What I Think Historians Will Say in 20 Years about the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election


I. September 2016

How crazy it was that America’s elders nominated the two most
unpopular major-party candidates in U.S. history. On the Democratic side,
a corporate-lensed centrist wife of a former president in a country
founded on revolt against idea of family dynasties–less than two decades
after a similar family experiment in thorny rose Bushes proved a cosmic
explosion disaster–a candidate claiming to be practical progressive
after a history of pushing slashed safety nets for America’s lowest-income
families, letting private health insurance company bureaucrats write
national health care bills, advocating water-poisoning fracking drilled in cracks
through global bread crusts, voting immoral war in Iraq, supporting mud-slinging
military coup Honduras, pushing Libya war that hatched a room-sized chaotic egg
birthing a new generation of teenagers seeking revenge for sibling deaths
blamed on manic-moody Uncle Sam. In a dessert plate of ironies, Hillary Clinton
demanded through Election Day that Trump release years of buried tax returns
filed in duplicate and double-speak after herself spending months in a Star Trek cloak
of invisibility to try hiding public transcripts of quarter-million dollar speeches made
to cheer up Goldman Sachs while that company was pretending sad regret
for its heavyweight champ role in wrestling down all four corners of the economy.

Most 2036 history books speculate that, in earlier eras, bucketloads of low-personality
centrist Republicans would have won this election handily, like New Jersey’s
Clifford Case, Maine’s Susan Collins–but in 2016 right-wing lunatics who had never
read Thomas Jefferson nor Thomas Paine had taken over the Ghastly Outrageous
GOP Party and decided a lying ego-driven skyscraper developer TV reality star
known for cheating casino contractors and ex-wives, and accused in little-discussed
court papers of raping a teenager, now somehow represented white working-class
male interests under threat from invisible alien dust able to sneak through porous
plywood border house walls. Maybe it was because a mainstream media criticized
as rigged by Trump was too intimidated by possible loss of advertising dollars
to show dozens of rolls of videotapes showing Trump’s sociopathic lies about
his previous positions on Iraq War, intervention in Libya, and intimate knowledge
of key leaders of the KKK? Maybe ratings-related ad money could explain
not enough coverage of his insane promises to bring back illegal torture, to drop
bombs on heads of youngest children of suspected terrorists, to use nuclear
weapons simply because we have them, to jam his ever-wagging and deregulating
index finger into gears of any solar-powered effort to slow climate change?

Because the two main party candidates had history’s highest-ever unfavorability
ratings, more voters than usual looked at third-party possibilities, but the former
Republican governor pot-smoking right-wing Libertarian had an Aleppo-sized
policy gap to annoy almost everyone on both left and right, and the Green Party’s
medical doctor candidate, who had best progressive positions, was seen as
too unknown and politically inexperienced to win—with many sympathizers
wondering why Green Party kept running expensive Presidential campaigns before
first becoming known for major work to change country’s outdated election
mechanisms—like furthering instant-run-off voting, fusion voting, or proportional
representation—to make a 3rd party campaign viable; and before updating
its implosion-inducing consensus decision-making process that made sculpting
a large group filled with political potential far more difficult.

By mid-September, 2016, Trump had bragged about his ability to hire the best
people, but had already fired three sets of chief advisers, settling on political loyalists
that came labeled with the I.D. tag: “don’t tame this aging tiger: let insane Trump
be insane Trump,” and it was clear that, barring any egregious errors, this was going
to be Hillary Clinton’s close election to lose, as clearly the less dangerous of the two.
While Clinton would likely continue strolling onward carrying the traditional
U.S. backpack of war, hunger, and potential climate-based extinction; Trump was
planning to put that backpack into a slot-machine-filled trunk of a coal-fueled
racing car. What ultimately seemed to derail Trump was his initial obsession
to criticize parents of a Muslim soldier who had sacrificed his young life for an
unwarranted U.S. war, parents who had held up a pocket copy U.S. Constitution
and asked rhetorically, knowing beforehand the answer was no, whether Trump had
ever bothered to read the document he was running to uphold. Then Trump
handily lost all three mass-televised debates, for which his team proudly announced
that he had refused to prepare. Despite the two dozen negatives that came
with Clinton, despite tactical and literal stumbles, many celebrated America
finally electing its first woman president, and breathed a momentary sigh of relief
that global warming was not being placed on a fast-forward conveyor belt,
that slightly left-of-center judges would be appointed to Supreme Court, that federal
housing and education budgets would see a too-small raise as opposed to steep cuts,
that at least a rhetoric of opposing sexism, racism, and homophobia had triumphed
over Trump’s dog-and-bear whistle appeals to ethnic scapegoating and taller
concrete barriers. What activists realized was that Clinton offered them added time
and potential to attempt organizing work, since people more likely to spend time
on tasty tree-plantings with some prospect to bear fruit, with some decent chance
to change a susceptible administration on key policies like Leaky Oil Pipelines
and anti-human-and-sea-life trade treaties, whereas Trump would have ordered
spiked law-and-order police clubs and alt-right supporters’ fists to crush heads
of young people pleading for more utopian worlds.

Despite his lack of advancement to November’s election, what majority of today’s
historians find most memorable about the 2016 contest was that over 80%
of Democrats under 35 voted in Democratic primary for most progressive choice,
Bernie Sanders, a huge surprise to a mainstream media whose most celebrated
pundits underestimated the potential of a candidate for U.S. president self-identifying
as democratic-socialist. When the final 2016 tally was overcooked and cooling,
most progressive election historians began penning e-book meditations
on the question of how these young progressives would organize in years and
decades ahead for healthier policies on climate preservation, single-payer
medical care, colleges easy on the knees, empathetic economics, a warm downpour
of human rights, and the basic importance of maintaining the inhalation
and exhalation of planetary life. The creative ping pong strategies that young people
developed in ensuing years surprised all the old TV news experts, like the way
Emily Dickinson had described a great poem making readers feel as if their heads
were popping off.

II. October 2016

Why in so many presidential elections do I seem to quote the late Abbie Hoffman’s
later-years activist advice that often it IS better to have the lesser of two evils
than the evil of two lessers? A few weeks after I wrote part one of this poem,
which was posted in an online literary journal Sensitive Skin, the Washington Post
published a transcript from an Access Hollywood radioactive TV interview
audiotape, in which Donald Trump bragged to host Billy Bush that he was able
to use his star-and wealth-powered octopus hands to commit sexual assault by grabbing
women’s genitals without consent. When queried by a too-timid moderator
in the second of three debates, Trump denied having ever performed the repulsive
criminal deed of which he had boasted, backtracking that he had only engaged
in “locker room talk,” apparently thinking that confessing to sexual assault would
ingratiate him with a Bush dynasty cousin. Soon, pro athletes lined up to rebuff
any notion that sexual-assault talk was common in any wide-world of sports
locker room they knew. Then, more than ten different women from previous years
confirmed Trump’s boast was an accurate one, declaring Trump had years earlier
deep-kissed them unexpectedly or grabbed their genitals—on planes, in offices,
and sometimes even with Trump’s patient wife awaiting his return in a soundproof
adjoining room. Although the child rape lawsuit mentioned earlier in this poem
remained largely unreported, aside from my favorite news show, Democracy Now,
talk of Trump as a serial assaulter became the main mainstream news headline
for days. Historians looking back from 2036 mostly agree this story finally sealed
Trump’s fate in November’s election, assuring the loss of millions of independent
women’s votes. But these same historians also express amazement that this story
of serial sexual abuse did not immediately and thoroughly disqualify Trump as a serious
contender, despite the torn-tendon fragility of his denials—made more untenable
by fact he had already confessed to just these actions on tape, and that several
of his accusers produced friends to whom they had described the shocking offenses
in the days right after they occurred.

Another October story that arose after the first part of this poem was writ was
a near-daily release by Wikileaks of hacked emails from Hillary Clinton’s apple core
campaign team. The hacked letters largely revealed what most attentive observers
already knew—that Clinton was a pro-corporate centrist who occasionally let political
donations influence her actions as a state-hopping Senator and as Secretary of State.
For progressives, the most insulting secret email revelation was Clinton’s snide
comment to builders that she wished environmentalists opposing her support for
earthquake-generating fracking and the Keystone XL Pipeline, which she later changed
her mind about under people-powered electoral pressure, would “get a life.” Despite
October’s frustrating new intrigues worthy of Munch’s “Scream,” future historians
remained constant in their insistence that the main issue that mattered after Clinton’s
election win was indeed the dedicated lives that young activists—from the Bernie
Sanders campaign and groups like Black Lives Matter , 350.org, and the Dakota
water protectors—would get and lead in ensuing years, lives filled with brave and
unpredictable acts on behalf of acrobatic justice and a breathable planet.

III. November 9, 2016

As Fonzie used to say on the old “Happy Days” TV show, I was wr-wr-wr-wrong,
even if, being a near-60-year-old poet in relatively poor health, I don’t think many
political historians in 2036 will remember the wishful-thinking, crystal-ball errors
of a little known and gone NJ poet compared to the missed predictions of almost every
televised U.S. election expert and pollster. After Clinton’s unexpected defeat, I believe
those future historians will criticize the Democratic Party leadership for passing
the nominee baton without hesitation to an unpopular centrist candidate, whose turn
it was assumed to be because of U.S.-style royal heritage, rather than offer a range
of credible primary challengers to pick a candidate who should have been able to beat
a well-recognized lying Republican outlier whose overblown ego-balloon
seemed ready to burst at nearly every campaign stop. After all, a 74-year-old
democratic socialist, Bernie Sanders, who had not previously been a Democrat, had
given Clinton a good run in the primaries. Looking back, progressive Democrats like
Elizabeth Warren or Sherrod Brown would probably have beaten Trump,
with Brown certainly doing better than Clinton in holding his own in lost midwest
states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and his home state of Ohio. But maybe
the combination of Americans’ love of the culture of celebrity, an envy of billionaires,
even those who had never shown interest in public service of any kind, and the desire
of too many white male voters to move backwards instead of forwards in terms of human
evolution, would have overcome even Democratic challengers who were not seen
as long-time D.C. insiders and who carried less historical baggage than Hillary.
Just as in 2000, last night’s vote showed the outdatedness of the American election
mechanism with the nation’s popular vote winner losing the Electoral College.
It will be different attempting progressive organizing under a Trump presidency
that will not hesitate to wield thuggish state sledgehammers in the name of enforcing
invisible laws and order. But wrong as I was in this poem’s first two sections
about the probability of a Clinton win, I still believe that future historians looking back
will see that the shape of America’s post-2016 landscape depended mostly on the strategic
abilities and flexibility of young activists coming together across a range of a
million different old and new issues to save an increasingly melting planet.

Eliot Katz, Sept.-Nov. 2016