The dust has settled on the 2016 presidential election and many conclusions have been drawn as the first draft of history is all but written. The New Republic called it the “Democrats’ Biggest Disaster.” The Washington Post wrote of the “Decimation of the Democratic Party.” But wait, before the ink dries, let us consider, just once more, a/the central tenet that Secretary Hillary Clinton blew her chance against a long-shot underdog in then-candidate Donald Trump. Gallup released a poll of adult Americans three days after the presidential contest: most (75%) were surprised by the results. That week a Huff Post/YouGov survey determined the “very surprised” and “somewhat surprised” at 69%. Americans have taken for granted that this election was Clinton’s to lose and then scraped together the myriad list of reasons when she did: no consistent economic message, few visits to the mythic “blue wall” of the Midwest, the late-October Surprise by FBI director James Comey as he called into question Clinton’s handling of classified information over e-mail, the electoral college.
Implicit in the current narrative that focuses on Clinton’s missteps is a determination that Trump was a joke-of-a-candidate, that, flawed and repulsive, he would have to depend on the kindness of his opponents’ blunders, that he could not gain the presidency in a clean fight, that it was unthinkable for Trump, for this reality television star to be elected Commander-in-Chief, this “con man,” this “clown act,” as the Washington Post’s George Will has called him. The liberal filmmaker and activist Michael Moore was one of only a few prominent voices that predicted a Trump win. Moore extolled the Republican victor as not the improbable amateur. The key was that Trump “was never a joke,” Moore argued.
For what if Clinton didn’t choke? The first female in serious contention for the presidency of the United States? While there have been 46 women to call the White House their home, Clinton came closer than any woman in American history to call the West Wing her office. For we must consider, what if Trump was not an accident of history but a formidable political athlete, a demagogue for his times? What if it were Clinton who over-achieved?
The Fox News anchor Chris Wallace spoke out against reigning press characterizations in an interview with the New York Times shortly after the election. “I thought The New York Times was one of the worst offenders,” Wallace charged. “We were all guilty — myself included — of kind of writing [Trump] off.” According to Wallace, the great oversight was that “a lot of media outlets made a decision sometime after the convention that Donald Trump was beyond the pale and they no longer had to observe the normal rules of journalism and objectivity.” Moore added that “treating him as [an afterthought or a joke] only strengthened” Trump.
With his tough-guy talk, dropping consonants at the end of his words, his sometimes foul comments, his sparring with the mainstream media, picking a fight with the illusive elites, with the elusive hanky-panky, the New York billionaire transformed himself into the working-class David from Queens with all but newsy cap in hand, while pitting himself against a Golithian Clinton political machine and her evil feminist empire. The rich-guy-turned-poor posture was an act, a con, a discursive framing of the election.
Yet for nearly a decade, a rift had been opening, division sowed by seemingly endless years of war overseas, simmering racial tensions, the Great Recession, Wall Street bailouts and Obamacare. Conditions “bigly”-banged into the creation of the Tea Party. The Republican establishment erupted. Presidential also-ran Mitt Romney called Trump “a phony, a fraud.” A #NeverTrump leader, the leading conservative pundit, publisher and activist, Bill Kristol called the future president a “loathsome,” “charlatan and a demagogue.” But the new “silent” partisan plurality in the United States that Trump called “the forgotten” and Clinton labeled the “deplorables,” fought back.
November 2010. Newscom
The Tea/Freedom Party’s political revolt was part of a global trend toward populist demagoguery. Trump was one of a class full of populist barnstormers (in the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, France, Austria, Romania to name a few.) Yet unlike many/most of his European populist counterparts, Trump won. He deftly created in-groups and out-groups, fawning over his crowds just to pivot to cast a caustic riposte to his adversaries. He played martyr to the mainstream media even as he dropped a trail of bullying memes. He manufactured nicknames—“Little Marco,” “Corrupt Hillary—ideally suited for the hash-tag generation. He made bold promises (a southern wall, massive tax cuts) with subtle dog whistles (America First, law and order.)
Let us turn to a simple metric gathered by the National Constitution Center. Since 1828, more-or-less when the modern two-party system began, a Democratic two-term president (like Barack Obama) has only been succeeded twice by another Democrat: in 1836 when Andrew Jackson was followed in office by his vice president Martin Van Buren and more than a hundred years later, in 1940, when two-termed Franklin Delano Roosevelt succeeded himself for a third go. The Republicans have accomplished the feat only four times. And since the twenty-year reign of Roosevelt and Harry Truman mid-twentieth century, in seven of the last nine elections, the party in control of the presidency has lost.
It is as though, over four or eight years of rule, antibodies in the body politic—economic distress, disgust with DC doublespeak, disillusionment with political corruption, frustration over unfulfilled campaign promises, vexation over still unresolved long-term issues like medical care and the fairness of taxes—build up against the sitting president. Whether such antibiotic discontent is his fault or not, the incumbent president is the one wearing the lab coat. His party and, in turn, his party’s successor candidate are held to account for the nation’s ills and unresolved promise.
And, as has been well documented, however you slice it, since Obama’s victory in 2008, Democrats have steadily lost the electorate. Obama’s presidency has held true to form as the political antibodies have grown to threaten his administration and party to an arguably historic degree. Since 2008, Democrats have lost 10.2% of their seats in the Senate, 19.3% in the House of Representatives, 20.3% in the state legislatures and 35.7% of their governorships. Entering the 2016 election the Democrats controlled the “trifecta”—the governorship, Senate and House—in seven states. (That was a low since the Civil War when, not incidentally, there were only 35 states.) And after the election, the Democrats were down to five. They have held on to a total of 15 governorships. And for the first time in history, Republicans have taken control of more than half of the Southern legislatures.
Indications of a devastating Democratic trend go on. In the key 2016 swing states in which pundits predicted Clinton victories and on which they place the blame of Clinton’s defeat—Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin—the Democratic candidates seeking lower office fared terribly. As The Atlantic outlined, “of the 32 seats the [Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee]…targeted in those states, Democrats won only eight.” Only North Carolina, which the Clinton team “showered with significant attention,” displayed Democratic gains, where the party of Roosevelt won three of its four contested House seats.
In the House overall, despite a general prediction of a double-digit bounce, the Democrats won only six seats (out of 23 battleground races as well as 14 more in question.) Republicans flipped 138 state legislative seats to the Democrats’ 95 for a net gain of 43. Falling far short in the Senate and House in 2010 and 2014 as well, Obama lost more state legislative seats (-968) than any other president during his incumbency. For it has been a Red wave. And it was in this climate, this Republican gale, that Clinton won the popular vote by 2.1%, 2,864,974 votes, the largest difference favoring the electoral-college loser since 1876 when another Democrat, Samuel Tilden lost to Rutherford B. Hayes.
One DLCC executive blamed the Democratic message, imploring for “language that real voters speak in.” The real voters? Such is code for a populist revival, for those that say the Democrats have become too progressive, too focused on the Obama coalition of women, Millenials, brown people and LGBTQ. As one National Review columnist charged, the Democrats have become the “Sanctimonious White Lady Party.” According to such conservative populist thinking, the multicultural big tent is a façade that hides a rigid progressivism of political correctness and coastal elitism. And so, the populist argument goes, rather than free and honest debate, the orthodoxy of the liberal message of strict inclusion has “become more and more a catechism.”
August 23, 2015. Adam Zyglis, Cagle Cartoons
These conservative populist arguments can be heard across Europe with a particular emphasis on Trump’s anti-Muslim impulses. The anti-Muslim and populist Dutch leader Geert Wilders vociferously cheered on Trump’s immigration ban. “In 2016, the Anglo-Saxon world woke up. In 2017, I am sure that it will be the year of the Continental peoples rising up,” Marine Le Pen, the president of France’s National Front, decreed. A spokesman to the Czech president called the new American president a “trailblazer.” For one German car-parts supplier in Frankfurt, the night of Trump’s election “was the feeling of a revolution.” As the worried editor of the Berlin Policy Journal observed, “you feel it in the little things, the use of language, the way people have started to talk.” For example, just as “fake news” rolls off Trump’s tongue, the term “Lügenpresse!” (“lying press!”), a Nazi neologism, has returned to German parlance as crowds chant the once-distasteful word at rallies and political summits.
And after the election losses to the populist Trump, populist voices in the Democratic Party came back in force as well. Two, former Labor Secretary Tom Perez and Rep. Keith Ellison, competed for the chair of the Democratic National Committee. Democrats like Rep. Marcia l. Fudge of Ohio complained they had no economic message or, for that matter, any message for rural voters. The NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, rather un-self-consciously, blamed an “Eastern Seaboard”-bias. The documentarian and left-wing agitator Moore returned to the fore echoing Trump’s populist critique of Clinton’s elitist erring. “You were in a bubble and weren’t paying attention to your fellow Americans,” Moore groused. Consequently, he continued, workers would vote for a demagogue and against their interests. Populist anger was seething. “On Nov. 8, the dispossessed will walk into the voting booth,” Moore warned. “And put a big fucking X in the box next to the name of the man who has threatened to upend and overturn the very system that ruined their lives: Donald J. Trump.”
Echoed time and again, by President Barack Obama, by Rep. John Lewis, Clinton was the “most qualified” candidate ever to run for the presidency since George Washington. She was the first candidate to have served as both Secretary of State and Senator, not to mention First Lady. The Clinton team ran hard on this message, making it the focal point of the Democratic National Convention and the central point of differentiation between the DC-veteran in Clinton and the political amateur in Trump.
The Democrats shot themselves in the foot. Was Clinton really the most qualified? carped many-a-news-outlet. What about Gens. Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight D. Eisenhower? What about the former governor, Secretary of State and Ambassador to France Thomas Jefferson who also happened to pen the Declaration of Independence? What about the former Senator, Governor and Ambassador Martin Van Buren? Or the former US Ambassador to the United Nations, director of the CIA and Vice President George H. W. Bush? The hyperbole over her unprecedented experience all sounded like another Clintonian line of slippery talk. And the record of these long-resumed presidents was uneven, to put it mildly. Jefferson helped found this nation. While “Martin Van Ruin” dearly mis-steered the economy into a depression. For incumbency didn’t predict success.
In a cycle that favored the populist outsider over experience, for millions of voters, such political experience became not an asset for election but a taint. Nonetheless, in this populist, anti-Democratic maelstrom, Clinton stormed through, in hindsight upsetting more reasoned expectations and winning the popular vote definitively.