BLOG: Election Day ’16 Under the Edge of the Knife

Voters wait in line to cast ballots at an early polling site in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Tuesday, Nov 08, 2016 at 6:27 pm by Thomas Beckley-Forest

Just before sitting down to write this, I spoke on the phone with a man I consider to be a friend, the sixty something father of someone who is like a brother to me. This man, who came of age in the tumult of the Vietnam era and its seething counterculture, gave his forecast as such: “Tomorrow, I think Trump will win in a landslide. The silent majority, the people who don’t answer polls, are going to come out and vote him into office.”

“The Silent Majority”: one of the slogans Nixon used to marshal white America in 1968, appropriated by the Trump campaign for a new era of dog whistle racial politics—though these days, the dog whistle is practically out the window, replaced by a straightforward and casual bigotry that’s nabbed gushing endorsements from the KKK, the Nazi Party, and white supremacist pol David Duke for Trump’s campaign, over which they hang like malevolent ghouls. Borrowed so un-ironically, the phrase was laughable at first, a symbol of the social amnesia that the campaign has come to represent. Considered another way, it is a faith, simply stated. It’s the faith that Trump supporters like my friend’s father have in their country to “do the right thing”; that they will wake up on November 9th in a land that no longer feels strange and threatening to them—a mirror image of anyone on the left who “believes we’re better than this” and is counting on a majority of voters to end this long authoritarian nightmare at the polls on November 8th. After all, the center and left, too, have come to feel a similar alienation from many of their fellow Americans, as have many people of color. This anxiety and frustration of being forced to acknowledge just how much we may differ in our worldviews from so many of the Americans who have brought Donald Trump within an inch of the White House was perhaps best echoed by a female classmate of mine last week, who said, “You just think we’ve come so far, you know, there’s been so much progress—but then how can we, if so many people want Trump?” It’s also the anxiety I feel as a college student at a liberal Northeastern university, the fear that outside my bubble, people do not think as I do–I consume a different logic than they do, from different outlets and authorities, and dwell in an echo chamber of syncopated, unchallenged liberal thought processes that leave me clueless about society’s true temperature. Worse, it is the fear that the journalists we trust to inform our viewpoints are similarly isolated from the feeling on the ground, the attitudes in their busy newsrooms and Manhattan skyscrapers a poor gauge for the real pulse of public opinion. Thus, the polls Mr. Trump so often crows over have come as a series of nasty, world-altering shocks for many of us. I will never forget the week, late last fall, when Trump unveiled his infamously unconstitutional and poorly conceived Muslim ban—the way my heart sank as each day, his poll numbers simply did not drop, and instead continued going up. For days, I dumbly watched news spill across my online feed, unable to write, thinking this is my country?

Of course, as my friend reminded me—and this is where almost religious faith really comes in—another implication of “the silent majority” is that there is a great mass of people out there who don’t answer polls, or take to the streets with signs, or rant on Facebook, who keep quiet about how they feel until they’re in the ballot box. On both sides, maintaining one’s sanity until the election requires faith in the judgment of that silent majority—for me, the beleaguered hope that people will be able to distinguish between Hillary’s (considerable) drawbacks and the dangerous ignorance, incompetence, dishonesty, and vindictiveness of a possible Trump administration.

That anxiety, at wondering how many of our fellow citizens lie on the other side of a vast and bitter ideological gulf, will stay with us until all the votes are counted, and probably long after. That’s what elections do—they give us ideas of what our country is. Whether we recognize what they show us is a different matter entirely.

Truthfully, there are many angles from which to view this election. Anything that involves so many people and ignites such passions can never be boiled down to a simple binary. You can, as many of my peers do, see it as the last sputtering of a virulent racist chauvinism, the toxic attitudes of an earlier era resurfacing for a long overdue rebuke on the electoral stage. There’s probably a lot of truth to that. You can view it as the well-earned demise of the Grand Old Party, whose long-running, cynical experiment with racially coded politics and divisive rhetorical strategies has finally and violently backfired. That probably isn’t far off the mark either.

But I’ve taken away a more compelling and also more ominous impression from most adults who tell me they’re voting Trump. Past all the misdirected xenophobia and prejudices of aging white America stirred up in a decade of rapid social change, what motivates so many to vote Trump is disillusionment with the power structure and disgust towards our ruling political class—a sentiment all the more unnerving because I can connect with it so deeply.

It’s a distrust of an American-led global order, stewarded by establishment politicians like the Clintons, the Bushes, even Obama, that privileges wealthy financial interests over the well-being of the average citizen. It’s a distrust of a myopic, corporate-owned media that too rarely does an adequate job covering the full picture of our unstable, fast-changing world. There was real sadness in the voice of my friend’s Trump-supporting father as he complained “there was a time when people trusted what they were told on the news, trusted what the politicians told them.”

This man is not a psychopath or a Klan member. He has always seemed to me a good father and grandfather, a good husband, a good-humored and entertaining guy, and a hardworking professional who helps support his family. Like many others who will vote Trump, and many others who voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, he’s someone who thinks the established order has been selling them a raw deal, and sees Hillary Rodham Clinton as the ultimate creature of that self-serving establishment. Whereas despite his incredible flaws as a politician and an individual, or maybe because of them, Trump is undisputedly the antithesis of ‘business as usual’ for our government. His arrival would provoke something—directly or indirectly, a wake-up call, a shakeup of the increasingly stagnant, elitist, gridlocked system that has proved so insufficient to adequately deal with the concerns of our time.

Or so the thinking goes. That’s one of the simplest ways to look at this election, and I’m inclined to agree with its base premise. Where I think my friend and so many will be going wrong if they vote Trump into the White House is in thinking that by throwing Donald Trump at our government’s fragile institutions like a pile of feces catapulted over the castle walls, any meaningful or beneficent change can be brought about.

Trump—who if we believe most reports was a conniving, opportunistic hustler as a businessman, who, if we can believe our ears, was and is a sexual predator and casual abuser of women, who has proved a breathtakingly uninformed and incompetent presidential candidate—has never operated by any principle but his own narrow self-interest, or his own pathological need to be right in every ill-informed snap judgment and come out on top in every contest. There are real policy disagreements among the American citizenry that must be settled if we are to continue living side by side, issues on which many of us may never truly agree—but those are concerns to be settled constitutionally, through the long and torturous processes of legislation and compromise. Trump rejects the Constitution whenever it becomes inconvenient, and willful blindness of that fact is a grave mistake.

He has been hailed, rather hysterically, as a proto-fascist for the 21st century—a label his Nazi endorsements don’t exactly refute. I don’t believe all Trump supporters are Nazis or potential Nazis—but I do see a dangerous dynamic at work in his coalition, in which a great mass of confused, disgruntled citizens with good intentions can (and already have, to a degree) easily become complicit in fueling the resurgence of a violent white supremacy movement, with the nihilistic, paranoid provocations and online hate-speech of the “alt-right” as the postmodern icing on this steaming American pie of discontent.

On some level Trump’s rhetorical style and strongman attitude can certainly be compared to the bombastic political theater of Mussolini, in the same way his xenophobic ramblings can be compared to the early Nazi programs of exclusion. There is a certain physicality, a full-body appeal to the cult of Trump—the reason Trump rallies feel like sporting events.

I recall the one Trump rally I ever attended, in Syracuse several days before the New York primary. Rolling Stones and Credence Clearwater Revival anthems roll and crash defiantly over the loudspeakers before the puffed up billionaire celebrity takes the stage and holds forth like a more boisterous modern-day Caesar in the Coliseum, inciting fans into a restless frenzy. There is something energizing about Trump events that I have never encountered in American politics, even in the insurgent underdog mentality of Sanders-style populism. In that vindictive energy, I truly felt the frightening reverberation of what I might identify as fascism.

There is an exciting, almost sexual edge to Trump’s presence that is more about reveling in the spectacle of brash, naked power, whether you agree with his many tremendous words or not.

If you do agree even marginally, there is a powerful sense of vindication in hearing Trump on the stump, boiling down our political challenges to a simple, persuasive line—they don’t really care about you, they’ve been lying to you, they’ve been screwing you over, but that ends now, you have the power, I can be your voice. And he’s even funny too, in the crass, taboo-disregarding way that all those career politicians aren’t allowed to be, even if it goes over swell in the average barroom.

If you don’t agree, if you think he’s a hateful, odious old man stirring up support for the Fifth Reich, if you identify him as the enemy, then your experience can be even more stimulating—you can play “fight a fascist,” sneak into the arena and scream, try to bait the “crazies” into showing you they’re as bloodthirsty and inhuman as you think they are. This plays very well into the overall circus—it’s an essential part in every Trump event, a focal point for his supporters’ embattled sense of themselves, another chance for him to do what he does with “the media,” to point and say Look! You see, folks? They’re trying to shut me up, because I tell it like it is. And so, in the increasingly frothy imaginations of both Trump supporters and anti-Trump agitators, they are locked in an existential battle for the fate of the country—which makes for great drama, as the media has not failed to capitalize on, but isn’t so valuable for citizens in a democracy, who must reach a consensus with each other in order to go forward.

There can be no debate that the Trump campaign and the support it has sustained has shown America something deep within its own soul—“The Abyss!!” as Andrew Sullivan dramatically screeched in a recent Atlantic column. The crumbling of the republic! The threat of a New Dark Age!

Perhaps not, but if you follow the logic of Trump’s “policies” and fragmentary rhetoric, a Trump presidency could put many in danger–refugees blocked, immigrants deported, Muslims persecuted, dissenters and reporters threatened or jailed. On a global level, it would disrupt markets, unbalance the already uneasy international balance of power, and likely doom international attempts to combat climate change. We cannot predict the damage this would do to the American republic, not to mention the entire world. We cannot guarantee that any of that damage would ever be reversible.

If Donald Trump wins today, it will be a testament to susceptibility of the average American voter to blind frustration and suspicion. Unless he can be put on a leash by the Republican establishment (though that’s hardly much better at this point), then I believe that four or more years of global economic instability, social and political upheaval, and constitutional violations will be all a President Trump would offer America.

Even if he loses, which seems most likely in this late stage, our political discourse feels almost irreparably poisoned; the political elite all but totally discredited, the electoral process stripped down and exposed as a primordial power-struggle among tribalist power blocs, the media too irresponsible, too easily influenced and driven to hysterics, too easily bought.

He may lose in a landslide—that would offer the strongest refutation of his psychopathic vision for America—but it’s still looking like it’ll be close, which will mean that a alarmingly large part of America has bought into his layers of self-serving delusion.

There may not be, as some commentators have warned, any “smarter fascist” who comes along and exploit the weaknesses in our democracy that Trump exposed in his stumbling, narrow-minded quest for self-gratification. For better or worse, Trump may go down in the history books as a singular figure in American politics, a walking brand and former tabloid star who combined the stage instincts of a reality TV scrapper with bigotry so overt it brought Nazis and Klansmen out of their holes to champion his name. He played the role of the ultimate anti-politician at the perfect moment of confusion, taking advantage of so many convergent anxieties—resentment of a compromised and ineffectual establishment on both sides of the aisle, distrust of a polarized media, the pain of an increasingly unequal economy, and perhaps most dangerously, the hysteria of insecure white identity in a country finally striving to bring long-neglected minorities into the national conversation. He made it a hell of a show, a tragicomic minute-to-minute gauntlet of ever-darkening absurdity, with the entire planet as captive audience. That last one should be the most concerning to people like me: the way Trump used the modern media as his personal megaphone, exploiting our taste for apocalyptic narratives and our perverse love of villains. He worked the new, hopelessly fragmented media environment to the best of his advantage. Even if his inability to stay out of the headlines proves to have been his undoing, he has set an alarming precedent for how someone can nearly rise to incredible power on nothing but personality, irrational fear, and hot air.

As the polls begin to close, regardless of the election’s results, the joke is still on us. At the end of this campaign, we face a looming constitutional crisis, a major party in chaos, and a polity more starkly divided than ever. Even if Clinton wins, it is not enough to congratulate each other and breath a sigh of relief. If this American experiment is going to continue, if our overblown sense of our own significance is to have any merit, we have work to do. When the smoke clears, we must learn to recognize each other as human beings again, and find better ways of taking our political leaders to task than enabling tyrants with hollow promises.

NOTE: This article represents the views of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of CitrusTV, its members, or Syracuse University.