This election has unfolded like a disastrous fraternity party: a sea of chaos and confusion, conflicts, exhaustion, and so many “mistakes made.” It’s been a mostly rowdy party, with a handful of characters standing out amidst the sea of beer-stained frat bros: the creepy perverts with inflated egos (Republican Nominee Donald Trump and his supporters,) the confused stoner wandering about, the ever committed over-achiever spending a few precious moments outside the library (Democratic Nominee Hillary Clinton,) your crazy roommate who just discovered the joys of “The Communist Manifesto” (Bernie Sanders), and an angry hippie who’s showed up out of protest (Jill Stein). There’s been drunken fun and drunken rage, absurd drama and escalating tension, but by the end of the night, everybody’s sick and tired of all the nonsense.
But then comes the day after, with all the horrifying hangovers and raging regret. The misery and confusion of the previous night didn’t go away; it’s only diminished. You learned horrifying new facts about both strangers and your closest friends. You did terrible things and heard people say the most awful, blatantly racist and sexist things, and did nothing about it. You learned that, yes, the bar can in fact be lowered even further, and further, and further. And you learned that you can’t simply sweep any of this under the rug.
This is the election in a nutshell: total chaos followed by damage that probably can’t be undone. It’s been a long, hopelessly confusing struggle that nobody really asked for. Everybody wanted another mildly exciting presidential election; what we got was unprecedentedly awful. American democracy has been threatened in a way it never has been before. A socialist candidate nearly became the Democratic nominee for president, while nearly all of socialist Venezuela is starving. Taboos that never should have been broken have been absolutely shattered, destroying the basic moral standards politicians should be held to. Society’s scumbags that had been kept on the fringe have now been brought into the mainstream under the banner of the “alt-right.” It’s such a remarkably awful election that seemingly the best thing one can hope for is that all of America undergoes a collective drunken blackout, forgetting the events of the last year and a half, if only because they’ve been so painful to experience. Alas, the odds of us all getting crushed by a sweet meteor of death are higher than those of American memory being collectively wiped.
So, given the fact that America must, rather unfortunately, remember this traumatic experience, the next president will have her work cut out for her (yes, Clinton will, bar some disaster which causes democracy to implode, likely become president). The most obvious and standard challenge she’ll face is purely economic. Much of the populism from both the right (Trump, and to a lesser extent, Ted Cruz’s supporters) and left (Bernie Bros and millennials who don’t understand the horrible problems of socialism, both of real socialism and European-style socialism) are an obvious indicator of economic insecurity. People across the political divide are worried about jobs and the future of the economy. Trump and Sanders supporters alike are worried about trade and globalization. Sanders’ supporters, however, have more concerns than Trump’s: They genuinely worry about climate change, college loans, etc.
Clintoneconomics, then, will have to provide a stable, growing economy, while also fighting climate change. She’s in a position in which she must please both the far right and the far left, but the only practical way to do this is through economic growth and stability which will reduce America’s economic anxieties. Unfortunately for both the far left and far right, this will likely mean making major trade deals like the TPP, if only because trade is the best way to produce jobs and increase wages. Her economic policies will need to prevent populism from returning to the mainstream after she leaves the Oval Office.
The greatest challenges Clinton will face, however, are not policy-based but cultural. Trump has created a new low for acceptable behavior from a presidential candidate. His candidacy began with a speech insulting Mexicans (“…and some, I assume, are good people!”) and promising a wall on the border. He once said he could shoot someone in the middle of the street and not lose voters. He advocated for his supporters to punch people of color in the face at his rallies. He did an interview with the Internet’s most insane conspiracy theorist. In a debate, he slyly bragged about the size of his penis. He destroyed political and social taboos that nobody even knew existed. Now that they’ve been shattered completely, it’s up to Clinton to try to glue them back together, if only to restore dignity to politics. She may not be the best public figure to do this, given her husband’s, shall we say, prior oral fixations. But she and the other politicians in Washington have to restore dignity and manners to politics over the course of the next four years.
Another means of fighting off potential populism will be a dramatic shake-up of current political status quo. A growing disdain for the two-party system and voters’ love of outsiders, from Trump to Gary Johnson or Jill Stein, means that either politicians must dramatically change the policies they fight for, or disdain for the two-party system will continue and populism’s popularity will increase. Both the Republican and Democratic parties need to undergo dramatic changes to both align themselves with the interests of voters and be capable of reaching common ground and policy compromises, rather than the current dynamic of dramatic proposals by Democrats which are constantly shot down by the Republicans. The current status quo cannot stand if this country wants to have a stable election in 2020.
Perhaps the most damaging hangover from this election is the mainstream emergence of the alt-right. The members of this group, from lazy “provocateurs” like Milo Yiannopoulos who gain their popularity from making preposterous and bigoted statements, to professional trolls like Mike Cernvoich, to “race realists” and former KKK members like Richard Spencer to David Duke. They have paranoid “alternative media” sites ranging from InfoWars to Breitbart, which “report” on the evils of Clinton and brilliance of Trump. This group of nut jobs has become popular and gone mainstream to the point where Clinton mentioned them in a speech, rightfully blaming Trump and his psychotic rhetoric for making them socially acceptable.
There are two main ways to view the post-election consequences caused by the rise of the alt-right. The optimistic view is that this is the last gasp of white supremacists (Spencer and Duke) and attention-seeking, morally depraved nihilists (Milo and Cernovich) before they can be truly deserted by society. The “news” presented by Breitbart and InfoWars is just a brief moment of sudden popularity before they once again fade into oblivion, remaining only as a last vestige of American lunacy.
Or, there’s the pessimistic view: the alt-right isn’t a final gasp, but rather the beginning of a movement against years of genuine moral progress, led by America’s leftover garbage. White supremacy will increasingly become a mildly acceptable position by a large chunk of the population. Alternative media and conspiracy theories will be more trusted than The New York Times by increasingly large swaths of people. The Republican Party will erode or simply collapse and won’t necessarily be replaced by something reasonable, but by something despicable.
Both of these views are, obviously, more extreme than what will likely happen in the next few years. Realistically, some combination of the two predictions will come to fruition. But this is still very worrisome. The alt-right probably won’t come to define the Republican Party, but its influence will certainly be felt in the coming years. David Duke and Richard Spencer will likely fade, but Milo and Cernovich might not. Last-gasp of America’s most evil or not, the alt-right’s sudden relevance is something we should be deeply concerned about.
Like the morning after a frat party, in the aftermath of this election, this country will face some inevitable consequences. Some issues, like the rise of populism, will hopefully prove to be short-term hangovers. Others, like the rise of the alt-right, will be a force for evil that will be harder to fight.
What we really have to worry about, though, is the possibility that we won’t learn from the mistakes made this past year. There’s always the possibility that America will behave like some wild and naive freshmen, forgetting about the consequences of being drunk on populism. Rather than behaving with basic manners and treating people with basic respect, we could descend further into a morally nihilistic abyss where truth is entirely relative but always in favor of the world’s biggest jackasses. The well of jungle juice that Trump has tapped into is a possibly addictive one.
We simply cannot assume that American politics will return to a state of sanity in the 2020 election. Clinton and Congress must ensure that Washington actually does its job and returns the country to a state of stability. The rest of the country must fight off the evil fringe groups that have gone mainstream and work to restore decency to politics. This election hasn’t simply been a regrettable year and a half; it has been a disaster that could lead to our democracy’s future undoing.