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 questionable judgment, unprecedented business entanglements, and a string of sex abuse allegations into the White House. There’s Hillary, an ‘untouchable’ party hack who lost to one of the most hated and divisive figures in American history. There’s Trump, himself, who has already turned his back on his constituents by reneging on the very promises that once stirred them into a mob. And then there’s the reality that both sides are now giving passes to ‘their’ side, whether it’s Trump supporters ignoring the fact that he’s not the guy they think they voted for, or Clinton fans lashing out against their own nullification, blaming the media, sexism, dumb rural voters, anything, really, all to avoid the fact that Clinton was one of the most toxic and candidates to ever run for high office.
As I’ve argued before, it’s not so much that Trump won. Rather, it is that Clinton lost, and lost to a puerile sex maniac whose competence has been questioned by virtually every political scientist in the world. Yet as strange as it sounds, Trump’s tepid victory might very well turn out to be a great thing for American liberalism if – and this is a big if – genuine liberals do right. And this is not because America has veered conservative like so many have argued, but rather that America, as a rule, is simply restless, responding to calls for change no matter what direction they come from. The fact is, both parties – at least as we’ve come to know them – are done. Yes, Republicans are now in control of the House, Senate, and Executive Branch, but this is little more than an illusion. Recall that Trump, who is decidedly un-Republican and reviled by his own party, was still able to become their leader by a very comfortable margin. Yet the GOP assumes that, come 2020, the Trump ‘wave’ will be over, and they can return to business as usual with a few more victories under their belt. In short, they haven’t quite figured out what’s changed, and are likely banking on yet another Ted Cruz or Paul Ryan to wrest control. They see a mere bump in the road, even as this election marks the end of the Christian Right, voting, as it did, for a lifelong hedonist with no religious grounding. More, it might even be the end of the illusion of fiscal austerity, two cornerstones of Republican ideology that have been around longer than I’ve been alive.
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 liberal norms, but they were also marked by a disengagement from the rural moderates (who might have no political ideology), nervousness on the part of Democrats over their newfound popularity, and a gradual return to laziness, to the sort of complacent behavior of which they’ve so often been guilty. The reasons why Obama beat McCain so handily were forgotten, as Clinton felt she would merely inherit the liberal vote: that, indeed, she had a ‘right’ to it on account of her celebrity in. 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. If nothing else, Donald Trump proved that presidential campaigns can be messy, unprofessional, and divisive, but that if punctuated by vision and energy – no matter how misplaced – the showman will win against the establishment hack more than fifty percent of the time.
Nor is this mere theory. In fact, it is critical for future political success 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. Lots has been made of low turnout here, high turnout there, white voters, minority voters, women’s lack of commitment to Hillary, 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, and successful politicians, like Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Obama, can charismatically draw from all six, whereas 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 against both parties’ strengths. 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 for some perceived justice, whether that meant punishing Hillary for Pizzagate, or simply believing that Trump would really end corruption: something that rarely happens with Republicans, who are far more willing to simply vote along tribal lines. It is this psychological phenomenon that allowed so many Americans to not only vote for a candidate that is the exact opposite of their own values, but to ignore the fact that the promises he made on the campaign trail are now being undone. Democrats, by contrast, do not have this luxury, for if they run the ‘wrong’ candidate, a candidate that 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, on both sides of the aisle, tries to offer up their own misleading narratives.
Yet if what I just wrote 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 by any objective measure. I mean, Medicaid, the New Deal, a progressive tax, climate change legislation, labor laws, gay marriage, the Civil Right Act: take your pick, really, for only a partisan idiot would deny their boons. By contrast, the GOP has tried to roll back every one of these measures, often replacing them with some wan patchwork they argue as superior, whether it’s a ‘private’ version of America’s greatest health care initiatives, or dubious tax policies meant to stimulate growth. It seems, then, that Republicans have boxed themselves into a purely reactive position, 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 whereas the Republicans cannot keep pace.
Yet the conservatives’ job – an important job, in fact – is to be on the wrong side of history. In short, they need to keep liberals 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 fallen, autonomically, into the ‘wrong’ side doesn’t mean the Democrats are on the right side, either. After all, I specifically wrote ‘liberal’ rather than Democratic policies, since the two are not always the same. And since liberal policies are – at least on the substantive issues – preferable to a neutral observer, Democrats 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 predictable attacks. In short, there is a chunk of Republican voters who will go for rational, well-executed policies, even as most will go with whatever, just like there is a chunk of Democratic voters who will stay home out of disgust, or even swing to the other side when these policies are not on offer.
Unfortunately, one of the Democrats’ biggest failures has been their inability to manage these voter patterns, to not only play on human needs – as Bill Clinton had so expertly done in 1992 – but to then carry out their promises. Any time there’s an upset, the Democrats refuse to look at themselves, convinced as they are of their own inner goodness, and must therefore deal with each loss anew. Too often, Third Party voters are blamed, with Al Gore’s loss put squarely on Ralph Nader, even in light of the massive election fraud that forced George W. Bush’s win and that Democrats, in typical, cowardly fashion, refused to fight against. This year, some have gone as far as to suggest that ‘if only’ Hillary Clinton had been extended a mathematically impossible advantage – that most Third Party votes go for a toxic and disliked candidate – she would be President, today. Well, given that entitlement, itself, is a perceived injustice in both the liberal and conservative moral compass, this not only defies logic, but sets Democrats up for even more failure in the future. I mean, contrast Obama’s strategy in 2008 to Clinton’s hypocritical and downright malicious behavior over the last thirty years, from her stumping for war and fiscal austerity, to her racist campaign against Obama, himself, to her slow, grudging acceptance of liberal positions, and, now, her rewarding of DNC corruption 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 in the only effective way we’ve found, or idealize what might-have-been with lazy thinking and invective. No, Democrats can’t 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 politicians have learned to manipulate such axioms for their own ends.
Further, despite some deep anxiety over what Donald Trump is capable of, the hysteria surrounding Trump’s win is little different from 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 – like Obama – would start a nuclear war with Russia for the hell of it. By that same token, otherwise rational people have compared Trump’s ascent to the rise of Hitler, or still argue 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, busying themselves with contingency plans as needless and ridiculous as the ones that cropped up shortly after John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.
Now, these are not reasonable positions, but indicate an ever-deepening tribalism which denies everything that’s happening just one village over. 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 hopefuls, really, are demonstrably worse than Trump, and that we’ve had even worse presidents and presidential cabinets for eight years at a stretch? What do we make of the fact that a President-elect Cruz would not be weathering the sort of protests that popped up in Trump’s wake: that Cruz, in a way, would be ‘forgiven’ merely because he seems less brash, less repulsive, despite being far more dangerous and tapping into America’s id in ways Trump couldn’t even dream of? In other words, much of 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. Yet now that the election’s over, this 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. This is due to the logistics of his proposals, as well as Trump, himself, who is now courting people to ‘like’ him, whether it is racists who helped his election only to be cast aside, 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, or that any push-back on this front will be anything more than one of the many cyclical dips towards conservatism in an otherwise progressive world-trajectory. It doesn’t mean Trump has a mandate to do x, y, or z, given that he’s incredibly unpopular going in, and will still be suffering backlash for years to come. This last part is especially important to realize, for the electorate still doesn’t seem to get what Trump stands for: Trump, and only Trump, which means adulation at any cost. Does that make for a bad leader? Yes, but it’s also somewhere at the bottom of bad qualities – bloodlust, ideology – that have defined bad leaders in administrations past.
As for what a Trump presidency does mean? It is an administration that will be full of in-fighting. It is an administration that will be divided by mass fractures within and without 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. It is an administration that will be full of scandals, yes, and an administration that will 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 mere bubble within their bubble, even as the ‘real’ America had always held out a mirror, and no one dared look. 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. This is where Democrats can shake off their hypocritical past, start following Obama’s advice, and look to new leadership: something the Republicans are at present unwilling to do.
Judging by all we’ve seen, it is likely that Donald Trump ran a presidential campaign mostly to get attention. Now that it’s all gotten a bit out of hand, Trump is utterly clueless as to how to proceed. Yet of all the ill that might come from a Trump presidency, there is still another possibility that’s been overlooked. How long has America bullied others on the strength of its reputation, installing tin-pot dictators wherever they might be tolerated, allowing its own corporatism to run amok, wrecking the environment, ignoring the international consensus on this or that issue, intervening when it is least needed, hypocritically tending to its own affairs when it is? These contradictions have, unfortunately, made America full on its own bullshit. But about a month ago, America spoke, and it’s chosen a clown amidst the circus-freaks and liars it could have otherwise had. How fitting, in a way. How humbling. For there’s something in that, too.
[A version of this article first appeared on the BlogCritics website.]