A domestic terrorist is trying to destroy America. You can’t say we didn’t have it coming. Our arrogance and grandiosity and paranoia, and even our visionary sense of our own greatness, have brought us right to the precipice. Can America be saved from this orange-hued assassin, and from the nihilistic movement he represents, which is far more dangerous than the specter of “radical Islamic terrorism”? I don’t know — the poison has spread more widely, and altered our perception of reality more profoundly, than most of us are willing to recognize.
I can tell you one thing for sure: Donald Trump, the terrorist to whom I refer, is not the real problem. And defeating him at the ballot box, although preferable to the alternative, is not in any sense the solution. At most, Trump is the shaman who has invoked the American disorder in its nastiest form, and the channel through which it has expressed itself in this election. To use a famous metaphor once employed by the great 1960s filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, Trump is like a snakeskin full of ants — he appears to be alive and moving on his own, but it’s an illusion produced by the forces working through him.
Recently a British journalist asked me whether I thought the United States had become so politically paralyzed and ideologically divided as to be ungovernable. When we have a major-party presidential candidate, trailing in the polls, who threatens not to accept the election results, and a well-respected senator who vows to oppose any possible Supreme Court nominee put forward by the other candidate, the question answers itself.
I have argued all year long that it’s a dangerous mistake to assume that the madness afflicting American politics and American society has affected only Republicans or “conservatives” (a word that, along with “liberals,” bears almost no relationship to its original meaning). As the primary contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders should have made clear — the first Democratic campaign to be waged on fundamental ideological questions in more than 30 years — Democrats face the same internal struggle between their base voters and their Beltway leadership as Republicans, albeit in less overt and less acrimonious form.
But there are other and bigger errors at work behind that blithe liberal overconfidence, errors that I see as epistemological in nature, meaning that they have to do with what we know (or think we know) and how we know it. Electing Hillary Clinton as our next president is now both necessary and inevitable — there are literally no other options. I suppose I would suck it up and vote for her myself, if I lived in a state that anyone, anywhere, thought was likely to be important in the electoral arithmetic. But to believe that Clinton in any way represents a departure from the path of political entropy and paralysis, or that her victory will cause the ants inside the Trump snakeskin to crawl back into their underground nests, is willfully naive.
Those supposedly normal and sensible grownups who read the New York Times and recycle No. 2 plastic and attend parents’ night at the middle school with concerned but nonjudgmental expressions have seen the current polls and heaved a half-sigh of anticipatory relief. Now they’re reassuring themselves, Well, once we get past Election Day and all the right-wing wailing and gnashing of teeth that is likely to follow, maybe we can get back to some semblance of normal government. They are inhabiting a state of near-Trumpian delusion.
When was this mythical era of supposed normal government, exactly? Before the election of Barack Hussein Obama, an event that hit the bloodstream of the American right like a blend of Dr. Pepper, crystal meth and pure adrenaline? Before 9/11, and the disastrous Bush v. Gore election of 2000? Before the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and all the right-wing conspiracy theories depicting Bill and Hillary Clinton as criminal masterminds (rather than, say, shameless political opportunists)? Before all of the above, in the days when the bluebird sang o'er the lemonade springs on the Big Rock Candy Mountain?
Republicans who pine for the halcyon days of functional government at least have something to look back to: the Reagan era, when a newly empowered and energized American right set about slashing taxes on the rich, dismantling the welfare state and pumping up the Cold War, with the suspiciously eager compliance of a terrified Democratic majority in Congress. If the whole thing was an elaborate fantasy, the long-term consequences were horrendous and the damage may never be undone, you can’t claim that nothing ever got accomplished in Washington.
Democrats can’t even agree which version of the political past to mythologize; they’re all contaminated in one way or another. Bill Clinton’s legacy of financial deregulation, welfare “reform” and right-wing appeasement looks worse all the time, even as he prepares to coast back into the White House as the first First Gentleman of American history, a spindly ghost of his former self. Lyndon Johnson used his political power to force important systemic changes, in the process exposing the racist hypocrisy at the heart of the Democratic coalition that had dominated American politics since Woodrow Wilson, and also led the nation into the most disastrous foreign policy blunder of the 20th century.
When liberals accuse conservatives of indulging in misty-eyed nostalgia, more than a little projection is involved. Democrats’ view of their own historical use of power is highly selective, an incoherent series of images drawn from different eras: Sam Rayburn wielding the speaker’s gavel for 17 years, in the days when white men from Texas were Democrats by default; JFK and FDR, urging us to ask not what our country could do for us, and to fear nothing but fear itself; Harry Truman holding that famous newspaper. But not much about the devil’s bargain with Jim Crow, or the extensive series of CIA coups and assassinations, or dropping nukes on Japan to see what would happen.
I’m not arguing that American liberals are odious hypocrites and the United States is a uniquely evil imperialist power, and now we are having our crimes visited upon us in the person of Donald Trump. Or at least not exactly. (That kind of Chomskyite hyperbole, I would say, is a symptom of America’s grandiose obsession with itself more than a diagnosis.) My point is more that American politics have been in a state of slow decay for many decades and everyone knows it, even if the establishment caste of both parties has studiously pretended not to notice. Donald Trump is arguably performing an important medical function — he’s like the tumor or the boil that makes the disease obvious to everyone.
Trump is without doubt the most spectacularly ignorant and unqualified person ever to emerge as a major presidential candidate, and now is widely understood to be an abusive pig as well. Yet Hillary Clinton has been unable to shake him, largely because she represents that failed, decaying and paralytic political system I have just described and he doesn’t. Trump may represent something much worse — incoherent chunks of authoritarian, nationalistic fantasy super-glued together with hate — or may represent nothing at all beyond his own vacuous sense of greatness. But he does not represent the political establishment and cannot be described with terms like “conservative” or “liberal.” And like a stopped clock, he is right by accident a couple of times a day.
When Trump suggests that Democrats are “rigging” the election and that he might not accept the result if he loses, he is of course spewing a dangerous line of bullshit. But he’s also right, in a way. That is, he’s reflecting the widespread sense that American elections don’t matter and don’t accomplish anything — that they might as well be rigged because they have been drained of meaning. Trump’s steamy bromance with Vladimir Putin remains one of the most bizarre subplots of this election, and almost makes me believe the liberal conspiracy theories about a secret alliance between these globe-straddling manly-men. But he’s right that staging a needless confrontation with Putin over Syria is a terrible idea, even if his reasons are rooted in pre-World War II right-wing isolationism.
While it appears all but certain that Trump will lose the election, tens of millions of people will turn out to support him, many with unbridled enthusiasm. He will carry most of the states between the Appalachians and the Rockies, and without question will do better in the Electoral College than legendary losers like Barry Goldwater or Walter Mondale. (He might not do much worse than Michael Dukakis or John McCain.) All that for a man who has been self-evidently trolling democracy this whole time: a man who has no idea what the president does or how the system is supposed to work, and who has never presented even the vaguest outline of what he would do if he actually got the job.
Calling Donald Trump a domestic terrorist isn’t even a metaphor. A terrorist seeks to provoke a society’s worst impulses and expose its hidden weaknesses, and Trump’s terrorist assault on our so-called democracy has done that brilliantly. He’s like a funhouse-mirror reflection of America’s overweening pride and vanity, deadly sins for which we are now being punished. He is the ugliest possible American caricature, made flesh. We told the world we were a free-enterprise meritocracy where talent rose to the top, and that guy became rich and famous. We told the world we were the exemplar of democracy, a light to all the nations, and that guy almost became president. We deserve Donald Trump, and we have an opportunity to learn from him. But if we believe that stopping him just short of the White House can make the problem he so vividly embodies go away, we will deserve whatever comes next.