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A Nation Up for Grabs

And so we are a nation up for grabs.

Racist populism trounces . . . uh, trumps . . . platitudes about America’s greatness. Hillary Clinton, though ahead by more than a million in the popular vote, is defeated in the Electoral College.

Like it or not, change is not deferred. It’s here, in our faces. Donald Trump is the president-elect. A year ago, his candidacy was relegated to the entertainment section. Now he’s the big winner, the ostensible leader of the nuclear-armed “free world,” the strutter-in-chief of the United States of America. Has being an American ever felt so embarrassing or so weird?

And what will the Washington Consensus — the deep state, the unelected ruling establishment, the corporatocracy, the military-industrial complex — do, now that the guy who offended and mocked them, who ran a campaign slightly outside the lines they drew, has beaten the candidate of the status quo?

Almost certainly it will form an alliance. Almost certainly it will put the brakes on any real change Trump may be mulling, just as it did with Barack Obama, the one-time candidate of hope and change. But most likely, Trump’s not mulling actual populist changes in the system anyway, because the alliance is already in place.

As George Monbiot recently wrote: “When Trump claims that the little guy is being screwed by the system, he’s right. The only problem is that he is the system. . . .

“Yes, he is a shallow, mendacious, boorish and extremely dangerous man. But those traits ensure that he is not an outsider but the perfect representation of his caste, the caste that runs the global economy and governs our politics. He is our system, stripped of its pretenses.”

So maybe, in a terrifying way, the outcome of this election is a good thing, because it rips the mask off, or partially off, the reality of the American system. I say this with extreme reluctance, because the last thing I wanted was to wake up to a Trump presidency on Wednesday morning, and I feel beset by a sort of spiritual vertigo every time I imagine listening to him deliver a State of the Union address or speak as the voice of this country. I was ready to welcome Hillary with a shrug; I was not ready to hear the fire alarm of shrieking urgency to go off, announcing that the time for systemic change is NOW.

But it is. So let’s get used to it — and plan accordingly.

Trump’s victory was constructed out of a bizarre mélange of right-wing racism, sexism and generic fear of The Other (Muslims, Mexicans, terrorists, liberals); a smirking defiance of political correctness; and a large dollop of populist rhetoric, defending the well-being of working America over the interests of Wall Street and lambasting everything from NAFTA to the Iraq war. All this added up to change, offered up to a bitter and wounded Middle (mostly white) America.

Fascinatingly, Trump’s razor-slash diatribes against his political opponents were never aimed at Bernie Sanders or his supporters, as far as I know, even though Sanders campaigned tirelessly against him on behalf of Clinton. My sense is that the alleged billionaire populist understood that he and Sanders were both reaching out to a disaffected constituency and he quietly invited Sanders supporters who could stand the stench of racism to vote for Trump as a substitute harbinger of change.

This election, in other words, was about the need for profound, systemic change. And, as Thomas Frank writes, Hillary Clinton “was exactly the wrong candidate for this angry, populist moment.”

If the Democratic Party and much of the mainstream media hadn’t been so intent on marginalizing Sanders, his remarkable campaign in the primaries might have ended in victory and Americans would have had a rare, genuine choice in this election: a progressive vision of compassionate change vs. an “alt-right” vision of American fascism and white triumphalism.

Instead, the voters got half a choice, and the nation has wound up with Trump. As I struggle to come to grips with this fact, I find myself remembering Matthew Diffee’s cartoon in The New Yorker from a year ago. Two cowboys are talking. One says: “Quit saying ‘President Trump.’ You’re spookin’ the horses.”

Well, the horses are now running wild into the night, or so it seems. The unthinkable has happened. And the nation is up for grabs.

What happens next is that those who were denied a real choice in this election and those who fervently hoped the nation would have its first female president and those who cannot fathom living under the reckless dictates of a man endorsed by white nationalists and contemptuous of most of the human race must stand fiercely and passionately for a different America than the one Trump envisions.

Real change happens beyond the realm of electoral politics. “A politician is not a given,” writes Rebecca Solnit. “Each one is in part what we make them, by pushing, blocking, pressuring, encouraging, fighting, reframing, emphasizing, organizing.”

So at this moment I invite the floodgates of change to open and ask readers to tell me how you intend to respond to the election of Donald Trump as president. What needs to be protected? What needs to be demanded? How can Trump’s election be transformed into the beginning of real change?

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Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

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