The sea swells. Cracks open in the earth. Blood drips from the walls. A swirling black hole appears in the sky. President-elect of the United States Donald J. Trump delivers his victory speech. And everyone wonders: Who can we blame for this?
Theories abound. Some pundits, hedging their bets, espouse multiple contradictory explanations for what happened on Tuesday. How familiar and yet how discomfiting it is to witness the hive mind of the media—which was wrong about this election at the outset and wrong at the finish—in a spasmodic search for narrative consensus. This time will be different, I think. There will be no “story of 2016.” Consensus—the possibility of it—has been rejected. There will be no peace in our time. Only paranoid raving, xenophobic purges, and gold trim. Lots of it. Looks real classy.
Recriminations will multiply in the days to come. The finger-pointing won’t stop for months, years, maybe decades. After all, it’s not every day global empires collapse from within, tweet by inexorable tweet. Given the scale of the disaster, we should expect the arguments to be spiteful and counterproductive. It cannot be any other way, for some people are in fact responsible for this historic debacle, and those people will try to shift the blame to others less deserving.
As I watched the results sink in, that evening, to an incredulous and weirdly sedate panel on Fox News, as panic spread across my Twitter timeline, I put aside my fast-growing personal shit list in order to compile a list of recriminatory theories shared by others. I have listed those theories below in order from least plausible to most plausible. Of course my rankings are entirely subjective. Why not? The sham rationality of “data journalism” belongs to the toxic trash heap that was 2016.
DEFINITELY NOT THIS LOT
The man does possess a strange charisma. He can wring a laugh out of his most determined enemies. That said, the sight of him makes a lot of people sick, even some who voted for him. If there is any magic to Trump’s charm, it comes from without, not from within. As I have written in this space before, Trump is merely a vessel, an avatar, for larger collective psychic forces. As much as Trump would like to think this election was all about him—and despite the creepy personality cult that has promoted him from president-elect to “god-emperor”—the outcome was not a result of his own underwhelming personal effort. Trump was elected in spite of himself.
This Clintonite conspiracy theory was the campaign’s go-to message in the final months of the election. It always reeked of desperation. Now, it’s beyond pathetic. We see Clinton partisans framing their candidate’s loss as the result of fantastic machinations by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his crack team of cyber-spies. Until the anonymous intelligence sources contributing to the spread of these Russia-stole-the-election theories come forward and publicly produce solid forensic evidence, this particular rabbit hole doesn’t deserve our attention.
Similarly, some Democratic boosters immediately pinned the blame for their candidate’s bad result on FBI director James Comey, who oversaw the investigation of the scandal surrounding Clinton’s private email sever, and who resurrected said scandal with a letter to Congress ten days before the election. This might make more sense if Clinton was the only candidate under intense legal pressure—but the bevy of lawsuits and even criminal complaints Trump faced was arguably more daunting than the Justice Department’s non-prosecution of Clinton. It would also be more compelling if the Democrats could demonstrate that this supposed late-October Surprise changed the mind of a single voter anywhere.
Commentators supplying instant takes were consistently agog that any non-zero percentage of racial minorities voted Republican this year, and that Trump performed better among Latinos than Romney despite promising to further militarize the Mexican border. But this result was predictable—except by sheltered white pundits who weren’t hip to the tensions between older and newer waves of immigrants, between Hispaños and Chicanos, Gujarati Hindus and Punjabi Muslims, ABCs and FOBs. Instead of attempting to untangle the barb-wire mess that’s been made of identity politics and electoral strategy-making, the proponents of this theory do little more than gape at what is presented, rather condescendingly, as an unfathomable betrayal of the presumed minority duty to vote Democrat.
Democrats began rehearsing this reprise of the “spoiler” rhetoric from Ralph Nader’s 2000 campaign well before Election Day this year. I saw some announce their intention to blame Green Party candidate Jill Stein for any poor showing by Clinton regardless of how well Stein might perform. And of course Stein performed abysmally—worse than Nader. She certainly cannot be blamed for the Democratic loss in states the Clinton campaign considered safe, like Wisconsin. Because this unhealthy and borderline abusive reflex to scapegoat minor candidates persists regardless of the numerical results of any given election, I suspect something deeper than math is at work. Perhaps it has to do with feelings of guilt on the part of loyal Democrats who see themselves as upstanding, responsible and accomplished people, and don’t like being reminded of the compromises they’ve made along the way—especially not by impractical purists who’ve never amounted to much. Note how Bernie Sanders’ supporters were cast in place of the third-party scapegoats during the Democratic primary, even though there was no risk of “spoilage” since it was an intra-party contest. I propose that the debate over the supposed third-party spoilers is another muddled proxy discussion of class politics, with “outsider” candidates typically representing the lower orders. Now that the New Democrat strategy of becoming the party of the whole bourgeoisie has decisively failed, perhaps we can have a reality-based conversation about class and coalition politics.
Possibly the worst conclusion people are drawing from 2016 is that democracy itself is to blame. A few days before the election, the New York Times deigned to run an earnest and infuriating op-ed titled “Consider A Monarchy, America.” I suspect many well-off liberals, frightened by the complex and daunting reality of our new situation, will find comfort in this fantasy of enlightened aristocracy. And if they do, on what basis could they possibly criticize God-Emperor Trump?
WORTHY OF SCORN BUT PERHAPS NOT BLAME
As with Brexit, the polls were way, way, wrong. Nate Silver, King of the Pointy-Heads, who built a media empire on the questionable predictive method of adding up, averaging, and “weighting” selected poll results, was, as a consequence, also way, way wrong. As much as I relish the chance to rub salt in the gaping flesh wound Trump left across the belly of data journalism, these bad polls and predictions did not create the outcome. They were just bad calls produced by myopic methodology and overconfidence. Could Clinton have pulled off a win with better numbers at her disposal? Doubtful.
Twitter gave Trump a powerful platform, but his social media advantage was not necessarily unfair. And NBC Universal did much to raise Trump’s profile over the last decade, but he was already a national celebrity. Even Fox News can’t be blamed for this one—opinion on the network was divided about Trump, as it was in the Republican Party. Certainly the New York Times and the Washington Post threw every investigative resource they had at the mobbed-up tax-dodger and serial sexual harasser soon to be known as the Commander-in-Chief. Veterans of the Trump beat like Wayne Barrett and David Cay Johnston dusted off decades-old notebooks and told anyone who would listen what a lying, narcissistic monster we were dealing with. The problem was, people didn’t want to listen. On Election Day, Americans knew a great deal about Trump, his loathsome character, his sociopathic conduct, and his terrifying vision of the country as a chauvinistic white supremacist police state. Half the electorate voted for him anyway. The danger now is that with Trump’s ascension to power the corporate imperative of acquiescence will snuff out what remains of the adversarial press in America. Already, the Huffington Post, ultimately owned by Verizon Communications, has decided to end its practice of appending a disclaimer about Trump’s bigotry at the end of every story about him.
If it were up to the dreaded Millennials, Clinton would have won. It was the Boomers who elected Trump. But while this generational divide accurately if cheaply describes the result, it fails to explain much of anything. This debate is a dead end—literally, since the old people will die first and then all that time we spent arguing about it will have been wasted.
The White Working Class
While Trump courted and won “non-college whites” by expansive double-digit margins, he also drew frighteningly fervent support from wealthier white conservatives and independents. This is precisely the result one would expect from a successful ethnic nationalist or fascist movement. Such movements have always papered over the conflicting class interests of a people with amorphous and paranoid appeals to racial solidarity. It is fair to describe Trump’s victory as a “whitelash,” but much like the generation-gap theories, this describes more than it explains. So the white working class voted for Trump—what of it? Whites of all classes backed Trump. Is the implication that the opposition, going forward, should write off working-class whites, specifically? It seems like the Clinton campaign tried that, and it didn’t work out very well. Should we appease them? Convert them? Do the people throwing this phrase around have a concrete notion of who constitutes the white working class? Or by repeating this phrase ad nauseam, are they somehow imbuing a term (and with Marxist roots, at that) with a new völkisch spirit—in other words, is this phrase merely shorthand for “Trump’s people”?
Going forward, this discussion will be useless without a definition of terms, and until now it’s served every side well to avoid such definitions. The Democrats, conflicted by growing dependence on Wall Street, haven’t wanted to define “working class.” The Republicans haven’t wanted to define “white,” because it’s an exclusionary term, and it can always be revised to incorporate new demographics, as was the case many decades ago with the Italians and Irish—and now, perhaps, some Asians and Latinos. But maybe not Jews anymore. It’s not a science, this business of race.
Suburban White Women
Confoundingly, a strong majority of the demographic group formerly known as Soccer Moms voted Trump despite his admitted tendency to “grab them by the pussy.” Clinton had taken their support as a gimme. The psychopolitics here are deeply fraught. They deserve, and will certainly receive, more consideration than this simple round-up of recriminations can provide. I’ll just say it’s easier for me to understand why Rust Belt union members voted for an anti-NAFTA bigot than it is to understand why these women voted for an alleged rapist. I’d add that it seems a little too perfect—by which I mean, a little too misogynist—to blame women as a group for this horrible outcome.
This warrants further investigation, especially in certain key states such as North Carolina. But absent proof of a massive illegal campaign to disenfranchise Democratic voters it’s hard to hang Clinton’s defeat on this.
MORE LIKELY SUSPECTS
The Republican Party
Paul Ryan, Newt Gingrich, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Rudy Giuliani, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes—the list of conservative quislings runs long. May one and all live in infamy until death, and then, may their children be cursed with shame, and their children’s children, for seven generations. May their teeth fall out. May their dicks fall off. May they be the first condemned to the God-Emperor’s new gulags. The GOP leadership was divided on Trump, but his rivals in the party were too crafty, craven, and power-hungry to ever truly oppose him. You can safely forget all that posturing by “principled conservatives” about democratic principles and the dignity of high office, blah blah blah. It was all for show. This bunch cares only about power and now that they have it, watch out.
Well, he did apparently encourage Trump to run, which turned out to be too clever by half. It’s bad enough that his philandering poisoned the well for his wife. But the former President’s real crime was to create the template for centrist technocratic neoliberalism, which must now, much too late, be declared bankrupt, both as an electoral niche and a governing philosophy. Thanks for nothing, Bill.
Republicans are predictably crediting Trump’s victory to the failures of the Current Occupant. Yes, he inherited an historic mess. Yes, he endured an intransigent, racist opposition. But he also reneged on key campaign promises and, in highly Clintonesque fashion, tried to pass off his minor, occasionally retrograde reforms as major accomplishments, at a time when Americans were getting desperate. It’s fair to say the man was out of touch and that his “ask the Harvard guys” approach to governing was naïve at best. Unforgivably, he perfected and enshrined the most horrifically dystopian innovations of George W. Bush’s tenure—secret drone strikes on civilians including U.S. citizens, total domestic surveillance—just in time for a bona-fide wannabe dictator to take over the White House on a platform of jailing his political opponents. Yes, by all means, blame Obama.
Nothing good will come of her defeat, except perhaps the end of the Clinton dynastic stranglehold on Democratic Party politics and, by extension, the seizure of all liberal, left, and activist politics in the U.S. by the family’s scrupulously cultivated base of corporate donors. But that silver lining was bound to emerge eventually. Hell, it might’ve happened in two years when the next mid-terms rolled around. And there’s no guarantee that the liberal and leftist groups will make good use of the narrow opportunity they have been given. Indeed, the whole umbrella of “progressive” causes the Democratic Party claims to represent has emerged weaker than ever from this election. And Hillary Clinton bears a large part of the responsibility for that. It was her campaign, after all. She’d been preparing for this moment for decades, but when it finally came, she choked, and retreated to the only place she seemed to feel comfortable—talking small groups of rich people out of their money. It was Clinton who ran with no message, other than the profoundly tone-deaf “America is already great.” “Dangerous Donald,” indeed. She doesn’t deserve to go to jail for no reason, as the new president-elect would have it, but she and her highly fanatical careerist-asshole acolytes sure as hell don’t need to lead the country’s only opposition party for . . . One. More. Day.
The Democratic Party
Just as Trump cannot claim credit for his own victory, so Clinton cannot shoulder the whole blame for her defeat. She was surrounded by enablers. The Democrats sure seemed to like having a dynasty at the top. It made things much simpler, from a managerial perspective. And the white-collar urban professionals the party came to represent—for practical purposes, exclusively—didn’t mind, either. The Democratic Party under the Clintons comfortably resembled a corporate workplace, with discernible lines of authority and transparent expectations of patronage. It became a party of upwardly mobile winners and as such, unbearably smug. These were the people who spent a year talking about the looming “end of the Republican Party.” So much for that! Republicans will soon control all three branches of government. The Democrats have . . . some big-city mayors? College bookstore patrons? Plus a few billionaires, although we’ll see how long that lasts. And which party is about to die.
Everyone Who Voted for Trump
The prima facie case has gotten surprisingly little play, although it is impossible to refute. Everyone who voted for Trump owns this outcome in a much more clear and direct way than everyone who failed, for whatever reason, to vote for Clinton. This goes double for voters in contested states such as Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, and so on. There is a wrinkle in that the latest results, at this writing, still had Clinton leading the nationwide popular vote. And as per usual, voters in the most populous states, such as California, which voted for Clinton, had little practical say in the overall outcome. The point is, the American system is so antiquated and asinine, it feels strangely unfair to blame voters, when their ritual expression of tribal political preference may or may not hold sway based on where they happen to reside.
Trump’s misogyny didn’t matter to millions of Americans who, Clinton or no Clinton, delivered a resounding electoral endorsement of the abuse and subjugation of women. How to explain that but as an institutional, and deeply internalized, system that is sometimes called patriarchy. There are already some who are portraying the election result as a grand rebuke of “the establishment.” This should be a clue that Trump’s victory is nothing of the sort. It is not a rebuke of the system, but a product of it. Who is more establishment than Trump? While many in the oligarch class are horrified at Trump’s ascendance, many more will work with him, as necessary, to maintain their positions at the top of society. Many more will echo the Republican leadership in arguing that the savage beast can be tamed, contained, domesticated—and used. This ruling class arrogance will almost certainly lead to disaster, as it did during the last Bush administration. But the stakes are higher this time because the country is worse off at the outset. For a more mechanistic explanation of how unchecked capitalism created this mess, read up on a principle known as Gresham’s Dynamic. Without getting too technical, Gresham’s Dynamic describes systems where cheating is rewarded instead of punished. Because of the perverse incentives created for bad behavior, the worst people will inevitably rise to the top. Presto, President Trump.
We could blame the Founding Fathers, but they’re so long dead, what’s the point? A country defined by its Constitution is also entrapped by it. This sacred object is for many Americans the only tangible expression of their national identity. And now it demands sacrifice. The popular vote must be sacrificed once more to the Electoral College. The lives, liberty, security and happiness of hundreds of millions of people—of billions, really, if you figure in America’s influence on the world—must be threatened to preserve the “peaceful transition of power.” This will be some comfort to the future prisoners of Trump’s deportation camps. This is madness. But the only thing crazier than a broken constitution is a broken constitution that for all practical purposes cannot be amended. In fact, the compromises borne in a slave state cannot be undone—thus a few farmers in Nebraska will have as much say in the Senate as the entire state of California. Thus, there is no likelihood that “the People’s House” will be at all in line with the actual views of the actual people—nor concerned with their overall welfare. The structure of our government, which every American is taught to regard as the dazzling culmination of political engineering, cannot stop tyranny; it now promises to give us one. As it turns out, the Constitution is a suicide pact.
Is the Lord of Lies working his mischief on earth once more? Clearly and irrefutably so. Call him Lucifer, Loki, Coyote, Trump. Call him what you like. These fables describe the darkness inside of us. Because we understand characters and stories much better than we will ever understand the mysterious mechanics of our own minds, we as a species have given name and form to that darkness. Our inner darkness emerges as the shifting shadow of a man. This shadow, like a reflection, is our own likeness. This darkness within us has emerged and it is a truly terrible thing, a thing to fear. Pray we have mercy on ourselves.