What will Donald Trump’s presidency be like? Perhaps it seems too soon to ask. The country is still awash with emotion, ranging the full gamut from joy to despair. I was at least half-way expecting the results of the election on the basis of Trump’s improbable victory in the Republican primaries and the meagerness of Clinton’s lead in the late polls. We have learned (or should have learned) from the last few elections not to take such figures seriously.
It’s easy enough to blame the results on bigotry, but I do not think that is the primary issue. Bigotry is a real issue and, by its very nature, a deeply rooted one, but I do not think it was itself the fuse that produced this explosion. The fuse has been lit in plain sight over the last few decades as blue-collar jobs disappeared, particularly in the middle of the country, while despair, anger, and opioid addiction moved in to take their place.
The fact that the counties where Trump fared best were majority white and of limited education does not mean that the voters in those categories are bad people. It just means that they’ve been hit the hardest and may well have had the fewest reserves for coping with the troubles—economically, intellectually, or in terms of skills. We have developed into two nations: one prosperous and well-educated (largely coastal plus select centrally located states); the other struggling and angry (largely South and Midwest).
This is not to deny the element of bigotry. Racism has been active throughout President Obama’s tenure—partly because it was so threatened by his election. Misogyny has played a big role in the election we’ve just had. But the explosive potential of these elements, I believe, has been increased by anger over perceived (and often quite real) loss.
In any case, one begins to wonder what the Trump presidency will actually look like. On the basis of the campaign, I think we can only say that we do not know. It could be a continuation of the campaign, angry and vengeful. Or it could be a continuation of the campaign, driven by whim. Or, as Maureen Dowd speculated recently in The New York Times, there may be some other Trump persona waiting to emerge.
We have no better luck speculating on the Republican Party. It has become increasingly fractious during the Obama years. Now many of its latent disagreements are out in public and could conceivably dig themselves in more deeply. Will the Republicans succeed in ruling in some coherent way? Or will they continue to paralyze the country in their offhand way? I don’t think there is any way to foresee which it may be. The thing I most fear is that any prospect of statesmanlike or stateswomanlike behavior is remote. They are badly out of practice. Indeed, one could almost say that they have stamped such practices out entirely.
The Democrats, in the meantime, must cope with a new recognition of their own deficiencies. How is the party of the educated also to be the party of the alienated and oppressed—all the alienated and oppressed—whites, too; middle-aged men without prospects, too? To them, I would say, “Widen your circle of sympathy and understanding.” What is destroying the middle reaches of the country will wind up destroying all of us if it is not dealt with creatively and fairly.
Someone has said, “This is our Brexit.” I think that is right. It arises out of similar circumstances and with the same intensity of passion and irrationality. And, in both cases, the process has been unleashed and we must now wait to see what form it takes and how we can respond.