In the end, the warnings got the story all backwards. Beware, the political analysts said—Donald Trump may be an incompetent, bigoted buffoon, but after he loses, a cleverer, more subtle, more respectable Trump will come along.
But it is Donald Trump who will become the leader of an unchecked white-nationalist and male-supremacist government, with control of the White House, Congress, and the Supreme Court—“a unified Republican government,” as a beaming House Speaker Paul Ryan hailed it. And Trump got there precisely because more respectable politicians and thinkers had already cleared the way for him.
When President Trump lifts his pen to deliver on his promises—an end to Obamacare, the slashing of federal regulations, cuts to business taxes—he will be signing legislation dreamed up by Ryan, the man celebrated by the political establishment for his seriousness about policy, who expressed condemnation of Trump’s speech and conduct as a candidate but never opposed his candidacy itself. When Trump appoints a ninth justice to the Supreme Court, he will be filling a seat held open by a Republican Senatorial blockade of President Obama’s nominating powers. When he rolls back the other achievements of the past eight years, he will be belatedly honoring Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s pledge in 2010 to do everything in his power to make Obama a one-term president.
Trump won the Republican nomination, and then the presidency and the whole of the government, by promising the party a full restoration. If he made those promises in embarrassing or vicious or disgusting terms, so be it. The National Review could turn up its nose at his candidacy, but the message he was delivering to the party voters—that they had been cheated and their country humiliated, that the Obama Administration had brought eight years of defeat that needed to be avenged—was the same message the entire ideological apparatus had been preaching. Obama was a tyrant, an unprecedented abuser of his powers, who had to be stopped by any means.
Mitt Romney, four years ago, saw what those means might be. His campaign was built to appeal to a shrinking but still immense voting bloc of white people, white men in particular, that was willing and ready to cast its vote against a coalition of everyone else in America. He did the best he could, in his role as a polite and dignified statesman, to rally that bloc, and he carried 24 states with it, winning 60 million votes—88 percent of those votes from white people.
The Romney campaign’s driving political view, though, was kept private, till it leaked out on video late in the race. He believed, or he told his donors he believed, that Obama’s support was based on 47 percent of the public who “are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. These are people who pay no income tax.” This near-half of the county had forfeited its right to political legitimacy. Obama was helping those people cheat regular Americans.
The part about the shame of not paying income tax necessarily fell by the wayside, but Trump took the essentials of the Romney message out of the back room and made them his open appeal to voters, amplified with warnings about depraved immigrant masses overrunning the country and about the hellish, lawless crime zones of the inner city. Where Romney hoped white people would vote their resentments, Trump called for them to do it, fabricating new resentments from thin air when the old ones got tired. Six hundred fifty million new people, flooding across our borders! If the people could see the peril, they could stop the peril.
It was nonsense, but white Americans live for nonsense. The Obama years had brought them uncomfortably close to the outer borders of where fantasy meets reality. Suddenly people were talking about historical and structural injustice in economic terms, with dollar figures attached. The white plurality recoiled from it, as it has always recoiled.
Thirty or 35 years ago, my school textbooks listed, as the 27th amendment to the Constitution, the Equal Rights Amendment. It had not been ratified, at the time of publication, but it was going to be. And then it wasn’t. The right wing, led by a woman who saw an opportunity, rallied against it, not only for the sake of keeping women’s rights out of the Constitution, but of building modern political institutions and attitudes and tactics capable of bending the moral arc of the universe right back whence it came.
Phyllis Schlafly’s own career as a full-time political activist was, to be sure, a visible and obvious contradiction of her anti-feminism. But obvious cynicism is what makes the nonsense so intoxicating and successful. Seventeen months ago, Donald Trump hired actors to cheer for his campaign announcement and told people they were watching a movement. He rarely told the truth about anything thereafter, till his deceit and sloppy contempt became his biggest qualification: If the white electorate could make a lazy grifter president, they would know for a fact that they were truly capable of anything.
Against this, Hillary Clinton had what? The cities, yes, securely. One and a half of the coasts, unbreakable for more than a generation now. It was a solid foundation if you wanted to win the whole country, but Trump had no interest in winning the whole country. Obama had won as much of the country as he could, and pledged to govern it all, and in return he got obstruction. The Republican governors of the South and Midwest, including the decisive battlegrounds of Florida and Wisconsin, refused the expansion of Medicaid for their own citizens, so they could tell people that Obama hadn’t done anything for them.
Govern badly, and convince the people that government doesn’t work. That was the long-term strategy, and it paid off. The Democrats countered with policy, incremental and complicated, the result of a party negotiating compromises with itself, in the false hope of getting the other party to join the agreement. You could find people saying the morning after the election that neoliberalism was defeated, but the neo- part of it is going to be just fine. The bankers and warmongers adjusted to Trumpian populism immediately; stocks in arms and prisons rose as soon as the markets opened.
What lost was plain liberalism, the belief that the worst parts of the world we live in could be reformed and ameliorated, even if slowly, through constructive civic engagement: That we could see a day when Rikers might close or the Chicago police might protect the public instead of only themselves. That the pool of people without health insurance might shrink still more. That we might restrain carbon emissions before Miami sinks into the ocean. That women might see their reproductive rights secured by more than the most grudging and provisional margins.
In all of those cases, the dispute between activists and pragmatists about the pace and scope of improvement is now over. There will be no more improvement. The police will be untrammeled, with the blessing of Trump and of Rudy Giuliani. The full repeal of Obamacare may proceed without interference. The fossil-fuel industry will be free to drill and dig and burn. Mike Pence will be able to ask Congress for whatever abortion laws he wants, and a revived right wing of the Supreme Court will be ready to defend them.
This is the agenda that the mainstream of the Republican Party has been trying to pass all along. The only real effect of the #NeverTrump movement was to reverse the existing pecking order in party leadership: Because committing to Trump looked so risky, his inner circle filled up with the most damaged of the Republican has-beens and extremists—Giuliani, Pence, Newt Gingrich—who had the least to lose, and who have startled themselves by vaulting into relevance. But the respectable party members will line up to support them in ruling the country.
Those good Republicans made the bad Republicans possible. The ultimate expression of the politics that gave us the 2016 election came not from Breitbart or Stormfront but from John Roberts, the courteous and thoughtful chief justice of the Supreme Court. It was Roberts who wrote the 5-4 opinion in 2013 that stripped crucial provisions from the Voting Rights Act, on the grounds that the country had already had enough of them. Times had changed, Roberts wrote, and jurisdictions that had been guilty of past discrimination no longer deserved to have federal supervision encroaching on their state sovereignty.
Freed from federal oversight, those states immediately joined in a coordinated Republican effort to restrict voting. Laws requiring voter I.D., known to depress minority turnout, proliferated, as did purges of voter rolls, cutbacks on early voting, and reductions in the number of available polling places. In preparation for 2016, legislators in North Carolina specifically targeted the voting opportunities that black voters relied on. Down the stretch in 2016, officials in multiple states were in a running struggle with federal judges, fending off court orders or defying them altogether to keep the restrictions in place.
The result reduced all other disputes about policy and politics to their essence: One party was trying to get more people to vote, and the other was trying to stop people from voting. That was what this election was about. The Republicans could cry warnings of voter fraud at their base, exploiting the asymmetric warfare between fantasy and truth, but they knew exactly what they were doing—North Carolina, by its own admission, sought to cut Sunday voting because the voters who used it were “disproportionately black” and “disproportionately Democratic.”
The decent Republicans, the ones willing to announce their outrage about pussy-grabbing and neo-Nazism and abusive language, did nothing to stop this effort. Ross Douthat, the junior of the responsible-conservative columnists at the New York Times, tweeted on the last weekend of the election that “neither voter fraud nor voter ID laws affect election outcomes except in the *most* extreme of extreme cases.”
This verdict, focusing on a few studies about one of the Republican suite of voter-suppression tactics, was oddly self-confident. If voter interference measures didn’t make a difference, why did so many Republicans put so much effort into implementing them?
The reason was that the white bloc, big though it is, is not growing. Once the Republicans had made the decision that their only voters were going to be white voters, their goal was to cap Democratic turnout where it could make a difference in the Electoral College. Despite Douthat’s confidence, Trump’s margin of victory in aggressively vote-suppressing Wisconsin was 27,257. (The Nation’s Ari Berman, the rare political reporter to have cared about the question, reported that 300,000 registered voters in Wisconsin lacked the necessary I.D.) In Michigan, which requires I.D. but has less stringent rules, his current margin is 11,837 votes.
The Democratic reaction, with eternal faith in process and democracy, is to fret about the candidate’s failure to inspire turnout. Trump’s populism couldn’t win the popular vote, any more than Mitt Romney had won it, but Hillary Clinton’s margin shrank enough below Obama’s to enable the Electoral College to do the work the founders designed it to do, to protect the ruling powers from the will of the people. “I still believe in America, and I always will,” Hillary Clinton said in her concession speech, after wishing Trump a successful presidency.
Paul Ryan, triumphant, had a somewhat different message. “This needs to be a time of redemption,” he said. In American history, “Redemption” is the name of a specific set of events: The overthrow of racially integrated government after the Civil War, through terrorism and murder, to give the defeated Confederates back the rulership they had briefly lost. The civil-rights victories of the newly restored Union would be rolled back for another hundred years. The victorious party is nothing if not in touch with nation’s traditions.