By the time you read this, the election will most likely be over — the polls will have closed, at least. If there’s any mercy in this world, we will not have woken up Wednesday morning to news of a tie in the Electoral College. The loser will have conceded, and humans all over the world will begin to unfurl a bit from their crouch, make tentative eye contact with their neighbors, and reassure one another that, yes, this is real: We survived the 2016 presidential race.
Since the major parties settled on their nominees, we’ve been dealing with two spectacularly reviled candidates. Hillary Clinton has the highest unfavorable ratings of any presidential candidate in American history — except for her opponent, Donald Trump.
But the two major parties have long since given up on any positive appeal. Their most compelling case, both to undecided voters in the unclaimed middle and to those on their outer flanks, who exist outside the narrow band of corporatist center-right ideology that constitutes the window of political debate in this country, has been that the alternative in this binary situation is far worse. This recursive, negative argument has been a feature of our two-party politics for a very long time: Get in line behind Humphrey, you hippies, or you’ll get Nixon. Or, more generically, as the pattern established itself: You may not like me, as the Democrats have gotten good at saying, but my opponent will scour the earth with the fires of his bigotry and Randian orthodoxy. Twenty-sixteen has represented the natural conclusion of a political system in which being judged slightly less repugnant than the other guy has become the overriding mandate to power.
As vote-for-me-or-else threats go, the prospect of a Trump presidency was matchless. In 1968, Nixon was scary, but he existed within the bounds of the political establishment. Trump was something different and exotic. The threat of Trump was not so much a gun to our head as some elaborate and perverse game-theoretic exercise from a torture-porn franchise: something that sent us into shock, induced a vision of ourselves maimed and disfigured, injuries from which there is no recovery. We’d seen some stinkers in our lifetimes, but few imagined we were primed for the degradation of an American Berlusconi, our very own TV-tanned sex-criminal mythomaniac. Before the past year, few of us thought America was perched over a precipice of actual fascism: walls, mass deportations, political rivals put on trial, rallies deserving of the Riefenstahl treatment.
It would have been laughable, were it not so absolutely plausible. Dismissed in media narratives as a pathology of the white underclass, Trump’s appeal was actually greatest among more affluent whites, and it proved remarkably resilient against the candidate’s repeated transgressions of basic civic norms. Even as Trump trailed, the polling quants chirped disquieting factoids about how Clinton’s chances of losing were equivalent to those of an NFL kicker missing a field goal. And Clinton was hardly a reassuring kicker. Her disdain for the sort of transparency the public expects of its servants — the secret speeches to Goldman Sachs, the personal server in the basement where Clinton loyalists would have ultimate control over what communications ever saw the light of day — tripped her up again, down to the final weeks, when it appeared for a moment we might be condemned to the Trump nightmare because of new email discoveries. Even if Clinton weren’t hobbled by a decades-long record of triangulation and favor-trading, she would still face the one handicap to which she’ll readily cop: She’s a woman, a fact that many voters evidently consider more of an impediment than a lifetime of alleged sexual assault.
Our suffering was amplified by a news ecosystem that feeds on garbage. From the media companies cashing in on the new reality politics to campaign reporters chasing the next micro-scoop, the machine worked to make this election cycle, more than any other, feel like an ordeal, a long national nightmare. Together, we have endured a mass humiliation. If we weren’t directly insulted by the campaigns, pundits, talking heads, or other hangers-on, we were patronized and pandered to, addressed in treacly baby-talk pitched so far below our intelligence level we didn’t know whether the campaigns thought we were that stupid or if our political class was just speaking the native language of its own idiocy. The first candidates announced their bids more than a year and a half ago, and ever since, it was as if Americans were being dragged behind a truck down a rough road, each fresh turn of the news cycle a skull-jarring bump or abrasive swerve through gravel.
And yet, we gritted our teeth and bore it, the 50 percent of us likely to vote. Partly because this system offers precious little choice, but also because we believed that beneath the dross, the careering reality-TV parade of mutual shame, there was something real at stake: It still matters who will be president. It was tempting to tune out, to focus our attention on fights we could win, on building political power for a day when national politics are not some agonizing Kobayashi Maru. But always and forever, the gun to the head, the specter of President Trump. Between two bad choices, one could still be tragically — epically — the worse, and though voting with a gun to your head is bullshit, it sure beats getting shot in the head.
This trauma we have endured — the endless, degrading dramas of Trump’s campaign; the relentless cynicism of the neo–machine politics of Clinton’s — is over. All we want now is to collapse in exhaustion, to sleep the sleep of people who have just been through some real shit. That’s understandable, but it would be a mistake. Now is the time for vigilance. At least as much as any politician, Clinton cannot be trusted to do the right thing unless she is dragged by the nose by a demanding public. The chthonic forces of nativism and racism Trump loosed upon the land are still out there, gathering energy. We have just over two years until the next horrid cycle will start sucking oxygen away from any project not directly linked to making one person or another president. Election 2016 has left America exhausted, harrowed, hollow-eyed. But we’ve got work to do, now, before the nightmare descends again.