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2016: The year our better angels went missing in action



I will not insult you by using this space to defend 2016. Although I am a die-hard contrarian, I agree with the general consensus that this has been an awful year. Its awfulness was a commonplace, an internet meme by the Fourth of July, such that the second half of the year felt like a joke that had gone too far. Each new event became evidence in a case that had already been made. The irony of this awful year is that we are now trapped in a period of reflection before things get worse.

The crowning event of 2016, for me, was when Donald Trump won the presidential election. Trump is the carbon monoxide detector of American democracy. When the Republican Party first installed him in our national basement, we understood him as a caution: a reminder that the toxic byproducts of our domestic systems could build up to dangerous levels, but also a reassurance that the warning would prevent our suffocation.

We reassured ourselves all the way to November. Every time he embarrassed himself with some stupid or bigoted remark, then covered for it by insulting someone else, we thought, "This is why we have to be careful that no one like this comes to power here." Then we went back to watching Jimmy Fallon on Facebook. This process continued, his opponent calmly agreeing with pundits and forecasts that she would definitely win, until Election Day, when she lost. Now we are all trapped in a house with a carbon monoxide detector that is shrieking wildly. It reminds us that however bad and desperate things seem now, they are going to get worse.

What makes Trump's election the signature event of 2016 is that it is a problem of our own making. America's first game-show-host president did not seize power in a coup. We voted him in. And this man who had never before run for public office, who refused the advice of experts, won not because he was some kind of political genius. He didn't snatch victory in a brilliant campaign. He won because the Democratic Party put its thumb on the scale of its own primaries to nominate the most unpopular political figure in America, then blew a three-million-popular-vote lead to lose the Electoral College.

This multi-part catastrophe could have been avoided at nearly every stage. We failed to prevent it, though, and now Trump prepares to take office with the lowest approval rating of any president-elect in the history of modern polling. That is 2016 in a nutshell. We elected a president we don't like, and now we are sad.

  • photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore

It's easy to see this state of affairs as a judgment on our character. It's like the news that temperatures in the Arctic this year reached record highs: We identified a problem, we understood how and why it developed, and we didn't do anything about it. That's a definition of weakness and immorality that transcends any religious system. What to say about people who collectively violate their agreed-upon values in a way that hurts them, steadily, for a long time? Only that we deserve what we get.

And yet we don't act that way. America has been foolish, but we do not resemble fools. One might think that people descending into self-destructive stupidity and greed would do so gleefully. The Bible instructs us that pride goes before a fall. But we're not proud. We're excoriating ourselves. Glumly we draw our six-guns to shoot ourselves in the foot. The whole awful year has the quality of a hypnosis act, as though we know we aren't really chickens, but nonetheless find ourselves powerless not to cluck.

Surely there are people out there who think things are going great. But even those who support disasters like a Trump presidency seem to do so from the perspective of a larger pessimism. An overwhelming majority of us agree that this year was dumb and wrong. We may disagree on where to go next, but we approach consensus on the idea that we need to do better.

I think that's the silver lining around the cloud of blood and frogs that was 2016. We all agree it was gross. That agreement is proof we have higher standards. We failed to live up to them this year, but our disappointment in ourselves and in the way things are going is the first step to turning things around.

Except for all the artists' deaths, 2016 didn't happen to us. We did it to ourselves. That's depressing and infuriating by turns, but it is also a problem we can correct. This year broke my heart, because it didn't need to happen. We chose this. But right now, we are choosing again. And if 2016 has taught us anything, it's that we would prefer something better.

Dan Brooks writes about people, politics, culture, and our unmitigated responsibility for everything that happens at


The original print version of this article was headlined "Room to improve"


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