The Postmortem: Reality Bends, but Hope Persists, on the Morning After

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The Postmortem: Reality Bends, but Hope Persists, on the Morning After

These have power to shut heaven, that it rain not in the days of their prophecy: and have power over waters to turn them to blood, and to smite the earth with all plagues, as often as they will.”
—Revelations 11:6, KJV

So.

About last night.

How was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?

At roughly 1:15 AM, Central Standard Time in West Texas, I watched national pimp John Podesta ask the audience before him to go home while they count the ballots. The speech was a masterstroke of the “Keep Cool, My Babies” school of political narrative. It was an impressive coup of Zen control, since an hour later the legend TRUMP TRIUMPHS was plastered across the New York Times, as if screamed at heaven by an ink salesman. Generally, when a writer uses a phrase like “I have no words,” it’s a cop-out. There are always words.

But tonight, there are more than words. At about 2 AM, when Trump was in this third hour of rap-album-line shout-outs, and had made his way to the aging carcinoma of Rudy Giuliani, I got a call from my friends C and M in New York. We discussed robots, there was sustained yelling, and a chair was apparently broken. “Billy Bush will be in the cabinet,” my mother said.

Horses began to compose sonnets, cats and dogs invested in joint-stock companies, the sky turned black as pitch, and clubs of swingers began to weep bitter tears. I did not see, but assume all of these came to pass. This is a day for everything that can happen to happen.

SOMEWHERE SCALIA IS LAUGHING

All signs point to the Orange Presidency having a mandate. Looking to windward, it’s also probable, barring the rise of the machines, that the House and Senate will be in Republican control too.

There are a thousand hot takes to discuss: the upcoming public execution of Jim Comey, the exodus to Canada, the demolishing of the Voting Rights Act that led to the diminishing of African-American and Latino votes, our rush to purchase shotgun shells and bunkers, and all of the other turns in the new America.

Bad news: the world will probably end in the next couple of months. Good news: punk rock is about to get fantastic. Bad news: there might be a civil war. Good news: Julian Assange is about to suffer an unfortunate and hilarious “accident.” Bad news: cocaine is about to be the White House drug of choice. Good news: Putin and America are friends. Bad news: Putin and America are friends. Hot take: The key thing to remember is that the age of statistics and math is over, and this election proves collective consciousness and meme magic exists. The end of Nate Silver’s career also looms large in our collective future: one of the most memorable parts of the evening was watching him and his site try to pull off one increasingly desperate ass-cover after another as everything about their predictive model was shown to be hollow, false, and corrupt.

Every shade in the rainbow of weird hangs in the sky, and it’s hard to say anything about the current moment that doesn’t sound totally certifiable. Covering all of the angles would be impossible, especially since I am writing this towards the wee hours of the morning. A straightforward recounting of what has just transpired belongs to the Washington Post and a thousand Wikipedia editors and whichever grad students survive the coming purge. Two notes stick out from the evening:

1) This is unreal.
2) The factories did it.

THIS IS UNREAL

First, the major emotion in the air is an astounding surreality, as if the Matrix had gone and glitched.

This is not just a defeat of Hillary Clinton, but the full-on toppling of electoral reality, and much of rational existence as I understand it. I prophesied that Clinton would win and perhaps pick up the Senate.

It would be one thing if this was just me going awry on a basic gut check; I’ve been wrong before. What makes this year remarkable was that my prediction was no guess, but based on every kind of poll, demographic evidence, and detailed analysis available.

You could say it’s a good symbol of how fully the current neoliberal order has established itself in our national sensibility—even the possibility of a Trump victory seemed Bowie and out-there. But even allowing for all of the usual perversity of the talking heads and thought leaders saying Trump couldn’t win, this is still a mammoth upset, on the order of gravity no longer being in fashion or Paris becoming a pantsless society.

Simply put: the math wasn’t there, and it was never there, and when we thought it was there, it wasn’t. The entire system was wrong. The polls were wrong. We all knew Silver was flawed, but everyone else sunk under the same weights too. I was wrong. We were all wrong.

But the feeling of absurdity goes much further than that. All other feelings on the emotional spectrum, all the commentary I have so far read about this election, all of these are overlooking the single predominant factor: the mounting and incredible unreality of the present moment. I mean the full juice-is-loose bugout disco patchwork of madness we are living through.

I have written before in these pages about how the world has seemed increasingly fictional since O.J.’s white Bronco chase in 1994: the world is more and more unreal. I have discussed this change in a thousand private conversations. And now I seem to have the best possible evidence for the world not merely turned upside down, but inside out as well. So if I resort to metaphors from movies and television, it’s not to be glib or facile. They are simply the best single water-well to draw from in a time where the truth outdoes the wildest ravings of fiction.

There are so many times where John Oliver said to his audience “It’s 2016, people!” on his show, as if drawing our attention to the timeframe would allow us to realize the baroque moment we were knee-deep in. The oddity of these interesting times was embodied not just in the current moments of the campaign season or of literally every other aspect of our culture, but in the candidate himself, Donald J. Trump, who had been plucked up from the splashy tabloid world to frustrate every rule—first of decorum, then of math and prediction. Even the Trump supporters who I texted couldn’t believe what was happening. They thought it was going to be Hillary too.

I am watching a replay of our 45th-President-to-be, Donald Trump, on CNN. During the original speech, my brother Nick and I texted back and forth. I mentioned that all of my emotions were filtered through a lens of fanciful preposterousness. Was this shock, or the feeling of all ground coming loose—“unmoored,” to use my brother’s phrase?

“It feels like reality is coming apart at the seams right now,” Nick wrote me. “I’m not even that mad from a personal philosophy perspective, he doesn’t really have one outside of being a rich 80s douchebro … I just can’t believe it’s really happening. I have no idea what tomorrow brings now more than ever.”

I agreed and said I felt the same. You know when you’re watching a really acclaimed, groundbreaking TV show and you have no idea where the hell it’s actually going? That was our world now, I said.

We agreed the night felt a little revolutionary in a way: so many people had predicted it wrong. “Something got missed,” Nick wrote, “on some systemic level, right? It can’t just be that people were ashamed to admit to pollsters that [they] were voting Trump. Like, how did we all underestimate this man-child so thoroughly? He makes W look like Voltaire.” We agreed this insanity was our national heritage.

THE FACTORIES

Second, this was a change election. I supported Bernie in the primaries, and believe he would have won. However, I accepted Clinton as an agent of progress after the convention, after she took on parts of Bernie’s platform. I thought that would be enough.

But it is hard to overstate the complete, raw loathing for the establishment shared by millions of Americans. I understand this mindset, because it’s exactly what drove me to back Sanders. The inability of the ruling class to take responsibility for itself, to fix any parts of American life, was on display. Trump wedded this feeling to nationalism and fear of loss. The same places where white voters elected Obama eight and four years ago backed Trump all the way this time around.

Since the seventies, liberalism has become neoliberalism, and neoliberalism pretended cultural progressivism was the only progress that mattered. They sent the factories overseas, and when the workers opposed it, the response of the middle class was to appeal to vaguely-understood laws of nature: the market had done it, and the market was God. “There is no alternative,” they told the lower classes.

Jobs went to the microchip, everyone said: nothing to do about it. The Democratic Party became a group of professionals, and left the working folk behind. Trump’s victory took decades to build, but the Rust Belt had time. Lots of time. This triumph was payback for NAFTA, among other slights. And unlike most of our consumer goods, this one was made in America.

Socioeconomic change in America during my lifetime has rested on two unspoken premises that the ruling class has treated as iron laws:

First, the world is changing.

Second, flyover country is just going to have to get used to that.

One of those propositions has been proven untrue.

Opponents of Trump, and of change in general, focused on the racist part of his message, which was real, constant, and non-imaginary. But the understandable desire to banish the Orangeman deliberately overlooked the ongoing economic suffering of millions of Americans, who suspected that nobody cared for them, who felt despised and unloved, left out in the cold. Elite supporters of Hillary, who focused on her groundbreaking run as first female nominee and possible president, never understood, or tried to understand, that millions of Americans existed in a state of perfect rage, which all the wokeness in the world could not mend.

Neoliberalism is dead. The Democratic Party establishment stands revealed as ineffective as the Weimar Government. Jim Newell put it well: “The whole edifice was hollow, built atop the same unearned sense of inevitability that surrounded Clinton in 2008, and it collapsed, just as it collapsed in 2008, only a little later in the calendar. The voters of the party got taken for a ride by the people who controlled it, the ones who promised they had everything figured out and sneeringly dismissed anyone who suggested otherwise.”

I expect the reigning mandarins of the Democratic Party will blame most anybody—the American people, the left, Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, the third parties—anyone but themselves. Or worse still, the Democratic elite might mistakenly think that the solution is to go even further to the right on economic matters—to jail a number of bankers that is less than zero, or to cut welfare even more, or to raise Obamacare premiums even higher. What a bunch of bums. You lost the election. Own your failure.

The civil war between the left and neoliberals that I mentioned in a previous essay is guaranteed to happen. There must be a true left party, one which incorporates opposition to racism and sexism with actual progressive economic doctrine, not just politically-correct gloss on the corporate order.

The Republican Party, despite its apparent domination of Congress and the Executive branch, is still dead, as several commenters suggested: this is no longer the party of Reagan, and Paul Ryan and the rest of the GOP will be at sword-length with Trump soon enough.

And Trump? As for the man himself—to the extent he has a self to understand—I strongly suspect, but cannot prove, that he is just as surprised and shocked as the rest of us. Watching him slip through his prepared speech, reading from Teleprompters, offering something vaguely in the way of concession, I understood the man does not really believe in the Wall, which is hardly consolation, since he does not believe in anything.

The real light-bulb moment of the evening? That anything is possible. This, and not the regimented plan of a truly disciplined right-wing politician, is what is most unusual about the Trump win. It is distinctly within the realm of the real that Trump gets bored, resigns in his first year, and Pence is sworn in as 46th President. It is entirely possible Trump switches parties at some point in frustration.

Why not? Trump could give the military an illegal order and the Congress, after much fussing, impeaches him. It is unlikely but not impossible that Trump pulls out of NATO, or puts his own T on the HMS Register, or behaves as a moderate, indifferent sovereign during the next four years. That’s the thing with Trump: like with malaria, there’s no telling in the long term what happens.

FINAL WORDS

I know many of my readers are sick and terrified by what is to come. I would like to speak directly to you. I share your loss and sadness, but not your despair. Allow me to explain why.

It is true I have never lived under a Trump presidency. But I know something about loss, and political loss. I have lost many, many times. I grew up in a conservative town. My side never won there. I’ve lived in Texas most of my life. Political defeat upon defeat. I saw the first Bush rise in ‘88, and I was there, age 14, when the Congress went to the conservatives and the tide shifted.

In 2000, I was in the Chicago Hilton, age 20, having made my way into the Democratic Election hobnob there, thanks to my election-watching pass. There was an open bar, and the hotel woman tending it looked the other way and gave me a glass of wine. In that ballroom, I saw the mood sour as Florida remained uncalled. I waited out the long judgment before the Court and the years that followed.

I watched Obama get elected, and then fail to fulfill the hopes vested in him. I saw the Republicans take back Congress two years later, and then I saw my beloved Bernie defeated. And you know what the end result of this was? All that defeat and downfall? The progressive cause marched forward. They sailed forward on a river of defeat, time after time. The future came, relentless as the tide, sure as the earth turning beneath my feet. This is not some fantastical pipe dream I am speaking of, but a pattern I have seen so often that I know it in my bones to be true, far beyond the results of any single November night.

I am not asking you to abandon your feelings, or to not feel fear or nausea. I only remind you that someone can only be truly brave when they are afraid, and that life is not a sea to be ridden out safely in port. There was always going to be a time where the way seemed lost, and the night was long, and no comfort could be had.

I am not asking you to not feel down, because it is natural and healthy to feel sadness when there is loss. I am asking you to remember who you are, and what you are, and how far we have come, and to say that if the people before us found hope, then surely the path is not so distant from this moment.

If I am resolute, it is because I know that behind every winter in politics, there is an eventual spring, and that nothing ever truly dies, but returns again in some new shape.

This Republic has traveled through war, iron, and fire to this place. The ordeals of the mothers and fathers of this country were much harsher than this. The fight goes on, and so will we.

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