Eight years ago I was in Washington for Barack Obama’s first election as president. That night, the city erupted into a spontaneous street party: in an African American city like DC, his victory felt personal.
I knew it wasn’t going to be like that again, even if Hillary Clinton won. But I wasn’t expecting this. I wasn’t prepared for this. And I don’t really have any colourful anecdotes of how the locals reacted to report. Bars full of wonks staring fitfully at televisions don’t make for good content.
I did speak to one Texan pollster, who tried to convince me and himself that his state will go Democrat within ten years, thus rendering Donald Trump’s victory irrelevant; but any comfort one might gain from this requires a belief that the world as we know it will still be here in ten years time. And anyway, the same guy was trying to convince me that Clinton might still have this, even as Pennsylvania slipped away. Pollsters have their own problems right now.
As I write this, incidentally, NBC’s defence analyst Richard Engel is explaining that generals have been reading the constitution to work out whether they can disobey presidential orders, just in case they’re asked to start rounding up millions of Americans. If this is hysteria, it’s his, not mine.
The parallels between Trump and Brexit have been much discussed over the past few months. Whether his electorate would look like the one that voted for leave. Whether his campaign would succeed in activating non-voters, and so defy his polls. When he, bafflingly, described himself as “Mr Brexit”, it turned out that he was being a lot more accurate than those of us who mocked him gave him credit for.
But this is worse than Brexit, of course. Trump’s victory isn’t just a disaster for one country, or one continent, but for the entire world. With a US that’s no longer sold on international trade or NATO, we might genuinely be talking about the end of western hegemony here. And for all the shitty stuff the west has done, it’s hard to imagine that what comes next will be better.
An American friend asked me how it was we coped after the Brexit vote – what lessons the American left had to learn from us. The problem is: we didn’t. We haven’t. The UK is a narrower, more divided place than it has ever been in my lifetime, and I’ve seen little sign that’s going to change any time soon. This is not a comforting message to pass on.
But there is one thing I could tell him. The pain you feel right now, the shock of unexpected defeat – that’s just the beginning. It’s going to take weeks, months, for the full, horrible implications of this to sink in.
Because Trump has not just won the presidency. He has an almost unprecedented Republican Congress to help him push through whatever he wants. He will be able to reshape the Supreme Court, so abortion rights are probably under threat, too. He can roll back gay marriage, abandon Obamacare, dismantle what remains of its welfare systems. He can walk back the few, baby steps we’ve taken to towards tackling climate change.
We don’t know that he will do these things. We do know that he can.
That’s without even mentioning the effect he’s had on America’s political culture – the way he’s emboldened white nationalists, misogynists, anti-Semites, the millions of people who never quite believed that a mixed race man with the middle name Hussein could possibly be their president.
So here’s the lesson of Brexit: that this is not the end. At some point, a few days from now, you may feel you have started to adjust to this new reality. And then something else will hit you, some previously unconsidered reason why the world just got a whole lot worse for you or somebody you love, and you will feel the full horror of last night’s vote all over again.
This horror isn’t over. The show has just begun.