Fractures in a Fractious Land: What’s Next in AmericaPhoto by Mark Wilson/Getty Politics Features Election 2016
Our ambivalence about sequels is our emotional way of reckoning with the world’s immortality and our mortality. We know this fact: Nothing ever ends, even when we look away. No matter how many poets throw themselves from peaks, mountains go on, obscenely. This is true of the election cycle too. Politics will still be there, even after the story is supposed to have ended. Like the Kennedy Family or the state of Texas, there is always more. So, what’s next?
If you listen to the pundits year after year, you’ve probably heard this pinched refrain: This is the crucial election. The world will never be the same. Every election. As regular as new seasons of The Simpsons, and as tedious as new seasons of The Simpsons. Despite these warnings, strangely enough, the world stays consistent enough for them to boilerplate that piece of electoral poetry out every four years.
This is the one time they’re right.
AND LIVE IN HARMONY, HARMONY OH LOVE
Clinton will win on Nov. 8. As practically everyone, including yours truly, loves to point out, we live in odd times. The paint-thinner-guzzling Republican opposition, the incoherent state of conservativism, Obama’s genial ineptitude, and the ostracism of the progressive coalition have made the last eight years into a vacuum of governing, and that includes administration of the most blasé, Rotarian sort. Here is the conundrum: Many Americans would settle at this point for functional, cooperative democratic governance, but we can only proceed with it if serious change happens. People saw Obama as transformational, and he preached transactional leadership, but could deliver neither.
As unlikely as it seems, if the trends hold and the corn grows high, the Democrats are likely to solidify a broad, national coalition in November. That done, the Republicans will fall to their own death spiral, the heads of Priebus and Spicer will roll, and the fragmentation between the conservative intelligentsia and the base will continue to grow. This will happen anyway, regardless of whether the Democrats pull out the melee weapons.
However, the unspoken promise inherent in Clinton’s dream of a post-Trumpian world was the vision of a world-class murderer’s row of Democrats who will march on Washington, hammering away at the conservative bund with all the brassy confidence of the recently-mandated. And that will be a madcap harvest, if it happens. The danger remains that the broad front will crack under infighting from all the sects of the party, which suggests a kind of internecine stabfest of the most degenerate Roman kind.
It goes without saying that the onslaught from the conservative side is predictable. The rain of suit, accusation, and investigation will be ceaseless for the next four years. These are annoying distractions but not real impediments to Clinton, who has been brushing off weird millionaire stalkers since Arkansas.
Along with receiving Donald Trump as her opponent, Hillary has had the good fortune, if you want to call it that, of having conspiracy theorists as her most reliable opponents. It allows her backers to discredit critics, even legitimate ones, as updates of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy. If Clinton is brought down during her Presidency, it will be something huge, hideous, and Greek that sinks her, not a ledger or an intern. She is not Bill.
Taking that as a known quantity, I suggest one of two fates await the Democrats before November 2018: either Hillary will achieve some program of sassy reforms which will satisfy the left enough to keep them in the coalition, or the party will fracture awkwardly sometime next year into open-palm no-holds-barred fighting, which will make the frolics of Springer’s show look like basket-weaving in heaven.
If Clinton can pull it off, then, relatively speaking, it’s smooth rails and easy running until midterms, and all of this speculation is unwarranted. She gets a second term. A long, anecdote-heavy vegan lifestyle guide by former Rhodes Scholar William Jefferson Clinton hits Barnes & Noble sometime in 2019.
Suppose she’s not able to stick the landing, though. Suppose everything Bernie supporters suspect is true. Suppose she gets distracted by Yemen. Suppose Larry Summers becomes Fed Reserve Chairman. Suppose the platform was an empty promise. Assume Warren, Brown, and Bernie are not outflanked, or the Clintons do not buy off enough of the progressive electorate.
This means the Berniecrats fall into active, raw hostility—not just disagreement, but real fighting—and the split that everybody including the greybeards at FiveThirtyEight has been warning about becomes gross reality.
If that happens, then instead of Obama vs. Congress, we have four factions: Clintonites, Berniecrats, the Republican elite, and what’s left of Trump’s base. None of these teams just emerged from the vacuum—the seeds have been germinating for years—but that’s how the power is divided this time around.
If the Dems win the Senate this year, which is a distinct possibility of possibilities, then the Prophet Sanders becomes head mugwump of the Senate Budget Committee, or “chairman” as they style it more conventionally in the councils of the normies. Bernie, who is not given to flights of fancy, will, along with Warren, become the redoubled focus of all kinds of progressive hopes and dreams.
If the alliance falls through, the Democratic Senate, as the sole court of liberal appeal, would become an oppositional forum against the Clinton White House, which would be a problem for the Court-to-be. If that’s the case, it won’t matter that the Trumpian civil war has made the GOP the shadow opposition in American politics. If this happens, the Democrats will very publicly eat themselves, it will be something more than a hot mess, and in four years, the progressives will find themselves a new candidate. There will be a repeat of Philadelphia, but much louder.
In Edmund Morris’ Colonel Roosevelt, the author mentions Theodore Roosevelt’s New Nationalism speech, which threw down the gauntlet between the progressive and standard wings of the then-dominant Republican Party:
James Bryce, currently British ambassador to Washington and a lifelong observer of the American scene, was reminded of Disraeli’s remark “that when a majority in the House of Commons is too large and the opposition too weak, part of the majority becomes detached and begins to fill the function of an opposition.” Republicans had simply been too strong too long, in all three branches of government. Since the Democrats had failed to mount an effective challenge to them, in seven successive election seasons, the GOP’s own “progressive and so-called radical section” had begun, almost without realizing it, to think and campaign like another party.
The Podesta emails have something to say about this. Aside from the obvious court intrigue and the unsurprising plots against Bernie, the Podesta archive suggest several facts about the Secretary. First, like her husband, she has a broad menu of vague beliefs instead of any hard-set philosophy. Beyond cloudy intimations about progress and continuing the American Empire abroad, there’s not much more on the platter. Second, Clinton is a mystery to her close-at-hand as well. This too is not surprising. The Clintons are a circle whose circumference is known but whose center is a mystery.
How much reform actually has to pass for progressives to stay inside the tent? Naturally, the GOP keeps the House, but Clinton doesn’t need to actually pass any legislation to keep the left in the stable; she just needs to make a sincere, good-faith, no-fakeout effort. Do more than Obama did, in other words. Jailing a single banker would be a good start. A man can dream.
IT’S ALL RIGHT, MAMA
Trump will lose, and lose bigly by all standards of calculation currently available to us in this Rainman-less world. Yet Trump’s collapse will not create an onslaught of rebellion, but disillusionment, which will solidify to some extent over HRC but otherwise will have no output for its outrage. But there won’t be an uprising. The Orangeman’s graying crowd doesn’t have it in them, and the alt-right is still grasping its way in the dark. Some new project will have to suffice. Trump doesn’t have the energy or discipline to push forward on all of these proposals.
I would never compare Moses to Trump—he only had two wives, and is liked by Muslims— but Donald won’t see the alt-right Promised Land, if the movement gets that far. The next step, aside from pushing a fracture inside the Democratic base, would be for the passionate people on the conservative ground to channel their energy into a wide variety of purificationist parties along the state line, roughly analogous to what progressivism did during the turn of the century after Bryan lost.
Trump is a shiftless man, but the energy behind him won’t dissipate. The most important two facts of conservatism—that the split between the base and the elite is irreconcilable, and that the Republicans are singularly ill-equipped to be a worker’s party, or much else than a party of white nationalists—endure, and will endure.
The GOP’s problems do not end with Trump. Rubio was booed the other day in Florida. God knows if he will be jettisoned from Florida and give his golden years to local mattress stores as a decaying one-time show-pony of the political class, or if there is a more humiliating score in store for him. All survey signs point to maybe? There have been more notable resurrections in politics and elsewhere; however, none of them took place after the victim got dragged by a man from the Garden State. Hoffa couldn’t manage being buried by people from New Jersey; what makes Rubio much better?
And there lies the rub. Rubio is, or was, the image of the future of the party. The last shot in a spent gun. Let’s dispel once and for all with this fiction that the Republicans aren’t doomed. Destiny knows exactly what it’s doing.
After all, it’s debatable whether Rubio was booed because Trump and Christie made him look like a punk onstage, or because he endorsed Trump. More likely it has something to do with broader shifts in the electorate, like rise in Dem-leaning Puerto Ricans or that Cubans now tend more to the left, or Latinos in general have been raised up by this election to the status of kingmakers. Rubio’s politics do not get him anywhere with the Florida base, nor with much of anyone else.
Rubio’s problem is the Republican party’s problem. Before the debates, as long as the poor witch-hunting bastard didn’t open his mouth too wide, one could believe he was Kennedyesque. Good looking, young, not a blood-drinking wingnut, decent story, a person of color. He was a rising star, even after the water-drinking bit; the single best answer the GOP had to Obama.
On paper. In practice, he looked like a caffeine-drinking lanyard schmuck during those debate exchanges, even before the late Governor of New Jersey ran the knife into him. There are hollow, glib men with bizarre psychological tics in every party, but the fact that Rubio got this far and this fast suggests the system that raised him up was doomed. Trump was the symptom, not the cause.
Many of the observers involved in national politics thought the GOP might check themselves before they Shrek’d themselves after the leperhouse fire of 2012. Back then, some of us still believed in the myth of the hyper-predator dark council reading from big books of eldritch, Rovian wisdom. But this election showed them to be a bunch of ham-handed boobs. They couldn’t even save themselves.
The Bush and Romney school, the old money guys who used to control the party, are likely to stay distant for a couple of months after November, and then try to sweep in and rebuild. This is problematic for one major reason: the white working class knows the game is up. If the party is to rebuild and be an actual force in the land, it must be from the ground up.
In point of fact, the Republicans’ final nightmare has not actually happened yet. Here’s how that would go: the Democratic civil war does not happen, and for whatever reason, the left remains quiet. Clinton reestablishes a slightly more progressive version of the old Republican Party of the Eisenhower era: a broad prosperity front for educated suburbanites—plus the money, plus minority groups, with progressive elements attached. That, and not the massive collapse of the conservative ecosystem we saw this year, is the worst of all worlds for the Heritage Foundation.
The future is hard to know. Humans are notoriously, infamously bad at giving general estimates of future times — why, we’re the laughing stock of all of the parts of the animal kingdom we’ve left alive and decided not to eat. Every prophecy, deep down, ought to be recognized as the speculative fanfiction that it is.
All future worlds are stories about our own time. No matter how extra-high any sci-fi filmmaker’s vision is, it’s still a tale about our own freakish, special time. We borrow now to playact tomorrow, and all farsight is myopia turned on its head. The election approaches its finale, but this near to the close, it defies expectation: This is one film where the titles only arrive at the end.