Trump is not one of the smartest men that the American people have seen fit to deposit in the Oval Office.
What a surprise of yesterday’s sort often does to people, or should do in any case, is to cause them to go through the list of related assumptions to check them for leaks, barnacles, mental bacteria, and others sorts of yuck. That is what I am in the process of doing this morning. There are a whole lot of such related assumptions, so it takes a while. Answers are still gestating; I have learned over the years not to let emotions cause me to leap to confusions. But some of the questions are at least a bit clearer.
One such question stands out: How is it that an electorate that twice elected Barack Obama can turn on its boot heels and elect someone like Donald Trump? Isn’t this a little like veering off of an arugula and radicchio-accented diet into chicken-fried steak smothered in oily onion rings? What normal person does a thing like that? And this is an electorate that is, if anything, more rainbow-demographic in 2016 than it was in 2012, which was more so than it was in 2008.
Well, the number crunchers are still crunching the numbers, but it seems to me that large numbers of long-alienated voters came out of the woodwork to vote for Trump. So this was not a sign, necessarily, of a national personality disorder suddenly presenting itself. It was just about voter turnout, about trench-level political organizing. So it is wise to resist breathless conclusions. I don’t think, for example, that American society is more racist and misogynist on this Wednesday morning than it was this past Wednesday morning—although it’s not irrational in light of what has happened to wonder how accurate our assessments were last week.
Back in September, while on a speaking tour of five German cities, I warned my audiences of several things. Do not trust any of the polls, I told them, because the pollsters are businesses that sell results to the media, and they do not pass social science muster in terms either of the size of their samples or their method of sampling. More specifically, I warned them that the polling techniques were misaligned with the populist nature of this campaign’s sociology. The obvious analogue was the disastrously wrong polling about Brexit in the United Kingdom. When panicking Israeli friends implored me last week to assure them that nothing horrifying would happen, my answer was “it probably won’t, but no one knows” because we cannot trust any of the polls—and I explained why that was so. There are times when I really hate being right, and this is one of them.
There is a second question, of a different sort, careening around in my head looking for a caroms pocket to land in. Compared to all the foregoing presidential election campaigns I have lived through, this one was by far nastier, more mendacious, more salacious, and generally more vulgar than anything that went before. Why?
I think it is because way too many Americans watch way too much television, and hence indulge in a set of political fantasy worlds that become more lurid, morbid, and darker by the day. I think that we have a case, to put not too fine a point on it, of political life imitating very bad art. And that bad art is financed through advertising of one sort or another, and so it is no coincidence that over time our political discourse, now at the highest level of government, has been colonized by high-priced advertising language which, by its very nature, is manipulative, sensationalist, gimmicky, and as devoid of substance as possible.
My wife and I decided to re-watch Idiocracy the other night. It was never a good movie, just occasionally funny in a bizarre sort of way. Now it’s even less funny; it has become a projective horror flick.
But there is more. The anti-authority proclivities of American politics go all the way back to the Shays’ Rebellion. And except when the American people perceive an existential national security threat that tends to produce a longing for sober and experienced leadership, we have a knack for preferring outsiders, or those who can manage to project an image of themselves as outsiders, in the Oval Office—peanut farmers, actors, less-than-one-term Senators, and so on.
Since the Vietnam War era and the counterculture, that pro-outsider bias has attached itself to a bottomless cynicism about government, not least in the foreign and national security policy domains. I call it the Three Days of the Condor syndrome, after the first big blockbuster film that took to the bank the thesis that the U.S. government is evil. The parade of such popular culture fare has not since abated; if anything, it has grown massively stronger, incubating a default conspiracy-theory mentality in more Americans than we would like to acknowledge. So Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States; the CIA perpetrated 9/11; there never was a man on the moon; Seymour Hersh’s latest, that the Bin Laden kill was a massively orchestrated government lie; and everything Oliver Stone touches.
And now, on top of all this noisome crud that has been accumulating for years, we have the filterless internet and Twitter to accelerate its circulation. When Donald Trump spent hundreds of sleepless evening hours twittering coarse and ad hominem bullshit from his golden toilet, he knew exactly what he was doing. He was multiplying negative energy to stir latent frustrations, and thus ensure that he was always at the center of the sub-MSM viral news cycle. The abdication of the mainstream media from anything like serious investigative journalism did not help.
I had planned to cozy up to the television set last night with some snacks and a bottle of single malt to watch the returns, but fate had a different plan. At about 5:30 p.m., just as the sun was melting away, my daughter Hannah called me, very distraught, pleading with me to drive her to the hospital while her husband watched their two young girls (two of my four grandchildren, so far)—Amalia, almost one year old, and Yael, just past three. Food poisoning, she guessed, having vomited in pain eight times within two and half hours. Blaming the bean salad in the school cafeteria, she just could just not get on top of the pain—worse than labor in childbirth—and was frightened.
So I dashed out of the house, fetched her, and deposited her in the closest ER we could find. While waiting to be seen, she howled and retched three more times, just as the election returns were beginning to look like something I’d soon want to howl and retch about. Coincidence? Sure.
Then came the surprise: not food poisoning at all (Hannah apologized to the bean salad), but acute appendicitis. That surprise paralleled the growing surprise that struck me every time I snuck a peak at CNN’s electoral college map. Then near-immediate emergency surgery commenced at about 1:30 a.m. As the surgeon began cutting, I began to sense someone cutting away the metaphorical floor I had been standing on, for I had glanced back at the CNN map again. Out came the infected appendix and, thankfully, it had not perforated, spreading potentially deadly bacteria throughout her abdomen. We should be as lucky.