On January 20, 2017, Barack Obama will take his leave of the White House. We now know who, though not necessarily what, will replace him. By way of a warmup act, tens of millions of Obama’s fellow-Americans appear to have taken leave of their senses: such, at least, is the broad global view of the election result that was declared on Wednesday morning. If you visited Bild, the German news site, you were met by the blare of twin headlines: “Trump Now President” and, below, the words “How Could That Happen?” Bild distinguished itself, not long ago, during the revelations of Trump’s abusive behavior toward women, by asking a no less blatant question, in letters of incendiary red: ” Ist Donald Trump ein Sexmonster?” So palpable is the insult that he presents, to European sensibilities, that the language in which his character is parsed tends to cross national boundaries and become a universal lexicon of scorn. Die Zeit: ” Amerikas blonder Mussolini.” Hamburger Morgenpost: ” Bitte nicht den Horror-Clown!”
Not everybody outside the United States is upset by the result. Vladimir Putin sent his best, reflecting, no doubt, that, if the new President follows through on his glowering promise to downgrade American support for NATO, next year might provide a fruitful moment to invade Latvia. (Putin’s countryman Garry Kasparov, on Twitter, was less overjoyed, sending the wryest of weather reports: “Winter is here.”) Marine Le Pen, who leads the National Front, in France, tweeted her congratulations not only to the victor but to all American citizens-” Libre!” she added, the implication being that they had, until now, been bound in chains. Her National Front compatriot, Florian Philippot, issued a yet more rousing response: “Their world is collapsing. Ours is being born.” It is not completely clear who Philippot means by “they,” but the best guess is that he refers to the ruling élites-seldom defined to anyone’s satisfaction but richly despised, nonetheless, by populist movements in all lands.
Philippot, evidently not a timid soul, had more to say, and a telling connection to make: by picking Trump, he said, Americans were refusing to have their choices dictated to them by “an oligarchy,” which had now been defeated for a second time, “after Brexit.” There are certainly tempting reasons to lay last night’s events alongside those that occurred in the United Kingdom, on June 23rd. First, both were unforeseen, and went against the grain of what passed for received wisdom. (The moral being: Always inspect what you’re receiving. It may be damaged goods.) Second, both drew heavily, though by no means exclusively, on fears about immigrant labor and the impact of globalization on former industrial heartlands, and on a dream-not always backed by a tangible plan-of their revival. Third, both can be regarded as, in the words of a senior BBC correspondent to whom I spoke, “a great big giant fuck you.” He added that this sentiment had been smoldering since at least 2008, stoked by an exasperated belief that none of the folks, whether in government or the banking sector, who had kicked off the economic crash had been held remotely accountable. Such, according to that logic, is the method of the Trumpian and the doughty Brexiteer: if you patiently bide your time, and wait for the seclusion of the voting booth, you strike back.
This breed of rancor, one should add, is scarcely novel. Dickens put a name to it, long before the advent of social media. The conclusion to “American Notes,” of 1842, a book that won him few friends in the land that he had toured, anatomized what he had found there:
One great blemish in the popular mind of America, and the prolific parent of an innumerable brood of evils, is Universal Distrust. Yet the American citizen plumes himself upon this spirit, even when he is sufficiently dispassionate to perceive the ruin it works; and will often adduce it, in spite of his own reason, as an instance of the great sagacity and acuteness of the people, and their superior shrewdness and independence.
That is harsh, but it sounds uncannily close to the mood that has been reported, and recorded, at many of the rallies at which the Republican candidate appeared-deftly massaging the Universal Distrust, brandishing his plume, and even more cannily applauding the crowd for its perspicacity in seeing through the secrets and lies of the establishment. (Dickens, again, would have inspected the nominee, smiled at the hair, noted the cuffs and the tie pin, and instantly recognized a type: “Another prominent feature is the love of ‘smart’ dealing: which gilds over many a swindle and gross breach of trust . . . and enables many a knave to hold his head up with the best, who well deserves a halter,” he wrote. “The merits of a broken speculation, or a bankruptcy, or of a successful scoundrel, are not gauged by its or his observance of the golden rule, ‘Do as you would be done by,’ but are considered with reference to their smartness.” The classic defense of Trumpery, now as then. I would only add one other tell-tale sign: the grammatical insistence on referring to oneself in the third person. The list of practitioners is odd in the extreme: Julius Caesar, Norman Mailer, Henry Adams, Donald Trump, and Elmo.)
For all this, however, and for all the parallels that are being drawn between the British and American experiments in democracy this year, we need to treat the comparison with care. Brexit was, in part, a complaint not against an elected government for doing wrong, or (the undying Republican lament) for doing too much, but against an unelected assembly in mainland Europe, which-so the argument runs-is leaching powers away from the parliament in Westminster, where they should, by tradition and by right, be debated and kept. Sovereignty is not a problem; it’s just going astray. You can quibble with that thesis all you like, and many are continuing to do so, in the courts as in the House of Commons, but it’s a long way from the paranoid style that was brought to so raucous a head by the man with the tan.
Then, we have the question of tone. The British campaign was not a pretty sight, and few of the protagonists emerged with any credit, but, compared with its remorseless American equivalent, the referendum was like a day out in the Cotswolds and a trip to the local flower show. Now and then, there were unpleasant squalls of racial spite, but only on the fringes of the action-nothing like the open derision that was paraded on center stage in the Trump campaign, and no audible calls for a wall. Nor was there a single figure, in Britain, against whom pent-up resentment, pointed either backward or forward, could be unleashed: no President Obama (the covert accusation being, “You really think you can put an African-American in charge, for eight years, and get away with it?”), and, needless to say, no Hillary Clinton to be treated like a medieval sorceress or a common crook (“Lock her up”). 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.
Consider the facts. Germany has a formidable female Chancellor; Britain has its second female Prime Minister; the presidents of Liberia, Lithuania, Chile, Taiwan, Croatia, Estonia, Mauritius, and Nepal, among other countries, are female. (So is the President of South Korea, although right now, with an approval rating of around five per cent, she may be wishing she had another job.) The Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, has been in charge since 2009, and before that, from 1996 to 2001; her famous rival, Khaleda Zia, held the office for five years, from 1991, and again from 2001 to 2006. Both women, Trump might care to note, are Muslim. He has already received a pleasant letter from Sheikh Hasina that was made public this morning: “I cordially invite you and Mrs. Melania Trump to visit Bangladesh at a mutually convenient time.”
That I have to see. If you thought “The Apprentice” was compelling viewing, wait until Donald and Melania have to stand and watch a charity cricket match for under-tens on the outskirts of Dhaka, at a mutually convenient time, with the lenses of the world inspecting their every move. Those who live beyond the shores of America can never quite believe the tussle-or the fatal embrace-between television, that ever-lunging suitor, and the body politic. The two have been bedfellows almost since the invention of the medium: a situation that is taken so readily for granted, by voters on every flank, that they may not be best placed to gauge its distorting effect. (Much the same is true of British newspapers, a state of affairs that I alluded to when writing about the phone-hacking scandal, for this magazine, in 2011.) It is not only the Presidential debates that encourage this symbiosis, or the reams of televised punditry that unfold both during and between every election cycle. There is also the habit of automatic dramatization.
A production like “Game Change,” say, which aired on HBO, in 2012, was so diverting in its account of the upheavals of four years before, with Julianne Moore as a spotless Sarah Palin and Ed Harris as John McCain, that you felt churlish in stepping aside from it and wondering: Is that how the system works? Is it the fate of all politics to wind up, scripted and buffed, as entertainment? And, if so, why not make it the purpose-the delicious destiny of all players, in the political arena? Or push it one stage further: get someone who is already on television, and pull him into the spotlight? Skip the dull prose of public service, and jump from the poetry of prime time to the fanfare of absolute power? Ronald Reagan had once been a movie actor, true, but you have to go out to the movies, whereas the TV is on all the time, in your living room or in the nook of a bar, and, anyway, that chunk of Reagan’s career was done before he started on statesmanship. Why not get someone who is still onscreen, somewhere, every week, and transfigure him, with very little adaptation or editing, into the star? Why not make America the show?
Hence the peculiar sensation that gripped the viewer, whether elated or stricken, who watched TV in the early hours of Wednesday morning as the voting returns came in. The implications for the next four years were momentous enough, but below that lurked a more subterranean and far more unnerving suspicion: that what we were looking at was not real-all too true, God knows, but not quite real. If this can come to pass, then anything can, and most probably will. If a Trump can beat a Clinton, then a Kardashian could trump a Kennedy. I should confess that, being schooled in Brexit and other reversals, I was unsurprised by the result, and by the apotheosis of Donald Trump. My only surprise was that others were so surprised. He, or something like him, has been a long time coming. Der Horror-Clown ist hier.
For more post-election coverage, read David Remnick on an American tragedy, Adam Gopnik on talking to kids about Trump’s victory, Nathan Heller on Election Night with Clinton’s supporters at the Javits Center, Evan Osnos on Trump’s supporters, Amy Davidson on Trump’s stunning win, and Benjamin Wallace-Wells on who is to blame, and Hillary Clinton’s concession speech.