The polls were wrong. The media was wrong. And I was wrong.
American voters — or at least, half of them — wanted something different than what many of us expected they’d want. A man with the endorsements of zero national newspapers and zero living presidents, who lost all three debates, and who 61 percent of exit-poll respondents said was unqualified to be president, has won the presidency.
One reason we got things wrong is that we assumed most Americans had come around to realizing just how dangerous Donald Trump and his bad ideas were. After all, hadn’t we convinced our audiences of this many times over? Like many other “elites,” I’ve spent the better part of the past 17 months warning the public about Trump’s bigotry, misogyny, magical thinking and authoritarian impulses.
Unfortunately, also like many other “elites,” I have since learned that those I wanted most to heed these warnings did not. And in an increasingly siloed media environment, reaching — let alone persuading — those undisposed to listen to and agree with us appears increasingly impossible.
As a writer, I have always believed in the power of words. This election, and the parallel media echo chambers that have encased it, have shaken that belief. We writers can preach to the choir, but our chances of converting anyone outside our house of worship have narrowed.
Fortunately, I retain faith in another powerful tool: democracy. By which I mean democracy as defined by H.L. Mencken: “the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”
Maybe the only way for Americans to really, truly understand how toxic, wrongheaded and futile Trump’s policies are is to let him provide proof of concept.
That is, to give us Trumpism, good and hard.
Maybe the only way to prove that Trump can’t bring back manufacturing jobs, or coal jobs, or other jobs displaced by technology and productivity gains, is to let him try to do so through his ill-advised tariffs.
Yes, this may spark a trade war. Yes, it may lead to the losses of millions of jobs. But maybe that’s what Americans require in order to believe such things would happen, since they clearly don’t trust experts’ projections on such matters.
Likewise, maybe the only way for Americans to recognize that immigrants inject our economy with vitality and innovation, and help keep Medicare solvent, is to let Trump wall them out, and then see what happens to our workforce and entitlements.
Speaking of walls, maybe the only way for Americans to realize how much magical thinking infuses Trump’s promises is to let him try and fail to persuade Mexico to pay for his big, beautiful wall.
And also to let him try and fail to keep sick Americans from “dying on the streets” and prevent health-care prices from spiraling out of control, while simultaneously shredding Obamacare’s coverage and cost provisions. Let him twist in the wind as he struggles to define the vague “something terrific” that will replace the Affordable Care Act.
And also watch him try and fail to close the deficit while simultaneously implementing a $7 trillion tax cut without any spending offsets.
With Republicans dominating both houses of Congress, Trump should have little trouble transforming his many harebrained, math-challenged policy schemes into law, assuming he’s ever able to commit them to paper. With time, his economically anxious followers will realize that even after the swamp is drained and the bums thrown out, tough-talking Trump is still unable to improve their economic standing.
To borrow from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton”: Winning was easy, old man. Governing is harder.
To be sure, there are flaws in this plan.
Causality is always hard to determine, and Trump is prone to scapegoating. If his policies turn out to be a bust, he may blame the results on President Obama. Or other political enemies, or distrusted ethnic groups (assuming any remain after his policy agenda is fully implemented).
Or he may deny the negative outcomes entirely, given that he and his followers are prone to producing their own sets of facts and data.
Most disturbing, while the public is busy formulating its own first-person, expert-free verdict on his policy experiments, those experiments could do a lot of harm. They could put people’s lives at risk, both here and abroad, if he carries out his intentions to punish political enemies, double down on torture and other human rights violations, scale back civil liberties and encourage despots to roam (and bomb) freely.
So I guess that leaves me back where I started: wielding my almighty pen, hoping someone across the divide reads my scribblings, trying to read more carefully theirs, and urging Trump to do better, even if I know he’s not really listening. Maybe I’ll just be screaming into the void. But hopefully, on occasion, the void will scream back.