[Kate McKinnon movingly performs Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”]
Bummer vote, 2016! But our narrative arc trumps this wobble.
As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.
—H.L. Mencken, July 26, 1920
for ClaireI flipped over journalist H.L. Mencken’s delicious syntax, in 1980, when I was a young reporter at Today in Cocoa, Florida. A few years later, I made a pilgrimage to his lifelong domicile, a rowhouse in Baltimore. Aside from delighting in his sturdy, witty sentences, I found him hilariously hateful to anti-intellectualism. Now, what he warned about our republic’s strain of dumbass Babbittry has come true. All the same, I’ve always been suspicious of his hatred of the “booboisie.” He was an elitist Germanic autocrat, a man blinkered for all his brilliance—he looked kindly upon the rise of Adolph Hitler. And here’s what I keep reminding myself:
• Hillary Clinton won the popular vote!
There are two other salient points about the election:
• A lot of it, sadly, involved sexism. Actually I think her narrow loss pivoted on sexism. The narrative that’s winning, of course, is that it was a populist backlash. I agree somewhat, but many wealthy people voted for Trump. First and last, as they know, he’ll protect his class.
• A lot of it, sadly, involved sexism. Who can imagine a man as qualified as Hillary Clinton being so relentlessly hounded and so successfully vilified? Her improperly using a private email server, following the practice of others, is not equivalent to Trump’s actual criminal behavior. Yet she’s demonized as a dragon lady.
As Anthony Lane wrote in the New Yorker, in “Watching the Trump Spectacle Overseas”:
There was far less misogyny on view during Brexit, and less opportunity for misogynistic outbursts; those were reserved for the land of the free. Only now, therefore, is the rest of the world at leisure to stand back and ponder the astounding dereliction of November 8th, whereby the most potent of nations on Earth had the chance to place itself under the guidance and command of a woman, and ducked out.
Let’s face it, Barack Obama is uber cool but we know, or suspect, he can also be frosty, as the smartest guy in any room. Hillary lacks his charisma, most humans do, and it may be a long wait for a qualified woman with that characteristic too. Yet we can adore a male political geek. A male Hillary can be reverse-charming. Cuddly even. Give him loving noogies. Bernie Sanders, I’m thinking of you. Though you weren’t as qualified or as realistic as Hillary.
Many streams, many causes, I know. People’s financial plight, terrorist-unto-immigrant alarm, disgust with gridlocked government. But sexism may have made the marginal difference.
Do I repeat myself? Very well, I repeat myself. When over 50 percent of women voted for Trump—and 91 per cent of white Republican women—reiteration’s desirable. I’m not saying women should have voted for her solely because she’s a woman, but they shouldn’t have voted against her for it.
The likely right-wing Supreme Court appointment(s) and the probable loss of progress on fighting climate change upset me. But I return to my original point: a majority of American voters chose Hillary Clinton. Trump lacks the mandate of a landslide. Without the Electoral College—thanks, Alexander Hamilton! Love the brilliant musical, not so much the brilliant Republican—Trump wouldn’t have won at all. As a people, we’ve been trying to move in a gently progressive direction, as befits a nation with such progressive ideals. Our mistakes, tragedies, and setbacks notwithstanding, we’ve stacked up a lot of justice since America’s founding.
Adam Gopnik observed this week in the New Yorker, “Can twenty million people be deprived of medical insurance without consequence? We’ll see. Things slip back, or are forced back—but almost never all the way back.”
Walt Whitman’s populist love song
This is from the preface to Leaves of Grass (1855):
This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.
I side with Walt Whitman, not H.L. Mencken, regarding human nature and the American spirit. Walt! A poet turned Civil War correspondent. A lover of Abraham Lincoln—as we all should be. And gay (probably) before it was: illegal; a mental illness; legal; tolerated; marginally celebrated. Or even a category. Would Uncle Walt lose hope? Nope. No Walt would not.
There’s more to do than water our plants and read Jane Austen, Garrison Keillor’s somber, smarmy column in the Washington Post notwithstanding. Smarminess is the primary liberal fault—it’s only a secondary flaw for conservatives, who therefore pander more successfully. People hate a smarmy person, as candidate Al Gore appeared to be—who nonetheless also won the popular vote—much worse than they hate an asshole like Trump. I haven’t yet figured out why, despite working on that puzzle going on 30 years now, but it’s true.
About six weeks before the election, I took on a message board of farmers about Hillary. I got massacred. One thoughtful guy, among a phalanx of sexist idiots, mentioned that “liberals look down on us.” Weirdly effective words—hard to refute, and people hate being condescended to. While Hillary isn’t unduly smarmy—probably she’s average in humility for our prideful species—her “deplorables” comment fed that impression and that narrative.
Midway through my internet beating, I wondered why I thought my strong feelings could persuade them? When that mob, literally owners of pitchforks, didn’t have a snowball’s chance of convincing me? Maybe I was being smarmy instead of funny when I told them, “Laugh at the big orange pig. Don’t vote for it.” With my back to the wall, I couldn’t help myself!
But individual temperament, theirs and mine, while a profound matter, may be an incidental here. Another smokescreen for the unquestioned, or even proud, clannish impulses and proud ignorance—you know them by their lack of empathy—that stoke human conflict. And, in truth, I do look down on racists and sexists. But although those issues must be addressed in education and politics, such battles are finally won or lost in each individual heart. And the trend lines are upward. America and the globe, overall and in historical terms, are strikingly peaceful and prosperous.
Here I feel like the little boy found upending the dirty stable, who said, “With all this manure, there’s gotta be a pony here somewhere!” But America is too special and too important to despair just because (not quite half) of our fellow voters gave Trump the barn despite his mountainous preexisting dung heaps. Many Americans have only temporarily forgotten why they appointed Barack Obama to shovel us out after George W. Bush.
We’ll work, console each other, and vote. We’ll fix this mess. Trump’s a blip.
[Below, President Obama’s historic speech in Selma, on March 7, 2015, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the march across the Edmund Pettus bridge, and extolling America’s evolving effort to bring our flawed actions in line with our highest ideals.]
“We are capable of bearing a great burden,” James Baldwin once wrote. “Once we discover that the burden is reality, and arrive where reality is, there’s nothing America can’t handle if we actually look squarely at the problem.” And this is work for all Americans, not just some. . . .
But what has not changed is the imperative of citizenship. That willingness of a 26-year-old church deacon, or a Unitarian minister, or a mother of five, who decided they loved America so much they would risk everything to realize its promise. That’s what it means to love America. That’s what it means to believe in America. That’s what it means when we say America is exceptional.