Relax. Cheer up. It didn’t really happen.
America — today’s America — would never elect an overt racist, a xenophobe and a misogynist as president.
Would never elect a man in a wink-wink bromance with a Russian dictator. Would never give that dictator the delight that has come to Vladimir Putin with reckless statements about breaking faith with NATO, America’s monument to the sacrifices of the Greatest Generation and the bedrock of a peaceful half-century in post-fascist Western Europe.
Would never concede so prominent a role in his messaging to hacked emails released — as he urged — by the Kremlin and the fugitive Julian Assange of WikiLeaks. Would never back out of a trade deal and give China — his avowed enemy — a free hand in the Pacific and southeast Asia.
Certainly no self-respecting Republican — or man of any moral worth — would trash war heroes, prisoners of war, Gold Star mothers, and stay up on Twitter into the wee small hours, “fat-shaming” a former beauty queen after her name came up in a presidential debate.
Going on 240 years after Americans fought a revolution to guarantee themselves freedom of religion, no thoughtful American president would impose a religious test on tourists and immigrants seeking permission to touch foot to American shores.
Certainly no Republican president — discarding the legacy of a revered political forebear, Ronald Reagan — would reverse decades of work toward nuclear disarmament and breezily invite Saudi Arabia, Korea and Japan to acquire nuclear bombs.
Certainly America would reject a candidate whose free-floating hostility toward the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims has served ISIS so effectively that they have made him a poster boy for jihadist online recruitment.
Certainly no business-minded president in the 21st century would continue to deny climate change, extending further the years of Republican dithering during which China and Germany have stolen a huge lead on the development of solar technologies.
Nor would a thinking president — posturing as an “anti-elitist,” no less — seek to implement a trickle-down economic plan that promises huge tax cuts for the rich and, by independent analysis, will add five trillion dollars to the national debt and bring on a recession.
We know this isn’t what happened Tuesday night on very good authority, that of the President-elect of the Unites State of America, Donald J. Trump. We know, direct from the horse’s mouth, that American presidential elections are not what they seem. Undermining the most sacred tradition of any democracy, Trump has insisted they are “rigged” — not to be taken seriously. The Trump responsible for all those crazy threats and promises wasn’t elected last night and never could be. In the coming month we’ll find out who really was.
That candidacy was — thank God — a hoax, a pack of lies in support of a platform that was gobbledygook, a bunch of ill-considered soundbites tossed to the ravening media beast.
The good news, of course, is that Donald Trump has a very easy relationship with lies. He lies effortlessly and ceaselessly. It will be as easy for him to walk back or simply walk away from the lies that were at the heart of his campaign as it was for him to utter those lies in the first place: that Mexicans immigrants are a bunch of rapists and thieves, that Hillary Clinton is a criminal, that the FBI was in cahoots with her, the racist “birther” lie that President Obama was not an American citizen.
Trump lied about not paying income taxes until he could lie no more; he lied about the success of his businesses and the size of his … well, his fortune. He lied about the women who came forward to corroborate that his sexual predation wasn’t limited to locker-room boasts over a hot microphone with a sycophantic TV host. He brayed about knowing better than “the generals” how to “quickly” defeat ISIS, then turned out to have essentially no plan at all. (He kept it secret, he said, so as not to tip off his political rivals or ISIS itself.)
The beauty of Trump’s campaign thus far is that it has been an exercise in what, in the digital age, might be called virtual politics. The candidacy appears to have begun as a kind of who-gives-a-shit bid, not for the White House, but for a better contract for his next TV show — even if he had to start his own network to get one.
He demonstrated a willingness to say virtually anything, including that he hadn’t said it. He promised not to be a conventional politician, and he wasn’t. He was a TV personality playing at being a presidential candidate. And when opportunity knocked and the Democrats put up a weak candidate against him — a “nasty woman” no less, damaged goods, the candidate with the lowest favorability ratings in recent history — he dug into the part and came to believe the lies might make him president, which they did.
Why? Because we are so habituated to virtual realities, so easily seduced by make-believe, by what we see on screens, that nearly 60 million voters were willing to accept a celebrity and his posturing as a meaningful audition for the Oval Office.
Now comes the moment of truth, the moment when Trump has to begin making good on promises and deal with the difficult truths masked by the lies.
In the first days of the interregnum, he had already broken his vow to “drain the swamp” of insiders, lobbyists and corporate consultants. Instead he placed them in key roles within his transition team and likely cabinet.
And he won’t be able to do most of the things he campaigned on, even the pledges he can remember making. Build a wall across Texas and get Mexico to pay for it? Round up and deport 11 million undocumented workers? Not gonna happen. “Repeal and replace” Obamacare, disenfranchising the 20 million Americans who have found their way to health insurance under its provisions? He will pretend to do that — the “repeal” part — and then — the “replace” part — will have no choice but to join, however ineptly, in the continuing struggle to bring America’s wildly over-priced health care system into line with economic reality.
That Trump has gotten as far as he did might be cause to lament the intellectual incompetence of the American electorate, particularly the “less well-educated” blue-collar whites who are the core of the Trump constituency and the real political force demonstrated Tuesday night. They will quickly discover what it means to have mistaken a TV celeb and New York City real-estate developer born to millions for a crusader against elitism. (Look again at the tax plan, folks; look at who benefits most.)
But it would be unfair to paint the American electorate with too broad a brush. For one thing, not all of us responded solely to the racist and sexist dog whistles that suckered media into giving the candidate a billion dollars in free air time. Some of us actually believed Trump was an honorable man capable of fresh approaches to complex problems.
After all, most American voters didn’t pull the lever for Trump. Five out of 10 eligible voters didn’t bother to cast ballots at all. And by Wednesday evening, as the returns continued to trickle in, Trump appeared to have lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton. The “rigging,” if that’s the right word for it, occurred in the translation of that vote into the arithmetic of the Electoral College. Trump had lost the popular vote by about 235,000 as of Wednesday night, a number that appeared to be growing fast. By the intricate and outdated rules of American elections, the Electoral College will declare that loss to be a 72-vote margin of victory.
It will be fascinating to see what happens from here. Dangerous, yes, because Trump’s vengeful narcissism makes him a very poor choice to lead a nuclear power, and because his ignorance of macro-economics is as profound as his grasp on military leadership is feeble.
Defying the gutless GOP brass was one thing. To actually govern, Trump seems to realize that he’s going to have to yield to middle-of-the-road advisers (including Reince Priebus and his own seemingly sensible children). Maybe start talking truth, even to himself. Maybe wean himself from Twitter. Snits and rages could unhinge him and upend the planet.
In 2000, the last time a president took office despite losing the popular vote, things didn’t go well. Dubya Bush was almost immediately duped into a wickedly stupid invasion (of Iraq) and his tenure ended with a Wall Street crash and the onset of the worst economy since the 1930s.
But Trump, at least since his serial bankruptcies, has been a lucky guy. Let’s hope that even with him as president, America gets luckier than it was Tuesday night.