People hated the 2012 presidential election, too. They publicly prayed for its end. It was irritating and stupid; the discourse was cheap and disappointing. Like every other election of our lifetimes, it was, all agreed, the most important, yet somehow comprised a handful of seemingly randomly-chosen and insipid points of contention.
This one, though—this one was a real soulfucker all the way down. This was one not just to be endured but also feared, dragging in its wake anyone unlucky enough to own a television or computer or know someone in real life who did. This was “binders full of women” replaced with people in crowds chanting “Execute her!” This was the first time in a long time that essayists using Nazi analogies weren’t just lazy bastards fumbling for nouns more evocative than their own ideas.
This one had everything: nativism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, misogyny, sexual assault allegations aplenty, and a final annihilation of all sense of shared history and foundational fact. And, on the other side, a compromised candidate whose organization trammeled the most economically promising working-class campaign in generations to deliver what is by now the Democratic Party’s sweetest platform: sheer, uncompromising terror at the alternative.
If you still enjoyed this election at the end, there was nothing left inside you to break before it started. And maybe, at its close, there’s a reason to keep going.
It took a long time to realize that people had replaced their 2012 complaints of “This is so annoying, I wish it was over,” with a far simpler and more frequent confession: “This is making me so depressed.”
Going by social media, it seemed the happiest people were those who went camping or did something to take them off the grid for days. When they returned, they all had the same feeling, voiced different ways: That a weight was gone—some imperceptible yoke around their necks lifted for just a while—before the immediacy of the campaign slammed it back down again, each day adding the burden of some new disposable atrocity.
It was that transience, the way what should have been horrifying managed to simply disappear, that felt most shattering. Donald Trump finally hacked the system in the most brutal way possible. He and his brace of vampire ministers understood the virtues of the George W. Bush meat grinder better than Dubya and company did: If you speed it up fast enough, you can throw anything in there and turn it to an unrecognizable mash of blood and bone. You just cannot reflect, cannot apologize and cannot ever pause long enough for anyone to digest it. Horror normalizes if it never stops.
Of course, Trump had help.
By any civil criteria, the first day of Trump’s campaign should have been disqualifying. His slander of immigrants as rapists and murderers should have immediately taken him out of contention for the Republican nomination, if only because he’d just jettisoned an entire potential demographic. But even that sets the critical moment too late. Years of unapologetic birtherism should have made his candidacy unviable before he glided down the Trump Tower escalator.
None of this stood out, however, among the Republican primary field. The exact people who should have encircled Trump and put him down had already been profiting for years by fostering a climate of nativism and opportunistically othering Barack Obama. To have declared Trump anathema would have disqualified the entire field of dimwitted mountebanks who had either blown the same tunes on a dog whistle themselves or already hugged, endorsed and tongue-bathed any number of more overtly malicious thugs in their midst. Besides, that stuff works.
This was the only fun part of the campaign—watching career predators tangled up and then hacked down on the same ground on which they’d seeded a dozen different prejudices for over a generation. By the time they realized they had both supplied and sanctified every odious weapon in Trump’s arsenal, it was too late. They could not turn to the media for rescue, because they had delegitimized the entirety of the mainstream media in their followers’ eyes, while praising and cultivating conservative pseudo-media reaffirming everything their voters wanted to believe.
By the time Trump cleared the Republican field, the machine was already spinning out of control, and there was nothing left to stop it. This campaign demonstrated the near extinction of journalism as a function vital to the creation of a commonwealth built on a mutually recognized past.
Journalism—especially conservative journalism—is a curated experience now; readers block extraneous and unwanted data from social-media feeds and choose outlets based on how they reflect their identities and decisions made before they’ve engaged with facts. What happened yesterday and what it could cause tomorrow become entirely extraneous to the process of dividing the world into a protective binary: that which is validating, and that which it is valid to destroy.
You’d think journalists wouldn’t care. Everyone already hates us anyway, and career scribblers are a hardy lot; you have to be to get past the sense that asking strangers about themselves is intrusive. But it is profoundly unnerving to wake up midway through a campaign and realize that your profession has in many respects epistemologically ceased to exist. It’s like being a mathematician and showing up to work one day and finding out numbers have been discontinued, except for, say, 7 (for use by Frank Black), 69 (the sex number) and 420 (Hitler’s birthday).
Nobody wants to admit it—because, between Wednesday morning and January, nearly every mainstream media outlet will start firing people to offset the plunge in traffic that follows an election, and nobody wants to give a boss an excuse to single them out—but somewhere along this 22-month slog, everyone felt the relentless futility set in.
(Anyone who didn’t feel it at some point was probably a dead-souled hack who made the election journey from behind a computer to in front of a camera and probably can’t reply to Chris Matthews when John Podesta or Robby Mook are drinking glasses of water. They know who they are, and now no one with a job outside a campaign staff will ever trust them again to even give directions.)
Why rail against the latest Donald Trump atrocity when simply waiting a day or two would see two or three more spatter across the collective consciousness like a goose shitting off a balcony? Donald Trump lies every other breath, with the mechanical dependency of a barfly sucking a Doral to offset the flavor of $2 well drinks. What, really, would it mean to unpack the most recent comment from a man liable to suddenly tell a crowd of Iowans, “We can’t let the Mexicans in, because they do donkey shows there. The women, they give them to the donkeys. It’s terrible. It’s really very disgusting, because we used to have much better donkeys, but now the Chinese fuck them”?
That sense of futility didn’t ultimately redound just on people in khakis sitting at laptops. It eventually fell on the heads of the sorts of citizens most easily and historically most often victimized. What undermined a profession also deepened and spread to undermine the sense of safety of millions of people.
Take another disqualifying moment. In any other election, naming Steve Bannon the CEO of a campaign would send it off to the turd graveyard with the swift aplomb of a toilet-flushed fish funeral. Bannon was not only executive chairman of Breitbart News—a website that made its bones on race-baiting and fraud—but he was also accused of domestic battery and of telling his wife he didn’t want their daughters going to school with Jews.
That might have been just a he-said/she-said thing, but then there’s the pesky matter of the Trump campaign’s repeated flirtation with anti-Semitism and invocation of rootless global financial interests preying on hardworkin’ white folk. A closing campaign ad dripped with enough anti-Semitic tropes that it almost echoed the sort of vivid prose regularly found in Der Stürmer and which the Breitbart Klavern of The Untalented so regularly fails to achieve, despite its best efforts.
The outrage lasted the lifespan of a mayfly; the Trump campaign did not suffer, and it did not change. But we had, in that short duration, signaled to every citizen with Jewish heritage that—here, in the 21st century, between our two parties—they could be leverage, and they could be targets, but they could not feel safe.
Or take another disqualifying moment, only slightly less evanescent, memorialized in Clinton campaign ads but normalized all the same. The tape of Trump confessing to Access Hollywood’s Billy Bush that he can get away with just grabbing women “by the pussy” should have seen him packed inside a cannon atop grapeshot and fired into iron spikes. The stream of women who emerged to confirm Trump’s account of his own violative hands should have been enough for us to salt and burn his bones.
Instead, he denied it. Then he threatened to sue. And then he brought out women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual harassment and sexual assault, and what should have been apocalyptic outrage descended into “both sides did it” pantomime before everyone was distracted by yet another Trump claim or tweet or luxurious asininity. Even flatly granting that every Clinton accuser was telling the truth would not have been exculpatory for Trump. All it could have proved was the moral repugnance of Bill Clinton running for president today, a condition that would not have spared Trump the same judgment.
Instead, events played out like a nightmare scenario in which every watchword of women’s rights and leftist activism was put into action and on display; assuming the brainpower, it couldn’t have been assembled more nauseatingly in a Breitbart Bangbus. Flat denial, gaslighting, slut-shaming and the mob targeting of each accuser followed in rapid succession. Every woman victim of sexual violence in America got to watch as some rancid avatar of her own worst experience played out again and again and again and again on every airport TV and Facebook feed in this country—mainstreamed and unpunished, just another byproduct of our adversarial and most venerated secular tradition. This is what this nation can be: a toleration of vileness if it belongs to the other side, a frightened and constant 50% gamble that the next person you see acquiesces to the pitiless commodification and appropriation of your body.
And then there are the Latinos, demonized so early that it was easy to stomp their fears for their own safety into the ground in the mad stampede to report on the next novel Trump offense against decency.
It didn’t start with him, of course.
For years, Republicans toured desert sweat tents or nodded approvingly about nighttime city raids for “illegals,” then praised and stood for photo ops with birther/eliminationist Sheriff Joe Arpaio, America’s answer to the fat sweating Sturmabteilung meathead in every Nazi movie who hopes to one day move up the ranks to fat sweating Gauleiter.
For years, off-brand militia shitheads did weekend-warrior duty in their own White National Guard, patrolling the southwest in American “technicals”—armed yahoos in truck tailgates hunting the desert like a pack of hyenas ready to interdict “illegals” by whatever means occurred to them. And conservative think-tanker after conservative elected official after conservative media personality praised their initiative.
For years, the forces of conservatism ramped up gradually toward support of a kind of passive eliminationist cleansing, bursting into mainstream, clean-hands acceptance when Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and 2012 Republican Presidential Nominee Mitt Romney endorsed so totally immiserating, harassing and isolating undocumented immigrants that they “self-deported.”
After decades of this, Donald Trump might be the tallest toadstool, but the white, conservative revanchism that helped him grow until he broke free into daylight is the two-mile wide honey mushroom growing under the Malheur National Forest, last home to the exonerated Ammon Bundy and the gang. Donald Trump might be novel in severity, but in every other respect he was fucking inevitable. If people sow the earth with that much hatred, eventually it bears twisted fruit.
Trump’s Islamophobia was so cartoonish and so unrelenting that there isn’t a scintilla of reason or decency to mention. His treatment of the Khan family appears in Clinton attack ads. Yesterday, he spent time in Minnesota lamenting the presence of Somali refugees, pitying their state, then convincing himself and that they had fled warlords and tried to integrate in the United States only to then join ISIS. That’s efficiency.
Arrayed against all of the above were Hillary Clinton and the sex-positive and diversity-promoting Democratic oligarchy. They wanted Trump for an opponent the first moment it seemed possible, and it’s not hard to see why. Trump obviated the need for anything beyond his opposite.
Trump means never having to say you’re sorry for Libya or Iraq. Trump keeps you from parsing how an unlivable $12/hour wage is any less unjust than the current unlivable minimum. Trump allows you to sidestep potentially ratfucking Bernie Sanders after using pet incompetent Debbie Wasserman Schultz to schedule every debate at 3:20 a.m. on Leap Day at the same time as a mandatory civil-defense drill. Trump only cares that your Goldman Sachs speeches were secret and not that they were anything other than a denunciation. Trump doesn’t know what the words “carceral state” mean, and is too busy trying to expand it to ask why you helped build so much of it. Trump never leans over from the debate podium and asks you how it is that you’re the Democratic Party nominee and only started supporting marriage equality the day before yesterday.
Trump is the truest, purest dream for a party that spent the last decade and change borrowing its healthcare ideas from the Heritage Foundation and only got dragged back to a grudging recognition of its own history by a 70-year-old socialist. He is the perfect answer because none other is needed.
Beneath the aegis of every Trump atrocity is a political geography that requires no excuses other than pointing a finger forebodingly at him. He is The One. And for whatever optimism Sanders shone briefly into this shadowland, there is no unbinding the Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party from their most beloved scenario—where it does not matter that we do not believe what we say, where it does not matter that we will not try to achieve a tenth of what we pledge, where it does not matter that our dreams of economic justice are so marginal and parsimonious that they would have seemed retrograde at the start of our grandparents’ generation: for there, on the other side, is the monster.
What incredible luck that this time it wasn’t an exaggeration.
Donald Trump is going to get his shit stomped, driven frantically up into his tower redoubt by a woman crowdsurfing a mob of other women, non-whites, and gay people. He is one on-air pantsing away from living out every jock-bully’s apex high school anxiety dream. The only questions now are whether he tries to inflame a white-supremacist terror and when the help will find him slumped in a plated-gold shower after a late-night snack on the contents of his medicine cabinet. His aides can burn the body so Barack Obama doesn’t take it back to the Black Kremlin.
For the rest of us—after the longest, lowest descent into the least of us, led by a meringue-haired shit-for-brains Virgil into his phantasmic subterranean Mall of America—there is something like a haze of light at the top corner of the chamber.
To borrow a bit from Brooklyn College political science professor Corey Robin, Trump is what happens when a party defined by opposition and negation has expended its enemies and not found new ones around which to reify itself. Labor is hobbled. Busing and integration halted. The social safety net shattered and is now riven with market-forces and private-charity solutions. There are fewer dragons left to slay and, for now, only greater severity in loathing those few things that cannot be eradicated.
You can go broke betting on the dissolution of the Republican Party, and many bright establishment minds did just so in 1964, only to watch conservatism remake and unmake this country for the next 40 years. It will not happen now either.
But we are on the verge of a greater realignment, for both parties. At least for a time, one will be spun out into disaggregated vortices of well-nurtured hatreds, each overseen by different opportunistic frauds promoting various competing bigotries and fears, until enough years pass that it all can coalesce into a more traditionally Republican and focused loathing: Ted Cruz devouring the religious protections of the First Amendment like a goat gnawing discarded soup cans, Marco Rubio weeping simpering salt tears while sucking the blood out of a public school, each eyeing the other suspiciously until slammed together into some mutant DNA of a more perfect subhuman.
And, on the left, even if we do not see a “reconstitution of organized labor as a multiracial and intersectional movement of men and women,” even if years of organizing among Latino voters for get-out-the-vote does not translate into real solidarity with those on the ground, and even if we do not immediately withdraw from the “serious” political brinksmanship with conservatism that defines cowardice as only drone-bombing on odd-numbered days, there are two things from which to take heart.
First, Hillary Clinton will very likely prove to be the most conservative Democratic candidate for a generation.
Second, everything everyone has endured this campaign, every degradation of the human spirit, every sneer at women and blacks and Latinos and Jews and Muslims—all that used to win presidential elections. Very easily. And now, if someone wants to march across the bodies stretched across the nation’s breadth all the way to the White House, they will have to walk very long, and hard, uphill.
Jeb Lund was a political columnist at The Guardian, Rolling Stone, and Gawker Media. You can follow him on Twitter and anti-downsize him from there.