What Are We Trying to Figure Out?

Until November 8th, it seemed clear that one thing was going to happen, and now another thing—the exact opposite—happened, and I can’t see how this doesn’t provoke a sense of chagrin and humility.

How are mutely inexpressive votes—boxes ticked once every four years by a minority of the voting-age electorate—legible?

Photograph by Rachel Ossip.

Like many people, I’ve spent most mornings in tears. I’m frightened for my life and for the lives of many others. This is unprecedented and completely unexpected—and the confidence of many commentators about what happened is not only unearned, but less important than frankness and honesty about our bewilderment and estrangement. Until November 8th, it seemed clear that one thing was going to happen, and now another thing—the exact opposite—happened, and I can’t see how this doesn’t provoke a sense of chagrin and humility. I would like to acknowledge how catastrophic this is, how deeply unnerving and scary, what a triumph of the worst forces in American and international life, and it has so many sources that I worry in rushing to judgment, we miss out on the weird, sad, crazy thing that has happened.

The problem is an international one. People have been frightened of far right parties taking over in the countries of advanced capitalism—and lo, it happened right here, the richest and most powerful nation in world history. What’s more, this is the worst version of all of them. The farthest right government in living memory, helmed by a sociopath, a loon, a man with fascist tendencies (to put it generously)—one that has promised, among many things, apartheid, deportation, pogroms, torture, expulsions. Even if nine-tenths of this turns out to be bluster, the emergence of this government is an existential threat to what many of us had planned and believe, and we will have to answer it with our lives.


Nonetheless, writers have launched blithely into trivial essays on what the voters wanted, what the vote represented, as if this were some normal election to be analyzed just the same way as the rest of them. A vote against the establishment, they say; a vote for white supremacy. But where is the evidence? How are mutely inexpressive votes—boxes ticked once every four years by a minority of the voting-age electorate—legible?

Knocking on doors, actually speaking to voters, turns them—it’s like magic!—into real people. One encounters, top to bottom, across race, class, and gender, a morass of inchoate, schizophrenic opinion out there, malformed at times, often more eloquent than anything I could begin to say. People act on this mass of opinion, but it is no way immediately coherent or conclusive in its implications. Submitted to statistical reality, it crumbles—the social world does not fit, in this instance, the statistical world.

There is some idea that the lower middle class, or the white working class, is somehow traditionally attracted to reaction, or even fascism. This, like many other deep thoughts in hurried circulation, is wrong, a holdover from ’50s sociology; its falseness is easily confirmed by the quickest consultation of recent scholarship (like Thomas Childers’s The Nazi Voter). God forbid that, in this situation, we might do research, or choose our words carefully.

So, too, is the talk of new white working-class “coalitions” ultimately just a banality from newspaper journalism, itself a mockery of normal discourse. We are describing the preferences of a marginal percentage of a group that barely votes expressed on two days separated by four years. In between, the number of this disparate group that actually votes plummets even further, and expresses itself in vastly different preferences. It might even have been different preferences for different candidates within the same ballot. In the rest of their lives, they will hardly be contacted by any campaign. At this very instant, they are being demobilized. And this is still a fraction of people: most “working-class” people still don’t vote.

There is a refusal to speak about college-educated whites, who also voted in a majority for Trump. There are still percentages of other voters who may not, in a majority, have turned out for Trump, but who did partly turn out for him, which also contributes to his victory. If blame is to be cast, why not blame the 30-odd percent of Latinos who voted for Trump in Florida? Why not the rich? Why not the Democratic Party? Why not safely blame the Republicans? One does not win Presidential elections in the US on the strength of one sliver of the electorate. All are punished.

But what, after all, are we trying to figure out? What is the point of everything anyone has ever learned and studied if, faced with this utter catastrophe, the most pressing issue is to foment false understandings of why some small bit of demographic slime oozed its way over to add itself to this bucket of shit that is going to be dumped on our heads for the next four years? This is the abomination that maketh desolate.

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