We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion wrote 40 years ago in “The White Album,” one of the best and bleakest essays you’ll ever read. “We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices.”
Today, some 48 per cent of Americans, and millions more concerned bystanders around the world, are struggling to come up with a good enough story to live with the results of yesterday’s United States presidential election. Donald Trump’s victory is not a suicide or a murder of five, but it’s equally difficult to distill into a “social or moral lesson,” much less a fully workable narrative.
Over the next few days, the story will become more complete. We’ll learn more about how the polls could be so wrong, how voter turnout could vary so widely, how campaign organization and strategy could matter so little. We’ll dissect media coverage, past and present, of both Trump and Hillary Clinton, accumulating evidence for whatever “interpretation” we choose to live with. With any luck, we might even grow to understand what happened, and take steps to prevent it in 2018 (mid-terms matter), 2020, and beyond.
But understanding is different than comprehending. I understand that the same social and economic forces propelling Trump’s ascent have swept through many (most?) other developed countries around the world, in ways big (Brexit) and small (Rob Ford). I understand that Trump is more likely to be a Berlusconi than a Hitler — an embarrassment, not an atrocity. I understand that Trump’s election, in the context of human history, is far from unprecedented. We are what we are: tribal, powerfully motivated by fear, periodically susceptible to the lures of conmen and demagogues.
What hurts is that I bought the myth: I thought this couldn’t happen here; that American exceptionalism was real; that the United States was different, better, nobler. I understand that we’re not, now — but it will take some time before I come to comprehend it.
At the end of “The White Album” — after 30+ pages of stray observations on an America tasked with working more and more casual tragedy into its “narrative” — Didion concludes, “Writing has not yet helped me to see what it means.”
What she said.