The ascendancy of Donald Trump is surprising, but it is not shocking. How could this have happened? Easily. We are not a society of angels. The poisons that Trump peddles have been loose in the land for a long time. For decades the Republican Party has played with this fire with increasing recklessness, until finally it surrendered to the ravaging flame. There was never anything “unimaginable” about the nasty anti-modern furies that carried this repulsive demagogue to the White House; more precisely, liberals appear to have suffered yet again from a failure of imagination. If our allegiance to the ideals of justice and equality and tolerance leaves us shocked at the persistent vitality of their opposites, then our idealism is parochial and naive. This is a country of wildly different destinies, and the belief in equality does not make people equal: The unprecedented pace of change, the daze of historical acceleration in which we live, produces a sensation of insecurity, a terrible volatility, that often results in fear. Trump battened off working-class panic and white panic. He practices the politics of panic. He is not the first: There is a tradition of such politics in America. In the wake of its victory, we must attend to its causes. Why all this American panic?
It is unforgivable not to know one’s own country. Yet the expansion of our understanding does not absolve us of the responsibility for judgment. To understand is not to forgive. Let us study the roots of populism and ponder the nature of ethnonationalism, but let us also maintain our disgust at the low and malign politics that have just prevailed. There is no economic analysis that can extenuate bigotry. The scapegoating of otherness by miserable people cannot be justified by their misery. Resentment, even when it has a basis in experience, is one of the ugliest political emotions, and it has been the source of horrors. Trump’s road to power was manifestly a foul road, even if it was supported by millions of people. Wisdom is never to be found in numbers. Trump’s success vouches only for his strategy. It says nothing about his probity or his decency. Those Americans who are ashamed that we have elected as our president a man bursting with prejudices and lies are right. Their shame makes America great again.
Isn’t it rich? The apostle of anger now hopes that we rise above anger. Having employed divisiveness as his primary instrument, the president-elect now implores us to put an end to our divisions. In the name of post-electoral comity, we are supposed to forget what we know. At this moment, therefore, it is important to affirm the reality, and the inevitability, and even the nobility, of some of our divisions. They are, some of them, based on fundamental distinctions of philosophy, on divergent conceptions of the individual and society, on incompatible ethical standpoints, on irreconcilable views of America and its responsibilities in the world. Vaporous homilies about working together — one of President Obama’s specialties, and behold his legacy — only confuse the situation. Where we can work together, let us work together — who is against infrastructure? The rehabilitation of compromise in a system of government designed for compromise would be a salutary development, though the unified Republican government makes it unlikely. Yet there is still the matter of first principles. There is no way to unite the view that one should deport the children of illegal immigrants with the view that one should not deport the children of illegal immigrants. This is what Martin Luther King Jr. meant when he deplored “the luxury of cooling off.” If the presidency of Donald Trump inspires anything, it should be a fierce spirit of opposition.
But Trump’s victory, we are told, was owed mainly to the hatred of Washington, which is plainly dysfunctional. It is indeed hard to say a kind word about Congress, which could not even find a way to act against Zika when it mattered most. But this, too, is rich. Republicans contribute significantly to the breaking of the system, and then they thunder to the country that the system is broken. They refuse to govern, and then they denounce government. They seem to confuse governing with having their way. And more to the point, how does this vast alienation from Washington excuse this vast contempt for whole groups and races and genders? The same question must be asked of the anti-elitism upon which Trump based his campaign. Never mind the bad joke of the billionaire from Fifth Avenue and Palm Beach pretending to be an outsider, a man of the margins. The real issue is the relationship of social status to decency. There is no such relationship. It is not elitist to respect Muslims and Mexicans and African Americans and women and immigrants and Jews, and a blue collar is not a moral pass. A college education is not a requirement for, nor a guarantee of, a moral compass: There are educated members of the American elite who spectacularly lack one, such as the man who was elected president Tuesday. And there are “poorly educated” Americans who abundantly express kindness and solidarity for Americans unlike themselves. Neither the elites nor the masses have a monopoly on qualities of character. But Trump’s American vision despises people at the top and people at the bottom. It is an inclusive vision.
The demons that have haunted our society for decades and even centuries, the vile illiberalism that currently disgraces other governments in the West, will now inhabit the White House. Difficult times are giving way to dark times, and dark times require a special lucidity and a special vigilance and a special ferocity about principle. We must not lose our faith in moral progress and in social progress, but we must remember that moral progress and social progress are not linear and unimpeded and inevitable. There will always be reversals and setbacks, because change rattles the world that preceded it. If you demand justice, prepare for instability, and for the exploitation of instability by political reactionaries who weaken the wounded with nostalgia and fantasies of exclusiveness. The struggle for reform is often succeeded by the struggle to repeal reform. Trumpism, insofar as it is coherently anything, is a great promise of repeal. If Trump succeeds in his repeal, then the fight for the repeal of the repeal must begin. There is nothing Sisyphean or cynical about this. It is the abiding condition of a democracy comprising conflicting ideals. The fight is never over.
The prettification of Donald Trump has begun. When a crushed Hillary Clinton graciously asked that Trump be given “a chance to succeed,” I confess that I felt no such graciousness. This made me as small as Mitch McConnell, I know. But if Trump succeeds, America may fail; and it is America, its values and its interests, whose success matters most desperately to me. No cooling off, then. We must stay hot for America. The political liberty that we cherish in this precious republic is most purely and exhilaratingly experienced as the liberty to oppose.