Donald Trump announces his victory in the 2016 presidential election. Screencap via ABC News.
What happened yesterday? We just witnessed a revolution. I say that not in a metaphorical sense to mean a great political event, a turning point, or a momentous occasion. I mean it literally: Yesterday, just under a majority of the American electorate pulled off a political revolution through the electoral process, a new political regime, a new era in American history, and, necessarily, the end of the old regime. It was, without question, the most extraordinary day in modern American political history, far surpassing the election of the first black president eight years ago. And it means we live in a different nation today than we did yesterday.
Every political revolution brings new political regimes, new epistemologies, and new mythologies. Each, of course, is “new” only in qualified sense, as nothing in human culture is wholly and fully new. But, relative or not, the point of political revolutions is to establish a new form of rule, new forms of knowing, and new stories and belief systems.
In a single stunning electoral swoop yesterday, Donald Trump destroyed both the old Republican Party and the old Democratic Party. In the void he created a new Republican Party, the form of which we can only see as through a glass darkly, but which will be a powerful force in American politics for the foreseeable future. The Democratic Party, seemingly the only functioning political party in American politics but forty-eight hours ago, is now a badly wounded opposition party, one that will be as lacking in a compass as was the old Republican Party. And what Trump has done to the American political parties is soon to be done to the American federal government. It is hard to know what will result. Political revolutions are precarious, uncertain, and inherently risky and dangerous. Most fail. Most fail badly. It is impossible to know if the Trump-led revolution will last or crash, but there is no going back. The old has gone, the new has come.
The new revolutionary epistemology was portentously performed in yesterday’s events. Going into Election Day, virtually every pollster—bolstered by sophisticated, scientifically tested models and ample empirical data—had Clinton winning the election. But as the night wore on we saw a new reality emerge, one perhaps felt as a possibility by the guardians of social scientific knowledge, but one that was still a complete surprise. “Science” is now bunk, as are the projections of the mainstream media. The alternate reality of the alt-right media is now the American reality, virtual and not. The Breitbart bubble of yesterday is now the radical basis for a new American revolutionary epistemology. We will never know the same.
Finally, the mythology. It is not new, but it has an entirely new form. It is of the Great White Savior. As such, it is redemptive in narrative structure: The Great White Savior comes to save America from doom. This is why, undoubtedly, so many white evangelicals, unschooled in the deep history of their faith and unmoored from the tempering force of tradition, found in Trump a savior they could recognize. It did not matter that he was a sexual predator, a liar by any sane old regime criterion, and demonstrated no capacity for prudential judgment. The salvation myth was and is enough to win the hearts and minds not only of the religious, but of the irreligious and irreverent millions who found in Trump the demigod they had been looking for.
The revolution is here. It is not going away. Only political revolutions can change everything foundational to a society in the flash of a few hours. We just went through one. Though so many of Trump’s supporters seemed to have voted out of a longing for things past, the irony is that Trump could bring to them only something new, radically new, a new nation.
Ned O’Gorman is Associate Professor and Conrad Humanities Scholar in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of The Iconoclastic Imagination: Image, Catastrophe, and Economy in America from the Kennedy Assassination to September 11.
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