In the world that half of America seemed to envision a year ago, the results of last night’s election—had there even been an election—would have been a Republican sweep, with The New York Times and every other media outlet leading the cheering and hailing the wisdom of the Dear Leader. As things unfolded in the real world, Democrats presided over a drubbing, and the Times devoted many of its pages, as usual, to the sins of Donald Trump. Perhaps this break in Democratic doomsaying will allow for the return of at least a little sobriety as we look back on Trump’s record, one year after his election win, and the freak-outs that have punctuated our lives ever since.
When Robert De Niro compared November 8, 2016, to the horror of September 11, 2001, he was expressing publicly what many liberals were saying privately. That an unfavorable election result, arrived at peacefully, could pack the emotional punch of mass murder suggests either genuine calamity or serious overreaction. We agree that Trump’s victory night marked a decisive break between one thing and something else, but we’re still debating fiercely over what those things were and are. Some people are celebrating, and others are reliving something near-traumatic.
I’ll disclose, in case it matters, that Trump’s election didn’t have the effect on me that it seemed to have on so many others. I was anxious and stunned, but not gutted—more akin to how you might feel when venturing into a place of war or imminent natural disaster. You’re frightened but also interested. (It helped that I never believed—and still don’t—that Trump would preside over mass deportations or the dismantling of democracy.) The next day, I dared feel some hope amid the apprehension. The Clinton Industrial complex, sclerotic and out of touch, was finally going to be dismantled. The Democratic Party might be jolted into a re-examination of itself. The liberal establishment might wake up from its hubris, both epistemological and cultural.
It didn’t turn out that way, of course. Rather than ask where it might have gone astray, much of the world of respectable opinion seemed to go mad. The Washington Post was running articles about Russian malfeasance that extended to the imaginary hacking of a power grid in Vermont. Clinton administration veteran Robert Reich was speculating that antifa rioters in Berkeley were colluding with Steve Bannon. Paul Krugman was callingthe F.B.I. a beachhead of the far right. A long and winding thread of tweets about Russia from a St. Louis-based business consultant named Eric Garland got hailed by Mother Jones editor-in-chief Clara Jeffery as a “Federalist Paper” for our age. The New York Times ran Louise Mensch, the detector of Vladimir Putin in all things, on its op-ed page.
Trump has proved to be generally dreadful. He’s entirely unsuited to his post. Still, as people look back in grief, you would think that we’d seen the realization of Matthew Yglesias’s prediction that “angry mobs will beat and murder Jews and people of color with impunity.” At the very least, we might be farther along down the road mapped out in the New York Review of Books by author Masha Gessen, who warned that Trump might appoint a crony like Rudy Giuliani to the Supreme Court, that he might use the justice system to punish his political opponents, and that journalists would fall in line rather than forfeit access.
In real life, Trump nominated a respectable Supreme Court justice, the justice system is ensnaring Trump’s own people more than any of his political opponents, and journalists have practically incorporated “resist” into their job description. Gessen’s alarm over encroachments on constitutional norms seems especially surreal in light of who actually did take us down such a road. It was George W. Bush who appointed a crony to the Justice Department and tried to do the same for the Supreme Court. It was Bush who tried to bendthe justice system to partisan goals. It was under Bush that many journalists fell in line in order to maintain access.
Similar thoughts came to mind when I read The New York Times’s Michelle Goldbergcalling the election an “apocalypse” and offering a long list of Trumpian misdeeds, most of which seem either exaggerated (Russia links, political prosecutions) or primarily indecent (nepotism, vulgarity). Meanwhile, by this time in the White House of George W. Bush, security failures had led to thousands of American deaths, armies were in Afghanistan, and we’d passed a piece of legislation authorizing roving wiretaps, sneak-and-peek warrants, and indefinite detention of non-citizens. “Enhanced interrogation,” Iraq, and the compensation of Wall Street’s worst actors for their losses was still to come. The nepotistic antics of King Donald and clown prince Jared seem minor by comparison.
Certainly, no president has ever grown into the job less than Donald Trump. He seems oblivious to his own power, to propriety, to the ceremonies of statecraft. Yet, if we survive, the cultural degradation is unlikely to endure much beyond him. Even people who hate Trump seem to give him a pass that they wouldn’t grant anyone else, as one would an itinerant 2-year-old at a church wedding. They—we—know he’s unequal to demands of the moment. He is the first president in U.S. history with zero government experience, civilian or military. He is the patron saint of anyone who has ever yelled at the television and said, “I could fix it if these clowns just put me in charge.” Then—poof. He’s in charge. Unfortunately, he remains himself, and that self is a 71-year-old man-child with decreasing impulse control.


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