There’s only one lens through which the Trump presidency makes actual sense: As a self-organizing A/B experiment in sociology, carried out on the grandest of scales. The A part of the experiment was a man with every qualification to be president, but who was not white. The B part of the experiment is a man with no qualifications to be president, except being both white and male.
One must admire the impeccable scientific instincts of the American voting public (as amended by whatever effective foreign interference there may have been). There were many other white men running in 2016. All of them, without exception, were better suited to the office than the one who prevailed. But choosing any among them would have ruined the pureness of the experiment. This was America’s chance to definitively determine if skin color, and skin color alone (artificial tanners aside) would be a better predictor of successful leadership than intelligence, experience or character.
Thus, it was an advantage to Trump to run as an outsider, a non-politician. But no less important was his warm embrace of racism, and his implicit pledge –one he has kept more faithfully than any other such pledge –to reverse every last accomplishment of his darker-skinned predecessor.
Consider the year 2008. The American economy was in shambles, our national reputation in shreds. Under those circumstances (and solely under those circumstances) a surprisingly large number of people were not only willing but actually eager to take a chance on something different: A black-identified, son of an immigrant with a funny-sounding Arabic-derived name. It was a no-lose roll of the dice for the white majority. If, by some miracle, Obama was successful, their pain would be eased, and things would get better. If, as was more likely, he was a failure, they would have a tailor-made scapegoat, someone to blame who was visibly different. A failed Obama presidency would be a justification for racism, a reinforcement of the belief in white superiority, a plausible payoff for the sins of slavery and segregation, and a chance to pile the fallout of the Bush administration at the feet of a person of color.
But the Obama presidency was not a failure. While far from perfect, it was essentially free from scandal, it restored the economy, it rehabilitated our global reputation, and it featured the signature healthcare legislation that had eluded more than one previous administration. And while this was all to the good for the nation, it did conjure up a profound sense of unease deep in the psyche of the electorate. It was a moment of cognitive dissonance for everyone who had been well-steeped in the myth of white male superiority (which is to say, all of us, regardless of our own origins). Was one of the baseline organizing principles of our society a lie?
This explains the peculiar bifurcation of the 2016 election. Neither side was interested in seeing an ordinary white man elected, someone of conventional qualities and qualifications. The psychological landscape was the mirror image of what it had been eight years prior. If this hypothetical conventional white male president was a success, it would tell us nothing new. And were he a failure, or even too tepid a success, or if his successes were too clearly an extension of his predecessor’s, it would normalize Obama’s presidency, solidify his legacy, and offer a disquieting side-by-side comparison in which the white man might very well come up short.
And so the electorate polarized, with one side doubling down on change, with a female candidate, and the other side rejecting and rebuking change, with a candidate who was openly regressive. This is how Trump’s vices somehow transformed into virtues, how, in the Year of the Woman, the candidate who prevailed was notorious for the repulsiveness and adolescence of his misogyny. But even beyond the election, it further explains much that is otherwise mystifying about how the Trump presidency has progressed. Why, for instance, has Trump been embraced by so many conservatives, while trampling on their espoused values? Why would a vulgar philanderer, with a pro-choice past and the weakest of religious credentials, be clutched so firmly to the bosom of the religious right?
The answer is that there is no more conservative value in American life than the right of the man to be the head of his family, and of the white man to be the head of his nation. As long as Trump remains the avatar of that particular value, there are some conservatives he can never lose.
This further explains why deeply conventional politicians such as Mitch McConnell and Lindsay Graham, who were previously on-the-record in their disdain of Trump, are now defending him to the political death. They may not like him, they may not respect him, and they may never have voluntarily chosen the referendum on race that he represents, but now that Trump embodies Team White Male in the flesh, they cannot afford for him to fail. The worse his governance, the tighter the ranks must close to protect him. After all, tipping the scales in favor of an undeserving member of your own demographic cohort is the foundation of majority hegemony in any putative meritocracy.
America is accordingly at a crucial crossroads. If Trump escapes indictment, and completes his term (or worse, if he is re-elected, in defiance of his crimes and misdemeanors), then it re-legitimizes the suspension of the rule of law at the whim and to the benefit of the powerful and the privileged. That, in turn, opens the door to all manner of legally sanctioned abuses against the less favored and the powerless, of a kind which we once dreamt safely outlawed in our collective past.
It is crucial that this experiment be exposed as an abject failure. At stake is the future of not just every woman and every person of color in this nation, but also of every white male American who rejects the tilted playing field; who claims his alternate birthright as a citizen of the Other America, the one in which all people are given the opportunity to succeed on their own merits, immune to the accidents of birth.