What have we done, America?
Let me stress that phrasing, because it is intentional and important: By “we”, I do mean we. Sure, last night drove home just how huge the chasms are that divide Americans, us from them, however you define “us” and “them.” I suspect the next few days or weeks or even months aren’t likely to be particularly healing in that regard. But in the end, we the people of the United States — E pluribus unum, out of many, one — have now elected Donald Trump as president of these United States.
That’s what we, our country, have done. And let’s at least be honest with ourselves: James Comey didn’t do this, third-party candidates didn’t do this, the media didn’t do this, Hillary Clinton didn’t do this. We did. Anything else smacks of denial.
I have little patience with those who at moments like this will throw up their hands in despair and deny responsibility, or who mutter even metaphorically about moving to Canada. If you want to see your worst fears realized, that’s the attitude to take. Every election is a prelude to the next one. When Thomas Paine wrote dismissively about summer soldiers and sunshine patriots, he wrote not just of a Valley Forge winter but of moments like this, and people like that. You may not like what has happened. I very much do not like it. But there’s no opt-out clause in the mutual pact that makes a republic work.
Let’s also get this part out of the way: I was wrong about the appeal of Donald Trump’s approach to politics, and I was wrong about how our country would respond to it. And as monumental as that error seems on this cold November morning, I hope to be proved equally wrong about what is now an even more important matter, which is what comes next.
More specifically, I hope this doesn’t prove to be the massive, historic mistake that I very much fear it will be. In the short term, it’s going to validate a lot of ugliness across this country, and we’ll have to get through that somehow. A lot of good people, particularly in the Hispanic, Muslim and other minority communities, have every right and cause to feel deeply vulnerable. The America that was promised to them is not the America that they see right now. They’re not feeling all that included in this E pluribus thing, and I don’t blame them in the least. I still think we are a better country than this, and I still hope that better country will emerge, but as of now we have given them precious little cause to think so.
In Washington, Republican leaders such as Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Newt Gingrich and others have reassured voters throughout this campaign that even if Trump were to somehow get elected, they were capable of guiding him and if necessary standing up to him. I never saw much evidence of that, and the idea that Trump would suddenly become more malleable with the power of the presidency behind him struck me as ludicrous. In short, the pledges of the GOP establishment in that regard always struck me as cynical posturing, but now we’ll see. Summer soldiers, or winter patriots. Some may stand, many will not.
The strength of the institutions that our founders created more than two centuries ago are about to be tested as they have not at any point in our nation’s history, and it’s important to remember that whatever authority our founding documents possess comes not from the Supreme Court but from the authority that we the people give them, or don’t. Our institutions only have the faith that we invest in them, and at the moment that faith is in dangerously short supply.
I also have to hope that I will be as spectacularly wrong about Trump the man and leader as I have been about our country. This isn’t the time to rehash his weaknesses and failures as a person. They were thoroughly litigated over the past year, and the American people have decided that they did not matter. For now, pending further evidence, that judgment has to stand. It has been said in the past that the office improves the man, and I hope — I don’t expect, but I can hope — that proves true.
And as to why this all happened? Well, it has been pretty clear to everybody, right and left, that we had reached a state of precarious stalemate in this country. Nothing was happening; the systems of national governance had ceased operating and no longer seemed capable of responding to the issues confronting the country. Tensions were building that we had no means of addressing.
As seismologists will tell you, underground tectonic tensions that build up over decades and aren’t relieved by a series of small earthquakes are doomed to be relieved through a single large cataclysm. I believed that this election would provide one of those much-needed smaller quakes, and that its impact would be contained largely within the Republican Party.
Well, surprise. The majority of American voters had other ideas. They — excuse me, we — have elected a man and a movement that believe they have a mandate to blow it all up. I see no evidence of a plan beyond that, but … we’ll see.
Look at the markets. Look at the reaction of our allies overseas, who will see this as a repudiation of our role as global leaders and will begin to make other arrangements. Add this to what has been happening previously in Britain and France and Germany, and this begins to seem like part of a larger collapse of the order brought out of the post-world-war chaos.
In that sense, those who have backed Trump have already accomplished their most cherished goals. They wanted to tear it down, and down it is coming. Rebuilding it into something new and stronger — that’s where the “we” part will come in again. Eventually.