Monday, November 21, 2016

Coming to Terms with the Aftermath

It's been nearly two weeks since the Nov. 8 election as I write this. The liberal bubble that is my Facebook newsfeed was a landscape of despair for the first several days after the election, but that has since given way to seething anger and outrage. Needless to say (for the two or three of you who read my occasional scribblings here), the election didn't end the way I wanted or expected it to. I genuinely believed (and still do) that Clinton was the most qualified of the entire field of candidates, Democrat or Republican, but I was also conscious of the baggage she brought along for the trip, some of it real, much of it fictional. One might have thought that a substantial plurality of the electorate would have considered those failures, real and imagined, to pale in comparison to Trump's manifest lack of fitness for the presidency (in case you've forgotten, a quick look at James Fallows's Trump Time Capsule series should refresh your memory); one would have been wrong.

So here we are. We had an election and Trump won. As I write this, the latest counts show that Clinton won nearly two million more popular votes, but the Electoral College result—sadly—is what counts. Like it or not, that's the system we have and we all knew the rules going in. I don't think you can excoriate Trump before the election for saying he'll only accept the results if he wins and then say after the election that the Electoral College result is not legitimate because you don't like how the Electoral College is going to vote. I personally think that institution is an obsolete anachronism and would like to see it eliminated. That would take a constitutional amendment, which is a complicated process, but I'm holding out some hope that the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact will render an amendment unnecessary in time for the 2020 election. 

Now candidate Trump is president-elect Trump; I wince every time I hear that term. In the first few days after the election he made kind of a sobered impression. To some he was looking presidential and statesman-like; to me he just looked like the dog who finally caught the car he was chasing and now has no clue what happens next. Since then he's gone to the White House for a little "Presidency 101" from Obama, for whom it must have been a profoundly bitter experience, the professor preparing to hand over the keys to the carnival barker.

I have mixed feelings about the protests that have followed the election. I won't hesitate to condemn the violence that occurred around protests in Portland, OR; it's morally unacceptable, but also just tactically stupid. As for the peaceful protests elsewhere, those people are exercising their first amendment rights, and I understand the anger, but the fact that they are essentially protesting against the result of a free election makes me uncomfortable at some level. I tend to apply the "if the shoe were on the other foot" standard—if those were Trump supporters protesting a Clinton victory, wouldn't we be sounding warnings about "Trump's brownshirts" and worse to come? At the same time I recognize that we are facing something unprecedented here, a genuine moral crisis, which makes it harder for me to say people shouldn't be out in the streets making their feelings known, as long as they can do it in a peaceful manner. I see the value in reminding Trump and his pals that while they won the election, they did not win a popular mandate for their plans.

Ambivalence about protests at this early stage not withstanding, I accept the election results as the legitimate outcome of the system we have, stupid though it may be, but not the "now all Americans must come together behind our new president" crap I've heard from some quarters. In his acceptance speech Trump said "I will be president for all Americans". Technically that's of course true, but Trump spent the entire presidential campaign demonstrating that in practice he intends to be anything but. If he wants my support he can earn it; the last eight years of Republican obstructionism have taught me that I'm under no obligations here. The role he awarded to Steve Bannon, as one of his very first official appointments, speaks for itself as far as any claim of being "president for all Americans" goes. His appointments of Jeff Sessions and Mike Flynn are equally indicative of where this is going.

At least part of his constituency thinks it knows where it's going: back to a time when the white man ruled and everyone else knew his place. The rise in incidents of open racism following Trump's victory, many of which cite his name in one form or another, is well documented, as here or here. Trump has issued a sort of weak, half-hearted directive to his followers to "stop it", but only after he was prompted on national television, and he hasn't publicly said a word since then on the topic, even though racist incidents citing his name continue unabated. In Bannon, he's very publicly elevated to his inner circle a man who is intimately associated with the so-called "alt-right", so how can anyone take his "stop it" as anything other than an obvious ploy to establish plausible deniability? So many Trump voters deny racist inclinations and claim to be insulted to be associated with the bigotry of a few, but they've heard their candidate speak and they knew exactly who and what they were choosing when they cast their votes. If you voted for this man, you are a knowing accomplice in whatever comes next. Oh yes, I know, you were just following orders.

The Shape of Things to Come

The Monday-morning (or Wednesday morning, I guess) quarterbacks have been dissecting the election results ever since the election, amidst general finger-pointing on the Democratic side. Hardcore Sanders supporters have assured me that he would have beaten Trump if he had gotten the nomination, but let's not kid ourselves. If Sanders had been the candidate of the Democrats, all we would have heard after the convention is how he's a self-proclaimed socialist, "just like Stalin or Mao or Castro", and how he's going to take away our property and nationalize private enterprises and force us all onto collective farms and set up gulags and reeducation camps and other such nonsense. Trump would have dubbed Sanders "commie Bernie" and the same people who lapped up his "crooked Hillary" line still would have voted Trump into office.

The consensus diagnosis that has now developed goes something like this: The Democratic Party used to be the party of the working man. Then it decided to focus more on college-educated professionals as its core constituency and embraced globalization as an organizing principle for society. In the meantime, white working-class men have seen their economic and social status consistently eroded, and Democrats have done nothing to help them, preferring instead to belittle them as a bunch of stupid hicks. After eight years of Obama, things haven't gotten any better for them, they're angry as hell about it and so, looking for a radical change and also just to make a point, they've voted en masse for Trump and elevated him to the presidency.

I have no doubt that this analysis explains a lot, but it's hardly the whole story, as exit poll results (reported here, among other places) show. Yes, Trump did better among whites of all ages. But he also did better than Clinton in the upper income groups, among white college-educated voters, and in the suburbs. Downwardly mobile working-class whites may be a core Trump constituency, but they clearly have no shortage of allies among what are considered to be the better-off white elites. Demagogues always have friends in high places who are looking for a way to harness and exploit the anger of the masses for their own ends.

I took out my ancient pocket calculator and tried to dig into some of the exit poll numbers a little further. A few things I noted (apologies for all the calculations that follow, I just think I should show my work before I state my conclusions):
  • The most up-to-date numbers I could find on the vote (here, as of 11/17/16—may have changed by the time you read this) indicate these results in the popular vote. These are the numbers I used for the following extrapolations: 
    • Trump: 61,864,015
    • Clinton: 63,541,056
    • Other: 7,034,595
    • Total: 132,439,666.
  • Of the 24,537 respondents polled, 33% said that only Trump is qualified to be president, 46% said only Clinton is, 14% said neither is. Of the last two groups, 2% and 69%, respectively, were Trump voters. Extrapolating to the total vote count of 132.4 million voters noted above, that means that (.02 x .46) + (.69 x .14) = 10.6%, or around 14 million people, voted for Trump even though they do not consider him qualified to be president.
  • Asked whether Trump has the temperament to be president, 63% said no, and 20% of those respondents were Trump voters. So .20 x .63 = 12.6% of voters, or around 16.7 million, voted for Trump but don't think he has the temperament to be president.
  • 39% of all respondents said that the candidate quality that mattered most was "can bring change"; this was mostly driven by Trump voters (83% of the 39%). 21% said the most important quality was "right experience", 20% said "good judgment"; these choices were mainly driven by Clinton voters (90% and 66%, respectively).

So after all that fiddling with numbers, my brilliant conclusion is that statistically speaking, Trump voters mainly just want a change, but a substantial contingent of them don't give a damn about the qualifications or temperament of the guy they've selected to bring it. That pretty much aligns with the anecdotal evidence from multiple TV, radio or print interviews of prospective Trump voters I saw/heard/read in the weeks leading up to the election, in which this or that person expressed reservations about Trump's readiness for the presidency while at the same time pledging to vote for him nonetheless. Now there's a recipe for success (not).

Trump's voters are going to get changes, but I have no doubt that those changes are not going to make many of those Trump voters happy, especially that core constituency of working-class white men. Let's ignore for a moment (but only for a moment) things like Trump's pick of Jeff Sessions to be AG, and the impact that's going to have on civil rights actions by the DOJ, since the people who will be affected were very probably not Trump voters.

Let's focus instead on things like his tax "reform" plan, which economists think will add trillions to the national debt while benefiting almost exclusively taxpayers with very high incomes. Let's consider Trump's plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), which is likely to leave millions of formerly uninsured people once again uninsured. Let's think about how much the cost of living will rise for low-income people who depend on all those Chinese imports at Walmart and elsewhere if Trump really slaps a tariff on them. Let's look at the loss of millions of export-related jobs that could occur from a Trump-incited trade war (and are not going to be replaced by an equal or larger number of new jobs mining coal and making steel). Let's ask how those who voted the whole Republican crew into office are possibly going to come out ahead if Trump signs off on Paul Ryan's plans to "reform" Medicare and Social Security.

We should also consider the less direct impact on Trump's core supporters (and all the rest of us too). There's the environmental impact to be expected from Trump's plan to withdraw from global climate deals and destroy the EPA from within—soon we can all be living in Flint. There is the infrastructure program that I think is actually a good idea but which I also think, based on statements from Trump's guy Bannon, will be so uncoordinated and poorly thought out that it—assuming the Republican Congress will even vote for it—will probably waste a massive amount of money without delivering any real long-term benefit (and, I bet, will probably see a lot of that money siphoned off into dubious channels).

Even more generally, there are the already-apparent massive conflicts of interest that I think will make this the most scandal-plagued administration since Harding was president. And then there's the infighting within Trump's transition team that I believe is just a preview of what we will see once the Trump administration is sworn in and which will keep it more preoccupied with itself than with the good of the country.

In short, I hardly think we have grounds for optimism with a Trump administration, and I think the people who are going to get screwed over the most are the people he convinced to vote for him for the sake of "change". They have not merely cut off their metaphorical nose, they have ripped their whole head off—and mine, and my family's, and all of my friends'—to spite their face. Let none of these people complain to me a year from now that they've been negatively affected by this or that Trump administration action, because that will be a very short conversation, possibly involving a lot of yelling.

My heart tells me I should now be pushing my own solidly Democratic Massachusetts congressional delegation and all of the rest of the Democrats to fight every stupid policy the Trump White House and it's allies in the Republican-controlled Congress may cook up in any and every way possible. I should be donating to the ACLU and other such organizations. I should be out on the street demonstrating against every anti-progressive policy this administration will try to implement.

But there's also a little voice in my head that says that maybe what needs to happen here is for Trump & co. to get everything they want; let Democrats put up token, symbolic resistance but otherwise step aside and let the country have this foolish populist experiment and see it end in the disaster that I expect. It has been popular leading up to the election to draw parallels with pre-Hitler Germany. Maybe it's time to look ahead to some parallels with post-Hitler Germany, whose citizens drew certain conclusions from the self-inflicted smoking ruins of their own country and of the countries all around them, owned up to (and 70 years later continue to seek atonement for) their country's heinous crimes, and established a prosperous and relatively egalitarian society that undeniably has its problems and shortcomings, but in which even an arch-conservative leader like Merkel is perceived by many in our own country to be one of the world's remaining champions of human rights and democratic institutions.

I hate to end on a dark and cynical note, but maybe it's going to take letting the likes of Trump and Ryan and their pals fuck up the country so badly that the "government is the problem" rhetoric that has been the Republican mantra since Reagan, the stupid idea that the best way to help average people is to award the wealthiest among us an ever-larger slice of the pie, and the ridiculous notion that the best way to make the country work right is to choose an inexperienced outsider to lead it, can be thoroughly and definitively discredited. Maybe, just maybe, we can all learn something and then pick up the pieces and agree to do something a little more constructive. I don't know that that's what I truly want, because of all of the people who will be made to suffer through no fault of their own. But with a vain, ignorant and amoral man like Trump elected to the highest office in the land with the approval of nearly half of all voters, I have to wonder if the only way we're going to get out of our national addiction to stupid and short-sighted policy prescriptions is to finally hit rock bottom hard enough that we're ready to swear off the drug for good.

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