November 16, 2018

The Trump gamble

Ever since the primaries, I’ve had a bet with my friend Dan Adler.  He said Trump would win, I picked Hillary.  A few times over the past three months I offered Dan to call off the wager.  The polls had Clinton so far ahead, and I wanted to be magnanimous.

Dan aways said no.

On election night, just after Clinton conceded defeat, the first person I texted was Dan.

“How did you know?” I typed.

Dan, who is a Democrat, reminded me he was in New Hampshire during the primary. 

He texted me back: “I decided in NH when I talked to people and heard their anger and knew they were walking into the voting booth and saying FU.”

The only thing I knew about New Hampshire voters was what the pollsters or, more accurately, the polls of polls, told me.  That is how removed most of us are from the people who elected Donald Trump President of the United States.  We don’t listen to them.  We don’t even read the polls that listen to them.  We obsess, instead, on the polls that collect, weight and crunch all the other polls that listen to them.

Our thrice-removed information comes largely from people like us interpreting the world to us.  Our social media is us talking to ourselves.   Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have turned us all into the star of Being John Malkovich – we see ourselves refracted back as barely different variations of ourselves.

You know who got out of that bubble?  Donald Trump.  He ran a brilliant one-man focus group.   He tested his opinions against crowds across America.  He saw what worked and what didn’t.  He changed their opinion of him as they shaped his opinions.   Call it cynical or calculated or skillful marketing, but it worked.   He learned what they wanted to hear, and they felt heard.

Like everyone else hypnotized by the Nates, by the geek-genius of Nate Silver’s 538 and Nate Cohen’s Upshot, I thought this election was pretty much in the bag.   

What I didn’t get is what Trump understood: millions of  voters were dying to be able to walk into a voting booth on Nov. 8 and say, “FU.”

And it wasn’t even a close call for them that the best way to do that was to select someone whose entire persona, and entire campaign, was an FU to the establishment, to the media, to Democrats and Republicans, and to anyone else who got in his way. Donald Trump wasn’t so much a candidate as a mascot. They didn't care what he said or did, whom he insulted, cheated or assaulted.  He was a message they wanted to send. And the message?  “FU.”

Trump understood, too, that the only candidate in either party who came close to delivering on the same emotions and concerns as him was Bernie Sanders.  There are a lot of divides in this country, but this election was ultimately only about one: class.   Sanders spoke to that, so did Trump. Only those two understood the visceral desire so many Americans have to either get a leg up in the system, or to tear it all down.  But only Trump understood how to actually win.

None of this is comforting.  As someone who “> how anti-Semitic, Islamaphobic and xenophobic his campaign has been, I’m not in a silver-linings frame of mind just yet.  But if he had asked me to write an acceptance speech that could begin to calm the fevers he had stoked and focus in on what those people in New Hampshire were really mad about, I would have come up with something similar to what he said.  

Perhaps Donald Trump realizes that the only way to succeed is to bring jobs, security and prosperity to the people who put him in office.  There is a wide swath of Americans from the left to the right who would support him in that effort.  As for the more cockamamie or cruel plans he spouted in his march to the White House?  I hope he understands that it is now the job of over half of America to make sure that if he tries them, he’ll hear from us.  If he dares to discriminate against Muslims, or round up Latinos, or weaken a free press, or deny people health care, or tamper with a woman's right to choose, I am sure the majority of the country that cast a vote for Clinton will organize, and resist.

President Trump, you can bet on it.