First of all, I blame myself. Despite my pessimism about the deepening and seemingly insurmountable economic and cultural divide, I could never quite bring myself to believe that America would elect Donald Trump. His flaws seemed to me so obvious, so monstrous, that no one could fail to see them. Like so many others, I dismissed him at first as comic relief, a “Trump-l’oeil,” smugly pleased with the cleverness of my play on words and insensitive to the cri du coeur that his challenge to elitists like me represented. The Huffington Post initially relegated coverage of his campaign to the entertainment section.
When my own son warned me in these pages that I was too complacent in thinking that the center would inevitably hold, I brushed the criticism aside. Competence—Hillary Clinton’s competence, the competence of the Establishment, of party insiders—would prevail in the end. The anger needed to be vented, then the pressure would subside.
I had plenty of help in nursing these illusions. The polls, despite occasional stumbles, were on the whole reassuring. Yes, the trend of the last weeks, after the Comey coup d’état, was in the wrong direction, just as with the shocking Brexit vote, but Hillary’s lead was comfortable. There would be no Brexit surprise here, I told myself, holding my anxiety in check.
Across the country only a handful of newspapers endorsed Trump. The pundits were reassuring. Even the Bushes reportedly voted against him. Clinton’s ground game was the best in the business, Trump’s non-existent. Democratic data wizard Jim Messina crowed about the superiority of the Democrats’ number-crunching operation. The early-voting numbers were impressive and showed Clinton’s strength in precisely those areas she needed to carry the crucial swing states. Trump himself seemed deflated: He rightly remarked that the campaign would have been a colossal waste of time and money if he lost, as if preparing himself for defeat.
The cognoscenti worried about the damage that would be done to progressive politics by the television network Trump would build with Breitbart’s Steve Bannon as a consolation prize for losing the election. The mere thought was so frightening that we had no time to contemplate the damage that could be done by a triumphant right wing in control of the White House, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, and a majority of state houses. It was unthinkable, so we fretted instead about the ravages of the alt-right in the Twittersphere—a concern that now seems quaint.
Instead of appreciating the very real threat of a Trump victory, I worried about the difficulty President Clinton would have governing this fractured nation. Her opponent had pre-emptively questioned the legitimacy of her victory. Would his followers, many of whom made no effort to conceal their vehement desire to see the former secretary of state and senator from New York imprisoned, take to the streets? Would the very essence of liberal democracy be threatened? But last night, as the returns turned from dismal to bleak, it was my own Facebook feed that filled with calls to “resistance.” And instead of a devastated and divided Republican Party, we now face the prospect of an even more extreme Congress and cabinet, unleashed by an angry backlash, working their will rather than merely obstructing the president of the other party.
When we were in power, moreover, we responded to Republican obstructionism by expanding executive discretion in ways we will undoubtedly come to regret as the checks and balances are removed. And we will also regret our failure to dismantle the national surveillance and security apparatus. Our minorities—blacks, Muslims, immigrants, gays, even Jews—are in danger. Our first priority must be to protect them as best we can.
Our second priority must be to rebuild the Democratic Party. Clearly, an era in party history has ended. I refuse to indulge in recriminations over past errors, in which I am complicit. I am of the same generation as Hillary Clinton. Our golden childhoods filled our heads with ideas of making “the impossible possible,” as Hillary said in her graduation speech. Slowly, too slowly, we learned that it wouldn’t be that easy. We tried to adapt, to accommodate to “the system.”
Perhaps we went too far. Perhaps, by being too ready to accept compromise as the inevitable price of progress, we compromised ourselves. Friends to my left have been urging this diagnosis on me for some time, even before the debacle. They may be right, although even now I do not think so. But whether right or wrong on the merits, we have now received our comeuppance. I awoke this morning under a terrible pall, which I don't think will lift in my lifetime.
We baby boomers started out with such great hope, buoyed by the defeat of fascism, the huge expansion of secondary education, the liberation of women, the civil-rights revolution. But we who graduated in the 1960s and 1970s with dreams of a new world have now joined the despised “elite.” You don’t recognize a revolution until you’re in it, and you don’t know that you’ve gone from “radical” to “oppressor” until you’ve looked the angry mob in the face.
Despite a lifetime of studying politics, I confess that I failed to grasp in timely fashion the great historical movements of my mature years: the rise of Reaganism-Thatcherism and neoliberal globalization, the fall of communism, the collapse of the European left, the unraveling of the EU, and now the triumph of Trumpism. That's a lot of failure for one lifetime.
“Political intellectual” may be the most useless of endeavors. But if we don’t at least try to make sense of events, if only belatedly, all that remains is chaos. Perhaps there is something to be salvaged from this debacle. I will keep looking, but this morning, through bleary eyes, it’s difficult to see anything but the anxious faces of everyone I hold dear. I survived cancer, but I don’t know if I will survive this.