As I write this, I don't know how the election turned out, whether Hillary Clinton maintained her modest lead or Donald Trump rode a wave of white anxiety into the White House, whether Roy Cooper emerged victorious or Pat McCrory's HB 2 sins went unpunished, whether Deborah Ross gave Democrats a majority in the U.S. Senate or Richard Burr hung on despite (or maybe because of) his promise of perpetual deadlock, whether my inevitable Wednesday-morning hangover will follow a night of relief or despair. I am, in a sense, the sportswriter who turned off Game 7 of the World Series during the ninth inning: I can see how the contest took shape, but not how it ended.
That in itself is enough to send a chill down my spine. Put simply, the 2016 election has exposed a cancer in the body politic, a bug in the machine. The American experiment seems perilously close to collapse.
It's possible—perhaps likely—I'm being overly pessimistic, that this existential crisis will abate and things will eventually coalesce into a new normal, just as they have after all the other existential crises in our country's 240-year history. After all, we survived the Civil War and the Great Depression. Why would this crisis prove any different? Moreover, the economy is churning along and violent crime is down from its early-nineties peak. In recent years we've also expanded civil rights for LGBTQ people, acknowledged the inequities in our criminal justice system, constructed an admittedly imperfect universal health care program, and seen a woman win a presidential nomination. Those are all markers of societal progress.
And yet here we are, in the midst of a long-developing political morass unlike anything in my lifetime, one that's difficult to even wrap my brain around.
A major political party, overtaken by uncompromising zealots, has made unbridled, unprecedented obstructionism its central organizing principle and fealty to the gun lobby and unfettered corporate greed its number one focus. It's also gone out of its way to scorn Latinos and Muslims and LGBTQ folks. Thirteen million of this party's members, including many who fancy themselves moral leaders (looking at you, Franklin Graham), chose as their champion a mendacious, bullying conspiracy theorist who channels George Wallace, flirts with fascism, and boasts of sexually assaulting women.
And tens of millions more Americans think this is acceptable. In the best-case scenario, we came this close to electing an unapologetic authoritarian leader of the free world. Indeed, even with the same ridiculous policy positions, a more disciplined, less-baggage-laden version of Trump could have won this thing easily.
That is, in a word, frightening.
Trumpism predates Trump, to be sure. It was conceived decades ago in the cesspool of Fox News and right-wing talk radio. It came of age in an era of ever-coarsening discourse, in which we seek out sources of information that confirm what we already believe. It metastasized after the election of the first black president, as white aggrievement found a home in the tea party. It calcified through the use of aggressive gerrymandering and blatant efforts to keep minorities from voting.
And so you have a presidential campaign premised on the notions that the election is rigged, free speech is dispensable, and political opponents should be locked up. You have a party that has surrendered its remaining shreds of intellectualism to a ravenous base. You have Republican senators (including Richard Burr in North Carolina) who talk of never letting a Democrat appoint a Supreme Court justice. And you have a North Carolina Republican Party that, in a press release, shamelessly celebrated that early-voting turnout among African Americans was down. This, of course, came after Republican apparatchiks gutted early-voting hours and reduced the number of locations in predominantly black areas.
That is the politics of Trumpism. But the rot goes deeper than Trump. It has spread beyond the Republican Party, in fact; while it is most prevalent among the revanchist right, you see echoes of the underlying angst throughout the political spectrum.
Trump, after all, is a symptom, not the disease. The disease stems from an evolving demographic landscape that portends a future in which white males aren't guaranteed positions of privilege. It has, in recent years, been exacerbated by anxiety over a globalizing economy and a plodding recovery from the Great Recession, by shuttered factories and skyrocketing inequality, by bailouts and culture wars, by the specter or terrorism and unending military conflicts. There's also an ever-deepening distrust (often deserved!) of societal institutions and a sense (often accurate!) that forces are aligned against the little guy.
Some of these maladies could be treated, if only we had the political will. We could, for instance, invest in better jobs for the working class. We could make education more attainable. We could tackle inequality and strengthen the safety net. We could eradicate a system of campaign finance that doubles as legalized bribery and undermines faith in our politics. We could move congressional and legislative districting out of the hands of self-interested politicians.
But we won't do any of those things, at least not any time soon. Nor will we address climate change or our massive infrastructure shortcomings or shore up entitlement programs. Instead, the combatants will take up arms and man their trenches. The pundits will fulminate and the politicians will dissemble. And the line between politics and cheap reality-show entertainment will only further erode.
Politics has become tribal, a zero-sum game.
It's true that Trump's most stalwart support comes from senior citizens, and that over the next several cycles the electorate will become more diverse. Twenty years hence, a coalition built upon white resentment won't come anywhere near a majority. But for now, I fear, this will get worse before it gets better.
This article appeared in print with the headline "We Broke the Machine."