And now we have Donald Trump. We have small-town inland America—the culture I think of myself as being from—being credited or blamed for making a man like this the 45th in a sequence that includes Washington, Lincoln, and FDR. I view Trump’s election as the most grievous blow that the American idea has suffered in my lifetime. The Kennedy and King assassinations and the 9/11 attacks were crimes and tragedies. The wars in Vietnam and Iraq were disastrous mistakes. But the country recovered. For a democratic process to elevate a man expressing total disregard for democratic norms and institutions is worse. The American republic is based on rules but has always depended for its survival on norms—standards of behavior, conduct toward fellow citizens and especially critics and opponents that is decent beyond what the letter of the law dictates. Trump disdains them all. The American leaders I revere are sure enough of themselves to be modest, strong enough to entertain self-doubt. When I think of Republican Party civic virtues, I think of Eisenhower. But voters, or enough of them, have chosen Trump.
How could this have happened? No one can know for sure, and with an event this complex and contingent—why not more visits to Wisconsin? what about Comey? and the Russians?—there will be no single explanation. But I disagree with two elements of instant analysis: that this was a sweeping “change” election, and that it reflected a pent-up desperation and fury that would have been evident if anyone had bothered to check with Americans “out there,” away from the coasts.
In its calamitous effects—for climate change, in what might happen in a nuclear standoff, for race relations—this could indeed be as consequential a “change” election as the United States has had since 1860. But nothing about the voting patterns suggests that much of the population intended upheaval on this scale. “Change” elections drive waves of incumbents from office. This time only two senators, both Republicans, lost their seats. Of the nearly 400 representatives running for reelection to the House, only eight lost, six of them Republicans and two Democrats. In change elections, the incumbent president and his party are out of favor, even reviled: Hoover after the start of the Great Depression, George W. Bush after the financial crash. Through 2016, Barack Obama’s popularity kept rising, and if he could have run again, he would have been a favorite for reelection. But even the much less popular candidate from his same party comfortably won the popular vote, and the Democrats gained seats in both the Senate and the House. This is not what 1932 looked like, or 1980, or 2008.
The “fury out there” argument was expressed by, among others, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who was trying to rebut criticisms that his site’s tolerance for serving up popular, profitable, and wholly fictitious reports as “news” had skewed voters’ perceptions of reality, mainly toward the right. It didn’t matter that people were learning online that Hillary Clinton was about to die of Parkinson’s disease, or that violent crime was very high by historic standards when it was in fact very low. In the end, Zuckerberg said, voters “made decisions based on their lived experience.” Of course people must have been furious about their lived experiences. How else could they have voted for a man many of them viewed negatively, according to exit polls, and even as unqualified for the job? To paraphrase Trump’s famous campaign appeal to African American voters: With their lives and communities in such ruin, what the hell did they have to lose?