Writing in the relaunched, Bustle-owned Gawker, Australian Patrick Marlborough argues that we need the ability to mute America. “Why? Because America has no chill. America is exhausting. America is incapable of letting something be simply funny instead of a dread portent of their apocalyptic present. America is ruining the internet. […] America insists that you bear witness to it tripping on its dick and slamming its face into an uncountable row of scalding hot pies. You do more than bear witness, because American Twitter has the same kind of magnetic pull as a garbage disposal unit.”
To be honest, I felt a bit weird listening to and enjoying the Hamilton soundtrack. That’s because I’m descended in part from Loyalists from New York. My people were on the opposite side from Alexander Hamilton: the farmers he refuted, and the people he fought against, both rhetorically and literally.
The Woodhull side of my family—my father’s mother’s side—makes a big deal of our Loyalist background, though (as you will see) not every Woodhull was a Loyalist.1 Before my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Benjamin Woodhull (1741-1810)2 made a run for the border after the American Revolution, they hailed from Suffolk County on Long Island.3
Benjamin’s father, Josiah Woodhull (1695-1761) built what is now known as Josiah Woodhull House around 1720; his father, Richard Woodhull Jr. (1649-1699), founded Brookhaven. There are rather a lot of Woodhulls on both sides of the border (not all of them made a run for it, you see), and they’re a rather clannish bunch who are very much into their family history: my grandmother often told me that if I ever encountered someone who spelled their last name that way, they were a descendant of Richard Woodhull and therefore a relative.4
Those relatives include, on the treasonous side of the family, Abraham Woodhull (1750-1826), a son of Benjamin’s first cousin, who as “Samuel Culper Sr.” acted as a leading member of the Culper Ring, spying on the British during their occupation of New York.5 They also include Victoria Claftin Woodhull (1838-1927), a free love advocate who ran for president of the United States in 1872 on the Equal Rights Party ticket, getting arrested on obscenity charges a few days before the vote. (Her nominal running mate was, get this, Frederick Douglass, though he did not campaign or even acknowledge the nomination.) Aunt Vickie was a distant relative of mine by marriage, having married (and divorced) Canning Woodhull (ca. 1828-1872), a grandson of Benjamin’s son Robert (1765-1848),6 who treacherously went back to the U.S., settling in upstate New York. Canning was apparently “an alcoholic and a womanizer,” and he married Vickie when she was 15 and he was twice her age,7 so we’d rather talk about her than him.
My mother’s side of the family tree was a bit more opaque, a bit less researched—possibly because they’re a bit less full of themselves than the Woodhulls. They’re from New Brunswick, which was carved out of Nova Scotia in 1784 because of the arrival there of thousands of Loyalist refugees. A Loyalist connection seemed likely there as well, but I wanted to make sure of it before I started spouting off online about my Loyalist roots.
So I did something I never expected myself to do: I committed genealogical research.
Il faut désormais faire face outre-Atlantique à l’arbitraire et à l’incompétence la plus totale. Je ne sais ce qui est le pire. Ce que je sais, aimant ce pays depuis toujours, c’est que les États-Unis ne sont plus tout à fait les États-Unis.—Henry Rousso
When reports started appearing on social media that a distinguished French historian had been detained and nearly deported by U.S. officials at Houston’s international airport, I thought, as I clicked the link, that I probably knew who it was.
And indeed I do: the historian in question is none other than Henry Rousso, whose book, translated into English as The Vichy Syndrome, is absolutely essential reading for anyone studying the Second World War and its aftermath: it looks at the ways France has remembered, commemorated — and forgotten — the War, the Holocaust, the Occupation and the Resistance. (That book loomed very, very large in my studies.)
Last Wednesday, Rousso was travelling to the U.S. to speak at Texas A&M University; his 10-hour detention has been described as a mistake by an “inexperienced” officer. Rousso describes his experience in this French-language Huffington Post article. Basically, when he was pulled out for a random check, he was asked whether he was coming to the U.S. for compensated work (his talk) as a tourist; the U.S. does not require a visa from French tourists, and most people have taken this sort of thing very casually, but U.S. officials seem to be getting more strict about it. His previous J1 visa, issued for his visiting professorship at Columbia University last fall, was flagged, and he was accused of entering the U.S. on that (now-expired) visa. Texas A&M had to haul ass to prevent his deportation and ensure he could give his talk last Friday.
France takes its history very seriously, and that extends to its historians. I’m not at all surprised that Emmanuel Macron, the centrist presidential candidate with a real shot at beating Marine Le Pen, tweeted his support for Rousso. Make no mistake: France noticed this.
The Gish Gallop, named after creationist Duane Gish, is a rhetorical strategy of “drowning your opponent in a flood of individually weak arguments in order to prevent rebuttal of the whole argument collection without great effort.” Donald Trump’s variant of the Gish Gallop substitutes weak arguments with scandals and outrage, any one of which would normally be a political career-ender. But because Trump generates as many outrages in a day as most politicians do in a year, his political career stays alive. How? Because he presents too many targets for his opponents to get any purchase against a single one, and they exhaust themselves. It’s the political equivalent of a bed of nails, where the sheer number spreads the pressure out so that no single outrage can stab you and give you tetanus.
In Trump’s hands, this strategy—wearing out and outlasting any opposition by giving it too many targets—has been extremely effective. He’s been deploying it throughout the campaign and now the transition, and there’s no doubt his presidency will be the same.
Shortly after the 2004 Canadian federal election, in which Paul Martin’s Liberals won a minority government after a negative campaign on all sides, I observed that negative campaigning was insufficient to win an election:
I’m of the opinion that negative campaigning does in fact work, but you can’t win an election on negativity alone. This was the mistake that both the Liberals and Conservatives made: they spent all their time explaining how terrible it would be to elect the other guys, without making the case for themselves. In a nutshell, they both ran terrible campaigns — the minority result is, I think, proof that neither side was persuasive on their own behalf.
Governments tend to get elected on positive messages — Chrétien in 1993 with da liddle red book, Clinton in 1992 — even if they’re combined with a strong negative message. “We can do better than that crap, and here’s how” is much better than “This is crap, and they’re all assholes” — which may well be true, but it doesn’t necessarily make the case why someone should vote for you.
Earlier this year I suddenly remembered that I once wrote that, and worried that the Clinton campaign was about to make the same mistake. Yes, she had a detailed platform, and it was there for anyone who cared to look at it, but the key thrust of her campaign was that Trump was an awful human being who should not be president. You’d think that would be enough. They did. It should have been. But it isn’t, and it wasn’t. Remember: according to the exit polls, 12.6 percent of voters believed that Trump was untrustworthy and temperamentally unfit to be president, and still voted for him.
Paradoxically, for all the narcissistic rage and race-baiting and intolerance and thuggish behaviour, Trump at least made specific, clear promises that, while horrible or impossible, were easy to understand. His campaign was at least for something; ordinary people could point to him and say “at least he’s going to do something about all this.” Clinton was for a lot of things too. But her platform got lost in the weeds for a number of reasons, one of them being that it wasn’t simple or clear enough to cut through the other side’s Gish gallop. Her campaign didn’t keep it simple; Trump’s did. I can’t help but wonder whether that was a factor.
With respect to the U.S. presidential election results, most of my social circle is still at the anger and denial stages of grief. Me, I’m a historian by training, so I tend to bury myself in trying to understand how and why it happened.
It’s familiar ground for me: I have considerable background in the rise of extreme right-wing movements in mid-20th-century Europe; understanding why and how the extreme right came to power is an important area of study in my former field.
I appreciate that activists on the ground right now won’t have much patience for that sort of analysis — they’re not interested in understanding the motives of people who voted for a racist, misogynist bigot — but I think that’s a mistake. If you want to fix the problem, and, you know, prevent it from happening again, you have to understand it first.
Let’s begin with the surprising and inexplicable fact that Trump performed far better among constituencies that he had absolutely no business doing so well in.
According to the exit polls — the New York Times has a marvellous infographic here — Trump held on to 42 percent of the women’s vote, only one point down from Romney in 2012. He actually won 53 percent of the white women’s vote (white women with a college education supported Clinton 51 to 45 percent). How the hell did that happen?
It gets weirder. Trump got 29 percent of the Latino vote — that’s up eight points from Romney in 2012. (Though Latino Decisions questions that number, pointing out that a large portion of the Latino electorate voted before Election Day.) He also got 8 percent of the African American vote (up 7) and 29 percent of the Asian American vote (up 11).
If the exit polls are accurate — and I don’t know how big an if that is — then Trump held his own among women voters despite repeated allegations of sexual assault and harassment (plus, you know, the pussy-grabbing), and improved his standing with Latino voters despite the build-the-wall rhetoric and calling Mexicans rapists.
This is, on its face, insane.
And if you think that’s crazy, dig this: a substantial number of Trump’s voters didn’t think very much of him.
Trustworthiness was a wash: about equal numbers said Clinton and Trump were untrustworthy (61 and 63 percent), and of those voters, about one in five voted for them anyway. We’re used to not trusting our politicians very much. But 63 percent of respondents also said that Trump didn’t have the temperament to serve effectively as president, and one in five of those respondents — 20 percent — voted for him anyway.1
One gets the impression that the Clinton campaign strategy to portray him — quite correctly, in my view — as temperamentally unfit for the presidency didn’t work very well. Not if 12.6 percent of the entire electorate agreed with their
That 12.6 percent was roughly six times what Clinton would have needed to win.
Many commentators point to racism, or at least the lack of discomfort in voting for a racist candidate. They’re almost certainly right. But that’s at least partially problematized by Trump’s small-but-not-insignificant minority support, plus the fact that the regions that swung to Trump this time had no trouble voting for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. Glenn Greenwald points to economic anxiety, which he describes as “inextricably linked” with racism, sexism and xenophobia:
[O]ne must confront the fact that not only was Barack Obama elected twice, but he is poised to leave office as a highly popular president: now viewed more positively than Reagan. America wasn’t any less racist and xenophobic in 2008 and 2012 than it is now. Even stalwart Democrats fond of casually branding their opponents as bigots are acknowledging that a far more complicated analysis is required to understand last night’s results. As the New York Times’s Nate Cohn put it: “Clinton suffered her biggest losses in the places where Obama was strongest among white voters. It’s not a simple racism story.” Matt Yglesias acknowledged
that Obama’s high approval rating is inconsistent with depictions of the U.S. as a country “besotted with racism.”
People often talk about “racism/sexism/xenophobia” vs. “economic suffering” as if they are totally distinct dichotomies. Of course there are substantial elements of both in Trump’s voting base, but the two categories are inextricably linked: The more economic suffering people endure, the angrier and more bitter they get, the easier it is to direct their anger to scapegoats. Economic suffering often fuels ugly bigotry. It is true that many Trump voters are relatively well-off and many of the nation’s poorest voted for Clinton, but, as Michael Moore quite presciently warned, those portions of the country that have been most ravaged by free trade orgies and globalism — Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Iowa — were filled with rage and “see [Trump] as a chance to be the human Molotov cocktail that they’d like to throw into the system to blow it up.” Those are the places that were decisive in Trump’s victory.
Countering the economic argument (and in support of the racism argument), people point to exit poll data that show Clinton winning voters making less than $50,000 per year. (It’s actually pretty close above $50K — Trump never does better than 50 percent.)
But that’s not how economic anxiety works. Economic anxiety is greatest among the people who are doing better than that — a bit better, but they think they’re not doing better enough, and they’re worried that they could lose what they have. It’s not a paradox for people making a bit more money to be afraid for their economic circumstances.
And indeed, we find that among respondents who say that their family financial situation is worse today than it was four years ago (27 percent of respondents), Trump won bigly — 78 to 19 percent. Among respondents who thought that the next generation of Americans would have it worse than today (34 percent of respondents), Trump won 63 to 31 percent. If you were doing well, better off than you were four years ago, or thought things would get better in the future, you almost certainly voted for Clinton. Trump won the pessimist vote.
Small wonder then that of the 39 percent of respondents who said that the most important candidate quality was that they “can bring needed change,” 83 percent voted for Trump.
So. Economic anxiety facilitates bigotry and makes a Trump victory possible.
Some voters — just enough voters to make the difference — made the decision to accept the bigotry and vote their economic anxiety.
This is not to excuse or explain away the bigotry. But if you think the rise of the Nazis had nothing to do with economic anxiety, you don’t know your history.
John Scalzi makes the analogy of subscribing to a cable package: you really want HBO, but you also get Cinemax. Regardless of whether you really only wanted HBO, you’re still a Cinemax subscriber. In voting their economic anxiety, they also voted for racism, sexism, homophobia, and harassment.
That’s not the sort of thing that makes Clinton supporters feel very favourably toward them at the moment.
That’s understandable in the moment, but a mistake in the long run, because some of these voters — some — are voters the Democrats had before, and could get back. And they’ll need them back, if they want to regain the White House. You can’t get the racist vote. You don’t want the racist vote. But you only need a few percentage points — the gettable voters who broke for Trump in the end.
(I’m leaving aside the question of depressed voter turnout and minority voter suppression, mostly because it’s not something exit poll data can deal with.)
Writing in Slate, Helaine Olen argues that Clinton blew the campaign in precisely the same way her husband did not in 1992: by making the campaign about Trump’s character and not the economy — whose improved fortunes are not evenly distributed. What may have done her in was not her email server, but her private speeches and Wall Street ties.
Trump, on the other hand, was incredibly canny. He said four words that I suspect resonated with this part of the electorate — “The system is rigged” — and four more words that neutralized his billionaire status and, incredibly, suggested he empathized with them: “Believe me, I know.”
And that’s one way of explaining how we got here. How the pussy-grabber and the wall-builder managed to get support from women and minority voters. Because this campaign was more about the economy than the Clinton campaign realized, to its — and our — chagrin.
- Forty-three percent said the same thing about Clinton; only five percent of those voted for her anyway.
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 no 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.