After several months of living in a corner of liberal America, I knowingly met my second Trump supporter the night before the election, when she collected my $20 to park a car outside a Trump rally. She said she’d vote for him because she couldn’t see a criminal in the White House.
The scene inside the arena was more impressive than the clean-cut enthusiasm at the Obama rally, up the road a few hours earlier. “I think Trump’s going to win,” said my companion, who is also European. It was obvious that this was a far greater possibility than we’d been led to suppose. This rally was impressive, like an arena packed with people demanding mayhem is bound to be. Impressive, like a lot of men swinging chains and clubs taking over your nice cul-de-sac. We struggled to articulate the atmosphere, which was menacing and irrational. It was seedy, being gloomy in there, with dry ice, pot smoke, and colored lights raking the crowd.
Obama’s rally had a bit of a buzz, thanks to him, and also had the feeling of security, and going through the motions. Obama’s act was just slipping into faint pastiche. At Trump’s event people were agitated, and they were bellowing “U! S! A! U! S! A!” “Not fascist at all,” said my German friend. There were a lot of men, but also women, and some people had brought their children. It felt like stumbling into a plot beneath Gotham City, just at the point of its fruition. The doors would be flung open, and these people, the first victims of the scheme, would begin to cleanse the fallen city.
Mike Pence gave a consummate speech. It was completely dishonest, as respects what statistics tell us about this country and the world, the known facts of recent history and of the election, but in the arena it all felt real. The claims of Republican leaders are familiar, but I’d only appreciated in a remote way how consuming and plausible this worldview is to people inside it. The feeling was of burning injustice, of truly outraged decency, of real violation and oppression that they would no longer bear to live in a country governed by a wicked and devious conspiracy, a conspiracy that centred on Hillary Clinton. Their healthcare was being taken, their jobs were being taken. The FBI could never have read all those emails properly in just one week.
When it all goes wrong again for these people, it’s not going to be easy to manage politically.
Trump was late. The weird, vampiric figure of Giuliani dragged itself to the microphone and people started booing, chanting “We! Want! Trump!” They were partly soothed when Pence returned, and turned their chants back into “Lock! Her! Up!” and, “Drain! The! Swamp!”
Trump and his family strode, waving, into this cage fight atmosphere, while the colored lights span. People hooted Ivanka. “Give us a wink, Ivanka,” shouted a boy-child near me. Trump’s speech drew a hellish picture of the “most corrupt” country, which was no longer theirs, which had become their enemy. “What do you have to lose?” he asked. “I’ll be your champion!” And they roared back, “Drain The Swamp! Drain The Swamp!” The genius was appalling. This rapacious crook is leading a movement against everything he personally embodies. Against sending jobs overseas. Against illegal labor. They love him. He’s their man. And it’s a powerful movement. “The good news is, I just heard, there are ten thousand more outside who couldn’t get in,” he told the packed arena.
We left a little early, and there was no one outside except a few brave kids with colored hair, holding signs about how Trump grabs pussy. Behind us came the rest of the crowd. “Take a look at yourselves,”, they told the protestors. “You’re idiots.” “Get a job!”
The famous gulf that divides the two Americas is enormous, between the girl in Manchester who took my twenty dollars on Monday, and the kids in Cambridge who sat in a circle on Wednesday writing down what frightens them on pieces of card. Some held back tears for all the people who are going to die now that Trump’s in charge. Some talked about making “safe spaces.” A safe space means a place where you can say what you think without encountering someone who disagrees with you.
In meetings since Wednesday, liberals and progressives are talking about how to organize, where the resistance will come from, about how to give protection to vulnerable people. Strength in numbers. If the government starts rounding up migrants, what kind of battle will there be? Law professors are boggling at the often-stated positions of the president elect. He’s committed to systematic war crimes. I got an email from the Schools Department, talking about support resources for children who are suffering from the traumatized atmosphere.
I went to a talk on Thursday night. A black woman nervously garbled a question to the luminaries on the stage to this effect: I don’t want to call white liberals allies, but how can you make yourselves something to us? They answered with convoluted stuff about the white working class in the exit polling.
There are many things that can be said about Donald Trump’s victory. Such as this:
Some parts of America are not flourishing, and are even in decline. Residents responded by electing a charlatan of such incompetence and malignity that if the next president had been picked at random off the street that person would surely have been better.
Or this. Americans have been severely misled about themselves by thinking this place is all about freedom. They have more rules of every description, and are more in thrall to authority, than any place I’ve lived. Neither are they brave. Fearfulness and stupidity made half of them choose authoritarianism.
And this. A majority of whites of every description, including college educated white women, voted for Trump. Overall, a majority of less well off people voted for Clinton, as well as a majority of every non-white ethnic group. A highly qualified but slandered woman was beaten by an unqualified sexual predator because she’s a woman and he’s a racist.
It’s said that sometimes there’s a new medium, and the candidate who understands it best is elected president. For FDR it was the wireless, for JFK, TV. The imbecile who threatens the political achievements of the last seventy years gushed thanks in his acceptance speech like he thought he’d got an Emmy for his shitty reality show. He and his electorate surely think the world corresponds in some manner to that screen fantasy.
But this conceit shouldn’t be interpreted too strictly. Donald Trump also has other gifts for political communication in the time of the Twitter troll and hoax news. Politics is behaving as if mass entertainment is real. The idea that the Clintons kill their enemies, like this is House of Cards, took on the semblance of actual news on Facebook. Political rallies are like a wrestling spectacle. America is a lost and sinning Gotham City that needs to be saved. Whether Donald Trump is Batman or The Joker is dividing opinion here right now.
Watch: Donald Trump bodyslams, beats, and shaves Vince McMahon
Who’d back America’s outmoded and frail institutions to come strongly through the challenge they were designed for? Maybe. Fingers crossed.
Liberals and progressives look poorly equipped for this fight. They’re too decadent and fearful, with fretful school counselors, and safe spaces, and trigger warnings. They’re bound by compunctions which look esoteric or naive. They suddenly find themselves powerless in the struggle which they thought they were winning two weeks ago. They don’t know what their weapons are. You only have to lie to beat them. I’m not the only one who doesn’t get red state America. They’ve come up against the contradiction of doing progressive politics without the working class.
This is not a uniquely American phenomenon. Several major countries are exhibiting features on a checklist of similar characteristics. Defenselessness against right-wing lies is near universal.
Modi’s semi-authoritarian, Hindu nationalist government in India was the first case in the current wave. It finds its Nepali counterpart in the likes of K.P. Oli, and last year’s misogynist, ethno-nationalist constitution. What a Bombay friend wrote to me this week is obviously relevant in Nepal, Britain, and America. “People feel free to wear their hate on their sleeves. And it isn’t spontaneous as we would think. It’s quite organized, insidiously, and then begins to take on a life of its own. They use trigger words—for instance, in the cow belt I saw written on a wall, ‘People who kill cows must be hanged.’ In two states, the precise same wording. A year later people thought it was okay to ban beef. Some time after that, everyone was shocked when vigilantes killed a family for eating beef, and two people who were driving cattle to the market were lynched. One of them was thirteen. Thirteen.”
The majoritarian backlash against social inclusion, and therefore democracy, is comparable between India, Nepal, and America, but America is not very similar to South Asian countries. More detailed parallels are found in other advanced economies, especially Brexit Britain. You can slice it into three parts. First, hostility to immigration and racial minorities. Second (and this is more accidental in Britain, deliberate in America), turning away from free trade. Third, reclaiming sovereignty from international structures such as the EU and NATO, which the new winners feel constrain and diminish them.
How alarmed is too alarmist? Next up are elections in the Netherlands and France. The European project is in danger of disintegrating. It’s doubtful whether the structure of global security cooperation and free trade, built since Donald Trump was born, can survive an American president who despises it. Among the first global political achievements of the current era were the Geneva Conventions, the UN Charter, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If you take half of the things that Trump has insisted upon seriously, all of these are in peril. How much does global order rely on a competent, plausible US administration? Many nations, including China and Russia, will be lining up to test that. Now we’ll find out. Does the world even benefit from that order? Now we’ll know.
Cover photo: Trump rally in Manchester, New Hampshire on the night before the election. Thomas Bell