What Just Happened in America?

America did not change. It was manipulated by a minority that seeks a return to autarky and America First.

Donald Trump
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gives a speech in Phoenix, Arizona, October 29, 2016 (Gage Skidmore)

The blog originally began with a simple vision: complicated foreign policy analysis stuffed with swears to soften the otherwise indigestible material. As the years have worn on, I’ve largely dropped that approach.

But I feel we deserve the old way today.

So let’s start to dig through the rubble and figure out what the fuck just happened in America.

President-elect Trump is the second president in living memory to lose the popular vote but win the Electoral College

The other, you might recall, was George W. Bush in 2000 — a presidency not remembered fondly by much of America.

This is key: Trump will not enter the White House with a governing majority in the democratic sense. He very much won the election, but he does not have a majority of citizens who support him.

Such semantics matter in the American system. Rural and conservative states have an outsized influence on how America functions. Thanks to its written Constitution each state is guaranteed at least three congresspeople: one in the House of Representatives and two senators — no matter how small. To override this system and streamline it to a more rational proportional representation requires two-thirds of both states and Congress to essentially vote themselves out of a job, since they all rely heavily on the current system to stay in power.

That is part of the reason so many voters were willing to hand grenade the system with Trump: they saw him as the only way to shoot up a system that appears bulletproof.

In reality, the system is, even now, still quite strong. Had Trump not upended the Republican Party and instead ran as an independent, it’s doubtful he’d be where he is today. He needed the machine that he has railed against to get where he is.

But what is that machine and what does it reveal about America?

America’s original political sin: identity politics

The United States was originally designed with a very specific identity at its core: landed white males of British descent. As America was colonized, the Founding Fathers were rational enough to avoid some of Europe’s identity problems: they sidelined religion and nobility, but instead codified race and gender.

The Electoral College, enshrined in the Constitution, was meant to be made up of said landed white males who could, at a pinch, prevent the takeover of the country by a force that might too quickly upend the system.

As time went on and American society matured and stabilized, voter rolls were expanded. Some of this was to benefit local politicians: New York pols seeking an edge pushed to bring Chinese and Irish onto the rolls to bring them into their machine. But overall it was meant to stabilize a society with a surging population spread over a vast area.

After the Civil War, sectionalism was put to rest and identity politics took its place. Northern politicians played upon their immigrant groups; Southern politicians used the boogeyman of African American depravity to build Jim Crow and solidify their system.

In the tussle of expansion and industrialization, new identities emerged that were squabbled over. Because of the Electoral College, only two parties could compete at any given time. This kept voter turnout down, since radical or alternative viewpoints knew they never had a chance, while funneling social energy into two controllable political parties.

Identity politics allowed both parties to short cut their arguments. By appealing to groups based on their broad identity, they could spend more time hunting for undecided voters who didn’t think along the lines of identity. Every subculture in the United States has been divided up by two parties. Only mainstream whites, long the dominant group, were ever really part of the middle ground.

This worked well enough until 2008. It was far from perfect and most subcultures were taken for granted by their respective parties. Evangelicals, for example, never did get much on abortion from Republicans, nor did African Americans get the economic and racial equality they sought from the Democrats.

This led to a fatal flaw in Democratic strategic thinking. When Barack Obama was elected, it was widely believe that he’d been pushed there by the identity voters who sought an African American candidate. It was rational enough to think that a woman candidate would have an ever broader base of voters who would only vote for a woman. From last night’s results, that was clearly not true.

Obama created a cult of personality. The Democrats were, in many ways, just Obamacrats, attached to Obama personally but unable to win midterm elections or state elections when Obama was not on the ballot. This led to a hollowed-out party that appeared much stronger than it actually was.

Meanwhile, the Republicans had spent decades dog whistling white America

Republicans, meanwhile, couldn’t win the whole white vote: it was too large and economically diverse, with Catholics and Jews often skewing Democrat and Protestant folks dividing up more evenly. So they activated the only reliable section of white voters they could: white nationalists.

White nationalists saw the United States’ core identity much as the Founding Fathers did: European (specifically Northwestern European) descent with colonial values. They did not see the country as a place to be shared but endlessly conquered, whether on the frontier or in the boardroom. In such conquests, there had to be losers and the victors were meant to rewrite the system to control the spoils. They developed Jim Crow and were horrified to see the federal government dismantle it to unlock the geopolitical energy of African Americans in the South. When it became clear that no president could afford to indulge white nationalists’ most wasteful desires, they largely moderated and coalesced within the Republican Party.

But to maintain their cohesiveness as a voting bloc, Republican leader after leader used classic coded language to remind them they were different than various national Others. They were “hard working” or “patriotic”, implying the identity voters of the Democrats were not. They were the “real America”, because they took their identity from the original definition set by the Founding Fathers, and their Democratic enemies were imposters who arrived too late.

But Republican elites understood that to give in to white nationalism would almost certainly lead to electoral defeat and geopolitical weakness. The United States could not afford to divide up its people into rival blocs of identity voters endlessly trying to overcome one another, especially when the Soviet Union did not play the same kind of games with its population.

The emphasis is on the past tense could.

Because from 1991, America has been able to indulge any demon it likes

While the Cold War forced American society into a measure of geopolitical discipline, the end of it has allowed that discipline to slag. The War on Terror does not have the same effect: Sunni supremacists are seen as dangerous but not as conquerors and so debate can carry on endlessly on what to do about them. Neither Russia nor China aims to raise their flag above DC and so old habits of mind, like isolationism and white nationalism, have become powerful again.

Key to what’s missing in America today is the World War II generation: a highly disciplined and largely civil, if socially backward, bloc of voters. They were so often the ones who punished any candidate who swore, or was overly sexual or was too different.

But they are nearly gone now. Born roughly from 1900 to 1925, even in 2008 they were enough of a force to whittle away Republicans who seemed too extreme. Their youngest members, whose sacrifices during the Great Depression and World War II gave them a lifelong aversion to instability and a deep desire for the public civility needed to maintain it, are in their late 80s; few of the survivors are in great health and certainly aren’t numerous enough to turn an election.

That has left the baby boomers, largely the GI generation’s children, wholly in power. They are an entirely differently group: self-indulgent, politically erratic, uncivil and dogmatic, it is they more than any other group in America who drove the low depths of the 2016 election.

Being a baby boomer doesn’t make one a white nationalist, but white nationalism as embodied by baby boomers is loud, open and obnoxious. GIs weren’t less racist, but they often kept the Klan sheets out of the public eye.

Both Trump and Hillary are boomers. Both spoke of themselves as leaders of a movement rather than a party. They have both indulged in grand sweeping thought experiments about what America could be, rather than the incremental policies of generations past. Both offered radically different world views: Hillary believed it was her duty to carry on the Obama legacy while Trump believed he had to destroy it.

Now comes the time of white nationalists driving isolationism

For the US, Trump’s presidency will mean a return to a measure of isolationism and an attempt to recenter the country’s cultural core back to the white nationalists.

That first part may be relatively painless, even popular: Americans are tired of war and are unable to see the vast alliance network America has built as anything but a burden. A world without America will be a bad thing in many ways, and as that becomes clear President Trump may feel compelled, as Obama did, to rush back into the places he withdraws from.

It is the second part, of the recapturing of the nation’s cultural core, that will be most traumatic.

The United States is now entering the final phase of its Strauss-Howe generational crisis: whoever wins these battles will define American culture during its upcoming high, which will probably begin around 2021 or 2025.

Donald Trump offers the myth of a past that never happened and a future that is impossible. American demographic changes are considerably more accurate than the election’s polls: America will be a nonwhite country in this century. Re-racializing American whites is a disaster. A true statesman would find ways to remove race from the political equation entirely.

While Trump himself may not give the orders, the cultural warriors of white nationalism will go on the offensive. This will result in acts of violence and pushback and Trump, with the power of the state, will doubtless call upon America’s formidable security services to protect his supporters and crush his opponents. This will be a waste of time and energy. Going back and forth over identity will not make America richer or safer.

Meanwhile, isolationism will be Vladimir Putin’s dream come true. Depending on how far America goes under Trump, Russia may well advance its interests deep in Europe and the Middle East. China may gain much in East Asia. Few of America’s allies should feel secure in the wake of Trump’s victory and it’s not irrational for them to prepare alliances with one another that ignore the Americans. The map, once dominated and secured by the United States, could become considerably more complicated.

And now comes the time to watch for the backlash

That the turnout was down from 2012 matters; that Obama managed to put together two successful elections does too.

America did not change; it was, instead, manipulated, by a hardcore minority of largely baby boomer white nationalists seeking a return to economic autarky and America First policies. Such policies will hurt, just as Brexit has hurt Britain. There must be a backlash and perhaps those voters who stayed home may be propelled to capture Congress in 2018 or the White House again in 2020.

If the backlash does not come, it means that America has settled for this as its new role in the world. It will be a great power but not a superpower; it will step aside and retreat, as it did in World War I, for a full generation, until wars overseas invariably call it back.

Trump will be a consequential president, but we now must wait to see what consequences those will be.

This story first appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, November 9, 2016.