Let’s return to the fundamental premise of this cycle: it was a change election. During the campaign, I wrote extensively about the irony that, according to available public polling, voters clamoring for a new direction were going to ratify the status quo by electing a Democratic president and a Republican congress. Even when a Democratic wave appeared to be building several weeks ago, Democrats were highly unlikely to win enough House seats to end divided government, and even if they could, Hillary Clinton was not a credible change agent. This is why, as I wrote during the campaign, she was a bad fit to the cycle. But her opponent, a boorish, bigoted, unqualified loudmouth, was a bad fit to the electorate, and this bolstered Clinton’s chances. In a change year, Clinton appeared to have gotten lucky by drawing an opponent who was even more disliked than she. By all accounts, the second most disliked candidate in polling history was going to comfortably defeat the most disliked candidate because the Republican Party had nominated someone who was fundamentally unacceptable to too many people.
If there were clues to the strength of the reactionary sentiment roiling the electorate they could have been found in the countless times we heard pundits say that (fill in the appalling Trump news) would have ended any other candidacy. He was almost derailed by the visceral Access Hollywood tape, which vividly confirmed what was already known about Trump’s attitudes and behaviors, but he survived and was ultimately elected despite it, a testament to how badly his white working class voters need to be heard.
The prevailing sentiment among these voters was to blow up Washington, and they didn’t have to be convinced that Trump’s election most certainly would. His chaotic, at times amateurish Twitter-fueled campaign violated all norms of appropriate political behavior and should have been disqualifying, but instead it telegraphed to his supporters that he was exactly the outsider they were looking for, someone who wouldn’t be constrained by convention. Enough voters were appalled by the prospect of a Trump presidency to keep him in second place throughout the campaign and in the final popular vote count. Ultimately, though, the urge for change, always this cycle’s primary driver, won over just enough voters in just enough states to give Trump an Electoral College win. And here we are.
Like the election, a Trump presidency promises to be chaotic, undisciplined, out of control and divisive—qualities we are already seeing in the transition. The risks are enormous and need not be recounted here. It is imperative that the Madisonian political structures which have served us so well for so long are strong enough to withstand the new president’s authoritarian impulses. If they can, there is opportunity amidst the risk to break the political logjam and move our country forward to the benefit of those on both sides of the divide in ways which for years have been impossible. It is not a coincidence that the Trump reaction is happening at a time when the emerging electorate is starting to surpass the old electorate in size and influence. A storm has been brewing for a long time, and it will be more intense and more damaging than I had hoped, but fresh air always follows a storm. More on this in my next post.