The blog originally began with a simple vision: complicated foreign policy analysis stuffed with swears to soften the otherwise indigestible material.  As the years have worn on, I’ve largely dropped that approach.

But I feel we deserve the old way today.

So let’s start to dig through the rubble and figure out what the fuck just happened in America.

President-elect Trump is the second president in living memory to lose the popular vote but win the electoral college.

The other, you might recall, was George W. Bush in 2000 – a presidency not remembered fondly by much of America.

This is key: Trump will not enter the White House with a governing majority in the democratic sense.  He very much won the election, but he does not have a majority of citizens who support him.

Such semantics matter in the American system.  Rural and conservative states have an outsized influence on how the U.S. functions.  Thanks to its written Constitution, each state is guaranteed at least three Congresspeople: one in the House of Representatives and two senators – no matter how small.  To override this system and streamline it to a more rational proportional representation requires two-thirds of both states and Congress to essentially vote themselves out of a job, since they all rely heavily on the current system to stay in power.

That is part of the reason so many voters were willing to hand grenade the system with Trump: they saw him as the only way to shoot up a system that appears bulletproof.  In reality, the system is, even now, still quite strong: had Trump not upended the Republican Party and instead ran as an independent, it’s doubtful he’d be where he is today.  He needed the machine that he has railed against to get where he is.

But what is that machine, and what does it reveal about America?

America’s original political sin: identity politics.

The United States was originally designed with a very specific identity at its core: landed white males of British descent.  As the U.S. was colonized, the Founding Fathers were rational enough to avoid some of Europe’s identity problems: they sidelined religion and nobility, but instead codified race and gender.

The Electoral College, enshrined in the Constitution, was meant to be made up of said landed white males who could, at a pinch, prevent the takeover of the country by a force that might too quickly upend the system.

As time went on and American society matured and stabilized, voter rolls were expanded.  Some of this was to benefit local politicians: New York pols seeking an edge pushed to bring Chinese and Irish onto the rolls to bring them into their machine.  But overall it was meant to stabilize a society with a surging population spread over a vast area.

After the Civil War, sectionalism was put to rest, and identity politics took its place.  Northern politicians played upon their immigrant groups; Southern politicians used the boogeyman of African-American depravity to build Jim Crow and solidify their system.

In the tussle of expansion and industrialization, new identities emerged that were squabbled over.  Because of the Electoral College, only two parties could compete at any given time.  This kept voter turnout down, since radical or alternative viewpoints knew they never had a chance, while funneling social energy into two controllable political parties.

Identity politics allowed both parties to short cut their arguments: by appealing to groups based on their broad identity, they could spend more time hunting for undecided voters who didn’t think along the lines of identity.  Every subculture in the United States has been divided up by two parties: only mainstream whites, long the dominant group, were ever really part of the middle ground.

This worked well enough until 2008.  It was far from perfect, and most subcultures were taken for granted by their respective parties; Evangelicals, for example, never did get much on abortion from Republicans, nor did African-Americans get the economic and racial equality they sought from the Democrats.

This led to a fatal flaw in Democratic strategic thinking: when President Obama was elected, it was widely believe that he’d been pushed there by the identity voters who sought an African-American candidate.  It was rational enough to think that a woman candidate would have an ever broader base of voters who would only vote for a woman.  From last night’s results, that was clearly not true.

Obama created a cult of personality: the Democrats were, in many ways, just Obamacrats, attached to Obama personally but unable to win mid-term elections or state elections when Obama was not on the ballot.  This led to a hollowed out party that appeared much stronger than it actually was.

Meanwhile, the Republicans had spent decades dog whistling white America.

Republicans, meanwhile, couldn’t win the whole white vote: it was too large and economically diverse, with Catholics and Jews often skewing Democrat and Protestant folks dividing up more evening.  So they activated the only reliable section of white voters they could: white nationalists.

White nationalists saw the United States’ core identity much as the Founding Fathers did: European (specifically northwestern European) descent with colonial values.  They did not see the country as a place to be shared but endlessly conquered, whether on the frontier or in the boardroom.  In such conquests, there had to be losers, and the victors were meant to rewrite the system to control the spoils.  They developed Jim Crow and were horrified to see the Federal government dismantle it to unlock the geopolitical energy of African-Americans in the South.  When it became clear that no president could afford to indulge white nationalists’ most wasteful desires, they largely moderated and coalesced within the Republican Party.

But to maintain their cohesiveness as a voting bloc, Republican leader after leader used classic coded language to remind them they were different than various national Others.  They were “hard-working” or “patriotic” – implying the identity voters of the Democrats were not.  They were the “real America” – because they took their identity from the original definition set by the Founding Fathers, and that their Democratic enemies were imposters who arrived too late.

But Republican elites understood that to give in to white nationalism would almost certainly lead to electoral defeat and geopolitical weakness.  The United States could not afford to divide up its people into rival blocs of identity voters endlessly trying to overcome one another, especially when the Soviet Union did not play the same kind of games with its population.

The emphasis is on the past tense could.

Because from 1991, America has been able to indulge any demon it likes.

While the Cold War forced American society into a measure of geopolitical discipline, the end of it has allowed that discipline to slag.  The War on Terror does not have the same effect: Sunni supremacists are seen as dangerous but not as conquerors, and so debate can carry on endlessly on what to do about them.  Neither Russia nor China aims to raise their flag above DC; and so old habits of mind, like isolationism and white nationalism, have become powerful again.

Key to what’s missing is in America today is the World War II generation: a highly disciplined and largely civil, if socially backward, bloc of voters.  They were so often the ones who punished any candidate who swore, or were overly sexual, or were too different.

But they are nearly gone now: born roughly from 1900 to 1925, even in 2008 they were enough of a force to whittle away Republicans who seemed too extreme.  Their youngest members, whose sacrifices during the Great Depression and World War II gave them a lifelong aversion to instability and a deep desire for the public civility needed to maintain it, are in their late 80s; few of the survivors are in great health, and certainly aren’t numerous enough to turn an election.

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That has left the Baby Boomers, largely the GI Generation’s children, wholly in power.  They are an entirely differently group: self-indulgent, politically erratic, uncivil and dogmatic, it is they more than any other group in America who drove the low depths of the 2016 election.  Being a Baby Boomer doesn’t make one a white nationalist, but white nationalism as embodied by Baby Boomers is loud, open, and obnoxious.  GIs weren’t less racist, but they often kept the Klan sheets out of the public eye.

Both Trump and Hillary are Boomers: both spoke of themselves as leaders of a movement rather than a party.  They have both indulged in grand sweeping thought experiments about what America could be, rather than the incremental policies of generations past.  Both offered radically different world views: Hillary believed it was her duty to carry on the Obama legacy, while Trump believed he had to destroy it.

Now comes the time of white nationalists driving isolationism.

For the U.S., Trump’s presidency will mean a return to a measure of isolationism and an attempt to recenter the country’s cultural core back to the white nationalists.  That first part may be relatively painless, even popular: Americans are tired of war, and are unable to see the vast alliance network America has built as anything but a burden.  A world without America will be a bad thing in many ways, and as that becomes clear President Trump may feel compelled, as Obama did, to rush back into the places he withdraws from.

It is the second part, of the recapturing of the nation’s cultural core, that will be most traumatic.  The United States is now entering the final phase of its Strauss-Howe generational Crisis: whoever wins these battles will define American culture during its upcoming High, which will probably begin around 2021 or 2025.

Donald Trump offers the myth of a past that never happened, and a future that is impossible.  American demographic changes are considerably more accurate than the election’s polls: America will be a non-white country in this century.  Re-racializing American whites is a disaster; a true statesman would find ways to remove race from the political equation entirely.

While Trump himself may not give the orders, the cultural warriors of white nationalism will go on the offensive.  This will result in acts of violence and pushback, and Trump, with the power of the state, will doubtless call upon America’s formidable security services to protect his supporters and crush his opponents.  This will be a waste of time and energy: going back and forth over identity will not make America richer or safer.

Meanwhile, isolationism will be Putin’s dream come true: depending on how far America goes under Trump, Russia may well advance its interests deep in Europe and the Middle East.  China may gain much in East Asia; few of America’s allies should feel secure in the wake of Trump’s victory, and it’s not irrational for them to prepare alliances with one another that ignore the Americans.  The map, once dominated and secured by the United States, could become considerably more complicated.

And now comes the time to watch for the backlash.

That the turnout was down from 2012 matters; that Obama managed to put together two successful elections does too.  America did not change; it was, instead, manipulated, by a hardcore minority of largely Baby Boomer white nationalists seeking a return to economic autarky and America First policies.  Such policies will hurt, just as Brexit has hurt Great Britain; there must be a backlash, and perhaps those voters who stayed home may be propelled to capture Congress in 2018, or the White House again in 2020.

If the backlash does not come, it means that America has settled for this as its new role in the world.  It will be a great power, but not a superpower; it will step aside and retreat, as it did in World War I, for a full generation, until wars overseas invariably call it back.

Trump will be a consequential president, but we now must wait to see what consequences those will be.

 

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15 thoughts on “What the fuck just happened in America?

  1. “each state is guaranteed at least three Congresspeople in the House of Representatives and two senators”

    A small correction: it’s at least 1 representative and 2 senators, or 3 congressmen in total.

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  2. Why do Americans often consider Hispanics not white? Whenever voter demographics or similar questions come up, this puzzles me. Here in Europe it would be ridiculous to say that the majorities of most European nations are white, but the Spanish and the Portugese aren’t. Sure, they are a little bit darker on average, but then again, Frenchmen are a little bit darker than Swedes too, that doesn’t mean they are a different race.
    They may be culturally somewhat different, but so were (AFAIK) Italians, Jews and various other recently immigrated groups until they assimilated.

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    1. The reality is that “white” was an invented and flexible term meant to establish an aristocracy without the titles, and with a broader base than a series of noble families. This process is demonstrated well by Howard Zinn in his People’s History of the United States, but essentially white was whoever the elite could find use for, and was meant to cleave the lower classes from Europe from the African slaves who might otherwise unite against landowners. It’s why America’s racial divide is black vs white and brown is both overlooked and divided. Hispanic was an equally invented term; in order to count folks appropriately, the Feds invented it so they could preserve the elite white ruling class. Yet the definition of the term means my wife – who is half Filipino – is technically Hispanic, since her ancestry does come from a Spanish colony. The racial system of America is foundering on this Hispanic notion; Republicans have long hoped they could win over Hispanics by appealing to their family values, pitting brown vs black in identity politics.

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    2. Because often, Hispanics here are ethnically central and South American, of Mayan, Aztec, and etc. extraction. They look nothing like continental iberians.

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    1. The answer must now be “maybe.” Under Hillary, it would have been “no.” But Trump has muddied the waters in regards to the ability of NATO to defend itself. Might Putin believe now is the time to strike?

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  3. Excellent and “honest” analysis. I would just add one unrecognized factor that caught everyone by surprise —Europe.

    For the longest time the Republican party has been warning their base about the dangers of immigration and the “browning” of America. For the most part the language has been coded and subdued. However Trump does not have any political tact. He simply said what he felt and was surprised to find that the message resonated with lots of whites.

    The secret to his success is that he was spewing his vitriol at the same time that the media was covering the ongoing migration crisis in Europe. For the past two years we’ve been bombarded with constant news and videos of a tsunami of brown and black folks swamping Greece, Italy, France, Germany and countries in between. The images are shocking and there is a genuine crisis “over there”.

    It’s easy to see (in retrospect) that the average, economically-stressed white voter would feel that we can’t let that happen here. And Trump was the only politician (sic) making serious noise about this.

    If it wasn’t for the continuing bad news out of Europe, his message would not have been so potent. And obviously no one over here thought that message would carry the weight that it did. He simply had the luck of good timing. He was yelling “fire!” at a time when the flames could clearly be seen “over there”.

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    1. I wholly agree: I don’t think Trump could have pulled his candidacy off in 2008, when he would have readily been tarred as part of the Financial Crisis, nor in 2000, when his inexperience and lack of discipline would have spooked people looking for merely more of the 90s same.

      The rewriting of the social contract always comes at the end of a generational Crisis: there’s usually a back and forth, as there was during World War II, when women were briefly urged out of their traditional roles to support the war effort, only to find after the war they were shoved back home again. It’s entirely possible America rolls back some of the Obama-era social changes and lets the next generation, not quite born, take it up again in the 2040s and 50s.

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  4. Hey. Good article. However, ascribing Trump’s win solely to the rise of white nationalism seems reductionist. For example, Iowa (an overwhelmingly white state) voted for Obama twice (quite convincingly). And Iowa voted for Trump too. The Baby Boomers hypothesis isn’t very convincing when you consider elections within just a span of four years.

    Wouldn’t it be more plausible that TPP and NAFTA played a far more important role than just the fact that a lot of white people suddenly became racist?

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    1. I didn’t mean to state that America suddenly had a surge in racism; rather, that the tactic of racial shaming by the Democratic party alienated those millions of voters who did choose Obama in 2008 and 2012, and then chose to stay home.

      That turnout I think is key: if economic motivations were the primary cause of Trump’s victory, why didn’t more switch sides? From the data we have, most just stayed home, or went third party.

      I think the “nationalist” part helps explain the economic anxiety – and “white” helps explain why minority working classes didn’t break for Trump, despite having the same anxieties. The intersection between race, class, and economic situation creates this notion of a “white nationalist.”

      I don’t think they increased their share of the electorate very much, if at all – rather, Progressives caused voters to stay home because of bad political tactics. America is not suddenly a different place; it’s been manipulated by the most angry and organized, who right now are certainly the white nationalists.

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      1. I get your point; white nationalists weren’t as dominated in the political landscape as they used to be because progressive voters stayed home.

        To be fair, however, minorities did vote for Trump. More Hispanics voted for Trump than they did for Romney.

        I’ll be a little more convinced if I go and study the metrics by myself. How do you prepare for articles like this? Your sources, I mean? It would be worth diving into the numbers just to see how the orange guy made it.

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  5. All these ‘populist right’ candidates and parties are classic textbook National Socialists in terms of ideas and electorate and it baffles me why it is not named as such in public discourse..

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