Election day. We are standing at a time right before voting ends and the combination of demographic data and exit polls starts feeding the television networks’ desire to “call” states for one or the other party before anyone else does. A time right before a generalized frenzy reveals beyond any doubt that an event is taking place as we speak. This time right before might be precisely the right time to engage in some reflections on the meaning of all that preceded the event. This might indeed be the right time because the event will reveal as much as it will hide. That is what all events do. They cancel innumerable possible futures, opened up by the preceding events; and by choosing one or a few of them they tend to make us believe that the other possible futures have been entirely cancelled out.
That is not the way time unfolds, however. Time is an ocean: it has hidden currents, sedimented sands, surface waves and tsunamis. The event, however, by hiding and revealing—no visibility could operate otherwise—will not only make us believe that the other “possibles” have been entirely prevented but will in fact contribute to the permanent, or quasi permanent, sedimentation of a good number of those very possibles. So, before the event works its magic and gives birth to a new set of possible futures, making us forget for a while—until, and if, sedimented fragments of the canceled possibles get reactivated by a hidden current or an unexpected tsunami in the near or distant future—the complexity of the present, let us consider what has taken place so far in this election cycle. This will be, as any range of multiple possibles always are, unavoidably fragmented and sequential.
The first thing to state about this presidential campaign is that it has been a long time since an election was this political. It is true that, if you have been following (who hasn’t?), the election seems to have been about anything but politics: race, sex, gender, manners, likeability (or, rather, “dis-likeability”). Leaving aside the fact that all these matters are obviously political in their own right, this election has all the chances of becoming the most important, strictly political event in a long time. And by political I mean an event that contributes to fundamentally changing the way a society perceives, structures, and thinks about itself. Although we reach this election day in a context in which the conventional wisdom says otherwise, this thing could still go either way. And this is of course what democratic politics looks like.
It is just that we are not used to it. We have gotten used to highly choreographed affairs of 50-50, 51-49, at most 52-48 presidential election results. We have gotten used to heavy campaigning in four, five, maybe six so-called toss-up states. These are states in which people are lead to hate politics because of its overabundance—or rather, because of the overabundance of political campaigning. In the remaining 45 or so states, however, people are led to ignore politics instead—to ignore it due to its absence, or rather due to the absence of campaigning and thus of the very acknowledgment of the existence of politics. And this absence presents a picture of a country that seems to run by itself; or rather run by technicians, appointed by this or that candidate after the toss-up states–overdosed every four years with politics-understood-as-electioneering–make their periodic call in the name of us all. This self-understanding of American society and politics may no longer be tenable after this presidential campaign.
In this fundamentally political year, events continually shook the highly choreographed and orderly pattern that were characteristic of recent American elections. Until the first of the two big October surprises that probably shook and upended the campaign for good—the “Access Hollywood” tape and the later-aborted FBI’s “reopening” of the email case against Hillary Clinton—events independent of the campaigns seemed to be the only thing that could help Trump win the election. And this was because of a sort of elective affinity between Trump and events. Since the primaries, Trump’s campaign seemed to be uniquely capable of responding to events—and not only because of its narrative of fear and decline, and thus its interpretation of terrorist attacks, racial conflict, etc. as signs of a decline that had to be stopped—but also because of the very nature of the candidate himself. Clinton’s campaign, on the other hand, heavily scripted, “steady and tested” as it claimed all along to be, seemed less capable of doing so.
For the Democratic candidate, the country seemed rather to be a kind of well-oiled machine, a more or less predictable machine, a machine sufficiently on course and heading somewhere more or less predictable and good—not too good but “good enough”—and thus in the need of someone savvy, someone who knows how to operate that machine. Not that Clinton’s campaign did not invoke fear, but the fear it invoked was not of what will continue to happen unless we do something about it—Trump’s fears—but the fear of what would happen if we do something about it. Been there, done that seems to have been Clinton’s motto. Trump’s fear, on the other hand, was the fear of accepting, or of being forced to accept, things not as they are but as they are becoming, things as they are both in imagination and in reality, in that amalgam of being and becoming that reality is. Fear became indeed the central driving force of this election as approached by both the Trump and Clinton campaigns: fear of having forever lost the romanticized America that some—mostly, but not only, the white lower and lower middle class males—think they once had and fear of losing the romanticized America that some—mostly, but not only, the urban and suburban, both cultural and economic elites—think they have today.
Playing with the central slogan of their campaign—“Make America Great Again”—during the Republican Convention, the slogan of the final night of the convention was “Make America One Again”. This slogan was not about unity just as the reference to “greatness” in the central slogan was not about accepting today’s America and making it great. The latter was, of course, about restoration of white supremacy, thus making America white, homogeneous again. Along the same lines, “Making America One Again,” was not about the unity of diversity, the democratic unity if you wish, but about the purifying unity that comes from purging the body-politic from “alien” elements. America can only be One in an imaginary way, or better, in a fantastic one. Being One is a horizon, not an actual possibility. The wall between the US and Mexico has the same meaning. It is not about being safe, great, one or white again, it is rather about creating a fantastic image of ourselves in which contingent and very much relational and historical dimensions such as safety, greatness, unity and of course the color of our skins are regarded as substantive, absolute, and defining the national identity.
The problem is that this fear cannot be solely attributed to the instituting power of the populist, nativist campaign of Donald Trump. How disingenuous are members of the Republican Party—and even of the Democratic Party, who try to underline this perspective for political gain—in claiming that Trump is some kind of an anomaly for a Republican Party that represented peace and love until he came along. The establishment of both parties talk about the optimism of Ronald Reagan, the compassionate conservatism of George W. Bush, the welcoming of immigrants by contemporary Republicans. It is hard to believe that they are serious in this claim. Reagan backed every dictatorship or right-wing dirty war in Latin America, Bush committed the “supreme international crime” of aggressive warfare and violated human rights by abducting and torturing an indeterminate number of suspects of terrorism, and the most recent presidential candidate before Trump, together with Cruz and most of the others competing with Trump in the recent primaries, were all openly in favor of deporting millions of undocumented immigrants years ago. The horizon of a nationalist and racist critique of liberalism from the right had been cooking for years within the Republican Party. And sadly, no matter what happens after today’s event, white nationalism will probably not go away; it will remain a strong horizon in American politics either inside or outside the Republican Party.
Two very different things happened to the Republican and Democratic Parties—and thus to the political self-institution of society as a whole, since political parties are part of its central locus—in this presidential election: in the Republican Party, the establishment failed to coalesce around a single, anti-insurgent candidate; among the Democrats, the establishment managed to succeed in preventing Bernie Sanders, the democratic-socialist from Vermont, from taking over the party. What the future of these successes and failures might bring us remains to be seen though. What Trump achieved in the Republican Party and Sanders might have failed to achieve in the Democratic are mostly relative re-configurations of internal forces in the already existing composition of the parties. In either case, the change may be so radical that the coalitions will probably not hold together. As of today, it seems that it will be the Republican internal unity that will suffer the most. Although it remains to be seen what happens to the Democrats in power—if Hillary Clinton does win after all—and their ability to keep together the anti-Trump alliance of Sanders-Warren-Feingold progressives and Clinton and Party establishment plutocrats.
Let me conclude with the issue of trade: both Clinton and Trump pandered during the campaign to the anti-free trade voters because there are a lot of them—they are the American poor, a group of people rarely addressed directly during the campaigns, but indirectly appealed to through this kind of populist invocation. Nevertheless, let me advance the hypothesis that neither Clinton nor Trump probably meant what they said. Trump, if he were to win, might cherry pick, here and there, where to mess with treaties, and would do so mostly for the nationalist appeal of it. Clinton, on the other hand, would probably not even do that. The question from an electoral strategy perspective thus was: who would win the code-talking language, i.e. “I don’t fully mean it” kind of talk? And in this particular matter, it was Trump that probably enjoyed a structural advantage, because the voters he needed not-to-lose-rather-than-win-over were traditional Republican voters who were mostly sympathetic to the idea of the government not messing with economic regulations. And code-talking is better for not losing voters than for winning them over.
In other words, on the Democratic side, the voters Hillary Clinton needed not-to-lose were the traditional Democratic voters, who tend to be all for government regulation and redistributive policies and do not like the feeling of “I don’t really mean it” coming from Clinton’s speech. While the voters she needed to win over were those that are supposed to like the code-talking, something that has a lot less chances of succeeding. The bottom line is: Trump, on the one hand, was explicitly addressing the voters that normally do not vote for the Republican Party while hoping those who normally vote for it to get that he did not fully meant what he was saying. Clinton, on the other hand, was explicitly addressing the voters that normally vote Democratic (and many of them had a hard time trusting her on trade and free market issues) while hoping that those who normally do not vote for the party would just jump sides out of code-talking.
Here we stand. Today’s event will reveal and hide different dimensions of the debates, conflicts and uncertainties that dominated the electoral campaign. Some of the “possibles” of today will seem to have never had a chance of becoming real in the first place only a few hours from now—but we know that this will be an optical, or rather an existential illusion. The truth is that multiple outcomes are possible today and that different times will conflate and fork in such a way that, close as we are to tomorrow, there is no way yet to predict what it will look like.