In the small hours of November 8 2016, in a state of some bewilderment, I wrote a piece on the result of the US election titled: “After poisoning and dividing America, Donald Trump has won an ugly victory.” And come his inauguration on January 20, I asked how to make sense of the Trump era. A year after he won the election, I’m still struggling – and so is nearly everyone else.
Like his campaign, Trump’s presidency is a reality show, one driven by disruption and distraction. As a political spectacle, it is nothing short of stupefying; it transfixes the US and much of the rest of the world alike. But if we can only tune out the noise and understand how this is happening, we can begin to pay attention to what’s going on outside the frame.
It’s tempting to view Trump’s election as a sudden rupture, a shocking schism in politics, culture and society that will in time be read as a defining break in American history. To be sure, it has all the shock value that would suggest, but deep undercurrents of discontent were detectable long before Trump channelled them to the surface.
In the years before Trump took centre stage, many commentators were trying hard to take the temperature of the body politic. Almost all agreed the patient was unwell, with a strong odour of malaise, but they couldn’t agree on a precise diagnosis. The most common refrain was that the “unwinding” of the social contract was reaching crisis…