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That’s a wrap, folks. Thanks for coming. You’ve been a terrific audience.
For 16 months, Donald Trump’s accidental campaign was the hottest thing on TV. Even Trump seemed surprised when his little side project, sandwiched between seasons of “The Apprentice” and premised on giving away a bunch of hats, blew up into a cultural phenomenon.
How could he have known it would be that easy to take over an entire party? I sure didn’t. Turns out the Republican Party was like “Wheel of Fortune”; people followed out of habit, but they were sick to death of the reruns.
But as Trump scowled and scoffed his way through one final debate, it was clear that his egomaniacal show had finally played itself out. After weeks of ugly disclosures and cratering polls, all that remained for Trump was to figure out some way to end the series without having to admit it was canceled.
So after railing all week against a “rigged” election, Trump pointedly refused — twice — to say he would accept the result as legitimate. “I’ll keep you in suspense,” he said instead. I guess every dying show needs its cliffhanger finale.
As the candidate himself might have put it in one of his famous tweets: Trump claiming fraud because his poll numbers are horrible! Sad!
I’ll make a rare prediction here, which is that someday in the not-so-distant future, when he feels like not enough people are paying attention to him, Trump will generate headlines by telling a reporter he never really wanted to be president, anyway. And it will be the truest thing he’s said in a while.
But what about the rest of us? What kind of shaken country will Trump leave in his tumultuous wake? How do we fix what’s broken?
This much we know: The next inauguration won’t feel at all like the one I sat through, in a bitter freeze, eight years earlier, at a moment when it was possible to believe that America had turned a cultural and generational corner.
I’ve always thought President Obama should have returned the Nobel Peace Prize he was awarded in 2009. I say this not because he hadn’t earned it (obviously he hadn’t), but because Obama’s Nobel seemed to me an unmistakable statement on the way elite Europeans viewed America.
The supposition underlying the award seemed to be that our country was so self-evidently racist and violent that the mere act of a black man winning the presidency constituted an unfathomable act of courage and resistance.
Had I been advising Obama then, I’d have suggested he go out to the Rose Garden and tell the world that his campaign had affirmed exactly the opposite — that America was a more enlightened country than it used to be, that it took no Gandhi-like resolve to run as a nonwhite candidate anymore, and that the bigotry of an earlier era was fast receding to the margins of the society.
You might say I was naive, seeing as a sizable chunk of the country is about to vote for a man heartily endorsed by David Duke. But I still believe I was right.
A lot of Americans will vote for Trump in November in spite of his bigotry and xenophobia, not because of it. They can’t stomach Hillary Clinton, or they’re desperate to upend Washington, or they’re just diehard Republicans, and they hope — foolishly, I think — that Trump would somehow blossom into a president who’s bigger than the insecure and reckless man they watched again last night.
But that’s distinct from the much smaller universe of furious, nostalgic, culturally displaced voters who drag their kids to Trump rallies, who see themselves living in a racially defined society where white men are the oppressed class, who have no real problem with violence or misogyny or people holding signs with swastikas.
There aren’t actually more of these voters than there used to be. Contrary to liberal hysteria, Trump hasn’t managed to ignite some new White Power movement.
What he’s done, in his frenzied, yearlong effort to find love and acceptance among people with whom he really has nothing in common, is to relegitimize attitudes that had become unacceptable in polite conversation and often career-ending in public discourse.
This is a different thing from enforcing political correctness, which is what bigots always scream you’re trying to do. I’ve written a few times before about my disdain for “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” and the bleaching out of historical figures who make us uncomfortable. I’ll be the first one to stand up for your right to disagree about how we define liberty and progress.
No, what we’re talking about here is a worldview that says: America is a white, male-dominated, Christian country, and the blurring of cultures and ethnicities (not to mention genders) represents not our evolution, but rather our undoing. It is an inherently anti-American creed, and until this year it had been gradually discredited in national politics.
The effect of Trump’s televised rallies and rhetoric, void of compassion or intellect, can be seen now in places you wouldn’t have normally encountered it before. Take, for instance, the recent experience of Michael Luo, my former colleague at the New York Times, who wrote about a woman on Manhattan’s Upper East Side who shouted at him to take his family back to China where they belonged.
In Trump’s America, as in the Reality TV world from which he spawned, nothing is too outrageous or too mean to blurt out. No one needs to accept modernity or feel shame for spewing ignorance. This is his legacy.
It’s also about to become the legacy of the Republican Party, which is why Republican leaders will have a special responsibility to deal with it once this runaway train has to come to rest against the side of a mountain.
For years now, ruling Republicans have tried to have it both ways — to somehow mollify and exploit the darkest impulses of the electorate while publicly espousing the high-minded principles of conservatism.
After both of the last presidential elections, Republicans had a muted argument — more of a discussion, really — about how to expand their reach. That awkward conversation went pretty much nowhere, because Republican leaders didn’t want to offend any core constituencies.
But now they owe it to the country to clean up after themselves. It’s time to firmly renounce and marginalize the last vestiges of a 1950s social order — if not from a moral imperative, then surely from a political one.
This will be, after all, the fourth straight election in which Republicans have been crushed among first-time voters. And at the end of the day, Trump will probably pull fewer than a third of so-called millennial voters, who are already surpassing baby boomers as the largest share of the electorate.
You can bet Republicans will spend the next few months talking about what a terrible messenger Trump was. After that, they’ll pivot to reminding people of how little they like Clinton, and they’ll start searching for a candidate who can offer a better contrast in 2020.
But there is no distancing the party from Trump without disowning what he represents. Further down the well-worn path of accommodation and avoidance, there is only losing and irrelevance.
The Trump Show is just about over. Governing Republicans can’t afford a sequel, and neither can the rest of us.