People who are damaged and scared make reckless, irrational, and irresponsible decisions. I’ve seen this in personal and professional life, and it has happened politically too many times in history. But what baffles me most about this election is that it is so hard to understand exactly why so many people were so hurt and wounded and angry. For voters to have bought into this man’s deeply dishonest, deeply hateful, fear-mongering campaign is not a normal electoral loss.
This is not a “normal” quadrennial triumph by a responsible candidate espousing right-of-center policies that I might personally disagree with but also empathize with or even be persuaded by on the margins. Something is tragically sick in our institutions — starting with a debased Republican party that allowed this guy to be nominated — to allow the election (however narrowly) of a man who is at best an ignorant, callow, fool and at worst tantamount to a fascist. Put simply, Donald Trump is no Mitt Romney (or John McCain, or G.W. Bush). Parties and sane, solid, institutions are supposed to prevent this sort of thing. It wasn’t supposed to be able to happen here.
Racial resentment was obviously part of it. Raw sexism too, as well as a subtler pervasive sexism that shaded the unspoken judgments that many or most people made about the candidates and their motives. Many of the Trump campaigns’ fear-motivating gambits — from a wholly imaginary urban crime wave to wild misrepresentations about the facts of immigration — have, of course, been little better than outright lies.
But something motivated voters to buy into it. Enough voters whipped up by fear and resentment and hateful lies combined with enough of the traditional Republican constituency to give Trump an Electoral College win. Obviously a lot of people came out to vote their fear and uncertainty and anger. I still don’t quite get it. Yes, things are rough in swaths of rural and exurban America. But this is no Weimar-era Germany. No Great Depression. No social chaos or revolutionary disorder that would seem to be of the magnitude to send conservatives and moderates into the arms of the reckless Right. To seek out a “strong man.” What could possibly have motivated the electorate to vote for a man who has telegraphed such dangerously authoritarian attitudes and such ignorance of or disregard for Constitutional norms.
Although I voted, with sincerity, for John Kasich in the Republican primary this year in hopes of helping to stop the insanity at that level, I am a Democrat. And I favored Clinton over Sanders in the primaries. Not only because I thought at the time that she was more likely to win the general election, but because in most respects I actually do support her pragmatic liberalism over what I perceived as a harder Left tone from many of Sanders’ supporters. Now, with the center having failed so decisively to hold on the Republican side, I fear and suspect that Democratic constituencies will find it very difficult not to be somehow radicalized in reaction. And, quite frankly, I don’t really have a response to that. I’m not even sure what my own political/ideological reaction will be. If the handful of remaining moderate Republicans and those conservatives who genuinely value a Burkean conservatism of institutions and procedural moderation can’t reign him in, the lid will blow off and there is no telling what kind of political chaos and reaction will come next.
Republicans — leadership and voters alike — who could and should have known better but were willing to align themselves with this demagogue now have a dire responsibility to curb the worst authoritarian impulses of this man. Not to allow him to run roughshod over constitutional norms (as seems to be his temperamental inclination) so that they can take advantage of the moment to push their own ideological priorities.
I happen to disagree with the majority of those ideological priorities, so it is easier for me to say this. And the track record of the congressional Republicans over the last eight years is not encouraging on this front. But now is the moment for Republicans and conventional Conservatives to prove that they can be a procedural, constitutional, check on an executive who is not their partisan opponent.
If they can’t, they too have a lot to lose when they and their values are supplanted by a very different kind of illiberal political Right that is ultimately just as hostile to a principled conservatism as it is to the rest of us.