Trump and the Five Stages of Grief

It’s been about 36 hours since our collective gast was flabbered at the realization that Donald F. Trump was President-elect of the United States. Republicans around the country have rejoiced at their consolidation of the legislative and executive branches. The new executive, in particular, was seen as a huge coup. In January, Joe Everyman will finally have a voice in government thanks to the Oval Office’s billionaire occupant.

Democrats, meanwhile, have sought ways to console themselves in what has become the largest group therapy session since Roots (the first one). Depending on one’s coping mechanisms, negative emotions have run the gamut, from rage to disappointment to fear. (Is it normal to wake up in a cold sweat wishing it was a dream? Asking for a friend.)

It’ll take some time for them to get used to this unthinkable turn of events. That’s because they’re in the long process of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s “five stages of grief,” which usually deals with recently diagnosed terminal patients coming to grips with reality, whereas in this case it deals with a recently diagnosed country coming to grips with reality.

Let’s apply Kübler-Ross’s paradigm to the national state-of-mind of Democrats and other NeverTrumpers, the latter of which I am. We’re moving through these stages together, though not identically and not at the same speed.

Stage 1) Denial. This stage actually started months and months ago. We all denied he could get the nomination in the first place. Part of my calculus, I must admit, was I just couldn’t envision it, as if my tiny brain’s limited creativity was an argument against his chances.

When he did win the primary, most then proceeded to say that while he could win over the GOP, he couldn’t possibly win the general election. (For the record, I never, ever denied he could win in November. The primary emasculated me so completely I wrote in falsetto for months.) Heading into the election and even after the first hour of returns, we still felt that Clinton was the favorite. Then she fell behind in Florida and North Carolina, and somehow she couldn’t put him away in Pennsylvania and Michigan. By 9:00, it was a five alarm fire at PPFA. By 10:30, I called the race for him. Others, however, are still stuck in this stage.

Stage 2) Anger. Man, Democrats were furious yesterday! There were plenty of targets for their ire: lazy people who didn’t vote; third-party supporters who did (gulp); Trump voters for being so gullible; James Comey for the timing of his Congressional letter; Bernie Sanders for creating the wounds in the primary that Trump ripped open in the general; Clinton herself for setting up her stupid email server; Clinton herself for being a bad candidate; Clinton herself for any number of other reasons; Big Data; white people; men; white men; the list went on. Some have been angrier than others.

Stage 3) Bargaining. This stage started yesterday. As it progressed, though, it took an unusual form. To be sure, many Democrats are reassuring themselves with an “it’s only four years” type of consolation, a sad inversion of terminal patients who enter the bargaining stage and pray for more time, not less.

I’ve also seen another tempting form of bargaining: wondering if Trump will really be as bad as many fear. “How bad could he be?” many started asking. He was the most liberal Republican in the race on many issues, after all. “Maybe he’ll return to the ideas of his more liberal past. Maybe he’ll even move the GOP to the left.”

We’ve also seen Democrats try to remind themselves that this wasn’t a total repudiation of their party or a national endorsement of Trump. They point to Clinton’s climbing popular vote margin. “It’s Clinton who the people elected but Trump who the system did. Trump was right — it’s rigged!” That’s a kind of bargain with one own’s rationality.

Stage 4) Depression. Gradually, however, I think crestfallen Democrats should realize that their party and candidate were not good enough to beat Donald Trump, and now they have to live with that fact for the next four years. Democrats need to wrestle with the possibility that it wasn’t liberal, Democratic policy that America voted for in 2008 and 2012; it was Barack Obama. How else does one make sense of the fact that there must be millions of people who voted for Barack Obama and then Donald Trump? It’s a hard square to circle, but the most reasonable theory is that it’s not ideology and party they care about; it’s personality and promises.

Indeed, consider that once the President was no longer on the ballot, his coalition, according to NBC exit polls, fell apart. Against Romney, Obama carried 93 percent of the black vote and 71 percent of Latinos. Against Trump, Clinton only carried 88 and 65, respectively. To compound matters, Democratic turnout was way down. Nationally, Clinton is six million votes short of Obama’s 2012 total, with not that many votes left to count. It’s been reported that the Trump Campaign’s strategy was to discourage voter turnout, thus making the passionate Trump base even more proportionally potent. It’s hard to argue against its effectiveness; they muddied the water so thoroughly that many people didn’t want to get dirty on Election Day.

With no Barack Obamas warming up in the bullpen, Democrats might be depressed at the state of their party for quite some time.

Stage 5) Acceptance. By February 2017 — after a couple weeks under President Trump — I suspect we’ll all start to see his presidency as bordering on normal. The world won’t end, nor will our republic. No law-abiding citizen will have been rounded up and deported or put into concentration camps. Congressional officials of both parties, a balanced Supreme Court, seasoned cabinet officials, and military brass will keep a close eye on the amateur, while the rest of us go about our daily lives. And if he does go crazy, those institutions and we, the American people, will stand in his way. Please reassure the most nervous among us.

In the meantime, some Democrats can even learn to have some fun with this. The burden of a president having to live up to his Messianic promises is now off their shoulders. If Trump flounders, Democrats can seize on every mistake, returning the favor of Republicans who rooted against Obama (who had returned the favor of Democrats under George Bush (who had returned the favor of Republicans under Bill Clinton (who had…))). If Trump succeeds, it’s good for America. If Trump fails, NeverTrumpers can gloat. (And boy, will they ever.) Plus, both parties can test the theory about whether someone with only business experience, which Republicans have long pushed as an ideal characteristic in a chief executive, can be a good president. And everyone loves testing theories, right?

Once NeverTrumpers accept what’s happened, they can move on from Tuesday’s shocking diagnosis and start looking forward. After all, 2020 is just four years away.

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