If Tuesday were a novel, or even a dream, we could finish the last page and put the book down, to wake up to realize the book included no literal truth, that neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton had been elected president of the United States. That’s how 6 in 10 voters would have felt, saying in the exit polls that both candidates were “unfavorable and untrustworthy.”
The reader of a novel can always fantasize an outcome to please the imagination. A farce, which this campaign sometimes seemed to be, might have ended with a deux ex machina, a crazy revelation to eliminate the candidate least liked, only to dance past a knockout punch.
When the Donald was caught having talked dirty about an imaginary woman more than a decade ago, or when Hillary’s emails were discovered on the computer of a man under investigation for “sexting” a real underage girl, it looked like an unrecoverable blow to the solar plexus. But both fighters were saved by the bell, to return to the ring to diverting chatter at ringside.
We discovered that we still have to elect a president the old-fashioned way, with majorities in the Electoral College. The numbers jumped around and arranged themselves on the screen in a fresh way, showing Donald Trump winning against long odds in the battleground states — Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and finally Pennsylvania.
The dominant voices in the media never quite got those numbers right, but others recognized early that the Donald was on to something. Hillary had to bring on Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi to get a crowd and the Donald energized huge rallies just with himself.
“Idealogues will tell you that the personal is political, but novelists will tell you that the political is personal,” writes novelist Thomas Mallon, known for his fictional takes on elections with titles like “Dewey Beats Truman,” or “Watergate, a novel,” presenting a Nixon character for whom he shows a little redeeming empathy. He captures Hillary with a Nixonian psychology, rendering her a more tragic character than merely corrupt. Hillary’s from Illinois by way of New York, but she lived in Arkansas long enough to reveal herself as having taken on the coloration of pure Southern Gothic.
“If Nixon was shredded and poisoned by each of his pre-presidential defeats,” writes Thomas Mallon in The New Yorker magazine, “Hillary died a little with each of Bill’s victories, one after another, in Arkansas and beyond, all of them forcing her to stand at a spot on the stage that she knew she should not be occupying. Her life was supposed to take place behind the lectern, not beside it, hoisting the hand of the man who’d just got the votes.”
His point, from the psychological perspective of political psychology, was rendered all the more poignant when we saw her husband standing behind her as she made her concession speech. She even lost Arkansas big time, where she was the governor’s wife.
You don’t have to be a novelist to feel in your bones that in this election the political was personal. Many women liked the idea that there would finally be a woman as president, but Hillary was not the exemplary woman who deserved the honor of shattering the glass ceiling. Her baggage followed her to the moment, as if on a later train. She couldn’t erase from public memory the discarded Hillaries we watched climb to power — the Hillary who made the trillion-to-one killing on cattle futures, the Hillary who felt the need to hide policy meetings when she worked on health care policy as first lady, the Hillary who lied to the families of the dead at Benghazi that their loved ones died because of an obscure videotape.
Or the Hillary who, as secretary of State, blurred the distinction between the State Department and the Clinton Foundation to satisfy the donors to the family till. The enormous fees for her boilerplate speeches earned a reputation for greed and avarice by both Hillary and the mister.
Hillary planned her victory speech at the Jacob K. Javits Center in New York, with its gorgeous glass ceiling that she would have symbolically broken through. Instead she conceded defeat from her hotel, testifying to the very different future than she or her supporters expected.
Thomas Mallon, in imagining a novel about this campaign, anticipated that Hillary Clinton as president would provide the point of view because the Donald was a character too flat to be interesting. “Trump cannot surprise in any way,” he says. But life as lived can be truer to life than fiction, even Southern Gothic, and filled with surprise after surprise. We got the biggest surprise of all on Tuesday night.