Thoughts on Election Day 2018
By Tom Engelhardt
Who could forget that moment? The blue [red] wave -- long promised but also doubted -- had, however modestly [however massively], hit Washington and [the Democrats had just retaken Congress] [the Republicans had held Congress] [the Democrats had taken the House]. The media, Fox News and the usual right-wing websites aside, hailed the moment. [Fox News and the usual right-wing websites cheered the president on.] Donald Trump's grip on America had finally been broken [reinforced]. Celebrations were widespread. Congressional investigations, possibly even impeachment, were only months and a new Congress away [were now a faint memory], and it was then, of course, that the unexpected struck. It was then that President Trump, citing national security concerns and a crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border, began the process whose end point we, of course, already know...
Okay, consider that the dystopian me speaking. We don't, of course, really know how our story yet ends, not faintly. While I was writing this piece, I didn't even know how Tuesday's vote would turn out, though by the time you read it, you may. Given the experience of election 2016, it would take a brave [foolish] soul to make a prediction this time around.
I certainly learned a lesson that November. During the previous months of campaigning that election season, I never wrote a piece at TomDispatch that didn't leave open the possibility of Donald Trump winning the presidency. In the couple of weeks before that fateful November day, however, I got hooked on the polling results and on Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight website and became convinced that Hillary Clinton was a shoo-in.
Of course, I was in good company. As Michael Wolff would later report in his bestselling book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, on election eve, few in the Trump campaign, including the candidate himself, expected to win. Most of them, again including The Donald, were already trying to parlay what they assumed was an assured loss into their next jobs or activities, including in the candidate's case a possible "Trump network."
So when, sometime after midnight, reality finally began to sink in -- fittingly enough, I had a 103-degree fever and was considering heading for an emergency room -- I was as disbelieving as the president-to-be. (He had, Wolff tells us, "assured" his wife, Melania, who was reportedly in tears of anything but joy that night, that he would never win and that she would never find herself in the White House.) By then, it was for me a fever dream to imagine that bizarre, belligerent, orange-haired salesman-cum-con-artist entering the Oval Office.
Honestly, I shouldn't have been the least bit surprised. During election campaign 2016, I grasped much of this. I wrote of the future president, for instance, as a con artist (particularly in reference to those taxes of his that we couldn't see) and how Hillary Clinton's crew hadn't grasped the obvious: that many Americans would admire him for gaming the system, even if they couldn't do the same themselves. As I wrote at the time: "It's something Donald Trump knows in his bones, even if all those pundits and commentators and pollsters (and for that matter Hillary Clinton's advisers) don't: Americans love a con man."
I also saw that he was daring in ways unimaginable to an American politician -- because, of course, he wasn't one -- particularly in promoting his slogan, MAGA, whose key word few of the political cognoscenti paid the slightest attention to: "again." At that moment, for presidents or politicians who wanted to become just that, it was obligatory to claim that the United States wasn't just great but the greatest, most exceptional, most indispensable land ever. (As Hillary Clinton typically put it that election season: "America is indispensable -- and exceptional -- because of our values.") Trump's "again" in Make America Great Again suggested something quite different and so rang a bell in the heartland. In the process, he became America's first declinist presidential candidate. Early that October, I wrote this:
"[A] significant part of the white working class, at least, feels as if, whether economically or psychologically, its back is up against the wall and there's nowhere left to go. Under such circumstances, many of these voters have evidently decided that they're ready to send a literal loose cannon into the White House; they're willing, that is, to take a chance on the roof collapsing, even if it collapses on them. That is the new and unrecognizable role that Donald Trump has filled. It's hard to conjure up another example of it in our recent past. The Donald represents, as a friend of mine likes to say, the suicide bomber in us all. And voting for him, among other things, will be an act of nihilism, a mood that fits well with imperial decline.
"Think of him as a message in a bottle washing up on our shore..."
And yet, on that day of decision, I evidently reverted to the boy I had once been, the boy who grew up with a vision of an idealized America that would always do the right thing. So I was shocked to the core by Donald Trump's victory.
In that fever dream of a night, when he washed up on all our shores, I had certainly been trumped, but then, so had he, so had we all. Under the circumstances, I'm sure you'll understand why I've remained hesitant about putting my faith in polls in this election season or giving special significance to reports that the White House staff was glum as hell about the coming midterms and expected the worst. (After all, mightn't this be that Michael Wolff election night all over again?)
The American Shooting Gallery
Two years after that fateful November night in 2016, we're still living in a fever dream of some sort, enveloped 24/7 by the universe of President Trump and the "fake news media," that provides him and the rest of us with a strange, all-encompassing echo chamber. America, you might say, now has a 103-degree temperature and there isn't an emergency room in sight.
And it's unlikely to get better, whatever happens in the midterm elections. Those who expect that a Democratic victory or a devastating Mueller report in the weeks to come will be the beginning of the end for the Trump presidency (or, for that matter, that the victory of an ever more extreme Republican Party will simply prove more of the grisly same) might want to reconsider. Perhaps it's worth weighing other grimmer possibilities in the as-yet-unending rise of what's still called "right-wing populism," not just locally but globally. Here in the United States, with hate and venom surging (and, yes indeed, being encouraged by President Trump for his own purposes), a genuinely ugly strain central to this country's history is being resurrected. In the process, a burgeoning number of deeply disturbed (and deeply animated) figures from among the most over-armed civilian population on the planet -- Yemen, of all the grim places, comes in a distant second -- are turning this country into a shooting gallery.