If next Tuesday’s results match the forecasters’ predictions, expect to hear plenty of analysis that boils down to “thank goodness we dodged that bullet.” The sense of relief behind that statement is entirely reasonable, but the conclusion is not. For even if the country avoids the worst on November 8, it still will not have stepped off the path that led us to the brink of disaster. The rise of Donald Trump, and the popularity of his campaign, have unveiled widespread rot across many dimensions of American civic life, showing us that our institutions are even weaker, and our problems are even more severe, than they seemed. Here, in no particular order, are just a few of the many things our political culture will still have to grapple with on November 9.
TV News is a Cesspool
Yes, cable networks are the worst of all. When it comes to torching your reputation for no good reason, CNN has to be acknowledged as a special standout. “The most trusted name in news” didn’t invent the practice of inviting partisan hacks with no real expertise to come on air and spout whatever absurdities the moment required, but they did raise it to an art form by hiring Corey Lewandowski while he was effectively still employed by the Trump campaign.
Even the respectable, staid world of network news hardly distinguished itself: A recent study shows that the nightly newscasts on ABC, NBC, and CBS spent triple the amount of time covering Hillary Clinton’s emails as they did all policy issues combined. This breathless email coverage persisted even when there were no new developments to speak of. It passed from the concrete realm of scandal into the ether of “scandalousness,” where every new FBI leak or out-of-context Wikileaks dump “raises questions,” “reinforces a narrative,” or in some other amorphous way gives lazy journalists a chance to imply newsworthiness where they can’t actually demonstrate it.
The GOP Can Still Be Hijacked
If Trump loses on Tuesday, there will be intense pressure to narrate his loss as the first step of the GOP’s return to an imagined era of pre-Trump moderation and decency. Trump, it will be said, was an aberration who can be blamed on whoever one prefers—the media, liberals, etc.—so long as it’s not the more than 13 million Republican primary voters who actually cast ballots for him (a record-breaking number).
There are two major problems with this story. The first, obviously, is Trump’s strength in the primary—a clue that, in terms of sheer numbers, the Republican Party is now more devoted to racialized right-wing populism than to the ideological projects that tend to preoccupy its leadership and the major conservative think tanks. The second problem is that the party leadership has, despite some notable exceptions, largely lined up behind the candidate, or chosen to simply remain silent—which gives little reason to think they would reject another Trump-like figure in the future, especially one more polished and practiced than the current candidate.
Is Civic Conversation Still Possible?
Division and exclusion have been major themes of this election, mostly thanks to Donald Trump’s persistent suggestions that various groups of Americans simply don’t count. But, just as immigrants, women, African Americans, the disabled, and all the other groups that have been the target of his insults aren’t going anywhere, neither are Trump’s voters. Somewhere around 40% of the electorate, and maybe more, is going to make a choice on Tuesday that many people find simply incomprehensible. (Of course, many are quick to note that these voters find support for Clinton baffling—but there’s no reason to join in the game of pretending that Clinton’s real but exaggerated flaws compare to Trump’s completely disqualifying ones, many of which have, if anything, been downplayed.)
However destructive a pro-Trump vote may be, it is not enough simply to condemn it. It is essential that Trumpism retreats to the fringe of American politics, and achieving that means finding a way to turn millions of present-day Trump supporters against this kind of politics. This will take longer than the next four or eight years—in fact, it’s probably the work of an entire generation, and it will require a broad transformation that extends beyond electoral politics alone. As Nathaniel Rich wrote in his recent review of Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, “the country’s major political parties have become foreign countries to each other—with their own languages, press, moral philosophies, realities.” The solution to this is not to convert every Trump voter into a Democrat, but to craft a broad political culture in which partisan loyalties do not motivate people to rationalize their support for a candidate who should be beyond the pale.
All of these problems contributed, in some way, to the rise and success of Donald Trump, and none of them will vanish if and when he fails. Trumpism will probably outlast Trump. That means there will be more work to do after Election Day than most of us can now even begin to imagine.