On January 20th, Donald Trump will be sworn in as the 45th President of United States of America.
It’s now been more than two months since the election – also known as “the day white America decided to stab the planet in the throat” – and it still doesn’t feel totally real. How do you talk about it? Everything truthful sounds hyperbolic.
Like – hey!
America just put a racist demagogue with a paper-thin ego in charge of the world’s only military superpower!
America just heard someone admit on tape that he uses his fame and power to take sexual advantage of women, and then gave that guy the most fame and power it’s possible to have!
America just gave someone who doesn’t know anything about the world the power to single‑handedly destroy the world!
Right? It doesn’t seem real – and in a certain perverse sense, it’s not. Hillary Clinton won almost 2.9 million more votes than Trump did. Amidst all the gnashing about how terrible a candidate Clinton was, I keep remembering that fact, and my brain honestly has no idea what to do with that information. Literally millions more Americans voted for her than voted for Trump. But in a darkly fitting twist, the electoral college (a system whose original reason for being was to give more power to the slave-states, enabling them to get extra representation for all the non-voting slaves who were imprisoned in them) translated Trump’s fewer votes into an electoral victory, and empowered white supremacy yet again. Those racist slave-owning founders would be proud.
Because as insane and terrifying as this is, isn’t there also an element of like … of course? Donald Trump is as American as apple pie and predatory loans – as American as Rockefeller Plaza and mass incarceration. He’s an avatar of lusty greed and ignorant cruelty, with one of those foam “We’re #1” hands where his prefrontal cortex should be. Of course America voted for that guy.
It’s just hard to square with the America that elected Barack Obama twice. 55% of Americans like Barack Obama and approve of the job he’s done, but that didn’t stop them from electing someone who rose to political prominence by telling racist lies about him, and who’s going to undo as much of his legacy as he possibly can. Obama seems like a preternaturally even-keeled person, but I have no idea how anyone in his position could accept this contradiction without rage and despair.
Clinton lost, and honestly, there are a thousand reasons why. When an election is this close, everything mattered. When fewer than 80 thousand people in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania voting differently would have swung the outcome – in an election with over 138 million votes cast – there are going to be a lot of ways it could’ve gone differently. Hell, if even just the Jill Stein voters in those three states had voted for Clinton instead, all the horrors to follow would have been averted, and we would have already embarked on the happy process of critiquing Hillary and forgetting that Donald Trump was ever even a thing.
Instead, he won. And we all have to live in the world in which we won.
Look, I shouldn’t try to predict anything. My powers of prediction are clearly horseshit, and (beyond the inevitable Republican tax cuts for the super-rich) I have no idea what’s going to happen next. When Scum asked me to write this column about the US election, I was only supposed to do three of them. I didn’t think we’d be here. If there’s a thin shred of prescience I can claim, it’s only in taking the dangerousness of Trump seriously from early on. Given that, there is one thing I can say with confidence, which is that we all need to be prepared for the emotionally abusive aspect of what’s coming next.
Trump is going to do his best to override people’s sense of reality. He’ll continuously contradict himself. He’ll say he’s doing the opposite of what his administration is actually, demonstrably doing. He’ll yell at you that he’s not yelling.
Smart people have been wondering how Trump will go about the extremely difficult task of repealing Obama’s health care reform, but with Trump, his fallback is always just to lie. He could not repeal Obamacare and simply say that he has. He could go to war, and say that he hasn’t. He could devote the whole apparatus of the surveillance state to tracking and destroying his personal enemies, and Kelly-Anne Conway would still go on TV and say, “How dare you suggest such a thing.” He’ll say all things to all audiences, and people – because they’re people – will always have a great desire to only hear the parts they want to hear. That sort of inconstancy and scattergun lying is an abuse tactic that has the effect of keeping people constantly off-balance, and it’s startling how well it’s already working.
It was dismaying to see a slew of optimistic headlines a little while ago that Trump may be “changing course” on climate change. They were all based on an interview he did with the New York Times, in which he said: “I have an open mind to it. We’re going to look very carefully.”
When a white woman at a Trump rally back in July said that the government should “get rid of all the heebeejabees they wear at TSA”, he responded with similarly open mind. “We’re looking at that. We’re looking into a lot of things.”
Have we learned nothing? There is no bottom to Trump’s bullshit, because Trump genuinely doesn’t care what the truth is. That’s just not what he uses language for.
What Trump does is say whatever words he thinks will give him the most power in the moment. This, I have come to think, is the Rosetta Stone for understanding all his inconstancy and lying. They aren’t really ‘flip-flops’ in the normal sense, because he didn’t believe his previous ‘position’ and he doesn’t really believe this one either. He’s just found himself in front of a different audience, and he’s sensed that a different combination of words will unlock the praise and validation on which his lizard-brain feeds.
So if we’re going to have any hope of navigating through the next four years, we we’re going to have to pay a lot less attention to what Trump says and a lot more to what he does. He said conciliatory-sounding things to the New York Times, and then appointed a climate change denier to head the Environment Protection Agency. Which is more likely to have real consequences?
If we’re lucky, the Trump administration will only be the most corrupt and kleptocratic in history, and the man himself will be too busy abusing the office for personal enrichment to bother with active authoritarianism. If we’re lucky, Paul Ryan will only get to enact some of his granny-starving economic plans before they make Trump unpopular enough that he stops signing what Congress gives him, and only “normal Republican” levels of immiseration and death will result. If we’re lucky, the rest of the world’s leaders will be so scared of this eerily perfect metaphor that they’ll stay out of his way, and he’ll manage not to inflame too many geopolitical tensions through his Twitter.
I don’t expect us to be lucky. Have you ever seen Trump de-escalate a conflict? He doesn’t know how. His brain processes everything as a dominance-game, and backing down means losing face. Here is a lens for understanding Trump: all of his political instincts fall on a spectrum between the Berlusconi (i.e. the corrupt showman, the grinning sexist, the TV narcissist) and the Erdogan (i.e. the thin-skinned authoritarian, the insecure bully, the truthless demagogue). Which of those personalities will dominate his activity as president will probably, in the end, come down to the challenges he faces. Trump is a fundamentally reactionary person: a “counter-puncher”, in his own terminology. So while I’m sure he’s not actively planning on turning America into a despotic police state (that would require too much forethought), he has all the instincts a leader needs to slip into it organically.
An unnerving truth: Trump is going to be an unusually powerful president. Republicans control both the House and the Senate, and as things stand, Trump controls the Republican Party. Every Republican congressman is terrified of alienating Trump’s supporters, and of the Trumpist primary challenge that defying him would guarantee. Plus, keeping Trump on side is the only way to get those tax cuts for the rich – seemingly the raison d’être of most elected Republicans – and so the political calculus is clear. Until Trump becomes so unpopular that Republican senators and House members have more to gain from opposing him than supporting him, they won’t challenge him. They won’t even subject him to ordinary checks and balances. This is going to be Trump’s show, and he’ll do it with the complicity of all elected Republicans.
(I mean, who exactly are we hoping will curtail Trump’s worst instincts? His National Security Advisor who believes fake conspiracy theories and tweeted that “fear of Muslims is RATIONAL”? His domestically abusive chief strategist who until recently ran a far-right nationalist website? His Attorney-General who was denied a federal judgeship – in 1986 – for being too racist? His Exxon-Mobil Secretary of State who’s apparently figured out how to merge his private empire with America’s? His once-proposed Homeland Security Chief – who Trump called “absolutely terrific” – who believes that “This is a war and Black Lives Matter are the enemy”, and that Black Lives Matter “will join forces with ISIS”?)
The other night I heard someone say, “Well, no matter who won, they’d both just be puppets to the people really in charge anyway.” It’s something a cynic says, but this time, the way he said it seemed edged with hope. There’s almost always a hope underlying conspiracy theories, I think: the hope that, even if they’re sinister beyond comprehension, someone competent is running the show. Because the alternative is scarier.
I mean, can you imagine? Can you imagine there actually not being safeguards between someone getting elected president and them being able to launch nuclear weapons whenever they want? Can you imagine the president being able to go to war without Congress even declaring it? Can you imagine a position so powerful being decided by a process so rickety that Donald fucking Trump is able to con his way into it just by going on TV and lying a lot?
Can you imagine the world actually being that fragile?
Look, there are no silver linings to this. There’s just surviving. The world is about to belong to whoever proves most adept at manipulating Trump’s narcissism, and the early returns show Steve fucking Bannon at the top of that particular leaderboard. I don’t know what’s going to happen now, but I do know that giving inveterately abusive people more power doesn’t make them better. I know that no 70-year-old changes who they are when all of their worst instincts have just been rewarded. I know that historically, people have tended to overestimate the stability and permanence of the political norms and freedoms they grew up with.
Nobody will be unaffected by this. Even if the only objectionable thing about Trump was his position on climate change, his election would still represent an abject catastrophe for the entire world. As things are, it was so far down the list that it was barely mentioned during the campaign.
Eyes up. Backs straight. The only things that ever weather these kinds of storms are communities, so take care of each other.
This is going to get worse before it gets better.
Andy Wadeson Connor is a writer, dungeon master, and US politics obsessive who grew up in Wangaratta. Andy is currently writing a masters thesis in philosophy, and gives advice in the character of a cartoon moose named ‘Mulbert’ over at http://advicecomics.tumblr.com/
**photo from the ABC website**