The election of Trump has put many of us at a loss for words. There’s been sadness, anger and denial. In a very real sense, many people are moving through whatever stages of grief comes most naturally to them. Post-Trump Stress Disorder may be a tongue-in-cheek faux diagnosis, but there is absolutely a real sense of fear gripping many of us.
There are good reasons to be afraid. But I hope that, if you stay with me until the end of this article, you’ll find that there’s a very real chance we can come back to the Shire. This might be Mordor right now, but victory in the land of shadow comes right before one can come home.
I have been involved in politics in some way for as long as I can remember. When I was in grade school, I remember being a feminist and into meditation, identifying in that way even as I obviously had no real grasp of what either of those things actually meant. In high school, I fought against the Iraq War. The Bush period wasn’t scary at first: he came in more as a punchline than a real threat. September 11th handed Bush and his PNAC neocon buddies everything they wanted on a silver platter, but it felt like there was a robust culture war.
This feels like a tremendous defeat in ways that the Bush loss was not. Bush was ultimately centrist, a status quo player: he was from a political dynasty, and while he may have pushed forward some drastically new policies, it was still possible to see the legacy of Reagan in him. But with Trump, everything is new. He’s not like Reagan: whatever one thinks of Reagan’s policies, especially his vile foreign policies featuring death squads and invasions, the man fundamentally had an appeal of hope, a “Morning in America” idea. The closest analogy is Nixon, but Nixon had a political acumen and a clear desire to get things done. I don’t know if Trump can go to China.
For the first time in my life, I faced an election loss with real fear. What would happen to my friends who are minorities? What would happen to women and LGBTQ people?
The best case scenario that we face is that Trump is merely like a first-term Bush pre-9/11. If there are no major terror attacks that allow him to consolidate a base with a rally-around-the-flag effect and a “You don’t change horses midstream” appeal, and if he really does just want to hand the Presidency to Pence, then we’ll lose a few Supreme Court justices and lose tremendous and crucial progress on climate change, environmental protection and nuclear proliferation. With the tone at the top that Trump will adopt, even in part, we will see a very serious risk of terrorist networks and rival nations hardening their stance and getting ready for more apocalyptic wars.
The fact is that, even if we had elected someone more progressive than Clinton on climate, we would not be on track to staying below the crucial two degree threshold. In contrast, it is clear that, even if Trump’s rhetoric on the campaign trail was far exaggerated from his actual opinion and even if the Republicans are not the same as they were in the 2000s despite being ascendant, Trump’s EPA will be far worse than Clinton’s. There will be protection of coal, there will be no real support for alternative energy, there will not be a carbon tax. The energy donors will still have the power that they’ve always had, and as much as the Kochs and others may despise Trump, they won’t bite the hand that feeds on this issue.
It’s the Narcissism, Stupid
At this point, the optimists (and the conservatives who are starting to clearly realize that the man may be as scary as everyone else feared) point out, “Trump may be a buffoon, but he’s not suicidal. He won’t want to die. Look! He’s already pivoting to the center on immigration and other issues!”
Let’s put aside that his recent blowup about the cast of Hamilton daring to ask Mike Pence if he could actually be a President to all the people he had maligned, asking quite politely in fact. Let’s try to ignore how a Trump-wing GOP lawmaker is already calling for protest to be outlawed as terrorism.
I agree. Trump is perfectly capable of pivoting to the center. Hell, he’s capable of being a leftist. Trump would put on a red armband and read from Das Kapital, or start quoting Rage Against the Machine and Chomsky and Fugazi, if it made him popular.
The election ultimately didn’t boil down to racism, or white anxiety, or economic anxiety, or resentment at elites, or resentment at the Clintons. Oh, sure, those were all key factors. But at the end of the day, the election is ultimately about America’s inability to see a narcissist and to understand what that meant.
The fact is that no one, absolutely no one, should have voted for Donald Trump.
Not even the alternative right. Not even anti-feminists.
Trump may be willing to spew bigotry. He may be a sexual predator and even a rapist. But what defines him, most of all, is that he is a textbook narcissist.
Trump would have promised each household a slice of green Moon cheese if it got him elected. And someone like Trump will never stop.
It’s actually tragic if one thinks about it. Everything Trump has done has been about the haters, about sticking it to the people who doubted him and despised him. It’s crucial to realize that Trump doesn’t even think of those people as people. His world is small. His universe is his ego, and it is small and broken, and even he knows it. I strongly suggest everyone read the McKay Coppins article, going into why it is in fact possible to bait Donald Trump with a tweet.
But Trump is on a treadmill that keeps getting faster, and he keeps thinking he can turn up the speed and beat it. Even if everyone on the planet sang his name, his sense of worthlessness and smallness wouldn’t go away. But in reality, being President doesn’t mean that people are going to stop hating him. In fact, it means he will be more criticized, more attacked, more vilified, and his reaction at Hamilton shows that even at a moment that millions of other Americans have dreamed of he’s still not satisfied enough to let something go.
The more Trump tries to prove the haters wrong, the more haters arrive. And, of course, the reason that many of us hate him is because of the lengths that he goes to prove people wrong. It’s the classic behavior of a child seeking attention: negative attention by its nature stops being satisfying.
It doesn’t matter what anyone voting for Trump thought they were doing. They were, transparently, voting for a child.
Oh, sure, a child sure isn’t a member of the establishment. No one could accuse a seven year old of being part of “the swamp” of entrenched big-city liberals and multiculturalists and all those other corrupt, deviant people.
But it doesn’t make voting for a child, whether that child be literal or emotional, any smarter.
So What Now?
So, how do we reach out to that portion of the population that voted Trump?
What’s clear is that we can’t either coddle or condescend. Voting for Trump was a mistake. People in the position of considering that vote did something that we can understand as tempting.
Every one of us, if we’re honest, has had at least a moment where we considered lighting the world on fire, or sticking it to the self-assured and arrogant jerks, or desperately wanting a change. We’ve all considered a big gamble or wanted to throw a brick through a window of some business or office that had hurt us.
For some, Trump was a brick through the window. For others, voting for Trump was a guilty pleasure. For yet others, they reacted to the scandal of the last minute e-mail revelations. And while these may be small groups, I personally know many people who were excited for Sanders who ended up not voting or voting Trump. Trump’s margin of victory was so small that even minor mistakes and small groups of people could have swung the election.
We can understand that impulse. We can even forgive it. But we cannot accept that it was an okay impulse to act upon.
Voting for Trump, for any who did it, was a childish choice. It was voting for something destructive.
As adults, we have a duty to minimize the harm of our actions and to try to keep each other alive. We can’t fall to that impulse to lash back out at something, even a big collective system, when it will harm us and those we love.
The first thing we should start with is to have some perspective.
First of all, Trump didn’t win the popular vote. The majority of the country rejected him. If we do our job, Trump’s mandate and political capital can evaporate rapidly. Yes, his band of merry fascists have tremendous formal power. Yes, Trump will be able to do tremendous damage with the military. Presidents have near-unilateral control of foreign policy. Yes, counting on the Republicans to keep him in check is laughable.
But we’ve been in worse places before as a country. We’ve had segregation. We had the Vietnam War, where we were brutalizing multiple nations and killing millions. Popular protest managed to fight against those far more entrenched threats. The reason why Trump feels like such a change is precisely because that kind of extreme violence, misogyny and racism has been on the way out. With a minority victory, Trump cannot single-handedly push that pendulum back unless we let him. We are no longer in the society where routine beatings of people of color and LGBTQ people was just accepted as a fact of life. We are no longer in the society where it was just accepted that gay relationships would have some kind of special name, like “Uncle Mike’s special friend”.
Second, we have to realize that it wasn’t a loss on election night. Many had settled their mind a month before the election. Some had done it earlier. The people who voted for Trump likely always were going to. Clinton could have eked out a win, likely, with different ad buys, or with a different VP pick (like a Warren or a Sanders), or if she had just a little bit more opposition research to drop a bomb before the last part of the election.
Third, we celebrate that Trump is ushering in an era where money in politics is no longer dominant. Clinton outspent Trump and lost. And that’s actually a good thing for progressive politics. Between Sanders and Trump, the corporate establishment doesn’t call the shots. It’s unfortunate that the Democratic establishment was more entrenched than the Republican one and so the first success with a non-traditional strategy was Trump. But if we have the real power of the Democratic machine’s turn-out combined with a real progressive message, the divided Republican Party (and they are still very clearly divided even after a win) won’t stand a chance.
Finally, we realize what Michael Albert, editor at Z Magazine, pointed out recently. We realize that the vast majority of Trump voters did not go out into the streets in excitement. I’ll just quote from Albert’s analysis directly, because it’s so important to realize:
“Imagine Sanders ran against Trump and won. We would be dancing in the streets and the country would be elated and upbeat. Even mainstream media blaring that Sanders is the antichrist wouldn’t dampen nationwide massive celebrations… What if Trump won because he got traditional Republican votes, drew in a few more long time racists and sexists than usually vote, and gained his margin of victory in the Rust Belt from white working class voters who four years ago supported Obama but are now so angry at their steady slide into desperation that they preferred to vote for the outsider who at least acknowledged their pain rather than condescendingly dismissing them?”
The fact is that many Republicans made a tactical vote. They voted, like many of us did for Clinton, to try to keep back what they felt would be harms to their gun rights, or something else they cared about. That choice was wrong. But many of them lacked the ability, the critical consciousness, to see what kind of threat Trump posed.
Poisoned Or Shot
We can recognize that the individual vote for Trump was disastrous and destructive but realize that the real blame can be laid on the system that not only gave us a fascist who won with a minority of the public but also the system that gave people a choice between being slowly poisoned or shot.
Clinton represented continuing a status quo that has harmed many people. Trump represented a change to something worse. For many, things may feel so bad and so hopeless that they may think that either Trump destroys the world or at least changes things up, and either way, that’s a win.
I spoke to a friend who voted Johnson after the election. He defended how the markets reacted to Trump, he defended some of his cabinet picks, and ultimately he said that he was just trying to find a silver lining to a disaster. He despised Clinton and he wanted to hope that maybe changing what we were doing would be a start. This is a friend of mine who joined me in Occupy protests. He is not a white nationalist, or a racist, or a sexist. He just despaired.
And there’s a wisdom there to realize. When working with people with mental health issues, one appeal that is powerful is, “How can you expect a change if you keep doing the same thing?”
For many, voting for Trump was the first step to trying something new. Just like Obama sounded like something new, so too was a Trump vote something that would be an experiment.
A sensible person, when faced with the choice of slow poisoning or being shot, chooses the slow poisoning. The pain will be awful, but at least one can find an antidote. But we’re not always sensible, and sometimes the pain gets to be too much.
So we focus on easing that pain.
We point to the fact that Trump is not draining the swamp. We keep on showing people that he is not the change they wanted, if he will be any change at all.
We build movements and raise critical consciousness.
We rob Trump of his mandate and make clear to the world and to the nation that we do not accept his politics and he does not speak for us.
We convince white folks in particular that we care about their needs more than Trump, that they deliberately voted for someone who would shoot them in broad daylight if it got him a single round of applause. We convince the white working class that we not only want them to have better jobs just like we want Hispanics and African-Americans to have better jobs, but that we want to help them with the opiate epidemic ravaging white communities, the loss of ethnic memory that came from whiteness, and the loss of a sense of meaning. We show them that we want them to thrive.
It will be tough to do all these things. There will be a lot of hate. But we take solace in the fact that Sanders would have beaten Trump even if that was only due to the fact that he did not have the stink of scandals that Trump did. We take solace in the fact that none of us expected that we would have a real progressive almost clinch the Democratic Party nomination in 2015.
Most of all, we realize that Trump has actually done us a favor, and even the Republicans know it. He’s unmasked the system. He’s shown not only how desperate so many people are for a change, but how much racism, sexism, homophobia and the other institutions of oppression are still in our psyche. Instead of fighting the coded and entrenched enemy that we’ve fought for decades, now we fight an enemy that is honest and overt.
Trump’s victory is really the last gasp of an old way of doing things. And even in every one of his appeals to an imagined past America that was better, he is still a rejection of the status quo.
Most of the nation fought in the last year in some way to change the status quo. That is the land in which we thrive.
The Shire is right there. We just have a ring to throw away first.
This article was written by Frederic Christie, a writer for dusk magazine.