In the morning after Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, Barack Obama summoned staff members to the Oval Office. Some were fairly junior and had never been in the room before. They were sombre, hollowed out, some fighting tears, humiliated by the defeat, fearful of autocracy’s moving vans pulling up to the door. Although Obama and his people admit that the election results caught them completely by surprise—“We had no plan for this,” one told me—the President sought to be reassuring.
“This is not the apocalypse,” Obama said. History does not move in straight lines; sometimes it goes sideways, sometimes it goes backward. A couple of days later, when I asked the President about that consolation, he offered this: “I don’t believe in apocalyptic—until the apocalypse comes. I think nothing is the end of the world until the end of the world.”
Obama’s insistence on hope felt more willed than audacious. It spoke to the civic duty he felt to prevent despair not only among the young people in the West Wing but also among countless Americans across the country. At the White House, as elsewhere, dread and dejection were compounded by shock. Administration officials recalled the collective sense of confidence about the election that had persisted for many months, the sense of balloons and confetti waiting to be released. Last January, on the eve of his final State of the Union address, Obama submitted to a breezy walk-and-talk interview in the White House with the “Today” show. Wry and self-possessed, he told Matt Lauer that no matter what happened in the election he was sure that “the overwhelming majority” of Americans would never submit to Donald Trump’s appeals to their fears, that they would see through his “simplistic solutions and scapegoating.”
“So when you stand and deliver that State of the Union address,” Lauer said, “in no part of your mind and brain can you imagine Donald Trump standing up one day and delivering the State of the Union address?”
Obama chuckled. “Well,” he said, “I can imagine it in a ‘Saturday Night’ skit.”
Obama’s mockery of Trump began as early as the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, largely as the result of Trump’s support of the “birther” conspiracy theory, which claims that Obama was born in Africa and so impugns the legitimacy of his office. Into the final stretch of this year’s campaign, moments of serene assurance were plentiful. A few weeks before the election, Obama went on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and performed a routine in which he read one insulting tweet directed at him after another. Finally, he read one off his phone from the Republican candidate: “President Obama will go down as perhaps the worst president in the history of the United States! @realDonaldTrump.”
A short, cool pause, then Obama delivered the zinger: “Well, @realDonaldTrump, at least I will go down as a President.” And then, like a rapper dropping the mike, Obama held out his phone and let it fall to the floor.
For tens of millions of Americans, Trump was unthinkable as President. It came to be conceded that he had “tuned into something”: the frequencies of white rural life, the disaffection of people who felt overwhelmed by the forces of globalization, who felt unheard and condescended to by the coastal establishment. Yet Trump himself, by liberal consensus, was a huckster mogul of the social-media age, selling magic potions laced with poison. How could he possibly win?
Still, his triumph, or the idea of it, was not beyond prediction. The fissures and frustrations in the American electorate were nothing new, and some commentators were notably alert to them. Before and after the election, a passage from Richard Rorty’s 1998 book, “Achieving Our Country,” circulated on social media. Rorty, a left-leaning philosopher, who died in 2007, predicted that the neglected working class would not tolerate its marginalization for long. “Something will crack,” he wrote:
The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. . . . One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. . . . All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.