How Trump Changed America 

At 10:37 p.m. on Tuesday, November 8, 2016, I wrote myself an email:

“Nate [Silver] and Micah [Cohen] just told me Clinton is probably going to lose, that she’s an underdog … collapse in the Midwest.”

I’d been watching the 2016 vote returns in our office. At 9:35 p.m. Donald Trump’s chance of winning the election was 26 percent according to our model; by 10:09 p.m. it had moved to 44 percent. At 10:31 p.m. a blog post of mine went up about the radical shifts among voters without a college education in Michigan. Still, it took someone saying it out loud to arrange all those particulate results and blog posts in a line that pointed in just one direction: Trump was going to win the election.

The few minutes before and after I sent that email are caught in amber for me. I collected my thoughts in the copier room and then went back out to the lobby where my co-workers were seated and quietly typing. Along with the rest of America, I would spend the next four years trying to make sense of that night. Trump changed our conception of what was possible in American democracy and American institutions. Unless democracy is perverted, he will not serve a second term. On Saturday morning, the major networks declared that Joe Biden had won Pennsylvania, giving him enough electoral votes to become the president-elect.

But I have no doubt that the effects of Trump’s presidency will ripple through American life for years, if not decades. Trump didn’t create partisanship or the idea that racism is a decent electoral strategy, but he elevated both. He revealed fundamental weaknesses in the way Americans consume politics, and he seemed to make everyone in America care about it. It is difficult to imagine that history will look favorably on Donald John Trump after he leaves office on January 20, but I feel certain that history won’t be able to stop looking.

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Trump changed politics. But how exactly?

Yes, there were the rallies, the calls for swamp-draining, and all the broken political norms. But at the root, I think, Trump revealed how very hollow we are willing to let things get. Over the course of the past five years, Americans were exposed to few political conversations of honesty or intellectual heft — and tens of millions of us were relatively unbothered by that.

Take the major political happenings of 2017, for instance. When the Republican House passed a bill to “repeal and replace” substantial parts of Obamacare — the phrase was repeated ad nauseam by Trump and others — Republicans held a celebration in the Rose Garden. They rolled cases of beer into the halls of Congress. But there was and never has been a Republican plan to “replace” Obamacare. Trump just kept repeating the phrase “repeal and replace.” So did seemingly every Republican. Then every cable show. I’m certain I’ve uttered it professionally. We repeated the phrase so much it would be easy to think Trump had some sort of plan. He didn’t.

Of course, Trump wasn’t the first politician to serve rhetoric instead of substance. But the lack of even an attempt at some concrete policy was remarkable. My high school English teacher used to say, “Image evokes emotion.” Convey a powerful enough image or idea (and make it vague enough) and people will project onto it what they will. This is the heart of many a savvy PR strategy — just ask Beyoncé. The great lesson politicians of all stripes have taken from the Trump era is that you can have all the policy ideas in the world but they don’t matter if you can’t convey a resonant enough message to a broad enough swath of people. Of course Mexico wasn’t going to pay for the border wall, but what a triumphant idea to grasp onto. What a succinct articulation of a set of cultural, racial, economic and political values!

The hollowness of the Trump era also required him to obfuscate the plain facts of things happening before our eyes. When Trump ordered the travel ban in early 2017 — a thinly veiled attempt to cloak his much-touted campaign plan for a “Muslim ban” in something like respectability — his staff insisted that it was not what we all thought it was. “It’s not a travel ban. It’s not a Muslim ban,” the White House’s then-press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters. The seven countries singled out were all majority-Muslim, and during the campaign Trump had said: “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.” Trump had only called it a “ban,” Spicer said, because that’s what the press had called it. Circular arguments about the nature of truth ensued, just one battle in the country’s four-year war of semantics.

Trump perfected the strategy of retrofitting facts to one’s preferred narrative. Up until the Trump era, partisans had made studious attempts to craft their arguments in at least a simulacrum of fact. Trump didn’t bother much with that, and it turned out, the vast majority of Republican voters didn’t mind. The rest of the country got angry but grew accustomed to his new rules of politics. When congressional Republicans’ faces were pushed down into a steaming bowl of fact, evidence and expert testimony during Trump’s 2019 impeachment trial, “Republicans raged against the process and sought to offer benign explanations for Mr. Trump’s conduct,” as The New York Times wrote.

Judging by the loss of the presidency, it seems that Trump’s strategy of optimism-despite-the-dire-facts ran aground as the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the country. The crisis required the government to make difficult choices, and perform its most basic duty of protecting the public. But instead, everything broke. You can’t rally or spin your way out of a pandemic.

ANDREW HARRER / BLOOMBERG VIA GETTY IMAGES

In the 3 a.m. hour of November 9, 2016, I watched Trump’s victory speech. “Now it’s time for America to bind the wounds of division. [We] have to get together,” Trump intoned after congratulating Clinton for a “hard-fought campaign,” sounding a note of uncharacteristic grace. I rolled over and slept for a couple of hours.

I watched that same speech again a few days before this year’s election. This time, I found myself staring at Mike Pence, standing to Trump’s right, smiling beatifically. Somehow he reminded me of Hans Holbein the Younger’s dour Thomas Cromwell. Maybe there’s something about the jowls of the 20th-century Indiana native that recalls the 16th-century Putney boy turned consigliere to England’s King Henry VIII. More likely it’s the conversations I had with my father about Henry and Cromwell. During the summer we each read “The Mirror & the Light,” the final book in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Cromwell, and for a while, it came up often in our phone calls. Henry, my father pointed out, was an incredibly strange man. Most historians cloak the king’s wild decisions to marry, divorce, and behead his various wives — not to mention change the state religion (resulting in the deaths of countless others) — in the distancing language of realpolitik. But I think Dad sort of cut through the mess when he called it “strange.” Power does things to your brain; the tyrant is usually an odd duck.

As Henry’s most powerful adviser, Cromwell was cannily attuned to the king’s capricious moods and to the dynamics of the palace — never taking too much credit for the king’s “work.” Yet Cromwell was never at ease, even as his wealth and influence grew. Not to spoil the ending, but the guy was eventually executed. Pence, however, survived at the elbow of his strange king.

You could say the same for the rest of the Republican Party, at least for now. Control of the Senate remains unclear, and the president found more supporters in 2020 than in 2016 — he even made inroads with Cuban American voters and seems to have picked up support from Black voters, particularly men, though we won’t know for sure for some time. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell expressed dismay at his party’s loss of college-educated, suburban and female voters, a sign that the highest levels of the GOP are worried the party is headed in a bad direction. The results of the election don’t change the reality that the Republican Party and its ideals have been subsumed by Trump the individual, and have taken on his shallow contrarianism as its North Star.

But Trump’s great insight was understanding and accepting that the GOP’s base didn’t care all that much about the party elite’s core ideology: taxes, small government, free trade. Rather, they connected with the cultural signifiers the party had so cleverly carved out: guns, political incorrectness, anti-abortion sentiment, etc. Trump won the GOP primaries by giving the people what they wanted. He blamed Mexicans for woes that were better attributed to the changing nature of the world economy, which left some places in America far behind, the result of complex decisions and electoral choices over decades. The GOP under Trump embraced the conspiracy theory as campaign rhetoric, reversed platform positions and generally abandoned its ideological core.

What was left was that contrarianism. The Democrats had Obamacare; the Republicans had “repeal and replace.” The mainstream press had facts; the GOP had a retort of “fake news.” And scientists had proof of climate change, while the GOP called efforts to reverse it “extremism” without offering an alternative solution.

The contrary impulses of Trump’s GOP revealed its full impotence when COVID-19 struck. As health professionals worked to discover best practices in the midst of a pandemic, Trump and his party succumbed to their default instincts of questioning “the establishment”; Trump’s genius has always been in the PR department, realizing the seductive power of thumbing your nose at authority. The doctors said masks were good, but Trump and other Republicans called them an impingement on liberty. Increasing scientific evidence showed the simple act of wearing a mask is a way to help control the pandemic, but Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows said, “We’re not going to control the pandemic,” just before the election. More than 230,000 Americans have died of COVID-19, but after Trump contracted and beat the novel coronavirus, he told the country that it wasn’t such a bad disease after all.

Contrarianism has real-world effects. Deadly ones. When the crisis finally hit with full force (the president having known about its lethal potential for months despite publicly playing down its potential impact), Pence was charged with heading up the White House’s COVID-19 task force, a group now inextricably linked to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans. Like the GOP at large, Pence bolstered the fragile self-image of a president, abandoning his responsibilities to the American public in the process. Cromwell had to deal with some unpleasantness too, overseeing the executions of friends and innocents. He did so in the name of king and country, the deaths a necessary cleansing.

On October 27, the White House released its “science and technology accomplishments from the first term.” The top accomplishment? “ENDING THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC.” That day alone, 983 Americans died.

MICHAEL ZAGARIS / SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS / GETTY IMAGES

So what is America after Trump?

We are more engaged with politics than ever, that’s for certain. Estimates vary, but all signs point to the 2020 election having the highest voter participation rate in over 100 years. It’s easy to see that participation simply as electoral. But the Trump era has also brought a lot of politics into our daily lives. That’s in part because of how many issues have been caught up in the net of partisanship. Addressing racism and sexism is not necessarily the purview of one party or another. Yet partisanship lives loud within us now. After the #MeToo movement upended the silence surrounding America’s endemic sexism and the normalization of sexual misconduct, Trump said it was “a very scary time for young men in America.” After Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players knelt during the national anthem in protest of police violence and social injustice, Trump said team owners should say, “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now.” As some Americans feared that cancel culture had run amok, Trump said it was “driving people from their jobs.”

There are different ways to look at those changes in American life that Trump has decried, though. The #MeToo movement awakened men and women alike to the pervasiveness of sexism in American life. Protests against police violence went from the streets of America’s cities to its sporting arenas and its suburbs. And the looming threat of “cancel culture” pushed many Americans to rethink what they and their loved ones say, and how they should say it.

So now our political engagement is often a seething, partisan sort. A why-don’t-we-kidnap-the-governor-of-Michigan kind of engagement. People speak in the vapid vernacular of the partisan internet. We are quicker to see enemies than we are to see persuadable minds or future allies. We are a cynical bunch, not very sure that we ever had much in common in the first place.

At 1 a.m. on November 9, 2016, I wrote yet another email to myself: “Prayer of St. Francis is really the journalist’s prayer and the prayer of our time.” I was thinking of this part: “[G]rant that I may not so much seek … to be understood as to understand.” I think I knew things would only continue to be ugly and cynical, but I think I had hoped that the world would surprise me.

Mostly, it has not. Seeking to understand rather than be understood requires a suppression of ego that takes practice. Lots of us are out of practice. And this election has given us more information that we still need to process and understand.

Once we get rolling, it’s relatively simple to reveal the ugly truths of the world — and to develop anger around them. It can be painful to realize your brother is a chauvinist, your cousin is bigoted toward religious people, or your mother is a racist. And that pain can drive us into the harbors of the like-minded.

It’s harder to grapple with how to convince people to change the way they think about things, or to just go on letting them think what they think, not allowing their humanity to be defined by their worst beliefs. That’s a radical act of acceptance, and some might say a radical act of love. It’s not an easy thing. It might actually be the hardest thing.

So what is America after Trump? A nation figuring out how — and whether — to engage and whom to love: the stranger or the self? I know the cynic’s prediction of which we’ll choose, but pure cynicism is boring. I’m rooting for a change but planning for a stasis.