As expected, the post-mortems are flying fast right now. Everybody’s got something to say about this historic upset. Post-mortems also just happen to be the favorite past-time of many Americans: What my parents used to call Monday morning quarterbacking. So why not roll out just one more…
So far, the saddest post-mortems have come from the defeated candidate herself, if phone calls with top campaign donors recently leaked to the press are to be taken seriously. It seems that Hillary Clinton thinks FBI head James Comey orchestrated her defeat. Few would doubt that Comey’s “reopening” of Servergate, because of a bundle of emails he had actually already seen, did damage. And it certainly didn’t help either that the name “Anthony Weiner” and the word “laptop” appeared alongside it.
But this also reminds me of something I’ve long known to be true about the Clintons: The buck never stops at their doorstep. There’s always a “vast right-wing conspiracy” to blame. It would have been nice to have the Clinton team be a bit more humble about the fact that HRC was just not an inspiring candidate. For example, my wife was involved in campaigning for Democrats and told me over and over that millennials just didn’t like Hillary. Many middle class white women who had lived through the 1990s didn’t much care for her either. Though claims that she was “crooked” and destined for jail were over the top, there were, of course, doubts on the left as well. In the words of Arun Gupta, these included: “the emails, their foundation, $22 million in speaking fees, two-faced policy positions.” And, unfortunately, unlike her husband and the sitting President, she never learned the art of public speaking. Her slogans often seemed like empty rhetoric, and many felt unclear as to why she was running for the presidency in the first place. In her heart of hearts, she was really just a wonk who figured that her smartest move was to let Trump implode while resting easily on self-evident claims of her superior competence.
Now the Bernie-bots have also been having their own post-mortem: If only Bernie had run against Trump, victory would have been assured. There are people gaming out statistics right now trying to prove this. But I have a hard time with this kind of “what if” stats game for one simple reason: I’m a historian. And counterfactuals are a big no-no in my profession. Of course, Bernie’s primary victory in Michigan looks different now than it did a few months back. But the assumption that the voters who chose Bernie would necessarily come out for him in the general is just that—an assumption. In his same In These Times column, Gupta argues that “if [Hillary] had tapped Sanders to be her running mate, she might have won because of his appeal among millennials.” I would say that the key word here is “might.” (Since when do people vote for a vice president anyways?) The only real conclusion should be, simply: We’ll never know.
One thing is for sure, though: Trump was the real phenom of this election year. He blasted himself to the top of a highly populated primary with no political experience whatsoever (and I still think he hasn’t actually read the Constitution). He used the blaring slogan “Make America Great Again” to enormous success among the white working class. His rallies became huge, rage-filled events, replete with means for middle-aged men to get physical with protestors. There was a glow in his face every time—and there were many times—that he mounted the stage. These were his people, not in the populist sense, but in a purely possessive one. Trump’s narcissistic, bully persona and his reality TV stardom appealed to far too many. The more vulgarities that came spilling from his mouth, the more he got people hopped up. Matt Taibbi, having witnessed numerous Trump rallies, wrote, “For grown men and women to throw around words like ‘bitch’ and ‘cunt’ in front of their kids, it means things have moved way beyond the analytical.” And that, indeed, was Trumpism.
The Trump phenom, despite its swift ascendance over the past year and a half, still managed to blind-side, and blind, numerous liberals. I’ll call that the liberal delusion. A narrative was written in the minds of liberals, partially by their candidate, but more importantly by numerous pundits and online sources: As Trump’s lies get exposed, the competent, if slightly stained, presidential hopeful would ultimately rise to the top. This attitude was perfectly exemplified by The Huffington Post, which tracked Hillary’s likelihood of victory throughout the campaign. I could have missed something, but, as I recall, Clinton’s chances never dropped below 90 percent.
That just didn’t jibe with what was being felt on the ground, though. Many times, my wife would get back from canvassing in the rural areas around the college town where we live and tell me how a lot of people who voted for Sanders in the primary were going to now be voting for Trump. Meanwhile, over at The Huffington Post, the numbers barely ever budged. This pattern repeated itself over and over as the election approached.
As we watched those rallies swell with ever larger masses of supporters, liberals should have asked themselves some tough questions. But that would have required a major transformation in the very manner in which democracy itself is viewed among progressives and liberals; it would have meant a rethinking of the assumption that people will reject lies and vulgarities for truth-telling, or at least wonky competence. Politics doesn’t seem to work that way anymore, if ever it did.
And that might just be the best post-mortem I can garner. I realize it’s not as simple or as easy as blaming it on the FBI, or blaming it on Hillary (she was a “weak candidate”), or on some whispy “Democratic Establishment,” or on a broken media. Something larger was at work in 2016. And the only thing I can say now is that I sincerely hope we’ll be able to live with the consequences.