The catastrophe the country suffered last Tuesday night—or, to be precise, that the Electoral College will inflict on it next month—is too sprawling to capture in one piece of writing. Should we focus on the incredible blow, to our already-strained democracy, of a popular vote/Electoral College split that will hand the Oval Office to the candidate who ran against democracy? Or on the cruel culture of xenophobia, racism, and misogyny he is legitimating? Is it impolitic to point out that Trump’s cabinet is shaping up to be a rehabilitation center for America’s most justly discredited politicians (Giuliani, Gingrich, Palin), while its policy arms are being handed over to dangerous cranks? (Even the Times, which finally seemed to wake up to the danger near the end of the campaign, last week described the head of Trump’s EPA transition as a “climate contrarian,” as if he were an erudite iconoclast with a Slate column.) This is too much to bear: far too much for one piece of writing, and probably too much for four years of it.
Of course, many of the roughly 60 million Americans who voted for Trump had some of this in mind when they cast their ballots. Not all of these voters saw Trump’s hatefulness as part of his appeal, but none of them saw it as disqualifying. Millions of them would like to see Sarah Palin back in national politics. And those who blame environmental regulations for stifling the economy might welcome leadership at the Environmental Protection Agency that isn’t so obsessed with all that Environmental Protection stuff.
To those voters who elected Trump because they hoped for some kind of positive change—to our trade policies, to the culture of Washington, to health care or financial regulation—I say: Watch the transition. The President-elect, whose supposed qualifications amounted to little more than a mythology of managerial brilliance, is presiding over the most embarrassingly incompetent trainwreck of a presidential transition in living memory. Chris Christie, his former transition chief, has been unceremoniously dropped amidst growing scandal, and the work he completed is being discarded in favor of chaotic, ad hoc decisions led by a team of campaign toadies and Trump family members whose purges of the transition’s few qualified officials are drawing comparisons to Stalin. The President-elect is holding unprepared phone conversations with foreign leaders without the traditional State Department briefing. His team’s failure to complete basic paperwork has made it illegal for them to communicate with Obama Administration officials about many transition issues. During a meeting with President Obama, the future occupant of the Oval Office “seemed surprised by the scope” of his new job. In other words: The new President of the United States literally doesn’t know what he has signed up for, partly because (I wish this were a joke) he “didn’t want to jinx himself by planning the transition before he had actually won.”
Among the assumptions that were shattered last Tuesday evening was my belief that, while voters may not follow policy closely, most of them at least understand that governing a country of 320 million people in a globalized world is a task of enormous complexity. I thought—in retrospect, naively—that Trump’s obvious lack of any planning (the man barely had a campaign apparatus) would signal his fundamental un-seriousness to voters. Shout all the slogans you want; it may fire up a crowd, but citizens will realize, upon reflection, that governing actually requires people who know things and have some semblance of a plan. Evidently, that sentiment is less widespread than I assumed. So, to the people who were counting on Trump to solve their problems: When things aren’t better four years from now, remember this moment.