Old habits die hard. In the week following a US presidential election that obliterated just about every political assumption polite society held dear, polite society briskly got back to work, laying out precise reasons for Donald Trump’s dumbfounding victory. The takes – disseminated on Facebook, over alcoholic drinks, by contractually shackled TV pundits – were many.
Racism is more rife than we knew; sexism is more rife than we knew; blue-collar America felt abandoned by the neoliberal, free-market consensus; Facebook’s news algorithms facilitated the spread of false and inflammatory articles; the FBI director, James Comey, sabotaged the election with an eleventh-hour memorandum about emails; Hillary Clinton earned $22m speaking to corporations; Hillary Clinton didn’t have a message; American voters are ignorant; American voters worship celebrities; third-party candidates spoiled the election in key swing states; George W Bush’s wars led to Isis, and the fear of Isis led to Trump; coastal elites were smug and complacent; so were their favourite pollsters; democracy had a good run.
In the world I occupy – north-eastern, well-educated, overwhelmingly Democratic – this post-mortem has been cathartic. Saddled now with a president impervious to factual scrutiny and contemptuous of truth, we are comforted by real-time historical analysis grounded in logic and exit polls. One widely shared article, published in the venerable Current Affairs magazine the day after the election, was titled, “What this means, how this happened, what to do now”. (Nice to know that the click-bait economy is still alive and well in Donald Trump’s America.) Yet such reactions manage both to overstate and to understate the importance of the election.
They overstate it in this way: the right-wing populist revolt that ushered Trump into office must be reckoned with but it doesn’t represent the thinking of most of the country. At the last count, Hillary Clinton led in the national popular vote by roughly 800,000 votes. Neither California nor Oregon, nor Washington State has finished counting ballots – all are solidly Democratic – suggesting that Clinton’s total margin of victory will number well over one million votes. That Clinton still lost the election is of course a product of America’s electoral college, which rewards the candidate who carries the greatest number of valuable states, rather than outright votes. Before this year, the winner of the popular vote had lost the general election four times, most recently when George W Bush prevailed in 2000. (The electoral college was designed by the founding founders in part to weed out demagogues, candidates in thrall to foreign nations, or other disreputable types who might sway naive voters. So much for that.)
Clinton did perform worse than her predecessor with liberal voting blocs. Compared to Barack Obama, she received far fewer votes from union households, black men and Latina women. But, in some respects, Trump also performed worse than his predecessors. “Trump’s victory became inflated beyond what it actually was,” wrote Elizabeth Drew in the New York Review of Books. “His victory was nowhere the size of Reagan’s [in 1980] and it had little effect on down-ballot candidates.” Drew also noted that Trump received fewer votes than Mitt Romney or John McCain, the immediate past two Republican presidential candidates. But for a 100,000 vote swing in the upper Midwest, where white Rust Belt voters broke in unexpected numbers for Trump, there would be no soul-searching, no laments for broken democracy. (Well, not among Democrats, at least.) On aggregate, America is the same country many of us thought it was before 8 November.
That said, the insta-punditry bent on dissecting the mechanics of Trump’s victory has had a deflatingly normalising effect. It has reduced a cataclysmic, potentially tragic election to a political science problem. Set aside the absurdity of liberal voters taking to social media to lament their blinkered place “in the bubble”. Self-flagellation seems an awfully huge concession to the 60 million voters who cast their ballot for a candidate who pandered to the worst instincts in American life.
The segregation of America’s political parties – both geographically and on the internet – has indeed created an atmosphere in which it is easy to pick and choose one’s own facts. However, the problem is no worse on the left than it is on the right. Go visit the “alternative right’s” flagship website, Breitbart – a favourite of white nationalists – whose former chairman Steve Bannon has just been named the White House chief strategist. Among Bannon’s previously articulated goals: “to destroy the state”.
There are, after all, stakes to this election beyond heated inside-the-Beltway Democratic hand-wringing about how not to repeat Clinton’s mistakes during the 2018 election cycle. Reports of harassment of minorities and women have increased. The vulgar words that were supposed to doom Trump’s candidacy – “grab them by the pussy” – have become a rallying call for some of his more boorish supporters. Meanwhile, to preview just one potential contingency of the election, some terror groups are cheering. “Trump’s win of the American presidency will bring hostility of Muslims against America as a result of his reckless actions, which show the overt and hidden hatred,” read a statement from the Isis-affiliated al-Minbar Jihadi Media network.
I cannot necessarily speak for the “mood” of the country. After all, I’ve spent the past week between Brooklyn and Boston, in a bubble of my own. In these parts, however, the mood is grim. Subway rides have felt funereal. The sky – falling, perhaps – seems to hang lower, and greyer. Psychically at least, America has become a more equal place: more people are miserable. But another feature of the US political system, the two-month time lag between election and inauguration, has given way to renewed optimism, in the form of outright denial. For my part, I was walking by a sports bar on a busy street in Boston when I read a headline beaming from a television tuned to CNN. Trump, it read, said he “didn’t know” if the Russians had interfered with the election. Would results be deemed illegitimate? Would normality be restored? Of course not. But it was the best I’d felt in days.
Simon van Zuylen-Wood is a writer in New York
This article appears in the 16 Nov 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump world