Washington has been, for the past two weeks, indescribably depressed. When I walked into the deli down the street to buy a bag of cookies, a neighbour who was having coffee with her girlfriends hailed me. ‘Are you as despondent as the rest of us?’ she asked. I told her: ‘No, I’m not.’ But that has been true since we moved into the neighbourhood 20 years ago. The students at the nearby Wilson High School ‘Human Rights Club’ staged a walkout a week ago. ‘We will march down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Trump Hotel,’ they announced. ‘We will then stand before the building and hold hands.’ You would need a heart of stone, as Oscar Wilde would have said, not to titter a bit. When did human rights become a specialised hobby that required a club to practise?
Parents’ general reaction has been to applaud their children’s ‘rebellion’ — after checking with school authorities to make sure that participating in it would not adversely affect their grade-point averages or harm their chances of getting into a top university. The faculty at Wilson High have apparently assured them that it would not. Defiance loses a bit of its meaning when the defied are constantly telling the defiers how wonderful they are. How does anyone rebel in an atmosphere of privilege like that? What could one say in America’s capital city that might provoke genuine outrage on the part of the powerful? Leaving aside ‘Make America Great Again’, of course.
Washington DC gave 4 per cent of its votes to Donald Trump. Explanations for the low tally have been advanced, but they fail to satisfy. Yes, the city is half black, and Trump drew only about 10 per cent of those votes nationwide. Yes, large parts of the city’s northwest quadrant have become super-rich in a Hampstead-ish way, and four of the eight highest-earning American counties are in DC. The Inside-the-Beltway boom appalled voters elsewhere. It just as surely cemented the allegiance of DC voters to the candidate who was on more intimate terms with their investment advisers. But 4 per cent? If, during the Cold War, you read of a country in which a largely unpopular ruling party won the vote in the capital by 93 per cent to 4, what kind of country would you think it was?
Last Friday I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to give a post-election talk. I lived there a quarter-century ago, and something about the early days of this Age of Trump recalls old times. Back then I drank a lot — all the time, if you want to be literal-minded. We’d go to the Plough and Stars in Central Square and make a day of it. In that state you can lose track of things — your keys, your cigarettes, where you parked your car, your girlfriend’s name. Major historical events pass you by, too, then hit you with all the force of their implausibility. You just had to make the best of it. That meant nodding and saying ‘Hmm! Yes!’ when a roommate mentioned that, for example, the Berlin Wall had come down. It would take a few minutes to recover the composure to ask, ‘Er, Richard… When you say the Berlin Wall, you mean the dance club in Central Square, right? You don’t mean the actual… er…?’ There was an element of this disorientation on election night, when the Clinton-sympathising MSNBC announcer Rachel Maddow interrupted her results-reading to inform viewers that they were not dreaming. Nor had they died and gone to hell.
A friend invited me to stay on in Cambridge for the weekend and see the Harvard-Yale game, the conclusion to the Ivy League football season. There would be a ‘tailgate’ party in the car park beforehand. We would fill a basket with pheasant pâté, robiola, cured olives, cornichons, a baguette and some sherry, and then sing ‘Ten Thousand Men of Harvard’. Alas, I had accepted a newspaper assignment to write a feature on the ‘alt-right’, the largely internet-based milieu of white nationalists who have been thrilled by Trump’s victory. Trump may have only a dim idea of who they are, but they were converging on Washington for a heavily publicised and heavily protested conference. I weighed whether to go back to work. When I spend an afternoon with my Harvard friend, we talk about Machiavelli and the history of the American social sciences. When I watch alt-right interviews on the internet, they talk about Hitler and auto-eroticism. It took me an hour of pacing back and forth over my suitcase to decide to stand up my friend. Had he invited me to a christening or a birthday party, I might have stayed. But what if my story then got something wrong or left something out? Then I would have been thrown back on an excuse like: ‘Well, chaps, you didn’t expect me to miss the Harvard-Yale game, did you?’