This essay is Part 2 in a series written during the last leg of the 2016 presidential election. See Part 1 here.
When, in the aftermath of the 2004 election, I wrote my master’s thesis on American public policy and evangelical Christian pop culture, I half-figured we’d passed the high-water mark of conservatism. Karl Rove had gotten Bush re-elected by a small margin before the Iraq War became an insoluble quagmire, and he used anti-gay-marriage amendments in 11 states to do it. But then the war turned, and Katrina happened, and the Democrats won in 2006 and 2008.
The future arrived as predicted. Secularization hit critical mass, and for a while in 2010, it looked like the right-wing might reorganize itself around libertarianism. The fading of the evangelical moment seemed as though some indigestible bolus was about to pass through America’s rectum — and in some ways, it has. Nowadays, you can run for statewide office on an anti-gay platform in maybe half a dozen states. Conversely, you can run as an anti-war Republican in a lot of places and win. The electorate changed for good.
But what almost nobody — and certainly not me — saw coming was the new conservatism: protean, nihilistic, internet-savvy, vicious. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. We were supposed to become more rational and more European in our approach to the welfare state and to foreign policy, not curdle into a singularity of racist revanchism.
So what did it? The internet.
Even though Trump could plausibly pull this off, I’m going to out on a limb and predict Hillary will manage not to blow it. It’s a shame she’ll probably lose Ohio, but she might come very close to winning in Georgia and Arizona, two large, diverse states that seem destined to turn bright blue by 2024. Texas, maybe, possibly, is right behind them. (Incidentally, should that future come to pass, the 15 most populous states will all be blue or purple, and the most populous reliably red states will be Indiana and Tennessee — at which point the GOP will be truly fucked.)
But now — with the caveat that it’s be grim enough to read think pieces about 2020 without looking even further ahead — the real question is, can we limp all the way to 2024? The demographics augur well. More conservative-leaning old people will fall out of the electorate, and more young people will climb in. Vis-à-vis the old people, the young people are more liberal and more secular and more conscious of whatever privilege they have, and the country will probably continue to get less white by about 1 percent every two years. Generally speaking, population shifts mean that red states gain electoral seats every census and blue states lose them, but it’s not enough to reverse the trend toward an electorate that is younger and less white.
However, the same phenomenon has been occurring since the turn of the millennium. Nationwide same-sex marriage was a great bellwether, moving from unthinkable to utterly normal in barely a decade. Cannabis — or maybe recreational drug use more generally — appears to be the next; does anyone seriously think we’ll be incarcerating millions of people for possession in 2026? Hopefully, climate change becomes the signature issue that follows the de-crazification of drug policy, a landmark shift from collective denial to sober foresight.
The downside, though, is right there in our faces. The United States went berserk in 2015-16, not in 2008-09 during the nadir of the recession, or even in 2001-03 in the aftermath of Sept. 11. (OK, we went pretty crazy, but nothing like now). It was the younger, browner America that went off the rails and almost elected the most uniquely unqualified individual ever to become a major party nominee. White nihilism — potent, frightening, unaccountable to anything — explains a lot of it. But what explains the nihilism?
It’s the internet.
If you’re a left-leaning American under 40 with a Facebook account and college degree, how many anti-Trump hate-shares have come your way since May 2015? How many in-joke memes? How many earnest attempts to point out and patiently explain the contradictions, the lies, the blatant incoherence? You probably lay awake at least a couple nights thinking through the consequences of a Trump victory these last 18 months, but for the most part, you were probably pretty sure that the good guys (and gal) would win. You know the country is getting younger and browner, and hey, Obama won twice when the economy was worse.
Now imagine you’re on the other side. The economy isn’t great and hasn’t been for a while, and periodic jobs reports that show seven-plus years of slow, steady improvement have no bearing on your lived experience. You don’t own stock. You cashed in your 401(k). Your hometown has changed. And online, where the world lives now, the side that doesn’t look like you appears to be winning and laughing at you, and the side that does looks like it’s losing. That side is full of self-reinforcing rage and is convinced these are the End Times.
I don’t want to get too deep into this metaphor and provide some handy moral excuse for White America’s xenophobia and inchoate fury. But the fact is that, judgments aside, tens of millions of white people feel increasingly alienated from their country. That it’s all built on a foundation of carefully calibrated bullshit about czars and Benghazi and the outgoing president’s birth certificate is beside the point. The point is that liberals cannot smugly assume the Blue Wall is impregnable, or that we’ve reached peak insanity. We’re not even close — because the power we’re fighting is the power of the internet.
There’s a good chance that Donald Trump is the John the Baptist for the American messiah-fascist that follows. Someone younger, smoother, less easily distracted and less prone to casual sexual assault will pick up where this ends and continue lobbing bombs fueled by White nihilism at anything in his or her (but probably his) way. If the GOP loses three elections in a row, they’ll work harder than ever to win that fourth and there will be less public angst over lining up behind a Trump-esque figure than there was about lining up behind Trump. It’s existential; it always was.
They’ll get their chance, sooner or later. For a second during Trump’s October polling slump, it looked as though the Republicans might have abandoned him for good. That effort was orchestrated to the extent that they could coast by on plausible deniability on either side, and most of the louder ones walked it back when things perked up again. Republicans are cynical, but they’re not dumb. If a rump 40 percent of the country can become this exercised in a time of relative prosperity and relative peace, it’d be absurd for the party to run back to genteel, Jeb!-and-Romney territory and hope for the best. At some point, there will be a recession or a terrorist attack, a pandemic or just the possibility of one. (Remember Ebola and how it peaked only weeks prior to the 2014 election in which the Democrats got hammered?) A truly, unambiguously post-democratic — with a small “d” — America feels likelier than ever. Enough norms have been banged-up or shattered — alleged moderate John McCain floated the possibility that the GOP will never allow Antonin Scalia’s seat to be filled, and we know Newt Gingrich prefers feelings to facts — that a healthy, normal politics might no longer be possible, even in the best of times. In a post-facts universe, what’s a blue Texas even worth?
And look at the internet, that industrial hog lagoon of stupidity, meta-stupidity, and despair. The Democrats almost lost the election because Grandma wasn’t so good with the email. Meanwhile, Donald Trump was Gamergate come to life, an 8chan forum made flesh. Sure, Milo’s off Twitter, and Fox News is adrift, but the whispers about Trump TV feel like a schematic for some future Death Star — and the economy of Macedonia depends on tech-savvy teens manufacturing bullshit for right-wing consumption. It won’t get better. If anything, the standards that apply to anonymous commenters have filtered up to the speaker of the House. Expect any realignment to occur along dark axes, the same endless pursuit of Hillary’s scalp that we’ve endured for 30 years. There’s billions to be made feeding the national persecution complex, and their brand is chaos.
This isn’t over, and nobody won.
Peter Lawrence Kane is the arts and culture editor at SF Weekly.