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Works of Radical Imagination

Against Wishful Thinking: D.D. Guttenplan on a New Mindset for the Age of Trump

January 24

by D. D. Guttenplan

Why didn’t we see it coming? And by “we” I include not just the media—mainstream, lamestream, the entire spectrum from, say, The Nation on the left to Commentary and National Review on the right. But also those supposedly hard-nosed empiricists at FiveThirtyEight and the wiseguys (since this was mostly guys) at the New York Times’s TheUpshot, none of whom gave Trump a better than one in three chance of winning.

I’m sure the pollsters have already come up with self-exculpating technical explanations for the kind of failure that, in most lines of work, would suggest a person ought to find another line of work. But I’m not a pollster, and though I binge-refreshed those websites as much as anyone else in the final week I can’t say I learned anything more useful than: don’t trust the pollsters (a lesson I’d already been painfully taught living in London and watching first the Labour Party and then the campaign to keep Britain in Europe snatch electoral defeat from the jaws of predicted victory.)

What I want to talk about isn’t the kind of blindness that comes from living inside a bubble—where, as Pauline Kael never actually said, “Nixon couldn’t have won.  Everyone I know voted for McGovern.” That kind of blindness we already know about, and try to correct for. (In my own case through a pretty strenuous travel schedule that took me from the Tea Party convention in Myrtle Beach and gatherings of Young Republicans on the Gulf Coast of Florida to the post-industrial wastes of Iowa and the Monongahela Valley in Western Pennsylvania to Currier and Ives hamlets in New Hampshire and the Upper Hudson Valley). In all of those places I saw evidence that Hillary Clinton’s negatives, “baked in” as her advocates assured us they were during the primary season (and therefore presumably less debilitating than the calumnies that could be uncorked against a Sanders candidacy), had lost none of their toxic potency.  And in many of those places—a Trump town hall in Newton, Iowa; a Trump rally at the Sun Dome in Tampa; the post-debate spin room in St. Louis—I saw that a man I regarded as a pathological liar and an embarrassment to his party carried the fervent hopes of thousands of my fellow citizens. 

In my own defense I should note that as early as August 2015, after watching Trump’s form in the first Republican debate, I’d written “no one on that stage is capable of stopping him,” pointing out a week later that “Trump’s very unpredictability—his manifest inability to respect the norms of party, civility, or any institution or structure not bearing the Trump name, preferably in gilded letters—makes him the campaign equivalent of crack cocaine.” Yet I was as surprised as anyone else on election night. Because I saw what I wanted to see: Clinton’s prodigious ground game, Trump’s manifest disdain for women, record turnouts for early voting in precincts that favored—or were supposed to favor—the Democrats, a whole tier of empty seats at the arena in Manchester, New Hampshire on the last night of the campaign. “Do you want America to be ruled by the corrupt political class? Or do you want America to be ruled by the people?” Trump had asked that night. I wrote down the question, but assumed I knew the answer.

So: no more assumptions. No more wishful thinking. And most of all: no more false hope. (What makes hope false?, you ask. The removal of agency. The wish—or assumption—that help is on the way. From the Democratic Party.The Congressional leadership. The Supreme Court. )

Instead: curiosity, clarity, solidarity. Curiosity about what’s really at stake—and what forces are in contention. Clarity not just about what’s right in front of us—though that would be an excellent and indispensible place to start. But also about what time it is in history. And solidarity, because in practicing solidarity we discover the grounds for whatever genuine hope there is.

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