Elections are meant to be civic reflections of who we are, not funhouse mirrors of grotesque distortion. As Americans vote, the only question on the ballot is: Who do we want to see in the looking glass?
Do we want to be a people who try to restore an imagined past by stoking fear, validating bigotry and sexism, and disrespecting everyone in the world with the possible exception of Vladimir Putin?
Or a people who make history by electing our first woman president and who remain—despite big problems—a tolerant and inclusive nation trying to do better?
An ignorant demagogue so reckless that his staff had to confiscate his phone so he wouldn’t tweet versus a seasoned and earnest if overly defensive believer in the ability of government to improve lives.
An outrageous liar and confirmed deadbeat versus a public figure whose distortions and evasions are regrettable but well within the norm for politicians.
An authoritarian who says “I alone can fix it” versus a communitarian—far more in the American grain—whose message is “Stronger Together.”
To get a sense of just how unprecedented Trump’s candidacy is, consider this: We have never in 227 years chosen a president who had not served as an elected official, a Cabinet officer, or a general. In a nation of immigrants, we have never elected a president who ran as a “Know-Nothing” xenophobe, nor one who so nakedly exploited fear for votes. And we have never come close to electing a president who was so uncouth and publicly disrespectful to women.
Women have noticed. The gender gap—an important feature of presidential elections (and Democratic victories) since the 1990s—is now opening up wide across the kitchen table, touching off what may yet be an important national discussion about men, women, and the way we relate to each other.
A Trump victory tonight would be the greatest upset—and greatest shock to the system—in American history. But even if he loses, historians will ask how a man so manifestly unqualified for high (or any) elective office—a man who understandably terrifies the rest of the world and about half of American voters—got so close to the American presidency.
Trump was both politically brilliant and lucky. Understanding the power of entertainment in modern politics, he mounted a hostile takeover of a rotting Republican Party that had fallen out of touch with its base and lacked the fortitude to take him on.
While principled conservatives like Senators Lindsey Graham, Ben Sasse, and Jeff Flake stood up against him, appeasement by what George Will calls “Vichy Republicans” became the norm in the party. It infected House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and other leadership quislings who lacked the strength of character to oppose someone they know for certain to be a “con artist” (Marco Rubio’s words). For all their caveats, they advocated putting an unhinged man in charge of protecting the Constitution and handling the nuclear codes.
If you’re a busy person with no connection to politics and know little about Trump, a vote for him is comprehensible. But well-informed people who put party before country—who would rather have a fraud in the White House than a moderate like Merrick Garland on the Supreme Court—have a lot to answer for. There’s a word for their backing of Trump: unpatriotic.
Even with no campaign organization, Trump was always going to be a threat after he won the GOP nomination in July. In our polarized politics, any major-party nominee starts out automatically with about 40 percent support. Trump has a more powerful message than Clinton (demagoguery works) and if he’d broadened it and applied any consistent personal discipline, he would have been a much stronger candidate.
If Trump loses, he’ll be remembered by history less for tactical flaws than for the way he poisoned our politics. I’d offer three thematic explanations that might inform our thinking about how Trump got as far as he did: democratic fragility, white male insecurity, and media instability.
The Founders, worried about the long-term prospects of their creation, might not have been surprised by Trump. They weren’t reality-TV fans but they did study antiquity—especially the Roman republic—and they understood that it was demagogues and “mountebanks” (con artists) who had wrecked occasional earlier efforts at self-government.
The 19th-century Scottish historian Alexander Tyler argued that all democracies are “temporary in nature.” They bring liberty from bondage through faith and courage only to be destroyed by complacency, apathy, and dependence that lead right back to bondage.
Trump’s election would not likely destroy democracy, but his authoritarian impulses and the crew of alt-right Banana Republicans he would bring to Washington would undermine our system in ways that make Nixon and his crowd look benign. Shredding alliances and expanding the nuclear club—both possible without Congress—would risk war. And implementing even one or two of his outlandish ideas—banning Muslims, muzzling journalists, crushing protesters, just for starters—would set off a constitutional crisis and wrenching social unrest.
A Hillary victory—especially a narrow one—also brings risks to our democracy. Trump, who’s charged throughout his campaign that the system is “rigged” against him, refuses to commit to conceding if he loses, threatening the peaceful transfer of power that is the bedrock of our constitutional stability.
Strangely enough, democracies have often been most vulnerable not at a moment of supreme crisis but when the crisis has passed, especially if much of the populace remains embittered by its aftermath. That’s when they fall prey to a “man on horseback” (usually a strong military leader, but nowadays a tough-talking celebrity will suffice).
Athenian democracy survived the big war with Sparta but not Philip of Macedonia, who seemed less threatening. Weimar democracy survived hyperinflation but not the clownish Herr Hitler, who came to power in an election when things were looking up for the German economy. In our own time, we survived two wars and the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression but we’re facing the prospect of Trump when the wars have wound down and unemployment, inflation, and interest rates are all below 5 percent. Obsessing over Hillary’s emails reminds me of obsessing over her husband’s sex life in the 1990s. They are luxuries of relative peace and prosperity.
If we were in a war or depression now, Trump would likely go nowhere. He’d be too risky. But in a “change election” when much of the middle class feels left behind, he became a genuine threat. Had he toned down his rhetoric about Latinos, sincerely apologized to women, and run a more conventional campaign, he wouldn’t have been the authentic Trump. But he might be president.
Trump is empirically a racist, a misogynist, and a bully but he is also something that at first glance sounds less bad. He’s a rule-breaker. He’s like an obnoxious fullback on a middle-school football team who takes the ball and runs out of bounds on every play, knocking down cheerleaders and cursing the refs.
The problem is, democracy depends on boundaries, rules, and traditions—the sense that we may not agree on much but we do concur that we’re all playing football, not some other sport. These standards of conduct in a democratic society—articulated over the last 400 years by Edmund Burke and other superstar conservative theorists—are backed not by the sword but protected by a thin membrane of decorum and mutual respect, now under assault from Trump.
Which leads us to a second explanation for the Trump phenomenon. The losses of non-college educated white men have been well-documented this year. They are suffering from shortened lifespans, increased substance-abuse problems, and a sense of abandonment by politicians in both parties. They are in no mood for decorum—especially when it shades into political correctness—and thrill to Trump’s attacks on elites. For them, his gaffes have become his fuel.
We have also heard a lot about why so many voters react badly to Hillary—her sense of entitlement, lack of transparency, and reputation for untrustworthiness.
What’s less understood is the interaction between the two—how Trump’s monumental insecurity (why else would he brag so incessantly?) and the insecurity of his followers (battered by the demise of American manufacturing and nursing cultural resentments) are turbo-charged by misogyny and the presence of Hillary in the race.
Gender is the axle on which so much of the 2016 campaign turns. We’ve never seen a woman presidential nominee of a major party, so we have had no way before the election to assess the psycho-sexual dynamics at work in the electorate.
We do know that the U.S. is late to electing a woman as head of state—behind, among others, Great Britain, Germany, Brazil, and even India and Pakistan. And we know that going back to Eve in the Garden of Eden, men have distrusted —even felt betrayed by—assertive women. Yet we have barely plumbed the sexist double standards at work this year. Imagine it was Hillary bragging on tape about groping men, shouting “Get ’em outta here!” or “Lock him up!” at her rallies, or lying virtually every time she opened her mouth, as nonpartisan fact-checkers have established about Trump. It would not be a close race.
If Trump wins, it will be because he was the testosterone candidate—the personification of white working-class male dysfunction. Just as Barack Obama for many older white voters was (quite literally) the threatening face of a new, multicultural America, Hillary represents emasculation at a time when many men feel they’ve been stripped of their manhood by the bruising global economy. There’s no use pretending that racism and sexism aren’t consciously or unconsciously motivating many Trump voters. Hillary stupidly said that half were in a “basket of deplorables.” Her basket was too big, but not by much.
The insecurity argument also helps explain why—despite a sizable gender gap—millions of mostly non-college-educated women are voting for Trump. Many are longtime Republicans who, like male supporters, are underinformed about Trump’s unfitness and genuinely see the issues they care about (e.g. abortion) as more important than anything offensive he might have said. But the explanation for others may go back to Professor Tyler’s reasons for the demise of democracies: dependency.
An unmeasurable cohort of American women from all economic backgrounds are trying to figure out if they want to stand up for themselves or be dependent on the men in their private and public lives, even if those men do not respect them. The way these suburban white women vote today will determine the election. My bet is that they turn out heavily for Hillary.
The final explanation for the rise of Trump lies in the media landscape, which has been transformed more in recent years than at any time since Gutenberg developed the printing press. Today’s news media is an unstable industry in search of a business model and more anxious than ever for the eyeballs that Trump has provided. By some estimates, the big ratings he generated with his 2015 appearances brought more than $100 million in additional ad revenue to the networks.
For 35 years, Trump slaked his thirst for publicity by manipulating the New York media. When he brought those talents to presidential politics, he dominated coverage of the campaign. The implicit deal, which didn’t break down until summer, was simple: Trump gave tons of access but let producers know that if he was asked hard questions, he wouldn’t come back and their shows would lose ratings and status. Some TV interviewers threw fastballs anyway, but most of the aggressive reporting this year came courtesy of the old-fashioned print press, especially David Fahrenthold of The Washington Post, who proved repeatedly that Trump only pretended to give money to charity.
Historians may conclude that the most lasting significance of Hillary’s email “scandal” was that network evening news broadcasts devoted three times more attention to it than to every story on the issues facing the next president combined. Climate change—arguably the most important challenge facing the world—received no TV coverage at all during the general election. This despite the fact that Trump’s position, which calls for abrogating the Paris Accords signed by the U.S., China, and nearly every other nation, would doom global efforts to begin confronting the problem.
So what happens tomorrow? If Hillary wins, she should soon embark on a listening tour of red states, reaching out to Trump voters in a spirit of reconciliation. The conventional wisdom is that she would be powerless to move forward legislatively. But many Republican leaders in Washington have received the message—partly through Trump’s success—that the old obstruction doesn’t cut it any more, including with their base. They know Hillary from her Senate years, when McConnell called her a “friend,” and may work cooperatively for incremental change on issues like infrastructure and tax reform.
If Trump wins, he and the Republican Congress would have trouble enacting the full right-wing agenda, which calls for trillions in tax cuts for the wealthy and cuts of more than 40 percent in all domestic programs. But they might succeed in pushing through many radical-right ideas—including union-busting—that their working-class supporters know nothing about. In the meantime, Trump would have the power to unilaterally launch a trade war (“What the hell is wrong with a trade war?” he said), which, according to most economists, would lead to retaliation and a deep recession. His reckless talk and dangerous defensiveness would roil markets, further hurting the economy. And according to many foreign-policy experts, Trump’s temperament would likely lead to war.
On that cheery note, at least we can all agree on this: After this stomach-turning election, the new president—whomever he or she is—will need, as Lincoln put it in his Second Inaugural, to ”bind up the nation’s wounds…to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”