That Donald Trump’s victory is a disaster for America seems plain to anyone capable of thinking coherently about politics, society, and decency. Many of us are in shock and imagining the worst for the next four years. The problem, of course, isn’t the four years per se but the fact that given the state of the environment, the divisions in our society, the resurgence of racism, and the violence intrinsic to our foreign policy and the enemies it has engendered, we can’t afford four years of mediocrity much less something a good deal worse.
Of course the pundits go on about the pressure on the working class and feelings of anger at the establishment and so forth, but they said the same things, more or less, when that same constituency swung elections to Reagan and the Bushes, members of the stablishment who did all they could to transfer wealth from their poorer supporters to the wealthiest among them. And true, Hillary was a very weak candidate, weaker than even those who reluctantly voted for her could imagine. And true, Bernie Sanders may well have won Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, grabbing many Trump votes because he articulated the same frustrations as Trump did, only from a far higher moral and more practical political platform.
But all this is moot now. The question is, how do we deal with the future? The historian in me is used to a bleak view of the fate of nations and other large political conglomerates. Historians know better than most that societies do indeed run into brick walls, go over the precipice, end up with leaders who have the worst interests of their people at heart. And despite all the claptrap about trusting the will of the people, there has never been any evidence that the will of the people can sustain a high-minded adherence to civilized norms. That’s what makes the punditry about “voter anger” so silly. It’s the same old story: discontent and fear lead to mob-hysteria and tyranny. Thucydides knew it, Plato knew it, Machiavelli knew it, Hitler and Mussolini knew it, and now Trump knows it.
So what is the future? The big question is not whether Trump will be as bad as he now appears to be, or how much of his agenda, such as it is or pretends to be, will get passed.
The real question is what happens when he fails to deliver what his supporters imagined or deluded themselves into thinking he was delivering? For he will fail. He will fail because his fiscal, environmental, social, and foreign policies are devoid of the slightest wisp of comprehension of human or political conditions and circumstances. He will fail because even if he lets others do the heavy lifting, those others are committed to a status quo more entrenched and harmful than anything Hillary Clinton stood for.
Above all he will fail because his followers, with their anger, their kneejerk response to a spoiled fatcat spewing violence and hate, screwed themselves. Like a degenerate gambler they doubled down on their fantasies. They don’t even realize that the guy they voted for won because the very people who hold them in the most contempt, who view them as poor shlubs to manipulate and screw over, are the very ones who funded the Republican victory. So here they are, at the tail end of the American imperial night, putting all their chips on a wing and a prayer, or rather, a sound byte and a sneer. How’s that likely to end?
So what do they do when their hero comes up short? Where does their anger go then? How do they cope with their self-delusion? What will they turn to next? Trump’s election is not the culmination. It is the beginning of a final disillusionment that will take place in stages.
Politically, we have the opportunity to observe and track the mood swings of a dangerously unstable electorate as their latest strong man fails them. Perhaps all of us will come to recognize a common despair and hope and the channels of communication will open up between us. Perhaps we can elevate a debased political culture by engaging it strategically and compassionately, even as it writhes and lashes out.
Above all, we need to continue to express the better part of our selves and our society: the tolerance; the commitment to work and family and friends; the belief—also perhaps self-deluding—that one can never cease to build bridges, open hearts, and create a world worthy of our children and their children on down past the seventh generation. However we choose to do it, we cannot allow this mass expulsion of vitriol and despair define our futures. We are stronger than that.