I can tell you the exact moment on Election Night when I realized the world was about to explode.
It was when PBS (or whatever I was watching) flashed a series of exit polls across the screen, and it was revealed that 53 percent of white women had voted for Donald Trump.
Seeing that figure, and performing a bit of number-crunching in my head, it was all I could do to reach for the whiskey bottle and think, “This is gonna be one long f**king night.”
Of all the statistics about how America chose its 45th president on November 8, none was more painful or disappointing than that, in the end, women did not come together as a bloc to elect their country’s first female commander-in-chief. We knew that men couldn’t be counted on to get this done, nor could we expect that white people, as a whole, would ever make any bold, progressive move if they could possibly avoid it.
But women voting for Trump under any circumstances, let alone against Hillary Clinton? It boggled the mind: Whatever you might think about Trump’s so-called policies, how could any self-respecting woman throw her lot in with a candidate who regards all women merely as sexual objects and who has bragged about committing sexual assault and been accused by a dozen women of doing exactly that?
But then I recalled the moment in FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson, in which Marcia Clark assumed that having a largely female jury would guarantee that O.J. Simpson would be found guilty of murder. Clark’s thinking was that women jurors would instinctively sympathize with Nicole Brown as a battered wife and condemn Simpson as a brute who controlled, tortured and ultimately killed her.
It made sense in theory. In practice? Not so much.
As it turned out, the ten(!) women on the O.J. jury were more sympathetic toward Simpson—a beloved athlete, actor and all-around celebrity whose natural charisma and calculated charm proved as irresistible in court as in all other facets of his life. In the end, the Simpson trial became a referendum on the Los Angeles Police Department and 400 years of institutional racism in America, and not—as Marcia Clark hoped—a narrow case of spousal abuse gone berserk. If anything—and quite counter-intuitively—Clark’s own standing as a strong, independent woman only made matters worse.
The gender dynamics in the O.J. trial proved nearly as compelling as the racial dynamics, and the entire Simpson saga is instructive to us now in understanding the $64,000 question, “How could Donald Trump possibly be elected president of the United States?”
In truth, the answer is almost exactly the same as it was in the fall of 1995, when every white person in America asked, “How could O.J. Simpson possibly be found not guilty by a jury of his peers?”
In short: Because the team responsible for preventing it fundamentally misread its audience.
In 1994-95, Clark and company thought their case was about male aggression when it was actually about the racism of the LAPD. And now, in 2016, Hillary Clinton and the Democrats thought the presidential election was about the character of Donald Trump when it was actually about the “forgotten Americans” who’ve felt screwed over by their government and want radical change in Washington, D.C.
In both cases, the two sides weren’t just making separate arguments: They were speaking entirely different languages.
In the Simpson trial, the prosecution argued that O.J. had to be guilty because the science said so: A trail of blood containing his, Nicole’s and Ron Goldman’s DNA was found leading from Nicole’s house to O.J.’s house via O.J.’s white Ford Bronco. That’s to say nothing of the pair of matching gloves and O.J.’s long, long history of violent behavior toward Nicole.
Like any confident prosecutor, Clark trusted that the 12-member panel could put two and two together; all she had to do was present the information that would enable them to do so.
Same thing with Hillary: Beyond her wonkiness and stamina, her entire campaign boiled down to quoting Donald Trump’s most vulgar and outrageous statements and assuming the electorate would realize how obviously unfit he is to hold any public office, and then vote for Clinton by default.
If your brain worked the same way as Clark’s and Clinton’s, you viewed their cases as offers you couldn’t refuse. Of course O.J. was guilty! Of course Trump is a moral disgrace who doesn’t belong within 100 miles of the White House! How could anyone possibly think otherwise?
Fairly easily, as it turned out. Not because they disagreed with the evidence, per se, but rather because they rejected the premise that the evidence could only be interpreted one way.
Sure, the DNA showed that O.J. murdered Nicole and Ron. But how do we know the DNA itself wasn’t tainted? The LAPD had proved itself corrupt and bigoted in the past; why should we give it the benefit of the doubt now?
And sure, Trump has made racist and sexist comments on an almost hourly basis and has no experience in government. But that’s exactly what we need: A disruptive outsider who tells it like it is.
Of course, O.J. was guilty and Trump is stupendously unqualified for high office, and deep down, I suspect many people who claim otherwise secretly know the truth.
But what we cultural elitists didn’t appreciate was the overwhelming power of symbolism, and the notion put forth by New York Times columnist David Brooks, who mused that “Trump is the wrong answer to the right question.”
In the mid-1990s, with Rodney King still fresh in everyone’s minds, the question within Los Angeles’ black community was, “How can we stop law enforcement from brutalizing us with impunity?” Although O.J. Simpson had spent his entire life running away from his African-American identity—associating with a mostly white crowd and marrying a white woman—his arrest and trial became an opportunity—maybe the only opportunity—for black America to strike back loudly and clearly by asserting its right to exist. O.J. was hardly the ideal vessel through which to transmit this righteous anger, but that doesn’t mean the anger itself wasn’t real or justified. It was both, and if it meant allowing a black man to get away with murder—after four centuries of white men getting away with murdering black men—then so be it.
Likewise, prior to last year, Donald Trump was nobody’s idea of a working class hero—or, indeed, as someone with even a shred of interest or compassion for anyone who isn’t exactly like him. And yet, through a combination of Trump’s own cynicism and the genuine fear and panic among America’s blue-collar white folk, that’s exactly what he became.
As O.J. suddenly decided to embrace his blackness when it served his own selfish purposes, so did Trump embrace his “silent majority” when he realized it could enhance his brand and maybe even make him president.
The tragedy in all this—and the central lesson we can glean from the Simpson fiasco—is that few lives are ever made better through latching onto false idols.
The O.J. verdict undeniably provided catharsis for much of black America—demonstrating that it was possible for a black defendant to cheat justice the way white defendants have for centuries—but it certainly didn’t bring an end to police brutality or the glaring racial disparities at all levels of the American justice system.
And now that Trump is heir apparent to the most powerful job on Earth, there is little reason to think he will follow through on any of his promises to the economically dispossessed—a group of citizens who will presumably be hung out to dry just like every other sucker that Trump has ever used as a means to an end.
When push comes to shove, Trump does what is best for Trump. Through his greed, vulgarity and unhinged narcissism, he is the human embodiment of everything that is wrong with America, and now that he has somehow risen to the highest office in the land—both despite and because of his shortcomings—his story has become intertwined with that of the country itself.
The inherent tension of such a consequential, outsize life was the driving force of Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America, the eight-hour documentary from earlier this year that is not only the best movie of 2016 to date, but also a defining document of what it means to be an American today—for better and for worse.
Donald Trump is the latest chapter in that story, and every last one of us has a stake in how it all plays out. We are about to learn just how much abuse the American way of life can sustain without collapsing under its own weight and, once again, we’ll be able to watch every riveting moment as it unfolds. Live and in color.