Tuesday, November 8th, early afternoon. Outside the Trump Tower in Manhattan, a man in the telltale red Make America Great Again hat taps me on the shoulder.
“You press?” he says, looking at a set of lanyards around my neck.
“Fuck yourself,” he says, thrusting a middle finger in my face. He then turns around and walks a boy of about five away from me down Fifth Avenue, a hand gently tousling his son’s hair.
This was before Donald Trump’s historic victory. The message afterward no doubt would have been the same. There’s no way to overstate the horror of what just went down. Sure, we’ve had some unstable characters enter the White House. JFK had health problems that led him to take amphetamine shots during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Reagan’s attention span was so short, the CIA had to make mini-movies to brief him on foreign leaders. George W. Bush not only didn’t read the news, he wasn’t interested in it (“What’s in the newspapers worth worrying about?” he once asked, without irony).
But all of these men were just fronts for one or the other half of the familiar alternating power structure, surrounded by predictable, relatively sober confederates who managed the day-to-day. Trump enters the White House as a lone wrecking ball of conspiratorial ideas, a one-man movement unto himself who owes almost nothing to traditional Republicans and can be expected to be anything but a figurehead. He takes office at a time when the chief executive is vastly more powerful than ever before, with nearly unlimited authority to investigate, surveil, torture and assassinate foreigners and even U.S. citizens – powers that didn’t seem to trouble people much when they were granted to Barack Obama.
Shunned during election season by many in his own party, President-elect Trump’s closest advisers are a collection of crackpots and dilettantes who will make Bush’s cabinet look like the Nobel committee. The head of his EPA transition team, Myron Ebell, is a noted climate-change denier. Pyramid enthusiast and stabbing expert Ben Carson is already being mentioned as a possible Health and Human Services chief. Rudy Giuliani, probably too unhinged by now for even a People’s Court reboot, might be attorney general. God only knows who might end up being Supreme Court nominees; we can only hope they turn out to be lawyers, or at least played lawyers onscreen. And sitting behind this fun-house nightmare of executive-branch worthies (which Politico speculates will be one of the more “eclectic” cabinets ever) will be a rubber-stamping all-Republican legislature that will attract the loving admiration of tinhorn despots from Minsk to Beijing.
Trump made idiots of us all. From the end of primary season onward I felt sure Trump was en route to ruining, perhaps forever, the Republican Party as a force in modern American life. Now the Republicans are more dominant than ever, and it is the Democratic Party that is shattered and faces an uncertain future.
And they deserve it. The Democratic Party’s failure to keep Donald Trump out of the White House in 2016 will go down as one of the all-time examples of insular arrogance. The party not only spent most of the past two years ignoring the warning signs of the Trump rebellion, but vilifying anyone who tried to point them out. It denounced all rumours of its creeping unpopularity as vulgar lies and bullied anyone who dared question its campaign strategy by calling them racists, sexists and agents of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
But the party’s wilful blindness symbolised a similar arrogance across the American intellectual elite. Trump’s election was a true rebellion, directed at anyone perceived to be part of “the establishment.” The target group included political leaders, bankers, industrialists, academics, Hollywood actors, and, of course, the media. And we all closed our eyes to what we didn’t want to see.
The almost universal failure among political pros to predict Trump’s victory – the few exceptions, conspicuously, were people who hailed from rust-belt states, like Michael Moore – spoke to an astonishing cultural blindness. Those of us whose job it is to cover campaigns long ago grew accustomed to treating The People as a kind of dumb animal, whose behaviour could sometimes be unpredictable but, in the end, almost always did what it was told.
Whenever we sought insight into the motives and tendencies of this elusive creature, our first calls were always to other eggheads like ourselves. We talked to pollsters, think-tankers, academics, former campaign strategists, party spokes-hacks, even other journalists. Day after day, our political talk shows consisted of one geek in a suit interviewing another geek in a suit about the behaviors of pipe fitters and store clerks and cops in Florida, Wisconsin, Ohio and West Virginia. We’d stand over glitzy video maps and discuss demographic data points like we were trying to determine the location of a downed jetliner.
And the whole time, The People, whose intentions we were wondering so hard about, were all around us, listening to themselves being talked about like some wild, illiterate beast.
When 60 Minutes did its election-eve story about the mood of the electorate, they had to call up a familiar Beltway figure, pollster Frank Luntz, to put together a focus group. Luntz’s purpose was to take the white-hot rage and disgust hurled at him by voters on both sides of the aisle during the “focus group” portion, and distill it all into a sound bite during the sit-down. Luntz did his job and gave Steve Kroft his glib summary diagnosis of The People’s temperature. “That’s not blowing off steam,” he said. “That is a deep-seated resentment.”
Deep-seated resentment. There was a catchy, succinct line, over which we could all collectively stroke our chins in quiet contemplation. That’s as opposed to what the voters intended, which was to sock us all so hard for our snobbism and intellectual myopia that those very chins of ours would get driven straight through the backs of our skulls.
There was a great deal of talk in this campaign about the inability of the “low-information” voter to understand the rhetoric of candidates who spoke above a sixth-grade language level. We were told by academics and analysts that Trump’s public addresses rated among the most simplistic political rhetoric ever recorded.
But that story cut in both directions, in a way few of us silver-tongued media types ever thought about. The People didn’t speak our language, true. But that also meant we didn’t speak theirs.
Beavis and Butthead creator Mike Judge’s Idiocracy, ostensibly a comedy but destined now to be remembered as a horror movie, was often cited this past year as prophecy. The film described a future dystopia of idiot Americans physically unable to understand the tepid grammatical speech of a half-smart time traveler from the past. Many reporters, myself included, found themselves thinking about this film when we heard voters saying they were literally incapable of understanding the words coming out of Hillary Clinton’s mouth.
“When [Trump] talks, I actually understand what he’s saying,” a young Pennsylvanian named Trent Gower told me at a Trump event a month ago. “But, like, when fricking Hillary Clinton talks, it just sounds like a bunch of bullshit.”
So these Trump voters had a comprehension problem. But we were just as bad. We couldn’t understand what they were saying to us. We refused to accept every signal about whom they hated, and how much. Why? Because Trump’s voters were speaking a language that has been taboo in America for decades, if not forever.
Nobody in this country knows how to talk about class. America is like a giant manor estate where the aristocrats don’t know they’re aristocrats and the peasants imagine themselves undiscovered millionaires. And America’s cultural elite, trained for so long to think in terms of artificial distinctions like Republicans and Democrats instead of more natural divisions like haves and have-nots, refused until it was too late to grasp the meaning of the rage-storm headed over the wall.
Just like the leaders of the Republican Party, who simply never believed its electorate wouldn’t drop and roll over on command when the time came, we media types never believed all that anger out there was real, or at least gathered in enough force to matter.
Most of us smarty-pants analysts never thought Trump could win because we saw his run as a half-baked white-supremacist movement fuelled by last-gasp, racist frustrations of America’s shrinking silent majority. Sure, Trump had enough jackbooted nut jobs and conspiracist stragglers under his wing to ruin the Republican Party. But surely there was no way he could topple America’s reigning multicultural consensus. How could he? After all, the country had already twice voted in an African-American Democrat to the White House.
Yes, Trump’s win was a triumph of the hideous racism, sexism and xenophobia that has always run through American society. But his coalition also took aim at the neoliberal gentry’s pathetic reliance on proxies to communicate with flyover America. They fed on the widespread visceral disdain red-staters felt toward the very people Hillary Clinton’s campaign enlisted all year to speak on its behalf: Hollywood actors, big-ticket musicians, Beltway activists, academics, and especially media figures.
Trump’s rebellion was born at the intersection of two toxic American myths, the post-racial society and the classless society.
Candidate Trump told a story about a conspiracy of cultural and financial elites bent on finishing off a vanishing white middle-class nirvana, first by shipping jobs overseas and then by waving hordes of crime-prone, bomb-tossing immigrants over the border.
These elites lived in both parties, Trump warned. The Republicans were tools of job-exporting fat cats who only pretended to be tough on immigration and trade in order to win votes, when all they really cared about were profits. The Democrats were tools of the same interests, who subsisted politically on the captured votes of hoodwinked minorities, preaching multiculturalism while practicing globalism. Both groups, Trump insisted, were out of touch with the real American voter. Neither party saw the awesome potential of this story to upend our political system.
Republicans had flirted with racist (and sexist) rhetoric for decades, refusing to the last to understand how dangerous this behaviour was. They never imagined their voters would one day demand that they act on all this race-baiting talk. They believed their own pablum about racism being a thing of the past and reverse discrimination being the true threat to the American polity.
Meanwhile, the Democratic leadership, even as it was increasingly indebted to banks and corporations, never imagined that it could be the target of a class uprising. How could we be seen as aristocrats? We get union endorsements! We’re the party of FDR! We’re pro-civil rights! And so on.
Trump would drive his tens of millions of followers right through each of these major-party blind spots. He called the Republicans’ bluff on race almost from the start with his crazy Mexican wall idea, which instantly positioned the rest of the party field as nationalist pretenders. As for the Democrats, he lucked into a race against a politician he would portray as a 30-year symbol of a Beltway-insider consensus, one he said had left Middle America behind through trade deals like NAFTA.
Way back in February, after following Trump in New Hampshire, I guessed at the probable nominee’s general-election strategy: “Trump will surely argue that the Clintons are the other half of the dissolute-conspiracy story he’s been selling, representing a workers’ party that abandoned workers and turned the presidency into a vast cash-for-access enterprise, avoiding scrutiny by making Washington into Hollywood East and turning labor leaders and journalists alike into star-struck courtiers.”
Back then, I thought Trump had a real chance at the presidency. But later I made the same mistake most every other reporter did. I listened to polls and media outlets, instead of people. I thought Trump’s maladroit and ridiculous general-election campaign, in which he went back on virtually every major primary-season promise while being revealed through seemingly hourly scandals as one of the world’s most corrupt and personally repulsive individuals, would do him in. He would lose and lose huge, ending up a footnote to history, having served no purpose beyond the destruction of the Republican Party. Conventional wisdom said so, and wasn’t conventional wisdom always right?
Not quite. We journalists made the same mistake the Republicans made, the same mistake the Democrats made. We were too sure of our own influence, too lazy to bother hearing things firsthand, and too in love with ourselves to imagine that so many people could hate and distrust us as much as they apparently do.
It’s too late for any of us to fix this colossal misread and lapse in professional caution. Now all we can do is wait to see how much this failure of vision will cost the public we supposedly serve. Just like the politicians, our job was to listen, and we talked instead. Now America will do its own talking for a while. The world may never forgive us for not seeing this coming.