I spent the balance of October 2016 burning through all five seasons of Breaking Bad, so when the election returns rolled in on the night of November 8—with Donald Trump unexpectedly winning one critical swing state after another—the image that kept flashing across my mind was of Walter White in the Season 4 episode “Crawl Space”: Huddled beneath the floorboards of his house, with the feds closing in on his drug empire and his wife having burned through all their cash, Walter screams out in agony, his body writhing and twitching with helpless abandon at the realization that his entire life has been a house of cards. And then, without warning, his cries suddenly turn to laughter—cackling, maniacal laughter—as it dawns on him, with complete and terrifying clarity, that he is solely to blame for every misfortune that has befallen him, and that he is now, at long last, getting exactly what he deserves.
Cognitively-speaking, that’s roughly where I was by 11 o’clock on Election Night 2016: Disgusted and horrified that my beloved country had chosen a thuggish, hormonal con man to be its chief executive and custodian of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal—but also perversely amused by the whole thing. As it became plain that the most supposedly-unthinkable event in human history had come to pass—a result so shocking and senseless that no one on TV or online seemed to possess the vocabulary to explain it—I couldn’t help but suspect that, in some dark, elemental way, Trump’s victory was a signal that America’s chickens were finally coming home to roost.
They say sometimes you have to laugh because otherwise you’d cry, but every now and again it becomes necessary to do both simultaneously. One year ago today, I was doing exactly that. In some ways, I’ve never really stopped.
Indeed, among the major lessons I learned from the events of last fall was how deeply comedy and tragedy can become intertwined in the course of human events. We’re all familiar with the axiom, “Comedy is tragedy plus time,” but the truth is that some tragedies are funny right off the bat, and the rise of Trump was most definitely one of them.
Recall, if you will, how the entire world spent the whole of 2016 (and the second half of 2015) in total agreement about exactly one fact: Donald Trump could never—and would never—be elected president of the United States. Virtually every pundit, historian and so-called “expert” on planet Earth repeated this same conclusion over and over and over again—as, for good measure, did every opinion poll and, obliquely, Donald Trump himself. We spent months on end reflecting, with sadness, on the national moral decay that had allowed such an execrable man to be nominated by a major political party in the first place, but—with few exceptions—we remained convinced, to the bitter end, that the American political process—so brilliantly and meticulously conceived by our founders—would ultimately prevent such an unqualified and embarrassing candidate to rise to the highest office in the land.
It was classical hubris on everyone’s part, and when Trump won, it was like a punch line to a joke of which all of us were the butt. In our stubborn certainty that we lived in a country too intelligent, decent and progressive to be seduced by a confessed sexual predator who had bankrupted four casinos, we never really accepted the possibility that we were wrong—that there was a cancer on the American character that had metastasized from one end of the continent to the other.
Maybe this is just my long-simmering exasperation with the pundit-industrial complex run amok, but there was something acutely pleasurable in seeing every professional prognosticator being made to look like a complete idiot—to find out that, when push came to shove, nobody knew a goddamned thing about the country they were living in and the electorate they had spent the past year-and-a-half profiling. (In the final hours of the campaign, the Huffington Post gave Clinton a 98 percent chance of victory. Meanwhile, Nate Silver, having set Clinton’s odds closer to 65 percent, was excoriated by liberals for “putting his thumb on the scale” for Trump.)
Equally troubling—and equally funny—is how after a full year of experiencing President (and, before that, President-elect) Trump on a 24/7 basis, so many on the left are still in denial about the ways in which the laws of political gravity do not apply to America’s 45th commander-in-chief. How Trump can get away with things that no previous public servant could, and how sooner or later we’ll need to accommodate this fact rather than assuming it will magically go away.
To my mind, the most profound takeaway from last year’s election—and all that has transpired since—is the power of shamelessness as a form of political statecraft. Beginning with Mitch McConnell’s unprecedented, disgraceful move to block President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee nearly a year before Obama’s term was up, America’s majority party—and Trump in particular—has abandoned any residual semblance of honor and chivalry it might’ve had left and replaced it with an ethos that says, “If it can be done, it shall be done.”
And to quote perhaps the most insightful tweet of the last 12 months—with apologies to Michelle Obama—“When they go low, they win.”
Where previous presidents would be embarrassed (and politically damaged) by suggesting, say, that not all Nazis are bad people or that pregnant war widows are liars, this president has so radically lowered the bar as to how a commander-in-chief ought to behave—and has so wholly owned that behavior as the main selling point of his “brand,” never apologizing, never admitting error—he has effectively neutralized every critique one could possibly level about both his character and his leadership style. As far as the American public is concerned, he is who he is—take him or leave him.
On November 8, 2016, we took him, and there is every reason to assume we’ll take him again in 2020.
Why? Because, as it turns out, Americans have a very twisted sense of humor, and so long as the Dow Jones is above sea level and the world hasn’t descended into nuclear war, we will accept just about anybody in the driver’s seat of Air Force One.
And when things inevitably turn south? When the next financial bubble bursts or a hot war erupts in the Korean Peninsula? When Trump’s sexual assault victims come out of the woodwork or Robert Mueller starts knocking on the Oval Office door?
Well, that’s when the real fun will begin.