It has now been some weeks since the election, and it’s clear that this ‘thing’ is not turning out like anyone expected.
There are the results, for one, which put a supremely un-vetted TV star with an upcoming trial, unprecedented business entanglements, and a string of sex abuse allegations into the White House.
There’s Hillary Clinton, who was now twice deemed unbeatable by the Democratic establishment, but nonetheless lost to the least popular candidate in modern history.
There’s Trump himself, who has already turned his back on his constituents, poo-pooing the border wall, deportation, jailing Hillary, repealing Obamacare, overturning gay marriage, and more, and filling his administration with a mix of corrupt Washington insiders, relatives, and new faces who simply do not belong in government.
And then there’s the reality that each side is now giving a pass to ‘its’ side, whether it’s Trump supporters ignoring the fact that he’s not the guy they thought they were voting for, or Clinton fans lashing out against their own nullification and blaming Third Party voters, the media, sexism – anything, really, all to avoid the fact that Clinton should have never been encouraged to run.
As I’ve argued before, it’s not so much that Trump won. Rather, it’s that Clinton lost, and lost to a figure whose basic competence has been questioned by virtually every political scientist in the world. To put this in perspective, Clinton won the popular vote by a little, Trump won the election with barely a handful more votes than Mitt Romney lost by, and neither candidate could get a true majority, a clear indictment of both parties’ inability to put forth candidates that voters wanted.
Yet as strange as it sounds, Trump’s tepid victory might very well turn out to be a great thing for American liberalism. And that’s not because America has ‘veered right’ as so many have argued, but rather that America, as a rule, is simply restless, responding to Ronald Reagan’s call for ‘change’ in 1980, Bill Clinton’s in 1992, Obama’s in 2008, and Donald Trump’s and Bernie Sanders’s in 2016.
The only thing these candidates had in common was vision, and an ability to connect to people. It didn’t matter whether the vision was good or bad, or whether is was executed or – as with Trump and Clinton – quickly forgotten. It didn’t matter whether the connection was genuine or manufactured. It didn’t matter how much the politician ‘cared’.
The ideology didn’t matter, nor did the facts surrounding the quantifiable effects of this or that policy. The only thing that mattered was the perception that these things were so, for this is how human beings respond to political cues, which are nothing but social cues writ large. One party has consistently negotiated the rules of this game. The other has not. And while that sums up the basic disconnect between America’s two political streaks, there’s more.
The fact is, both parties – at least as we’ve come to know them – are pretty much done, and it is all due to Donald Trump: or rather, the thing which Trump represents. The Republicans might be in control of the House, Senate, and executive branch, but this is all an illusion. The establishment hated Trump, and put up Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and others to wrest control from a populist, racist, but surprisingly un-ideological campaign. What is missed in all this is that Ted Cruz would have been even worse as President, while Trump’s VP, Mike Pence, is pretty much at the bottom of the barrel.
And people like Cruz were the Party hopefuls; they were the guys who the GOP assumed were a proportionate response to the times. Yet Republicans, for several decades now, have been unable to put up a candidate who could have outdone the Obama coalition in a head-to-head race – much less the populist strain that will soon outflank it. So, Trump, who is decidedly un-Republican, took the lead, beat out the Democrats’ own establishment favorite, forced the Democrats to implode, yet left Republicans with an odd sense of complacency: that, come 2020, or 2024, the Trump ‘wave’ will be over, and they can return to business as usual with a few more victories under their belt.
In other words, they don’t seem to realize that they can’t go back to old norms. They don’t see what has changed. They see a mere bump in the road, even as 2016 marks the end of the Christian Right, voting, as it did, for a life-long party animal with no religious grounding, and perhaps – if Trump’s campaign promises can still be believed – the end of at least the illusion of fiscal austerity. Those two cornerstones of Republican ideology have been around longer than I’ve been alive.
And just as moderate Republican icons like Dwight Eisenhower were replaced by ‘fighters’ like Reagan, Reagan will now be replaced if not by Trump, then with the sort of things that Trump represents, which will have less and less to do with racism, budgets, and xenophobia as the years go on, and more with filling the vacuums Democratic negligence has left.
Yet the Democrats, having already self-destructed, are likely in a much better position now than they’ve ever been. The Obama years signaled a new set of norms, but they were also marked by a disengagement from rural moderates (who might have no political ideology); by nervousness on the part of Democrats – including Obama himself – over their newfound popularity; and by a gradual return to laziness, to the sort of complacent behavior they’ve often been guilty of. The reasons why Obama beat McCain so handily were forgotten, and Clinton, the party favorite, on the heels of a marked improvement in the visible portions of American life, merely felt she would inherit the liberal vote, that, indeed, she had a ‘right’ to it.
Of course, things didn’t quite pan out, and those who warned Democrats of the risks of running an establishment candidate against a populist like Trump have now been vindicated. That’s why, today, a progressive like Keith Ellison can run for chair of the DNC, and potentially win. It’s why a smart, young, and highly unconventional politician like Tulsi Gabbard can be suggested as a presidential nominee for the next election cycle. Had Trump not humiliated the establishment, on both sides of the aisle, one would have seen Ted Cruzes and Tim Kaines for as long as America could stomach them.
Donald Trump proved that campaigns can be messy, unprofessional, crude, and divisive, but that if punctuated by vision and energy – no matter how misplaced and ridiculous – the showman will win the contest against an establishment hack more than 50 percent of the time.
Nor is this mere theory. In fact, it is critical for political success in the future no matter which team you’re rooting for. To understand why, let us go back to human psychology and examine the most important – and least-discussed – numbers of this election.
A lot has been made of low turnout here, high turnout there, white voters, minority voters, polls being skewed due to the fear of publicly stating one’s support for Trump. Yet none of that matters if you simply understand how people vote, and the patterns they’re beholden to.
According to social scientist Jonathan Haidt, there are six basic moral foundations that we can draw from. Most people respond to a mixture of all six, yet liberals and conservatives are divided on which are more important – for example, liberals tend to value out-group ‘justice’ over in-group ‘loyalty’ – and, for this reason, political parties have some tough choices to make. At bottom, Haidt argues, conservatives tend to appeal to a wider swath of values and emotions. Successful politicians, like Reagan and Obama, can charismatically draw from all six, while failures do not, and thus cannot capture a wide enough cross-section of the electorate.
Yet I’d go a step further and apply this to the voters themselves. If liberals are, in fact, less loyal to the in-group – i.e., the Democratic Party – it also means they are more willing to be swayed by an appeal to justice, no matter which side it’s coming from. And, in 2016, you saw exactly that: a just-large-enough exodus from the Democratic Party as voters switched allegiance, something that rarely seems to happen with Republicans, who are far more willing to vote along tribal lines no matter who the candidate is.
And it is this psychological phenomenon that allowed so many Republicans to not only vote for a candidate who is the exact opposite of their own values, but to now ignore the fact that the promises he made on the campaign trail are now being undone. He is, after all, on ‘their’ team, which beats other considerations.
Democrats, by contrast, do not have this luxury, for if they run the ‘wrong’ candidate, a candidate liberals cannot support, a good percentage of them will simply stay home. Or vote Third Party. Or Republican. That, and only that, is the real story of 2016, even as the establishment tries to offer up its own misleading narratives.
Yet if the above is true, doesn’t it mean that Republicans have an innate advantage over Democrats? It does, but by that same token, Democrats also have an advantage over Republicans. Although a percentage of Democrats is unmoved by in-group loyalty, some Republicans are moved by perceived out-group justice, which is symbolized by Democratic policies.
Further, it’s become undeniable that over the last three or four decades, liberal policies are, at least in aggregate, demonstrably better than Republican policies in effectiveness and popularity. So, tax cuts for the rich are out as stimuli for job growth and other dubious benefits. Medicaid has been a boon to human productivity. Fiscal ‘waste’ in times of sluggishness improves the economy, allowing no-harm deficit reductions later. Climate change legislation is deemed important by virtually every scientist out there. And labor unionization replaces quick, limitless growth of a tiny portion of society with the health and stability of all, who now have more time and energy for their families and their communities. Gay marriage did not dissolve ‘the most fundamental bond’ in America. Creationism is factually wrong. The Civil Rights Act was a good thing – and on and on.
It seems, then, that Republicans have boxed themselves into a position where they must react instead of act, for if change is the cosmic norm, and entropy a bizarre kind of human bias that does not exist in the real world, then things will get still more complicated, and the Republicans cannot keep pace.
In a way, the conservatives’ job is to be on the wrong side of history, since they need to keep liberal ideas from overreaching: they need to provide a little friction, or else good, progressive ideas might devolve into pure formlessness. The issue, today, is that they’re offering too much friction, even towards policies that have no business being resisted by any rational actor.
But just because the GOP has picked the wrong side doesn’t mean the Democrats are on the right side. After all, I specifically wrote ‘liberal’ rather than Democratic policies, since the two are not always the same, as eight years of Bill Clinton showed, and four projected years of Trump are starting to reveal. And since liberal policies are, in most cases, preferable to a rational observer, Democrats do have what is probably the biggest advantage of all: the ability to co-opt liberal policies, enact them, then fight for them when they come under the inevitable attacks.
There is a chunk of the Republican electorate that will go for rational, well-executed policies, even as most will go with whatever, just like there is a group of Democratic voters who will stay home out of disgust, or even swing to the other side when these policies are not on offer.
Again, this election has confirmed this. Trump has, if nothing else, put these ideas back where they belong, in the front of every campaign and policy proposal, and both parties’ strategy should be to co-opt them. This is not merely to move the Republicans left, but, more importantly, to move them out of stasis, which will be their only option come 2024, if not earlier.
To be sure, one of the Democrats’ biggest failures has been the refusal to manage these voter patterns. Any time there’s an upset, Third Party voters are blamed, with some going as far as to suggest that ‘if only’ Hillary Clinton had been extended the privilege of a statistically-impossible advantage – that most Third Party votes go to her when the candidate is deemed undesirable – she’d be President-elect today. Well, given that entitlement itself is a perceived injustice in the liberal moral compass, that not only defies logic, but sets Democrats up for even more failure in the future. It is no coincidence that Obama utterly nullified the Green Party by co-opting its platform in 2008. No one had a reason to vote for them, and so no one did. Contrast that to Clinton’s behavior in 2016, with her slow, grudging acceptance of Sanders’s positions, her denial of a bigger, deeper problem in America than her platform suggested, and the refusal to punish corruption at the DNC directed against Bernie Sanders, a voter favorite in some of the swing states Clinton ultimately lost to Trump.
Thus, one can either deal with the voter base as is, and sway them, or idealize what ‘might’ be with misplaced desire and invective. Simply put, Democrats cannot depend on Republicans to eschew their own party due to a candidate’s shortcomings, but they can certainly count on quite a few Democrats swinging over to the other side if they run a bad candidate. That is merely axiomatic for anyone who works with a liberal base, and the most successful candidates have learned to manipulate such axioms for their own ends.
And although there is lots of fear of what Donald Trump ‘might’ do, the hysteria surrounding Trump’s win is little different than the hysteria which surrounded a potential Hillary win. Otherwise rational people have said that they feared America would be handed over to ‘the terrorists’ under Clinton, or that Clinton would try to start a nuclear war with Russia. In that same vein, otherwise rational people have compared Trump’s ascent to the rise of Hitler, or argued for the electoral college to overturn a democratically elected president because they don’t like the outcome this time around. In other words, no matter what the result was, roughly half of the country would have thought America – and perhaps even civilization itself – was done.
Those are not reasonable positions, but they indicate an ever-deepening tribalism which denies everything that’s just one village over, down to the proofs of how the world works under this or that set of circumstances, and what a single actor is capable (and incapable) of.
To be fair, much of this fear is genuine, what with Clinton proving herself a touch unstable in international affairs, starting a needless war that could not be finished, and threatening others, too. And on Trump’s side, there is – if his words are to be believed – a complete lack of understanding of how the world works, in virtually every sphere.
Yet what do we make of the fact that Mike Pence, Ted Cruz, and so many other Republican leaders, really, are demonstrably worse than Trump, and that we’ve had even worse presidents for eight years at a stretch? It shows, to me, that the anti-Trump hysteria is little more than liberal fear-mongering, on the political side, propped up as a kind of counter-myth to Republican fear-mongering on the social side, whether it’s the dissolution of the nuclear family, drug use, or Democrats trying to take away one’s rights.
The point is that both parties do it, even as the Democrats tend to handle it with more subtlety. That this fear-mongering was most acute at a time when Democrats ran their worst candidate in decades, while Republicans were denied their wish to run their worst, is all the more evidence that liberals did not judge 2016 correctly. Now that the election’s over, that needs to change, and voters must come to terms with what a Trump presidency means.
But first, on what it doesn’t mean. The most obvious implication of Trump’s words over the past year is that Trump will do, at best, a fraction of what he’s promised to do. That is due both to the logistics of his proposals, as well as to Trump, himself, who is now courting people to ‘like’ him, whether it is racists who helped his election only to be spat on, or the crumbs he’s sure to throw progressives down the line so that they’ll pat him on the back and say Trump’s ‘not so bad’.
It doesn’t spell the end of the world, nor the end of climate change agreements. It doesn’t mean abortion will necessarily become illegal. It doesn’t mean Trump has a mandate to do x, y, or z, given that he’s incredibly unpopular going in, will be suffering backlash for years to come, and needs, for the sake of his own ego, much less his ability to govern, to correct this.
As for what a Trump presidency does mean: It is an administration that will be full of infighting. It is an administration that will be divided by mass protests and fractures within the Republican base, no matter what Trump decides to do. It is an administration that will start without direction, for winning, apparently, was never a serious thought, and will get worse as the years go on, for just as you are only as good as your surrounds, Trump’s picks are all incompetents and serial nothings.
It is an administration that will be full of scandals, yes, and an administration that’ll be unable to renegotiate deals, improve livelihood, or rein in the sort of corporate shenanigans Trump himself is known for yet has promised to stop. It is an administration that might very well go ahead and execute the worst of Trump’s proposals – the wall, a Muslim registry – and thus accelerate its own downfall.
Yet it also an administration that will serve as a middle finger to that liberal malaise, political correctness, which had allowed liberals to assume America was different from what it was, as if it were a bubble within their bubble, even as the ‘real’ America had always held out a mirror, and no one looked.
And whereas Trump’s biggest supporters will simply ignore his failures, and devise conspiracies around whom to blame, that tiny sliver of the rational electorate is all that’s needed to say ‘No’ in 2020. For that is where the Democrats shake off their hypocritical past, start following Obama’s advice, and look to new leadership: something the Republicans are unwilling to do in the face of their own illusory successes.
Judging by his actions before and after, it is likely that Donald Trump ran a presidential campaign purely to get attention. Now that it has all gotten a bit out of hand, Trump is utterly clueless as to how to proceed. There is little indication that he wishes to lead, from his overtures to John Kasich as a VP pick who could ‘run the country’ for him, to the fact that he’s never had a steady team – not even after the election – to advise him, to the understanding that he’d be plagued by scandal after scandal, with conflicts of interest he still has no way of managing, lawsuits that might follow him into January, and an electoral college that is presently being directed to ascertain whether Trump is already in violation of the Constitution.
Yet of all the potential good that might come from a Trump presidency, there is one thing that might just turn out to be the most important, even as it’s the most metaphorical. How long has America bullied others on the strength of its reputation, installing tin-pot dictators in run-down nations, allowing its own corporatism to become a kind of organism, wrecking the environment, ignoring the international consensus on critical issues, intervening where it is least needed, hypocritically tending to its own affairs when it is? These contradictions have, unfortunately, made America full of its own bullshit. But, less than a month ago, America spoke, and it’s chosen a clown amidst the circus-freaks it could have otherwise had. How fitting, in a way. How humbling. For there’s something in that, too.