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Donald Trump’s election to the presidency is a symptom of the decline of America and the numbness of its new reality. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

The blank face of a new America

President-elect Donald Trump.
Credit: MARK WILSON / GETTY IMAGES

So here we are, a new world. Probably. Who can say? The markets are shifting, squirming. They will readjust. But who might now confidently predict the form and consequences of a Trump presidency? Conventional wisdom has been defied spectacularly. Again. When does the “unthinkable” become predictable? When might our forecasts and editorials and satire apprehend that the globalisation President Bill Clinton declared in the 1990s as “the bridge to the 21st century” is now either experienced or perceived by millions in the Western world as alienation?

“What has everybody got wrong?” asked Anderson Cooper on the CNN panel. “Just the numbers,” Barack Obama’s former adviser, David Axelrod, wryly responded. It was a dry understatement from the man who helped Obama become president, but his man’s historic campaign of hope and unification will now be buttressed by an incumbent endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.  

I look now, in the numbness of a new reality, at the scratchings in my notebook, the patter of early themes, making sense of the not making sense: “Fear, anxiety. Florida tight. Country tight. Markets down. Paul Krugman expresses his bafflement with the white working class. Theme of this election, the country: resentment, paranoia, elite detachment. America has been drifting for a while. Jon Stewart’s gibes don’t halt the creeping rust belt. Don’t offer a replacement to opioids and unemployment and ascending suicide rates for white working-class males. Snark and irony, the tone of educated liberals; righteousness preferred to understanding. Is this fair? ‘A buzz in the war room that can be felt across the country,’ a Trump surrogate says. Buzz or contagion, but something’s happening. Has been happening for a long time, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mister Jones?”

Absurd and foolish was my early start for this piece, written with flawed optimism in the warmth of Wednesday morning: 

“Was there any hope that Trump would concede gracefully, seek to quell or reform the most violent passions of his devotees? No. Trump began writing his alibi weeks ago, speaking of a ‘rigged’ and ‘corrupt’ system. That system is a sclerotic mess, but voter fraud is almost non-existent, which makes Trump’s failure to concede honestly not only ugly but dangerous: it will confirm for millions the fact that Clinton’s presidency is not merely unfortunate, but legally invalid. 

“The democratic expectation was not for Trump to capitulate ideologically (if you can call his dismal blend of nihilism, narcissism, mercantilism and opportunism ideology). It was to respect the process that swept him to the candidacy, and to express faith in the office of president while reserving polite disagreement with its occupant. But this was never going to happen, of course, not with this mountebank thug.”

Wrong, wrong, wrong. I was staring at the blank face of a new America.

In The New Yorker, Ryan Lizza reflects on media failure: “The press, myself included, was spectacularly wrong about this election. Americans have good reasons to mistrust us, especially when it comes to predicting electoral outcomes, which frankly took up far too much of our attention. The press, especially early on, treated Trump as a normal candidate, when in fact the overwhelming focus of attention should have been on Trump’s unique disregard for democratic norms. There’s not a lot of time to wallow in guilt. Going forward, our democracy will need a vibrant, extremely adversarial press corps that refocuses its attention away from insipid horse-race coverage of politics and reclaims its place as the fourth estate, an institution that serves as much as a check and balance on a potential Trump White House as that of Congress or the Supreme Court.”

Trump’s vision

Land of the free, home of the brave. Mother to jazz, blues, hip-hop, the skyscraper, Hollywood, NASA, Silicon Valley; the republic of NINJA loans and default credit swaps, of collapsed bridges and endless gun crime, of race hate and murdered police and craven gerrymandering and catastrophic military interventions; the dominant cultural and geopolitical force in the world since the surrender of the Axis, but it has seen better days. You might consider the stunning elevation of Trump as the darkest symptom of that decline, but a sufficient number of Americans consider it the cure. 

Trump’s vision of America can be found in the opening lines of Sam Lipsyte’s novel The Ask: “America, said Horace, the office temp, was a run-down and demented pimp. Our republic’s whoremaster days were through. Whither that frost-nerved, diamond-fanged hustler who’d stormed Normandy, dick-smacked the Soviets, turned out such firm emerging market flesh? Now our nation slumped in the corner of the pool hall, some gummy coot with a pint of Mad Dog and soggy yellow eyes, just another mark for the juvenile wolves.” 

There’s a hot and vulgar instinct to blame a number of people, priorities, pieties. Not least the candidacy of Hillary Clinton herself, which was always weak and compromised. She had failed to beat a first-time senator eight years ago, struggled in a shallow primary field this year, and has now lost to a reality television star who has never held public office. Whither Joe Biden? 

“The party establishment made a grievous mistake rallying around Hillary Clinton,” writes Jim Newell in Slate. “It wasn’t just a lack of recent political seasoning. She was a bad candidate, with no message beyond heckling the opposite sideline. She was a total misfit for both the politics of 2016 and the energy of the Democratic Party as currently constituted. She could not escape her baggage, and she must own that failure herself. Theoretically smart people in the Democratic Party should have known that. And yet they worked giddily to clear the field for her.”

I look back through my notes, jottings of blue ink and confusion, attempted synthesis, hopeful resolutions. “ ‘Old model and new models’ of campaigning discussed on CNN now. Jesus. Trump didn’t have a model, did he? Obama’s ’08 campaign offered hacks a golden template, something to revere, emulate, pretentiously discuss on panel shows. Trump had little groundwork – precious few staff, little campaign infrastructure in the states. That’s not a model. Trump relied upon revolt. And he got it. To view this as a victory for some illusory ‘model’ of campaigning is to continue the self-absorbed view of staffers-cum-pundits that the pulse of America might be taken via political strategy. 

“But at last, a clarion statement from a CNN panellist: ‘You tell your kids, “Don’t be a bully.” You tell your kids, “Don’t be a bigot.” You tell your kids, “Do your homework,” ’ he says, tearful. He’s not sure what to tell his children when they wake next morning. ‘Where’s the grace going to come from?’ 

“Here it is. Clinton concedes by phone. Trump takes the stage, the president-elect. It’s happening. He’s here. History made in the ash of disgust and nausea.”

One thing, and it’s not the most important thing, is that folks who were paid to predict will now be paid to reflect upon the failure of those predictions, thereby securing the position from which they made them. I’m a part of that. These words are part of that. What have we learnt? 

We’ll see. 

We have only his word

“Now it’s time for America to bind the wounds of division – have to get together,” Trump said at his victory speech. “To all Republicans and Democrats and independents across this nation, I say it is time for us to come together as one united people. It’s time. I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all Americans, and this is so important to me.” 

It was gratingly, spectacularly hypocritical. This man has disgorged bile for months. But we have only his word now. “Donald Trump is going to be our president,” Clinton said in her concession speech. “We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead. Our constitutional democracy enshrines the peaceful transfer of power. We don’t just respect that. We cherish it. It also enshrines the rule of law; the principle we are all equal in rights and dignity; freedom of worship and expression. We respect and cherish these values, too, and we must defend them.”

As I write, thousands are marching in anti-Trump rallies across America’s cities. “Fuck your tower, fuck your wall!” they’re screaming in Manhattan. “Not my president!” reads a popular placard. But he is and he is and he is. 

I had some lines for a Clinton win. They’re wasted now. So much is wasted now. One, though, still stands: “The party anointed Clinton, and much of the press followed.”

Great uncertainty

In Trump, we have an authoritarian demagogue who enjoys a Republican congress and a Supreme Court appointment. World leaders are busy qualifying or disavowing their previous criticism of him. Turnbull made his congratulatory call on Thursday, to the man whose language he once described as “loathsome”, and later spoke of the president-elect’s pragmatism. Josh Frydenberg regretted calling him a “dropkick”. Bill Shorten was being criticised for earlier calling him “barking mad”.

The Iranian nuclear deal is now jeopardised and Obamacare will be repealed. If we are to take Trump’s previous statements seriously – and it’s hard to know what to take seriously – the future of NATO is imperilled. Relations between Washington and Moscow will be upended, Mexico will be pressured to fund a giant wall across the border, and climate policy will be largely abandoned. The United States will withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the free trade agreement struck earlier this year, and a trade war with China is all but promised. Immigration policy will be altered, and millions of illegal immigrants deported. He has pledged to “drain the swamp” of Washington corruption. Trump is dynamiting Bill Clinton’s bridge to the 21st century.  

At least, we think these things will happen – but who can say anything with certainty now? “We are witnessing the power of a massive populist movement that has now upended the two most stable democracies in the world – and thrown both countries into a completely unknown future,” Andrew Sullivan wrote this week from a profound funk. “In Britain, where the polls did not pick up the latent support for withdrawal from the European Union, a new prime minister is now navigating a new social contract with the indigenous middle and working classes forged by fear of immigration and globalisation. In the US, the movement – built on anti-political politics, economic disruption, and anti-immigration fears – had something else, far more lethal, in its bag of tricks: a supremely talented demagogue who created an authoritarian cult with unapologetically neo-fascist rhetoric. Britain is reeling toward a slow economic slide. America has now jumped off a constitutional cliff. It will never be the same country again. Like Brexit, this changes the core nature of this country permanently. This is now Trump’s America.” 

Waiting game

Here we are. The world waits. Barack Obama – that calm and graceful president, untouched by personal scandal – tells America to accept the victory of this man he once called “unfit” for office. “We are now all rooting for his success in uniting and leading the country.”

Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States of America in January. This profoundly ignorant liar, bully and cynic will sit astride the party of Lincoln. A man who slanders, dissembles and boasts of sexually assaulting women. A four-time bankrupt whose fame comes from firing people on television; a shameless demagogue and narcissist. Will he govern with the same erraticism and vindictiveness with which he campaigned? Or will the office moderate him? Will his extraordinary self-belief prevent him from deferring to counsel – or will he sensibly array experience around him? And what of his contempt for the press? Will that soften or, unthinkably, harden? We’ll find out soon enough.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 12, 2016 as "The blank face of a new America". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.

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