Shortly before the end of the year, the president-elect was asked for his response to a fellow Republican’s insistence that sanctions should be applied against Russia because of its alleged participation in hacking during the election. He said:
I think the computers have complicated lives very greatly. The whole, you know, age of computer has made it where nobody knows exactly what’s going on. We have speed and we have a lot of other things, but I’m not sure you have the kind of security you need. But I have not spoken with the senators and I certainly will be over a period of time.
It’s going to be a long few years, so we had best pace ourselves. Donald Trump is a buffoon. He is a racist. He is a misogynist. He is a thin-skinned thug and a charlatan. He is a vulgar bigot and xenophobe. He is a liar and a plutocrat. All of those things are true; none of them are the point. Concentrating on them can build a white-hot furnace of self-righteous rage that will most likely lead to self-immolation. It will create great sketches and memes and nurture a sense of despair and grievance that can marinate in self-indulgence. There will be plenty of material for those on the liberal left who wish to be angry. But those who wish to channel that anger into an effective resistance face a stiffer challenge.
There are plenty of pathological people with Trump’s qualities roaming the planet making themselves and those around them miserable. Trump did not invent racism, stupidity, Islamophobia, or nationalism. He is not the first to enter the White House with discriminatory intent. The presidency is not a meritocracy—there have been far too many stupid white men in that office for anyone to seriously believe it is occupied by those best equipped to run a country.
Nor will Trump have to construct an authoritarian regime that lays waste to human rights from scratch; he has an edifice intact, built by predecessors of both parties. Reality is bad enough; we do not need to amplify its horrors with myths. We have not seen his like before at this level—but he didn’t come from nowhere.
Trump is dangerous. His campaign emboldened bigots of all kinds. It resonated not just nationally but globally, where the far right, from France to Finland, has emerged as the principal electoral beneficiary of the financial crisis. His campaign dispensed with electoral norms in favor of violence and race-baiting. As such, he not only represented a threat to democracy, but in a far more enduring sense, his candidacy was also the product of a democracy already in crisis. The reason why Trump matters isn’t because he’s an awful person. The problem with Trump is not that he’s stupid. It’s that he won—that he took those qualities to the nation, flaunted them openly and brazenly, and emerged the victor.
This point can be overstated. He did not win the popular vote. Trump won a smaller percentage of the eligible vote than John Kerry, John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Gerald Ford did when they ran for the presidency—and they all lost. He got the same proportion of the white vote as Romney in 2012 and Bush in 2004, and only a little more than McCain in 2008. This was not a stampede by members of the far right; they walked through an open door held ajar by the ambivalence of many and the arrogance of a few.
But it cannot be denied. “Elections have consequences,” Barack Obama warned Republicans shortly after taking over in 2008. That’s still true. And because Trump won, he now has power—the kind of power that can end lives and destroy the planet. The hands that once “grabbed pussy” now have access to the codes. His personality is offensive; it’s his power that is truly scary.
Fortunately, while the right is emboldened, it is not ascendant. Trump’s victory illustrates the weakness of the Republican Party’s leaders, not their strength. They wanted anyone else, and now they are unable to control him. He openly derides and baits them. Notwithstanding his braggadocio, he remains vulnerable. His agenda is no more unassailable than his victory was unfathomable.
But there is nothing inevitable about his demise. If the liberal left is going to challenge him effectively in the coming years, then it must learn the lessons of its defeat. The Democratic machine does not need a tune-up—it needs a complete overhaul. For far too long, it has been too arrogant, complacent, or contemptuous (and sometimes all three) to make an argument beyond “at least we’re not them.”
The reason why Trump was able to attain power is not because he had better ideas, made better arguments, had greater organizational capacity, or even spent more money. The reason he was able to win was because those charged with opposing him offered not hope, but the status quo, in a country where inequality between rich and poor and black and white is growing. He won because his opponents believed their own PR. Hubris sent them to Arizona when humility would have kept them in Pennsylvania. He won because, emerging from a period of economic crisis, the multimillionaire businessman whose catchphrase is “You’re fired” looked less like a representative of the establishment than the liberal who claimed she represented the interests of the poor. If he is stupid, then what are we?
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article stated that the 2016 election had the lowest turnout in 20 years. In fact, the 2016 election saw a slightly higher turn out than the 2012 election.
Listen to Gary Younge discuss Trump’s vulnerabilities on the Start Making Sense podcast.