The Complex Art of Second-GuessingPrint
Maybe the mistakes weren’t Hillary’s, after all
By Phillip Lopate
January 6, 2017
As one who lives in the so-called East Coast liberal-intellectual bubble, and who does not know a single person who voted for Donald Trump, I have been engaged ever since the presidential election in excruciating dialogues with members of my cohort about what happened and why. Often the conversation over lunch or dinner begins with a steadfast avoidance of the Mountebank’s triumph, but eventually it turns to the inevitable. Leaving aside my own pain for now, I will attempt to describe calmly the varieties of second-guessing in which my tribe and I have indulged.
The first thing I have noticed is an outpouring of sympathy for Obama—how was he taking it, he must be so upset—and beyond that, an acute longing for him, in his waning hours of power. Having engaged our imagination so thoroughly for eight years and having been Our Guy, the professor-author in the White House seemed not just to be retiring, but to be on the verge of passing away. A morbid connection with the assassinated Lincoln (an association he himself encouraged) was unavoidable. One half-expected a flurry of “O Captain, My Captain” poems in response. My women writer friends particularly expressed this grief-tinged longing for Obama, and to my surprise their sympathy for him seemed to exceed theirs for Hillary’s distress. His cerebral style of reasoned discourse, his articulate, balanced syntax, his admirable decency—all these stood out in too-stark comparison to the Mountebank’s truculent utterances. It was easy to identify with that peculiar awkwardness of Obama’s: his big ears, his not-quite handsomeness, his disingenuous attempts at the demotic, using words like “folks” and “stuff” to hide feelings of superiority at being the smartest one in the room, except in the presence of his wife, next to whom he seemed genuinely modest, even at times intimidated—all of which was poignant and endearing.
I, an Obama fan, am well aware there have always been those, not just conservatives but leftists, guys in my cohort, who had never bought his act. They regarded him as glib, out of his depth, and a stooge for Wall Street and the corporate elite. Now they were quick to tie the Mountebank’s victory to Obama’s failure to build a movement and a Democratic majority that would outlast his popularity. The Republican Party’s ability to seize so many state houses and congressional seats during his two terms of office, while restricting the votes of minorities, must surely be partly his fault, no? His defenders, myself included, cited the Republicans’ obstruction from the start, their refusal to acknowledge the success of Obamacare, their pandering to racial prejudice, etc. Moreover, it is one thing to get elected to the highest public office, and another to build a movement outside that office, since the electorate tends to seesaw. In the end, history may weigh his achievements (same-sex marriage, Obamacare, the pact with Iran, the overture to Cuba, raising the minimum wage for Federal workers, lowering the prison population at Guantanamo) against his failures (drone warfare, the inability to close Guantanamo, the free pass given to culpable banks and the one percent), and decide that he was both a great president and a disappointment.
It was less than gallant on Obama’s part to boast recently that he could have won against Trump. That fed into the chorus of second-guessing about Hillary’s alleged mistakes. I kept hearing that she “ran a shitty campaign,” had no talent as a politician, should have campaigned more in Wisconsin and Ohio instead of speaking at all those fundraisers. I kept hearing that people hated her. But why was she hated so? I can’t begin to fathom that because I like Hillary. She has a tremendous grasp of policy, and her emphasis on helping women and children seemed exactly right. Granted, she was a charmless speaker without a scintilla of the common touch—I cringed every time she said, “Deal me in,” pumping her fist for emphasis—but I don’t require my presidents to be charismatic. Even the times she put her foot in her mouth, saying that the coal industry was finished or calling Trump supporters “a basket of deplorables,” issued more from honesty than stupidity. She was genuinely appalled at the bigoted statements her opponent was making, thought they were deplorable, and assumed that most decent Americans would agree with her. (A plurality did, in fact.) Nor was she prepared to lie and say that she could bring back all those high-paying manufacturing jobs that are gone forever.
I also heard that Joe Biden, or some other white knight, might have beaten the Mountebank. But he didn’t want to run badly enough, and what other Democrat could have stepped up? Would Bernie have won? Elizabeth Warren? Doubtful.
There were the post-mortem analysts who blamed the left-liberal academics for surrendering to identity politics and political correctness—as though all politics were not, ultimately, identity politics, and as though it were too much to ask the majority of Americans to address minorities, Muslims, gays, and transgendered youth with a minimum of respect. Underneath this critique was the self-loathing that surfaces whenever one’s side has lost, alongside the guilt of professionals, doctors, lawyers, tenured professors, and published pundits toward the working man for having an easier time of it financially. This willingness to take the blame on oneself deserves to be more closely examined. The reflex is understandable, if dubious. Listening to all the second-guessing of my tribe, all the mea culpas of my fellow intellectual elitists for not taking sufficiently into consideration the resentment of the un-college-educated white working class for being looked down on, I find myself disinclined to honor that argument, perhaps because I grew up poor and so refuse to apologize for having graduated college on a scholarship and finding myself now employed.
Bottom line: I simply cannot bring myself to blame Hillary for championing the slow, steady, progressive path. Those who accused her of lacking a “vision” may want to consider that raising the minimum wage, protecting the right to abortion, trying to reform the police force in its dealings with minority communities, and expanding Medicaid, Obamacare, and environmental protection might be vision enough. If that makes one a defender of the Establishment, then deal me in.
There was also much finger-pointing at the media for placing too much faith in the polls or for too confidently spouting a liberal line. I even heard the election blamed on the smugness of The New York Times. If only, it was said, the FBI’s James Comey hadn’t been accorded so much credence, if only the TV moderators hadn’t given Hillary such a hard time about her emails, and if only the report on Russian hacking had come out sooner. Such second-guessing ignores the fact that we were given all that information (by the Times, which did a fine job of probing, as did others in the news media)—about Trump’s philandering and sexual aggressiveness, about his business dealings and stiffing the workers, about his multiple bankruptcies, about his cozy relationship with Putin, about the Russian hacking, and about the racist and anti-Semitic sympathies of some of his Ku Klux Klan or alt-right supporters—and none of it seemed to matter to those who voted for him. Therefore I must come to the conclusion that those who did vote for him may have had anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-minority, anti-disabled people, anti-women sentiments that made them opposed to anyone other than themselves getting help from the government, or were gulled by the promises of an obvious liar about the return of overseas jobs, or were too ignorant to accept the reality of climate change and the need to protect the environment, or simply liked the idea of being amused by putting a vulgarian entertainer in the White House, regardless of whether he might then have the power to unleash nuclear weapons and destroy the world. If that is the case, then all this second-guessing about the mistakes we or Hillary made seems misplaced. We may simply have to acknowledge that we did the best we could, following our principles, and the bad guys won. So, Happy New Year and welcome to 2017.
Phillip Lopate is director of Columbia University's nonfiction program, editor of The Art of the Personal Essay, and author of Against Joie de Vivre, Portrait of My Body, and To Show and to Tell, among other books.