So This Is What a National Nervous Breakdown Looks Like?

Nobody Won the 2016 Election

Elections have consequences, as the cliché goes, and those consequences are unpredictable, perhaps never more unpredictable than when no one wins the election — but someone takes office anyway. When that happens, the country is largely defenseless, as we learned so disastrously in 2000.

That was when we had five unprincipled Supreme Court justices to thank for promoting an actual (but uncounted) loser to the presidency. George W. Bush proceeded to reward the country’s wary trust by blithely ignoring warnings of a terrorist attack, then using 9/11 to jingo up the fear-laden public mood and urge us to go shopping while he (and a complicit Democratic Congress) started wars that have yet to end. (For reasons having nothing to do with decency or justice, Nancy Pelosi led the opposition to impeaching this war-criminal president.) For extra credit, Bush presided over a bipartisan wave of unchecked criminal capitalism that brought the economy to its knees and Democrats to the White House.

That didn’t help. Barack Obama used his “mandate” for hope and change to bail out the criminal capitalists and protect them from prosecution. With Nancy Pelosi’s collusion, he squandered whatever opportunity there was for an effective, single-payer health system, preferring to build a Rube Goldberg construct that coddles insurance companies without even insuring everyone. Obama provided little hope or change to Guantanamo inmates or drone victims, but he left war criminals and torturers unpunished (including himself, of course), while expanding Bush-era wars to other countries.

Now we have a wartime president-elect who didn’t win, and who goes unchallenged by the popular-vote leader who also lost. Roughly half the country is freaking out at the prospect of a future that seems as inherently dangerous and unfair as it is inevitable. Now those freaking out over a Trump presidency have some idea how some Republicans felt six months ago at the prospect of a Trump nomination (although #NeverTrump is as dead as the idea of acting on principle).

Since November 8, much of the country seems to have spiraled into a slough of despond, feeling helpless, directionless, uncomprehending and hopeless. Even the apparent winners seem joyless in their success, their triumph marked less by celebration than by anger, epithets, Nazi graffiti, shootings, and mad tweets. It’s as if everyone knows that there’s no one prepared or qualified to take power, but they’re going to take it anyway, and take it no one knows where.

Whatever we do, we’re along for the ride

There is, as yet, no organized resistance, although there seems to be a widespread, disorganized desire to resist. None of the establishment authorities, for all that some bewail the triumph of Trump, are actually, actively resisting him on principle (except where their own sacred cows might be led to the slaughter). The president is a joke (more on that in a moment). The Democrats in Congress put multi-millionaire Nancy Pelosi back in power, and in the Senate they elevated the endlessly compromising and compromised Chuck Schumer. Democrats do not choose leaders who would provide bold, principled leadership. Republicans in 2008, faced with Obama, had the courage of their convictions (never mind what those convictions were), circling their wagons in open and constant defiance of the electoral majority. Democrats, lacking either courage or convictions, are behaving now like a species that doesn’t know it’s endangered and hunted. In general, Democrats have become an obstacle to achieving the common good, more than content to enjoy the perks of office while making occasional token efforts to achieve some minimal gain.

Failure, decades of their own failure, somehow seems irrelevant to Democrats institutionally. Hillary Clinton’s post-election behavior should be enlightening, even if it’s not surprising. How might a real leader have behaved on election night and after? Would she have bailed on her supporters and nursed her personal hurt? Or might she have swallowed hard, publicly acknowledged that this election was more about the country than her identity politics, and gone on to rally her followers to stand for the principles that matter to her, to them, and to the nation? She might have done the latter, but that would have required her to have principles, to embrace real change, to have a vision of something better than an elitist police state with fewer and fewer benefits for more and more people.

Another way to put it is that Hillary Clinton might have distinguished herself from the parody of a progressive presidency presented by Obama’s eight mostly feckless years in office. She chose, instead, to run on Obama’s “legacy.”

Whatever Donald Trump’s reality, he won the election by appearing to be a candidate who would bring real change to a people longing for it (enough previous Obama voters voted for Trump to determine the outcome). Yes, Clinton won the popular vote, an irrelevant fact that allows Democrats to remain in denial about their failures not only to serve the American people well, but to deny their failure to serve even their presumed base constituencies well. (Clinton’s dissing Black Lives Matter was as much a dog whistle to racists as anything Trump did or said; why was it so hard to take a principled stand against armed law officers killing unarmed black people for no apparent reason?) Remember when the Democratic Party was the party of working people? There is no such party any more.

Minority government is what we’ve had and what we’re going to get

Minority government has long existed in the US, because low voter turnout means that no presidency gets votes from much more than a quarter of the country’s eligible voters. Minority government has come to mean more and more, at least since Ronald Reagan, a government dedicated to serving a smaller and smaller minority of the population who are given more and more opportunities to loot public funds. The Pentagon’s unaudited, self-reported waste of $125 billion a year is only one of the more recent, grosser examples that can be found pretty much across the government from giveaway oil and mining leases to private prisons to immigration processing to charter schools to privatization in sectors across the board where the enrichment of a few dwarfs the false stereotype of the welfare cheat.

Responding to the Trump triumph with insult and denigration, no matter how valid, is worse than a waste of time. It is an exercise in denial. The Democrats lost this election in just about every substantial and meaningful way, not only by running a corrupt primary process, not only by expecting fealty to a hollow candidate, but by decades of withdrawal from meaningful engagement with too many deserving Americans. Any idiot knew, in 2008, that the country was in ferment and that that ferment needed to be addressed honestly and substantively. The scale of Democrats’ failure to do that is measured by the rise of the Tea Party in 2010. The country has been hurting for a long, long time, like the tail gunner in Catch-22, and Democrats have treated only scratches when the body politic has its guts spilling out.

You can see this in official responses to fracking and oil pipelines with little regard for the future of the planet, or official responses to hunger and homelessness with little regard for the future of fellow citizens, or official responses to drugs and prisons with little regard for science or justice.

Perhaps the most glaring, obvious, cruel official response of this sort was to the governmental poisoning of the population (about 100,000) of Flint, Michigan. Why was this not a national emergency? When a state government accomplishes what amounts to a terrorist attack, why is it not worth the immediate, intense attention of the media, the environmental agencies, or the president? What kind of country settles for half-measures and leaves people still fending for themselves while being charged for a poisoned water supply?

That’s pretty much why no one won this election. There was no one to vote for. We’ve been in the wilderness much longer than we generally acknowledge. Bigots didn’t put us there. Misogynists didn’t put us there. White nationalists didn’t put us there. They all may contribute to keeping us there, but capitalists puts us there, and capitalists will keep us there until we develop more effective wilderness survival skills.

William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. A collection of his essays, EXCEPTIONAL: American Exceptionalism Takes Its Toll (2019) is available from Yorkland Publishing of Toronto or Amazon. This article was first published in Reader Supported News. Read other articles by William.