There are no adjectives to describe what happened on Tuesday night, at least none that seem appropriate for an election result as unfathomable as what transpired.
American voters were presented with a choice: Hillary Clinton, a candidate with a lengthy record of governance and a history-making story arc, but who also was distrusted and disliked, predominantly for her handling of email; and Donald Trump, who defied every norm in politics, was openly misogynistic and contemptuous of minority groups, played to the worst of our social instincts, and spoke cavalierly of nuclear war.
We chose to jump into the abyss. Barring the unexpected, we elected Trump. Although it’s unclear if he will win the popular vote, he appeared comfortably on the path to an Electoral College victory by early Wednesday morning.
What happens now is anyone’s guess. These waters are uncharted. But if campaign past is governing prologue, there are remarkable, existential changes in store for the country.
Trump has pledged to take away health care coverage from 20 million people, with no actual plan to replace it. He has called for the largest tax cut in history. He has described climate change as a hoax and has no discernible policy for or interest in addressing it. He has talked about banning entire religious groups from entering the country and forcibly removing other ethnic groups. He is not a conventional Republican. He is a nativist, and one who has brought in his wake a scary thread of anti-Semitism and racism that has marred the entire 16-month presidential campaign. At a minimum, he will have the power to nominate justices to the Supreme Court, where there is currently one vacancy and several others could open soon.
What he can do with these ambitions will be the largest test of America’s democratic experiment since the passage of civil rights legislation and, perhaps, the Civil War. The country ends this presidential campaign more bitterly divided than at any point in recent memory. It seems impossible to imagine Trump putting it back together.
But, frankly, he doesn’t seem like the type to try. He has talked, for instance, about going around Congress to implement an immigration policy that would bar those coming from countries where terrorists have attacked.
Democrats aren’t the only people who are petrified by the possibilities. The markets are too. Stock futures plummeted Tuesday evening as his prospects for winning brightened. And analysts are fairly certain that this unease will continue in the near future.
Even some Republicans had refused to accept the possibility of a Trump presidency, especially those from the party’s national security wing. Trump has spoken about upending the NATO alliance, a bedrock of international relations for the Western Hemisphere since the Cold War. He has pledged not just to bring back waterboarding ― a widely denounced form of torture ― but to go far beyond that in his anti-terrorism campaigns.
How Trump came to win the presidency will be endlessly debated, especially if the consequences play out as feared. Clinton’s failures as a candidate make her a prime suspect. The mistakes she made were plentiful, but none more so, it appears, than her failure to focus more on working-class white voters ― who abandoned her in droves, drawn it seems to Trump’s talk of restoring a type of 1950s social construct when America was “great.”
Blame will undoubtedly be laid at the feet of FBI Director James Comey as well, for announcing that he was re-starting an investigation into Clinton’s emails with just days left in the campaign ― an investigation that ultimately turned up nothing demonstrably new but stalled her momentum.
Among those who will also get tagged for derision are the institutions that have, for generations, been the bedrock of our political system. The power of political parties has been incredibly diminished by this campaign. Trump won the Republican nomination despite the pushback of virtually all the party’s elites.
The Democratic Party, meanwhile, failed in its efforts to turn the policy gains of the Obama years into a durable voting coalition. Those gains now seem incredibly fragile. And the Clinton campaign’s ground game, vaunted for its size and precision, clearly came up short.
Then there are the media, whose failures may be as large as anyone else’s. We propped up Trump when it served our bottom-line needs and failed to adequately understand his appeal. By the time that news outlets began highlighting his lengthy history of lies and the worst elements of his campaign, the public’s trust in our reporting had been widely shattered. Many Americans didn’t particularly care to read or hear what we had to say.
How all this gets addressed going forward is anyone’s guess. To offer answers in the haze of Tuesday’s results would be to throw darts in the dark. The country has changed. The world will change. How deep this abyss goes, we will find out.