There was a moment during Tuesday’s election night coverage when, if you were consuming the right mix of cable news and Twitter feeds, you could watch the shock wave rolling in real time. Former Obama advisor Van Jones was near tears on CNN, as was Martha Raddatz on ABC. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman was, with characteristic restraint, decrying the “deep hatred in a large segment of the population.” When Ezra Klein, purveyor of the invariably supercilious “explainer” site Vox, began tweeting links to a story making the case against the Electoral College, you knew it was over.
For a sizable number of Donald Trump’s supporters, those moments may have been justification enough for their vote. After years of being sneered at, they got a front-row seat for a collective nervous breakdown radiating out through the Acela Corridor and the West Coast’s Highway 101. They got to hit the elites—a term that, though promiscuously applied, does identify a distinct cultural phylum—right in their (glass, it turns out) jaws.
Trump’s victory may well have completed the transformation of partisan politics into cultural proxy war—a transformation that, it bears noting, began well before he arrived on the political scene. As the pundits observed ad nauseam on election night, the America that voted for Trump lives, in large measure, at both a physical and social remove from the one that voted for Hillary Clinton. They failed, however, to note an important asymmetry that explains why progressive America was so thunderstruck as Tuesday night passed into Wednesday morning: the Trump parts of the country understand the Clinton parts much better than vice versa.
Residents of rural and exurban America are unable to escape the gravitational pull of Washington, New York, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood. It’s on their televisions. It’s in their newspapers. It’s at their local movie theater. There is no comparable transmission belt that conveys the mores of the Midwest, the South, or the Interior West to the coastal domiciles of American elites, whose working definition of their own cosmopolitanism often relies on which airports they’ve passed through in red states. Over the past eight years, the residents of those parts of the nation—the ones not overflowing with shared workspaces, corporate diversity officers, and mixologists—came to a dismaying conclusion: elite America didn’t just disagree with them; it resented their existence.
Pick your example: Barack Obama’s “people who get bitter and cling to guns and religion”; Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables”; bakers dragooned into servicing gay weddings under threat of six-figure fines; the corporate flight from North Carolina over the issue of transgender restrooms. In each case, the opposition was treated as little more than speedbumps on the road to utopia.
That is why the stakes of this election seemed existential to those not living on the coasts: voters in these areas saw evidence suggesting that their self-styled cultural betters would hunt them to extinction if given the chance. When President-elect Trump declared that “The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer,” he answered their most fervent desire: recognition as equals with their fellow countrymen.
While America was overdue for that correction, the spirit of revanchism animating it poses real dangers to the nation’s civic health. In the fullness of time, it will become apparent that President Obama’s most corrosive legacy was unhinging political power from constitutional restraints with unilateral exercises of executive power on issues ranging from illegal immigration to carbon emissions to the nuclear deal with Iran. On January 20, Obama will thus hand off to Donald Trump a dramatically enhanced executive branch. That presents the real possibility that the country may enter into an era of the bipartisan will to power, one in which both sides abandon procedural niceties in favor of running up the score on the opposition.
Though that may be an unsavory approach, it is not an irrational one. The normalization of extra-legal behavior has locked the two major parties into a kind of arms race, in which each side would find itself at a tactical disadvantage if it lays down its weapons. That is likely to remain the case unless and until the American political process yields a statesman with the capacity, and the will, to get both sides to yield to the constitutional order. Nothing about Donald Trump—a mercurial 70-year-old billionaire with low impulse control and a penchant for grandiosity—suggests that he is that man. He assumes office, however, with the greatest gift a new president can enjoy: low expectations. Let us hope that he defies them. It wouldn’t be the first time he’s surprised us.
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