The road to President Trump was long and bumpy. There were many turns not taken, countless alternative routes that would have spared us this outcome. Instead, we kept going, corruption, infighting and sheer obliviousness stopping us changing course.
What could have been different? There are a thousand possibilities. You could start with the long decay of the US news media into a branch of the entertainment industry, primed to seize on Trump’s celebrity. A wiser society would have demanded better, resisted more vocally, criticised more intelligently.
Or the rise of Silicon Valley, its hypercapitalist, libertarian ethos helping to weaken traditional sources of information. We now suffer pandemic attention deficit disorder, fake news, hackable everything, cyberwar, and social media bullies, of whom Trump is bully-in-chief. An internet run as a public commons rather than an ad-driven free-for-all would have had very different social consequences. We missed that turning long ago.
Or the erosion of civil rights. People of colour have been systematically disenfranchised by a series of interventions, including the gutting of the Voting Rights Act in 2013. Millions were effectively cut out of the election. Their full participation would have made Trump impossible. A renewed voting-rights movement will be part of how we crawl out of the hole we find ourselves in. That will have to include better voting systems and national voting-rights standards. The abolition of the electoral college also is long overdue; its peculiar mechanisms eked out a meagre victory for the loser of the popular vote. And we must undo the gerrymandering that so dramatically favours the Republicans.
Or you could backtrack about 90 exits: imagine we had taken the dangers of climate change so seriously that, I don’t know, we had a completely different election about completely different issues, or the several such elections our environmental crisis actually merits.
The road is perhaps too pretty a metaphor – call it a highway to hell and start looking for the off-ramps. We’ve missed enough already. This year, you’d be forgiven for thinking “left” was short for “left behind”. Many progressives got stuck in the primary stage, fighting Hillary Clinton as though she were running against Bernie Sanders, rather than Trump, all the way to November. Those who should have known better seemed unable to imagine that anything could be worse than neoliberalism.
The Democrats bear responsibility for years of compromise and muddle; they floundered ineffectually while their rivals strategised with brilliance. They can do better – some of them have and will. The leadership shown this month by John Lewis and Barbara Lee, inauguration refuseniks, has been heroic, and the election of the Senate’s first Latina and second African-American woman were high points in an election that plumbed the depths.
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But more powerful Democrats could have worked harder to stop Trump, starting with the outgoing president of the United States. Barack Obama had all the intelligence information that was belatedly shared with us. He even used the so-called nuclear phone to call Vladimir Putin in October and tell him to stop intervening in the election. He had power over the FBI, and might have installed senior staff who were more loyal to the country than the Republican party. As it was, the FBI smeared Clinton and protected Trump. The latter’s triumph was made possible at least in part by our current president’s dedication to positioning himself above the fray, projecting Olympian calm. This was a season during which he should have been asking himself what Lyndon Baines Johnson would have done, back when the Democrats were fierce fighters.
I turned off the radio after Obama said, in his final speech: “In 10 days, the world will witness a hallmark of our democracy, the peaceful transfer of power from one freely elected president to the next.” I yearned for a leader who would say something like: “Hey, there was foreign intervention in this election, along with voter disenfranchisement, so maybe it wasn’t free and fair. If there was collusion on Trump’s part, that’s treason, so we’re putting it all on hold and asking the supreme court what they think about all these unprecedented problems.” Obama’s statesmanly grace was, in fact, needless acquiescence.
Other politicians, as well as ordinary citizens, tried to get the juggernaut to stop. Even Republican senators – John McCain and Lindsey Graham – demanded an investigation of the Russian business before the election, and several of the Democrats on the Senate intelligence committee asked Obama to release the classified information he was withholding. It turns out that a lot of people had material which they could have used to make a fuss before the election on 8 November, or before the electoral college met on 19 December, or before the joint session of Congress certified the result on 6 January. That day, seven Democratic congresspeople stood up to object, but no senator would stand with them.
Later, Senator Dianne Feinstein said she believed that Russian intervention and James Comey’s sabotage changed the outcome of the election (and polls pretty much confirm that Comey delivered the coup de grâce). We didn’t need to know the minutiae of the Russian intervention; we already knew that it raised questions so grave that the whole transfer of power should have been halted while it was investigated. As it is, we now have an incoming president whose greatest commitment seems to be to Russian interests, including undermining the EU and Nato, and full-steam-ahead pursuit of fossil fuels.
Now we’ve reached the inauguration, in an Oldsmobile with four flat tyres and a boiling radiator, some of us are looking ahead, to where the U-turn options are. That civil society has been galvanised is good news, though it’s hard to anticipate what the fights will look like: basic rights are at risk and pretty much the most destructive candidates imaginable for every cabinet position, from education to the environment, are likely to be confirmed. We need electoral reform to re-enfranchise people of colour and the poor. We need the wild-eyed young radicals to take over the Democratic party and make it reflect their hopes and dreams. We need smart strategists to make the most of the very promising rifts in the Republican party.
We need to tell our stories better and learn to influence what stories get told. We need an endless series of reforms, from media and technology to education and healthcare. There’s more than enough work for everyone. There will be too much, and each of us will have to find a piece of the problem where we can be effective and stick to it. We’re going to have to build alliances – that means working alongside people with whom you agree about the big things and not quibbling about the little ones. We’re going to have to remember what kind of power civil society has and how to use it. We’re going to have to be brilliantly organised.
Millions were asleep at the wheel; the shock has jolted us awake. What lies ahead is unmapped – but at least we are finally paying attention.