Have you had your 2016 Moment? I think you probably have, or will.
The Moment is that sliver of time in which you fully realize something epochal is happening in politics, that there has never been a presidential year like 2016, and suddenly you are aware of it in a new, true and personal way. It tends to involve a poignant sense of dislocation, a knowledge that our politics have changed and won’t be going back.
We’ve had a lot to absorb—the breaking of a party, the rise of an outlandish outsider; a lurch to the left in the other party, the popular rise of a socialist. Alongside that, the enduring power of a candidate even her most ardent supporters accept as corrupt. Add the lowering of standards, the feeling of no options, the coarsening, and all the new estrangements.
The Moment is when it got to you, or when it fully came through.
My friend Lloyd, a Manhattan lawyer and GOP campaign veteran, had two Moments. The first came when he took his 12-year-old on a father-son trip to New Hampshire to see the primary. They saw Ted Cruz speak at a restaurant, and Bernie Sanders in a boisterous rally. “It was great and wonderful,” Lloyd said.
Then it happened. “The Monday night before the voting we were at a Donald Trump rally. A woman in the audience screamed out the P-word to refer to a rival candidate. Trump repeated it from the podium, and my kid heard it and looked at me.” Lloyd was mortified. Welcome to the splendor of democracy, son. “I thought, ‘So we have come to this.’ ”
It didn’t end there. Lloyd’s second Moment came a month later, the morning after the raucous GOP debate that featured references to hand size. Lloyd was in the car with his son, listening to the original Broadway cast recording of “Hamilton.” “I blurted out, ‘How exactly has America managed to travel from that to this?’ ” American history is fiercely imperfect and made by humans. “Yet in the rearview mirror it appears ennobling and grand. And now it feels jagged, and the fabric is worn.”
A friend I’ll call Bill, a political veteran from the 1980s and ’90s, also had his Moment with his child, a 14-year-old daughter who is a budding history buff. He had never taken her to the Reagan Library, so last month they went. As she stood watching a video of Reagan speaking, he thought of Reagan and FDR, of JFK and Martin Luther King. His daughter, he realized, would probably never see political leaders of such stature and grace, though she deserved to. Her first, indelible political memories were of lower, grubbier folk. “Leaders with Reaganesque potential no longer go into politics—and why would they, with all the posturing and plasticity that it requires?”
He added: “I felt a wave of sadness.”
Another political veteran, my friend John, also had his Moment during the New Hampshire primary. Out door-knocking for Jeb Bush, “I was struck as I walked along a neighborhood using the app that described the voters in each house. So many multigenerational families of odd collections of ages in houses with missing roof shingles or shutters askew or paint peeling. Cars needing repair.”
What was the story inside those houses? Unemployment, he thought, elder care, divorce, custody battles. “It was easy to see a collective loss of hope in a once-thriving town.” He sensed “years of neglect and sadness. Something is brewing.”
My Moment came a month ago. I’d recently told a friend my emotions felt too close to the surface—for months history had been going through me and I felt like a vibrating fork. I had not been laughing at the splintering of a great political party but mourning it. Something of me had gone into it. Party elites seemed to have no idea why it was shattering, which meant they wouldn’t be able to repair it, whatever happens with Mr. Trump.
I was offended that those curiously quick to write essays about who broke the party were usually those who’d backed the policies that broke it. Lately conservative thinkers and journalists had taken to making clear their disdain for the white working class. I had actually not known they looked down on them. I deeply resented it and it pained me. If you’re a writer lucky enough to have thoughts and be paid to express them and there are Americans on the ground struggling, suffering—some of them making mistakes, some unlucky—you don’t owe them your airy, well-put contempt, you owe them your loyalty. They too have given a portion of their love to this great project, and they are in trouble.
A few nights earlier, I’d moderated a panel in New York, on, yes, the ironic soundtrack of election year 2016, “Hamilton.” At one point I quoted a line. It is when Eliza sings, just as war has come and things are bleak: “How lucky we are to be alive right now.” As I quoted it my voice caught. I asked a friend later if he’d noticed. Yes, he said, quizzically, comfortingly, we did.
The following day I spoke at a school in Florida, awoke the next morning spent, got coffee, fired up the iPad, put on cable news. I read an email thread from a group of conservative women—very bright, all ages, all decorous and dignified. But tempers were high, and they were courteously tearing each other apart over Mr. Trump and the GOP.
Then to my own email, full of notes from people pro- and anti- Trump, but all seemed marked by some kind of grieving. I looked up and saw Hillary Clinton yelling on TV and switched channels. Breaking news, said the crawl. A caravan of Trump supporters driving to an outdoor rally in Fountain Hills, Ariz., had been blocked by demonstrators. The helicopter shot showed a highway backed up for miles. No one seemed to be in charge, as is often the case in America. It was like an unmovable force against an unmovable object.
I watched dumbly, tiredly. Then for no reason—this is true, it just doesn’t sound it—I thought of an old Paul Simon song that had been crossing my mind, “The Boy in the Bubble.” I muted the TV, found the song on YouTube, and listened as I stared at the soundless mile of cars and the soundless demonstrators. As the lyrics came—“The way we look to a distant constellation / That’s dying in a corner of the sky / . . . Don’t cry baby / Don’t cry”—my eyes filled with tears. And a sob welled up and I literally put my hands to my face and sobbed, silently, for I suppose a minute.
Because my country is in trouble.
Because I felt anguish at all the estrangements.
Because some things that shouldn’t have changed have changed.
Because too much is being lost. Because the great choice in a nation of 320 million may come down to Crazy Man versus Criminal.
And yes, I know this is all personal, and not column-ish.
But that was my Moment.
You’ll feel better the next day, I promise, but you won’t be able to tell yourself that this is history as usual anymore. This is big, what we’re living through.