Entering Donald Trump’s world felt like entering into a bad fiction. For me the feeling was amplified given that news of the elections reached me, in real time, high above the planet’s surface. Months before the 2016 elections I had booked a flight from Chicago (where I lived at the time) to London (where I was speaking at a conference) on election day. Like most people I was under the foolish impression that this puffed up billionaire reality star didn’t stand a chance.
Dismally uninspiring as Hillary Clinton was, she was, at the very least, a seasoned politician, and America didn’t elect as president people with no experience in politics. The dread future of Trump’s braying chauvinism mobilizing a horde of suburban racists and proto-fascists would, for the time being at least, be held at bay. Spending an evening watching the returns seemed a pointless endeavor, especially when I could get a cheap overnight flight on that same date.
How wrong I was, of course. How wrong all of us were, and about many things. First was the impression that by encasing myself in an airtight metal tube floating in the stratosphere, I could somehow be untouched by events. I was used to the experience of the cross-Atlantic flight as a thoroughly pre-packaged one. Vacuum-packed food. Sealed little mini-bottles of wine and booze. And pre-recorded entertainment that was, at best, a few months old and loaded onto the same hard-drive as the in-flight safety video. Re-runs of The IT Crowd. The Marvel movie that had premiered six months ago. On-demand. Safe. Predictable.
I had forgotten about satellite uplink. It had long existed, of course, but had never been so ever-present. CNN, BBC, MSNBC, Sky News, Fox News; all were available live. And naturally everyone on the flight was availing themselves of them as the returns came in and the electoral votes were tallied state-by-state. The cabin was lit up like a damned Christmas tree.
Sleep was impossible. Not long after we passed over Nova Scotia I gave up on it entirely. I watched a movie. The Conjuring 2. It was terrible. I surfed through the channels looking for something to occupy my mind. Unable to even doze, and irritable about it, my eyes would restlessly dart to other people’s screens. Eventually I registered the electoral vote count. I also registered the old man in the red MAGA hat a few seats in front of me. He was laughing.
When I got off the plane, I was sleep-deprived and shell-shocked. I took the train to Brixton, checked in with my host, then wandered around London aimlessly. It was, naturally, raining, and the sky was that featureless gray that made the whole city feel closed in, almost as if it were under glass. Part of me thought, hoped, that I had fallen asleep on the plane, or had crashed at my host’s flat, and was simply experiencing some jetlag-induced fever dream.
At the conference in the days after, many attendees walked around in a daze, especially the Americans. Some of us leaned into our gallows humor, cracking jokes about green card marriages that would let us stay in London, or remarking to old friends “you look good for the day after the end of the world.” Others were panicking at the prospect of going back. But, of course, we had to.
A week later, back in the States, it was more of the same. There was no “waking up,” no returning to a country where I could at least find something familiar, something reliable to hold onto in the midst of the chaos. Everything American seemed was now underlined, more aggressively itself. The sneer on some faces had curled back into a growl. On others the fear had calcified into near catatonia, the kind of look that makes a person seem completely atomized even in the largest of crowds. Apologies seemed hollow, covering up for satisfaction with someone else’s misfortune. It all seemed more itself, more at home with cruelty. Or, if you will, this was an America that most of the world – including a great many pushed to the margins in the country itself – had already known for a long time. A more American America.
The idea that another election was ever going to reverse this was always naïve. To tens of millions, Trump is the rightful president, and Joe Biden’s inauguration will be illegitimate. Many are armed, and are waiting for Trump to give the order. Sure, Trump’s legal challenges have melted quicker than Giuliani’s hair-dye, and the final release of transition funds that came yesterday was always going to come. But one gets the sense that all of this bellicosity was never intended to overturn the results. It was a way to provide the tens of millions who voted for him a narrative to hang onto, a reminder of just how disenfranchised and embattled they are in their own minds. It’s how revanchism builds a movement.
Liberal smugness in the face of this isn’t so much galling as it is pathetic. So is the belief that a return to “normality” is possible, let alone desirable, that anything other than a radical transformation is going to be sufficient to stop this great unraveling. There is, increasingly, no appeal to decorum that can shield us from history, no shelter from real events, no escape from America.