What Comes Next?

Last night’s election result is unquestionably bad news. Trying to get a handle on how bad, and in what ways, is next to impossible and has kept me up most of the night doing the threat assessment thing, and trying to come up with some initial thoughts that are at least semi-coherent.

There are many ways in which America is already a messed up and dangerous place. The carceral state, the civil asset forfeiture, the security theatre, the heavily armed hair-trigger police, the pervasive fear that leads so many to double down on gun ownership despite the repeated social costs — these are things that make me feel unsafe every time I visit the United States, and I’m a straight white male.

I don’t expect I’ll be able to travel to the United States again at this point. It doesn’t seem to be a safe place for foreigners right now, even straight white male foreigners.

And as a straight white male I don’t have to deal with the systemic racism and sexism that pervades every aspect of law and justice, that seems ready, even joyful, to come pouring through any breach and that affects nearly every aspect of public and private policy.

These problems continued to exist — did not cease to exist — when Obama was elected. His presence in the White House may have lulled us into thinking they were solved. Were past. But they’ve persisted for decades.

Trump is a symptom of a problem far larger, and far more pathological, something that has been festering for decades, if not the entire history of the nation.

America presents two faces to itself and the world: one is sublime, generous, inspirational, cosmopolitan; the other venal, suspicious, distrustful, parochial. The incongruity exists at once: America can swing from World War II to McCarthyism in the space of a few years, simultaneously engage in the Apollo Program and the Vietnam War — and vote for Trump after electing Obama twice.

America is a contradiction, a paradox. It contains multitudes. And no matter what your politics, it will always, always break your heart in the end.

Last night represented a complete failure of the political class — politicians, strategists and pollsters alike — and the media. Conventional wisdom and custom have been disproven at a basic level. It now remains to be seen whether more fundamental American institutions can withstand the oncoming storm. I’d like to think (I hope I’m not naïve in thinking) that U.S. institutions are robust enough to resist any turn to authoritarianism and dictatorship — that the checks and balances, and the professionalism of the civil service, the armed forces, the courts and law enforcement will be sufficient to the task. (But the same could have been said about the Prussian officer corps in the 1930s.)

It’s hard to maintain faith under circumstances such as these. I shudder to think how Trump and a Republican Congress will respond to — will use for their own purposes — the next terrorist incident.

But when I’m feeling optimistic, I think that it’s more likely for Trump to be Berlusconi than Mussolini. A narcissist with no agenda other than self-promotion is not likely to be focused or dedicated enough to do damage on his own — he simply doesn’t have the attention span. He’ll get bored with the minutiae of government quickly enough. No, the problem will be the people around him, full of passionate intensity and given a free hand so long as they pay sufficient obeisance to the boss. There will be drama aplenty as they jockey for position in the Trump White House — a situation perfectly suited to someone who lives to dominate, be in control, and be the centre of attention.

In the end drama, rather than achievement, will be the order of the day, particularly if President Trump continues to indulge in getting revenge for every slight against him. Those of us familiar with the mayoralty of Rob Ford or the governorship of Paul LePage will have some idea of what to expect. If that prevents the Trump administration from getting very much done, that’s probably a blessing, in the sense of mitigated damage. But things that need doing will get botched — there will always be another Hurricane Katrina on the horizon, another opportunity to do a heckuva job.

The impact on the rest of the world is more complicated. Does the election of Trump represents an inward turn, a return to American isolationism? I can think of a few cases where U.S. withdrawal and indifference wouldn’t be such a bad thing. But I’d rather that NATO wasn’t one of them, particularly during an Article 5 event (such as a Russian move into the Baltic states). And while I don’t think Trump is going to blow up the world, I honestly don’t want to think too much about what happens when his tendency to lash out is combined with first-strike capabilities.

Many of my American friends are terrified this morning. I don’t know what comfort I can be to them. For one thing, I’m kind of scared myself. For another, I really don’t understand the American experience. My country has different institutions and cultural and political norms — I can’t reassure someone who lives in a country that already freaks me out on several levels. The whole world seems to be on a rightward, authoritarian, xenophobic turn: central Europe’s done so, Erdoğan’s shown his colours, Britain’s gone brexit, and Le Pen just might win the next French election. And now Trump. I’m not entirely sure how Canada has dodged that particular bullet. I hope no one else notices that we have.

In the end, though, I honestly don’t know what comes next. Whatever happens, let’s do our best to survive it. That’s our first order of business.