What went wrong, and where we go from here
The shellshock of Tuesday night is fading, and my slack-jawed thoughts about what just transpired are becoming coherent enough to put on paper. The reverberations of Donald Trump’s election will be felt for a long time. Some of the consequences are foreseeable, but many are not yet apparent. The world is different now, and the American story will never be the same. But here is what I know:
Hillary Clinton was the wrong candidate for the moment. I say this as an enthusiastic supporter who volunteered time, energy, and resources to promote her election. I believed (and still believe) that she would have made an excellent president. The hand-off from Obama would have been seamless. She would have continued his legacy of effective center-left governance — the steady social progress, sound economic management, and gradual rounding-out of our social safety net that characterized the last eight years. The prospect of our first black president handing the baton off to our first female president would have been a tremendous and proud feat for our democracy.
But Clinton fundamentally turned out to just be the wrong candidate for the Democratic nomination. The 2016 electorate was scarred and outraged in ways that we didn’t fully appreciate, and in ways fundamentally different than in 2008. The financial crisis exploded in the homestretch of the 2008 campaign. Massive job loss and financial misery mounted as Obama took the oath of office. The effects of the recession took time to manifest, and weren’t fully felt before that election.
Today, the economy has largely recovered. The unemployment rate is less than 5 percent, and we’ve had seven consecutive years of economic growth. Millions have escaped poverty, gained insurance, and finally seen pay raises.
But it has been a long march. The banks and institutions at the center of the crisis got enormous government rescue packages in order to prop up a tanking economy, and they quickly returned to profitability and business as usual. Everyone else was asked to power through a slow and steady recovery years in the making. That understandably struck many as fundamentally unfair.
The 2012 election didn’t give voters much occasion to repudiate what some saw as an unholy alliance between Washington and Wall Street. Obama came into office after the bailouts, but was tasked with managing the economic recovery. He struck most voters as someone looking out for their interests. As an alternative, the Republicans nominated the quintessential venture capitalist and Corporate Man in Mitt Romney — hardly an inspiring vehicle for post-financial crisis unrest. The economy was in a fragile recovery, and voters stuck with Obama.
2016, however, was different. Trump was a billionaire vulgarian cast out by virtually everyone in the Washington establishment. He campaigned loudly and boorishly, but his core promise was to upend the system. Clinton, on the other hand, was the consummate insider. A political force for thirty years, she was seen as the epitome of entrenched Washington government — someone who had faith in the system and largely wanted to perpetuate it, albeit along progressive lines. She gave speeches to Wall Street banks on the eve of launching a presidential campaign — a self-inflicted wound that compounded a preexisting image of distrust.
Clinton could not feign populism in a moment that demanded it. She could have been a superb president. But her own flaws and the mistiming of her candidacy doomed her from ever getting the chance.
So was Bernie Sanders the answer? It’s hard to say. Over the course of his surprisingly successful longshot challenge to Clinton for the Democratic nomination, Sanders became one of the most popular politicians in the country. (Though he also has never been subjected to a serious array of political attacks.) He ran an issue-oriented and message-driven campaign, telling voters that the system had been rigged by the billionaire class, and promising to unrig it with the help of a social democratic political revolution.
Sanders was on the right track. For Democrats to win in the 2016 environment, a bigger dose of his message and ideas were probably necessary. But the lesson of the 2016 election is more about the process for picking a nominee, rather than which nominee to pick.
There had been a trendy theory in political science that insiders and establishment figures are the ones that, through ways both subtle and overt, truly decide party nominations. By channeling money to one candidate over another, by keeping other candidates out of the race, and by bestowing endorsements, party elites and officeholders dictate who the nominee will be.
This political trope has been laid to waste by the events of 2016. The Republican Party had a freewheeling, 17-candidate primary where it became plain that the party had no control whatsoever. Had party insiders had any meaningful sway over the process, Trump would have been their seventeenth candidate. (Okay, maybe he would have been sixteenth before Ted Cruz.)
The Democrats, on the other hand, did produce a party-approved nominee. This is not to say that the primary election was rigged, but rather that the result of the primaries aligned with the preferences and influence of Democratic elites. Clinton was the obvious nominee-in-waiting since at least 2013. This consumed the party oxygen and campaign infrastructure, preventing other would-be Democratic candidates from considering or exploring a run for the presidency. Party insiders cleared the field for her candidacy, so Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and others thought twice before challenging Clinton’s juggernaut operation that had the full backing of most of the party’s leaders and major donors.
With no one else willing to do it, Sanders launched a harried bid to give Clinton nominal primary opposition from the left. That Sanders’s token campaign caught fire and became a full-fledged social democratic movement should have been a warning sign for Democratic leaders. There was a hunger in the electorate for a message and an upheaval that Clinton could not provide, but a seventy-five-year-old socialist could.
Democrats ignored Clinton’s vulnerabilities and dismissed Sanders’s resonance. Party leaders kept a thumb on the scale for Clinton, ensuring that she’d secure the nomination. And they paid the price. The general election pitted a “party decides” candidate versus a “party’s nightmare” candidate. And the party that decided absorbed the backfire.
This is not to say that Sanders would have necessarily fared better than Clinton. I suspect his message would have connected with many of the Obama voters in the Rust Belt states that flipped to Trump and cost Clinton the election. But during the primary, Sanders struggled to appeal to minority voters who are essential to a modern winning Democratic presidential coalition.
The lesson here is that the party probably should not decide at all. During the primary season, as Republicans grew frantic that they were unable to stop Trump from claiming the nomination, many argued that parties needed to implement stronger control mechanisms to influence primary outcomes. And maybe that would get us more reliably mainstream and fit candidates, sparing us future Donald Trumps. But it’s hard to see how the parties can exert more control without offending the (small-d) democratic assumptions that modern voters expect from the primary process.
Even more to the point, a free and openly democratic primary process yields stronger candidates. Today, when the party decides, it muffles something important the electorate might be trying to tell it. Trump inspired a fervor and enthusiasm among voters that his party couldn’t control. The same cannot be said of Clinton. Democrats didn’t realize that their nominee was incompatible with the mood of the country until it was too late.
This confluence of forces begot Donald Trump. He won on Tuesday, and he will be in the White House for at least the next four years. But he was unfit for the office on Monday, and he remains unfit today. He is a reprehensible man — one who built his political brand by propagating racist and baseless conspiracies to delegitimize our first black president. He delves without abandon into bigotry, sexism, xenophobia, religious intolerance, and predatory bullying, freely courting the support of those deplorables (yup) who have been rightly marginalized from our political discourse. He is an emotionally unstable and unpredictable hothead, transforming the United States overnight from a global leader to a potential global danger. That he won an election changes none of this.
This is not solely to denigrate Trump. It’s to prepare for what’s to come. Political leaders will tell us that this is a time to heal and to unify from a long election season. But liberals and concerned citizens in and out of government must keep their eyes wide open as to who Trump is and what he will be as president.
We must hope for the best from Trump, but be unreservedly prepared for the worst. If he advances positive legislation, then liberals should certainly collaborate with him. Democratic leaders like Nancy Pelosi and Elizabeth Warren have already signaled that they are willing to engage with him on mutually agreeable projects like an infrastructure bill. But if Trump gives in to the worst traits he displayed on the campaign trail and flexes his authoritarian tendencies, trammels constitutional rights and norms, legislates in bigotry, or preys on the weak, then we must be prepared for fervent opposition and unflinching resistance.
He is not my president. But he holds the office now, so he must be met with negotiation, vigilance, and engaged opposition.
The last eight years have seen a remarkable amount of social progress. Marriage equality became a reality. The century-long quest for health reform came to pass, protecting millions from devastation by illness. We fought off economic catastrophe and have made steady gains ever since. We created millions of jobs and built a thriving renewable energy industry for the twenty-first century from the ground up. We made serious inroads to curtail environmental harm and combat climate change. We took steps to corral a financial sector that helped land the entire economy in peril.
Trump’s election jeopardizes many of these gains. But it does not erase the fact that we are a society capable of producing the achievements of the Obama years.
We have seen figures like Trump before in our politics — people like George Wallace, Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms, and other poisonous demagogues. Never before have we allowed one to come close to our highest office, let alone win it. That is unprecedented in our history.
But so was electing a black president. This may seem confounding — after all, how could the country that twice elected Barack Obama elect Donald Trump?! But the United States is a baffling and frustrating place — at once both awe-inspiring and deeply dispiriting. Admirable progress over the ills of our history often gives way to reactionary backlash and retrenchment.
We have a long and storied history of taking one giant leap forward, only to follow it up with a gut-wrenching step back. Lincoln’s freeing of the slaves in 1863 and a decade of Southern Reconstruction gave way to nearly a century of Jim Crow, lynching, segregation, and violent white supremacy. The outlawing of segregated schools in 1954 triggered massive resistance to black and white children learning together. The Civil Rights revolution of the 1960s fed Richard Nixon’s silent majority and the ensuing limitations on civil and equal rights. That Barack Obama will now turn the White House over to the birther Donald Trump is tragically in keeping with the rhythms of American history.
Yet we can change these rhythms. Obama likes to quote Martin Luther King’s statement that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. Tuesday’s jarring electoral result is a reminder that the moral universe bends only from the dogged persistence and faithful agitation of those refusing to give up the fight. Progress is not guaranteed, and advancement is not simply the natural course. Left alone, the moral universe quickly reverts back toward a darker past. When we ease up, it eases down.
But by fighting on, we hasten the day when our country’s government once again stands for hope, progress, and decency. So don’t look to Canada. Don’t give up on America, and don’t drop out of politics. Despair today. Then rejoin the fight.