What I felt when Donald Trump won the presidential election last night was weirdly akin to what I felt on 9/11—yes, that 9/11: not terror at a catastrophe whose suddenness and magnitude were unprecedented in the history of the world, but rather sad, weary recognition of a smaller, more acute disaster whose antecedents and precedents were all too obvious, an inevitable result—I won’t hesitate to use that word—of a long series of choices that we’d made. I didn’t predict the hour, and I was very, very surprised when it arrived. But I wasn’t shocked.
We are in for a long and unproductive argument about whether or not Trump’s victory represents the revenge of the economically forgotten against the managerial political class or the petit-bourgeois revolt of classic fascism or some stinking eructation of the perpetual sin of American racism. I think it is at once all and none of these things. All of them are symptoms of the deliberate disorder of an unequal society in which the power, wealth, and influence—the real power, wealth, and influence—accrue endlessly to the same tiny sliver of the population, leaving hollow communities in the wake. Even people who are doing well by American standards—I am personally doing very well by American standards—are mostly doing so at greater personal expense to themselves and their families, their friends, and their communities.
This isn’t meant to be a defense of racism and sexism and homophobia and all the other sins against identity, which are evil and wrong. But just as we recognize that terrorism, which is evil and wrong, has roots in the deliberate policies of the American government, so are we obligated to recognize that the persistence of prejudice, even as it tilts into violence, is not the result of some inexplicable defect in the innate character of human beings, but the savage, misdirected lashing out against nearer, vulnerable targets when the real enemy is so impossibly powerful and distant. Wrongs have explanations; they even have reasons.
I didn’t know Trump was coming, but I knew a Trump was coming when I saw the response to the financial crisis. There are plenty of other ills of the American empire, but that was so viciously unjust and so close to home. (I anticipated a Trump as long ago as high school, when I saw what America had done to the old coal town where I grew up, but that was just an inchoate dread that turned me into some kind of political radical.) Sooner or later, I thought, all the useless pablum about everyone getting a bachelor’s and learning to code while the Blankfeins of the world walked free, prospered even more than before, would bring this upon us. It was like a magic spell. It was a misdirected prayer to a trickster god, and here we are living in the accidental fulfillment of our vain rulers’ stupid wish.
Sure Trump was lying—bullshitting is probably a better word, since I don’t suspect he tells untruths instrumentally; he just lives in a collapsed distinction between true and false. But he acknowledged the material circumstances of the country out there, all those people, poor and middle-class alike, who are outside of the communion. Is their rage pathological? Yes. But he had the wherewithal to diagnose it and turn the endemic into a contagion. It got him just enough bodies. Meanwhile, a vaccine existed. The mildest—I mean, the mildest—sort of redistribution would have done it. Instead, we said: go be a programmer, as if everyone could, as if that would do anything for the people who’d still remain in Uniontown, PA.
I happen to believe our civilization will survive this. The Romans managed plenty of crises without collapsing; we focus on the ending only because it appears in retrospect the most spectacular. (In fact, it was slow and almost imperceptible to those who lived it.) Inertia is a powerful thing. I guess I counsel something like a cautious vigilance. I do however think we should stop pretending it’s all malice without cause. It’s shameful; it’s embarrassing; it will be dangerous, and we should be prepared. But no matter who they are, let’s not collapse on the old canard that they simply hate our freedom.