President Trump: America chooses an antihero

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Yahoo News

Last May, after Donald Trump at last secured the Republican nomination for president, I wrote about what I thought was Trump’s best scenario for victory, and I compared the coming campaign to a movie theater.

Imagine that you’re standing in a multiplex, holding a ticket for either of two movies that are about to start at the same time. The first is a plodding, predictable flick you’ve sat through twice before and didn’t like. The second is a film that every reviewer agrees is one of the worst things to ever hit the screen, but you haven’t seen it, and there’s at least a chance they’ll turn out to be wrong, because they’re wrong about everything all the time.

How many of us are going to take our chances on the second movie?

The answer, it turns out, is enough to make Trump the 45th president of the United States — and the least likely in our history.

I was in Yahoo’s New York studio Tuesday, with Katie Couric and the author Evan Thomas, among others. Like most everyone else, we’d been hearing all day that Trump’s late surge seemed to have fallen short (just as we heard, on Election Day in 2004, that John Kerry was easily sweeping George W. Bush out of office).

Then the last state exit polls started trickling in, and you could see it immediately; Trump was winning college-educated white women in Florida, and Hillary Clinton was winning women overall in Ohio by a smaller margin than President Obama had won them four years ago. Even if the numbers weren’t entirely reliable (and I’m sure they weren’t), they couldn’t have been wrong enough to offset Trump’s historic margin among white men.

By the time Wisconsin fell into Trump’s column a few hours later, it was clear that Clinton’s path to the presidency, so wide and promising when the night began, had narrowed to a chokepoint. The celebration that night would be a few blocks away on Sixth Avenue, rather than at the convention hall a mile down the Hudson.

My thoughts then turned to my kids, who along with their friends watched this campaign closely, and who thought it inconceivable that someone who carried on like a bully at school — who berated Muslims and Latinos and the disabled — could lead the country.

I thought especially of my small daughter, who found Hillary Clinton a lot more inspiring than I ever had.

What do we tell our daughters about this election? How do we explain not just the defeat of the first woman nominee, but also the election of a man who has taunted women and boasted of their powerlessness?

I’m not exactly sure. But judging from some of the admittedly crude data we have from Tuesday’s election, I think we can ask them not to assume the worst about America.

For one thing, although cries of sexism will ring far and loud in the months ahead, no one should take away from this that another woman can’t (or won’t) be elected president.

According to the exit polling, more than six in 10 voters thought Clinton wasn’t trustworthy, and only 44 percent had a favorable opinion of her. Which really shouldn’t be surprising, since Clinton ran a cloistered, defensive campaign in which she barely tried to convince anyone of anything they didn’t already believe about her.

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Instead, as Trump blundered into one embarrassment after another throughout much of the fall campaign, Clinton was content to recede and let the entire thing become a referendum on him, betting on the idea that America wouldn’t be so heedless as to elect Trump.

Her campaign slogan might as well have been: Seriously, guys, you wouldn’t.

All candidates come with some challenges inherent in their identities, but there’s really no more reason today to think that just being a woman is any more limiting than being black or Latino or Mormon. What’s limiting is not having the confidence or ability to get out there and make an affirmative argument.

Second, we can tell our kids that while Trump may be our next president, he managed to win despite his boorish taunts and misogyny, not because of them.

Fully six in 10 voters thought Trump unqualified for the office — which is almost the exact same as the percentage that said he lacked the right temperament, that he was untrustworthy and that they did not view him favorably. This included significant percentages of Americans who voted for him anyway.

Even if the exit polls are off by a lot, these are staggering findings. It means that a clear majority of the country suspects that the next president is a foul person and nowhere near up to the job.

Consider, too, that Trump seems to have amassed something like 1.5 million fewer votes than Mitt Romney did in a losing effort four years earlier. In failing to reach the 50 percent threshold, Trump lost the popular vote to Clinton and came nowhere near Obama’s vote count from 2012.

Even Trump must look at that and know that he wasn’t blown into the White House simply by some gale-force wind of white outrage. There was also the stiff breeze of disdain for his opponent.

The FBI’s sudden (and, as it turned out, wholly unwarranted) reentry into the race during those last crucial weeks didn’t change anyone’s mind about who Clinton was. What it did was to remind them of how bleak her presidency would likely be, how shadowed by endless investigations and innuendo.

That — combined with Trump’s sudden and miraculous ability to finally shut up for a little while — succeeded in making the campaign, in its final stage, what Republicans had hoped to make it all along: a referendum on Hillary.

So what are we to make of all this? I go back to the multiplex.

Some large number of Trump voters — enough to put him over the top in the Electoral College — are under no illusion that he is likely to inspire them, or even reward their faith. But a lot of them made the calculation that they’d rather find that out, one way or the other, than sit through another four years of rapidly expanding government, endless scandals and empty oratory.

That’s what they saw coming in a second Clinton presidency, and no one did much to disabuse them of the notion.

As I’ve written many times during this campaign, American politics, largely thanks to my own industry, has come to resemble nothing so much as entertainment or sport. Characters matter more than parties. Storylines eclipse policy.

So it’s no wonder the voters seemed to view both flawed candidates as dual narratives competing for the next four years of our viewing attention.

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As a drama, Clinton is drab, dispiriting, a little preachy. The critics say the Trump saga is unwatchable, but why would the voters listen to us? They wanted something different, something with a little more creative tension.

There was a time when we had to really admire our heroes, on screen and in politics. But TV and movies these days are filled with antiheroes like Walter White or the Underwoods, characters we’d never have over to dinner but who we find mesmerizing nonetheless, in part because there’s always the looming question of whether they can yet be something better than they are.

So why not a president who demeans women, who doesn’t pay taxes and never says he’s sorry. We don’t have to love him, right? We only have to imagine who he might yet become.

This is what we can tell our kids: America, or the clear majority of it anyway, is not a country that cheers bullies and dishonors women. The cruelty and bigotry unleashed and legitimized by our president-elect this year isn’t what draws most voters to him.

We’ve simply lost our seriousness of purpose. Our media treats politics like a show, and the actors treat us like an audience. And so an awful lot of Americans decided they might as well give Trump a chance, because it’s all theatrics anyway, and at least he’s willing to improvise.

It strikes me as a reckless calculation, bound to get you a reckless president. Dangerous parts of the world are about to get more dangerous. More than 20 million people who just got health insurance are about to lose it. (Republicans have no choice but to make good on that promise now.) Being an immigrant is about to get a lot less safe.

The opening credits are rolling on the Trump presidency. We can only hope it’s a story of redemption.