It would take conscious effort to be more spectacularly wrong than I have been about the likelihood of Donald Trump’s ever becoming president. After many months of arguing, with no small degree of vehemence, that this year’s general election result was more or less impossible, it turns out that my reading of this year’s political scene was badly askew. It is of course true that I have a lot of company, and not only among partisans of the Never Trump persuasion, but this does nothing to obviate the simple fact: I was as wrong as it is possible to be, not once, but many times over the course of this interminable election season.
The Trumpists have responded to their great victory at the polls, and to the prospect of a refashioned Republican Party under President-elect Trump’s leadership, with their characteristic good grace and charm. The same could be said of those on the left who in many cases had already begun gloating over their inevitable triumph from the moment Trump secured the Republican nomination. This is to be expected, and hardly counts among the more dire consequences likely to follow his ascendancy to the nation’s highest office. That the administration of so great a country will fall to the likes of Steven Bannon and Corey Lewandowski is the greater occasion for mourning than the bleating of emotionally immature Trump enthusiasts, or the unseemly histrionics of the left.
My own period of mourning took place some months ago, which has freed me to react with some detachment from the unfolding scene. Like a lot of conservatives who bitterly opposed Trump’s candidacy, I find myself able to indulge a considerable dose of schadenfreude at Team Clinton’s expense. That such a grasping, malevolent old crone would become the most outstanding victim of her own hubris and insatiability is cause for some celebration. In her uttermost famine, she devoured herself at last. The fall of House Clinton and her final repudiation by an American public which has, to its credit, never shown much sympathy for her transparent brand of self-seeking and deceit, has given me deep satisfaction, and for that I am grateful.
I will leave it to others to dissect the polling data. The efficacy of such data is perhaps at its lowest-ever esteem, maybe with good reason (though I would caution future presidential hopefuls against the idea that Trump’s improbable victory could be replicated by someone without his peculiar personal qualities—no cult of celebrity without the celebrity). The only thing I will add to the torrent of commentary on “How It All Happened” is that the conventional wisdom on the prevailing dynamics of the contest still seems to me to be basically right: In a race between two deeply disliked and distrusted candidates, each with his own obviously disqualifying flaws, the candidate with the greatest advantage is the one best able to direct each news cycle into a story about the other candidate.
It was, in fact, Mrs. Clinton’s strategy from the outset to remain as closeted and distant as possible from the daily headlines, and in Donald Trump, whose neurotic craving for attention is perhaps his defining characteristic, she had the ideal opponent. Not only was he incapable of allowing a moment to pass in which he was not the central topic of discussion, but he was bound to make that discussion as unflattering as it possibly could be. This was, at least to most observers, the basic electioneering dynamic of the whole campaign, one which militated powerfully against Trump’s ever winning the presidency. Again, I still think this was basically right.
There was something else, though, something that stood a chance of making the 2016 campaign into a black swan event, though I had dismissed it with scorn from the very start: the craving for attention on the part of Trump’s voters (and, decisively, his potential voters). That craving found indirect reflection in the unbalanced, narcissistic personality of the Republican candidate. Moreover, their acute sense of victimhood made them amenable to any appeal that seemed to be directed at them. It was an appeal that Team Clinton consciously decided it had no need to make, bound as they were by their stubborn conviction that the Obama coalition could be mobilized without Obama’s name on the ballot (something for which none of the last five election cycles has provided any evidence).
Call it the Mister Rogers effect, if you will. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was as successful and beloved as it was because the children watching it felt sure that Mister Rogers was speaking directly to them through the lens of the camera. Something similar was true of Ronald Reagan and, in an altogether different technological era, Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was almost too simple to attract the notice of the experts or, in my case, the amateurs.
Why these voters, especially the much-talked-about “white working class” of rural Pennsylvania and elsewhere, were so susceptible admits of various explanations, some derogatory and others less so, depending on your point of view. I would suggest that the most underappreciated factor in it all was a tyrannical Supreme Court under the leadership of Chief Justice Roberts, which had audaciously and repeatedly handed down to them massive political defeats, on such divisive and personally-felt subjects as health care and the meaning of marriage. A Supreme Court ruling is a horrible mechanism for the establishment of political consensus, as the ongoing thermonuclear war over Roe v. Wade ought to have shown.
When those rulings are handed down on the basis of pure ideological will, and in direct contravention of repeatedly-expressed public desires, it has the effect of demolishing any respect for the forms of Constitutional government. A candidate who presents adherence to such forms as a sucker’s game will find receptive ears in such a setting. One could add the profligacy of the Obama administration’s own rule-breaking and law-making, for example as regards the various statutory and regulatory constraints on insurance coverage that he unilaterally waived in the heat of his own re-election campaign, but as appalling as those things might have been to conservative political junkies, they lacked the visceral quality and sense of finality that a Supreme Court ruling over a highly contentious issue might have.
What comes next? A lot of chin-stroking about What Comes Next, I’d wager. Fresh off of the most in-your-face demonstration of the limits of my own powers of prediction, I will nonetheless double down on my contention that the Trump presidency will be a disaster for conservatism and that his supporters will find themselves betrayed without remorse by Donald Trump, as have so many others who have been receptive to his “Art of the Deal,” an art that amounts to saying pretty much anything necessary to close the deal, the details to be re-negotiated later, mostly through litigation. That such a habitual swindler and transparently self-concerned demagogue might prove to be a reliable political ally seems to me to be quite ludicrous.
The alt-right and the generally pro-Trump response is something like this, which is appearing in a thousand memes as I type:
“You said Trump would never cross 30%. Then you said he would never cross 50%. Then you said he would never get the nomination. Then you said he would never win Pennsylvania. Then you said he would never be president. NOW you say he will never build a wall, that he will never undo Obama’s regulatory effrontery, etc. Why should you be believed or listened to at this stage?”
It’s a fair enough question, but it overlooks something crucial. All of the previous predictions about Trump’s odds were really predictions, not about what Trump would do—he did pretty much everything we expected he would—but about what the American electorate would do. Nothing has happened to date that has changed my estimation of Trump the man, who already is beginning the process of walking back his many extravagant promises. To argue that he will govern as a conservative or that he will acquire a gravitas and intellectual curiosity to which he has never been even mildly susceptible, on the basis of his having won an election, is quixotic. It seems probable that on the issue of the courts he will be willing to take some direction from his betters, because it is an issue about which he cares nothing. But because practically everything that matters to conservatives falls under the same heading, it is vain to hope that he will risk any damage to his own prestige by taking positive action on behalf of conservative policy goals. This is particularly true of "social" concerns like abortion or religious freedom, to say nothing of such arcane preoccupations as the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rules promulgated by the Obama Department of Housing and Urban Development.
If a multi-level marketing salesman comes knocking at my family’s door, I may have some misplaced confidence that they will send him packing. If they don’t, it would be very foolish to change my assessment of his product or the likelihood of his making good on his promises. It is hard to imagine a figure less likely to become a scourge of the left on actual policy grounds than Donald J. Trump. All that any of us has is hope, and in the exhilaration of the post-election moment, I’ve seen an unreasonable amount of it from the right-wing commentariat.
(A quick aside: All this makes the puerile hysteria of politically-attuned homosexuals all the more insufferable--it is explainable not by anything Trump has ever said against them, but only by the fact that they 1) skew young and have little experience of political defeat, and 2) have exercised such merciless retribution and denunciation against their political foes that they can only assume that that is how things are done in Zero-Sum America.)
Time will tell, as always. What remains to philosophically committed conservatives is to engage with great energy the opportunity, suspect though it might be, to gain some ground in those areas where a Congressional majority may be efficacious, in the hopes that the insouciance of the next president can be turned to some advantage. That this counsel turns on the doubtful reliability of such men as the senior senator from Kentucky should not dissuade us from the task.