Considering that I quit drinking more than three years ago, which was far too early for coping with the electoral disappointment that came last November, I think I’ve done a decent job of blotting out the pain or at least cramming it down so deep that I can’t find easy access to it. But, even so, I should have known that it is still accessible and that it would be a bad idea to revisit it by looking at Esquire’s recap.
Yes, I definitely triggered my PTSD by perusing that article. And it made me realize that as hard as we fight against it, the Trump presidency is slowly asserting itself as something normal. It wasn’t just that everyone was living in some kind of bubble of denial. Whatever predictive data existed, it overwhelmingly pointed in the direction of Clinton winning the election. The people who were willing to put hope over facts were the ones expecting Trump to win despite the evidence, and despite the election day exit polls that were so bad for Trump that his team had to call Matt Drudge for moral support.
I think the denial was in thinking that the American people would never elect a man like Donald Trump. To believe such a thing was tantamount to slander. We couldn’t really be that awful.
And that was the trauma for me. It wasn’t that I personally got the election wrong. It wasn’t that Obama’s legacy would be tarnished and his accomplishments undermined. It wasn’t all the policy setbacks that I could see coming. It was what Trump’s victory said about my fellow citizens that I found crushing.
And it wasn’t just one thing. There were so many aspects that were upsetting. The way Trump talked about people was appalling, whether they were immigrants or minorities or women or Muslims or his political opponents or the reporters covering the campaign. The way Trump acted towards women and minorities throughout his life was transparently immoral. His business dealings were clearly fraudulent, and so were his claims of charity. His personal behavior was lecherous and dishonorable. His disregard for the truth was stunning.
But it was also his complete lack of preparedness for the job. Making him president was like asking a toddler to defuse a bomb. No one in their right mind does something like that.
The real disservice is that we weren’t warned. If the polls had foretold a Trump victory, we would have had some time to adjust our opinions about our fellow citizens and lower our expectations accordingly, but all the indications were that people got it.
That’s why I found this so irritating. It comes from the day after the election, sometime before noon:
Joshua Green: [Steve] Bannon called me. He said, “You recognize what happened?” I’m like, “What the fuck are you talking about?” He goes, “You guys,” meaning you on the left, “you fell into the same trap as conservatives in the ‘90s…you were so whipped up in your own self-righteousness about how Americans could never vote for Trump that you were blinded to what was happening.” He was right.
What bothers me is the idea that it was self-righteousness that blinded me. And the reason I don’t like that formulation is that my expectations didn’t have any thing to do with my opinion of myself. I had expectations for the American people. They might not be excited about another Clinton presidency, I thought, but surely they can’t seriously entertain a Trump presidency. Not enough of them, anyway, for him to actually win.
It’s almost like if you have a child who you decide has certain capabilities and certain limitations, and you try to dissuade them from having too much ambition lest they wind up a failure in life. I could be as cynical as H.L. Mencken about the intelligence of the average citizen, but would have considered it cruel to predict that they were incapable of understanding that Trump could not be our president. If they were going to fail, let them at least have the chance to follow their dreams, if you know what I mean.
Looking back a year later, it’s a struggle not to succumb to a well-earned cynicism. We don’t like to repeat our mistakes, which makes it tempting to over-correct for them.
There were a lot of times when President Obama stood up and told the American people that we’re better than this, that we can do better and be better. It’s not a good feeling to know that the response was, “No, we’re not, and no we can’t.”
But Obama was right. Maybe the answer isn’t that when they go low then we go high, as Michelle liked to say. But one giant mistake doesn’t condemn us in perpetuity.
I actually find comfort and a cause for optimism that so many people were unable to imagine a Trump victory. It means that I wasn’t alone in having some standards or in believing that we can be better than this.
It’s just going to be harder and take longer than I was willing to imagine.