America chose the unthinkable path

Brexit times five isn’t even the half of it.

AP Photo/Richard Drew
AP Photo/Richard Drew

This year’s election was a referendum on multiracial liberal democracy. Liberal democracy lost.

It lost for a lot of reasons, some of which were predictable and some of which were not. It was predictable that African-American turnout would be artificially low in states like North Carolina, where years of voter suppression have reaped their intended result. It was predictable that rural, predominantly white regions of the country would turn out for a candidate whose campaign essentially vowed to protect and extend America’s system of white racial hierarchy. And it was predictable that pluralist, small-r republican government would be proven to rest on shakier foundations than anyone could have imagined a few years ago.

But most polling, and most experienced political forecasters, did not predict this. The unthinkable happened on Tuesday night. The United States has launched itself into an uncertain and very dangerous future.

The danger is not evenly distributed. The disenfranchised black voters of North Carolina are more exposed than white Californians — or white anyone, for that matter. Donald Trump’s entire campaign was a repudiation of the fundamental tenet that people of all races, genders, religions, and orientations should enjoy equal treatment under the law. A Trump presidency would be an assault on liberal democracy, and perhaps a fatal one.

Instead of multiracial liberal democracy, the United States has chosen white authoritarian populism. Another way to describe this system would be illiberal democracy, a term favored by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, an ally of Vladimir Putin and a proud illiberal democrat.

Illiberal democracy is still nominally democratic, but its fundamental value is nationhood, wherein the nation means a group of people tied together by shared ethnic and cultural bonds. The history of the United States has often been shaped by a deep-seated tension between this kind of illiberal nationalism and the hope of a liberal, egalitarian pluralism. Until recently, it really looked as if pluralism was winning.

In that regard, America’s choice echoes the recent experience of the United Kingdom. Brexit — the decision of a voting majority to reject internationalism, reject the European project, and reject a policy of relative friendliness to immigrants — spent a long time being unthinkable, until it suddenly wasn’t. The consequences of Brexit are still unspooling, and Great Britain has a long, dark path to travel before we can fully assess the damage.

Trump has occasionally boasted that his election would be “Brexit times five.” In hindsight, that claim sounds uncharacteristically modest.