There were two fairy-tale versions of the presidential election. The darker, Grimms’ version looked something like this: Demographics is destiny. Obama and his globalist overlords are seeking to destroy America. They want to import and naturalize as many voters as quickly as possible to make sure that the Republicans can never win anything again ever. Once we’re overrun with foreigners, “real” Americans are finished forever. This is the last chance real Americans have before it’s too late.
The second is the brighter, Disney version. Demographics is destiny. We are now a majority-minority country. Angry white people—especially toxic white males—have one final shot at winning the presidency, and are displaying their true racist nature for all to see. Once this orange dragon is defeated by our heroine (what a twist—a female hero!), then we will never have to worry about his ilk again. A diverse America will march to a progressive future together, one untainted by racism.
To the left-wing adults in the room, the bad guys won. That’s the nature of democratic politics. It sucks, and maybe in this case it sucks really bad, but we’ll have to see just how bad it is. Sometimes the bad guys win, and it’s now the job of the good guys to make sure that the damage the right does is mitigated as much as possible. But to the true believers—to the evangelical left—this was a case without precedent.
Everyone knows that the Disney movie has a happy ending. Spoilers: Jafar doesn’t remain the Sultan. Ursula is deposed as queen of the seas very quickly. This sort of thing, this Trump victory, isn’t supposed to happen, not in real life! (And by “real life” I mean, of course, their fantasy perception thereof.) For these types, there was no real guidance as to how to proceed, as the many “what now?” articles and social media posts in the days following the election demonstrated.
For some evangelical progressives, the problem is that a vote for Trump wasn’t just wrong or ignorant or even simply racist. It was “explicitly,” “clearly” and “blatantly” a vote for white supremacism. At the same time, very, very few people publicly identify as white supremacist or even tacitly speak well of it. Thus, the conclusion is straightforward: many people who claim to be moderate or even broadly liberal are, in fact, closeted white supremacists. They might act one way in public but their actions, again, were “explicit,” “clear,” and “blatant.” Everyone knew Trump was the devil. They chose to vote for the devil after being informed that he was the devil.
The concept of “virtue signaling” gained a great deal of currency in this past year. It’s a way to demonstrate to others that one is a good person without having to do anything.
Now it was time for the blue tribe to experience the precise fear that drives so many nativists. Their fort had been breached. Bad outsiders with evil thoughts had infiltrated their schools, their offices, their neighborhoods—even their electorate. There was no way of knowing how many of them there were, or who they were. It’s impossible to “regroup” without sorting out who belongs in the group, and who most certainly does not. Far too many people were imposters who look just like “us.”
So what do social animals do when separated from their group? They vocalize. A wolf’s howl can be heard for miles. Elephants rumble subliminally. Then the call is repeated by others, and the group reestablishes itself. Reciprocal vocalization is a simple and effective way for social animals (including humans) to bond, or to re-bond as necessary.
The concept of “virtue signaling” gained a great deal of currency in this past year. It’s a way to demonstrate to others that one is a good person without having to do anything. It’s sharing the correct articles; it’s posting the same petitions that are always pointless and yet somehow urgent; it’s deciding that this year we are going to focus on transgender inclusion and worry about other groups next time.
Anguish signaling serves much the same purpose. It allows those who genuinely feel unsafe, who no longer feel themselves surrounded by the unanimous consensus they viewed as their social backdrop, to regain some sense of stability. By having the displays be as intense and public as possible, it lets the true believers recognize one another for who they are and to start to redraw the boundaries of their particular subculture. You’re making the same sounds as I am? The emotion behind them feels as sincere as mine? Then we can trust each other.
This phenomenon is not without precedent. In 1996, many members of the Religious Right couldn’t believe that America handily reelected the most amoral president in their lifetime. Many publicly spoke of cutting their losses, of giving up on America and forming their own new culture. Four years later, George W. Bush was elected president—and Attorney General John Ashcroft began hanging drapes to obscure topless Greek statues in the Great Hall of the Department of Justice.
The moral of the story is: There are no happy endings in politics, just pauses in the action.
Disclosure: Donald Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, the publisher of Observer Media.