The Republicans have victory and all its spoils: the presidency, fifty-two seats in the Senate, 241 seats in the House, a renewed conservative majority on the Supreme Court in short order and a hard-right majority after one more departure, thirty-four governorships, sixty-eight state legislative chambers, and unified government in twenty-five states. The institutional biases in a 50-50 country all work against the Democratic Party. For 112 years, the winner of the popular vote won the presidential election; now, twice in sixteen years, the Electoral College has gone for the loser. The Senate, the world’s most malapportioned democratic legislative body, favors the rural party. The House, with its single-member districts, packs urban Democrats into districts where they waste votes, and gerrymandering from Republican legislatures worsens the problem; with 51 percent of the two-party vote, they won 55 percent of seats. Gubernatorial elections held at midterm bring out an old, white electorate.
Still, in the aggregate, it all looks so humdrum and dreary. The President’s approval hovered a shade above 50 percent in June, and real GDP growth in the second quarter, at 1.4 percent, signaled neither disaster nor landslide victory, but suggested a narrow popular-vote win for the incumbent’s party. And yet, the White House changes hands with striking regularity. Since 1952, only the disaster of Jimmy Carter and the victory of George H.W. Bush in Ronald Reagan’s golden glow have interrupted the metronomic shift of power every eight years. So neither a close election with the Democrats winning the popular vote, nor a close election with the Electoral College going to the Republicans, offers much of a surprise. But, of course, that Republican is Donald Trump.
Benjamin Disraeli, said The Times in 1883, “discerned the Conservative working man in the inarticulate mass of the English populace, as the sculptor perceives the angel prisoned in a block of marble.” Donald Trump, never known as a connoisseur of understated statuary, hardly discerned a wholly new coalition. He chiseled the Republicans’ marble without cracking it to shards. For all the talk about throwing out the playbook, Clinton won 89 percent of Democrats and Trump 88 percent of Republicans, figures basically identical to those from 2008, if slightly lower than in the hyperpartisan election of 2012.
It is worth noting just how many voter blocs, whether mobilized directly or simply funneled into the vortex of partisanship, held fast for Trump: the Christian right, the NRA, the Koch network. After a flirtation with Evan McMullin, Mormons, the most interesting bloc to resist Trump’s wiles, largely succumbed. African-Americans returned to something like the turnout and voting patterns of 2004. As feared all year, millennials remained meh; Clinton won 55 percent among voters under 30, while Obama in 2012 pulled down 60 percent. Millennial whites voted for Trump 48-43. Hype to the contrary, Republican women with college degrees came home to their partisanship: Clinton won college-educated white women by a mere 7 points, 51-44.
Hillary Clinton suffered from a broad failure to motivate voters outside her areas of core strength. Her weaknesses among disadvantaged voters in the Rust Belt doomed Clinton because no countervailing blocs, either in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan—or in Florida and either North Carolina or Arizona—came to her rescue in sufficient numbers. (Had James Comey not released a letter that will live in infamy, Clinton would most likely have squeaked through. But here we are.) At the first order, there simply aren’t enough places where “America is already great” for Democrats to garner an Electoral College majority. Mitt Romney lost his erstwhile hometown of Belmont, Massachusetts—Charles Murray’s archetype for white American success—by 32 points; Donald Trump lost it by 49. But a click or two down the white class structure and in metropolitan areas less enriched by the knowledge economy, Republican lines held. In Oakland County, Michigan, outside Detroit, the Democrats’ margin remained dead flat: 52,524 votes in 2012 and 53,849 in 2016.
Then came the areas where Clinton most underperformed: places with concentrations of whites without college degrees where Democrats had performed best in the Obama era—and where ancestral loyalties stretched back to the New Deal years. They are places integral to the industrial economy, but not always at the very center of it, with small factories and distribution hubs, rather than massive vertically integrated assembly plants. In small cities, turnout declined and Democratic margins fell from fat to even. In the surrounding counties, the same forces turned small losses into big ones. And so Mahoning County, Ohio, home of Youngstown and its shuttered steel plants, gave Obama a margin of more than 32,000 and 63 percent, but Clinton a margin of only 3,000, with turnout down 6 percent, and denied her a majority. These places seemed in the national conversation a kind of background noise to the Democratic coalition—until they weren’t.
Even more than in 2008 and 2012, what social scientists have termed “racial resentment” powerfully predicted voters’ choice. In surveys from August and October 2016, Trump won support from more than 80 percent of those who “completely agreed,” but only 20 percent of those who “completely disagreed,” that “Discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against minorities.” Racial resentment, like race itself, is a construct, designed to tap perceptions of unearned benefits and an unlevel playing field that benefit African-Americans at whites’ expense. To an extent not captured in debates over the last month, the concept cues group conflict rather than individual racial prejudice. The idea emerged from the 1969 mayoral election in Los Angeles, when the tough-talking white incumbent, Sam Yorty, warned against the “black bloc vote,” and defeated Tom Bradley, a well-regarded African-American city councilman who had served as an LA police officer (and whose unsuccessful 1982 run for governor later gave the Bradley Effect its name). Yorty voters, the political psychologists David Sears and Donald Kinder found, agreed that “Negroes and Whites should attend the same schools” yet also thought that Los Angeles officials paid “more attention” to requests or complaints from blacks than they did to requests or complaints from whites.
Democratic support has plunged among the most racially resentful whites without a college education. As the political scientist Michael Tesler writes, “The education divide in white support for Trump is largely a racial attitude gap.” The inversion among white voters in traditional patterns of party support by income, in turn, traces largely back to race. That said, the stories from the heart of Rust Belt rebellion and from national sample surveys still have not entirely merged. It is not clear, or at least not yet clear, whether Erie, Pennsylvania, and Cresco, Iowa, simply had more racially resentful Democrats than other places in America, or whether the status revolt that brought voters from Obama to Trump or Obama to sitting on their hands actually worked differently in the places where it concentrated. The same questions in reverse might be asked of the places where Clinton performed best.1
The most racially resentful voters have now sorted themselves correctly—not in any normative sense, but simply in the sense of picking the party whose views align with theirs. So the collapse of Democratic support among whites without college education pushed on. It began in the Deep South, first with Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrats in 1948, then accelerated with George Wallace in 1968, a way station on the road to the Republican Party. Bill Clinton and Al Gore forestalled the tide somewhat, but, starting in 2000, it traveled up the Mississippi and Ohio valleys with their barges of coal and new immigrants in communities unused to them; in 1996, Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia all voted Democratic for the last time; Trump won them all by a margin of at least 19 points. Now it hit the Rust Belt. The same story has played out in a transnational revanchist right. Scranton and Racine have joined Lille and Calais, where the French Communist Party held sway, and the coalfields that struck with the National Union of Mineworkers in 1984 and that voted Leave on Brexit.
Where Democrats have made deepest inroads, above all in the Golden State, it has done them no good in national politics. In 2004, George W. Bush won the popular vote by 3.01 million votes over John Kerry. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won it by 2.86 million votes. California alone accounts for the majority of the swing to the Democrats; Kerry won it by 10 points and Clinton by 30. Almost a third of the remainder comes from Texas.
The one exception, the one state where Democrats have not simply—as in Colorado and Virginia and, by just enough to eke out a win, New Hampshire—surfed a wave of upscale “fiscal moderates,” is Nevada. The Culinary Workers, seeded in the 1970s by young Yale alums fresh from helping to win a series of strikes against their alma mater, built deep capacity among Latino workers in Las Vegas; its 57,000 members make up the largest local in any right-to-work state. Harry Reid, the Democrats’ sharpest street fighter, whipped the state party into shape. And so, in a state that relies on the opposite of the knowledge economy, Hillary Clinton picked up six electoral votes, and Catherine Cortez Masto will join the Senate as its first Latina.
The 21st-century story of successful electoral politics on the left turns out to be the same as the 19th-century story in Europe that finally, haltingly became the 20th-century story in America in the New Deal: trade unions allied with political parties, working hard, person to person, all year round, to educate and mobilize the electorate. The trade union and the mass party have fallen on hard times. They could use with dedicated new leaders top to bottom. Yet we have found no adequate substitute for either one, no 2.0 to erase the old models. This last year, when union leaders and party bosses delivered Hillary Clinton the nomination but couldn’t produce the election, makes a siren song compelling: that the insiders are the problem and we should torch everything they’ve touched. But what then? In the classic problem of reform politics, a hundred flowers bloom, and soon wilt. The mobilizing institutions have failed to mobilize, yet we cannot mobilize without them. Accepting parties means accepting that they may strong-arm favorite candidates, just as they may prevent the worst of them. The choice is to keep the old train running on spare parts or not to have a railroad at all.
Yet according to the national exit poll, union households voted only 51-42 for Clinton. In 2012, Obama won 58-40. We do not have, and most likely will not get, data by international; one assumes police and correctional officers and the building trades led the swing to Trump. More generally, the party’s failures in the Rust Belt seem inconceivable had the labor movement more members, and more suasion over them—suasion not just for a particular slate, though that union effect matters, but suasion to forge a view of the world and live it out, as the CIO did at its best, building interracial solidarities in baseball picnics and bowling leagues. Without them, status revolt becomes attractive.
In Western Europe, the atrophy of the old social democratic parties rooted in working-class consciousness has splintered party politics, perhaps beyond the possibility of adequate repair. The Democrats have always been a different beast, more thoroughly a catch-all party, more deeply compromised in what was elsewhere social democracy’s golden era. And because the two-party system endures so far essentially unimpeded, the prospects for renewal, including from the left, appear brighter. Parties, however strong in Congress and at the mass level as motivators for individual behavior, have grown hollow. National parties raise money, though these days far less than super-PACs. A few super-PACs talk to voters, almost always with canvassers and not volunteers. Mostly, they just pay up for dubiously effective ads. State and local parties, long the centerpieces of American party politics, have atrophied. The hollow parties each proved vulnerable—the Republicans to takeover by an outsider strongman and then, their partisans loyal, to the outsider strongman’s victory; the Democrats to a richly funded campaign where the party of the people failed to mobilize them.
This summer, I attended a fancy fundraiser to benefit the Hillary Victory Fund. If I would not make it out to canvass until GOTV, I figured I ought to contribute; it was like paying for a substitute in the Civil War. We donors got some inside dope. A campaign operative giddily described what he saw at a recent focus group: two of the eight participants, when asked to describe their greatest fear about Trump, said nuclear war. I wanted to ask why the campaign was relying on a methodology little better than palm reading. And so the pseudo-science of the focus group and the pseudo-precision of the targeted message led to the very real problem of a candidate who could not figure out what to say. In the maw where a vision should have been appeared all the hashtags and videos. An armada of experts in messaging at the helm of a party obsessed with messaging could not communicate a message.
For years, the “thought leaders” prattling on about how all the Democrats needed was messaging struck me as annoying. That diagnosis now seems too benign. The elixir of messaging promised to render viscerally appealing proposals with too many incentives and too many parts. It could do no such thing. Messaging substituted for organization. At the same fundraiser, I heard, not for the first time from someone balancing canapé and wine glass, that “our ideas are right but we need to communicate them better.” The failure to build a public philosophy, a distinctive set of answers to democratic questions, and the failure to build a campaign sprang, that evening taught me, from the same sources.
The seduction of technocratic government—that a best answer will overcome division, whether sown in the nature of man or ineluctable in capitalist society—slides into the seduction in the campaign that algorithms will render rote the task of human persuasion, that canvassers are just cogs for a plan built by machine. And so the error to treat data as holy writ, when it’s both easier and harder than that. Data are fragile; algorithms, especially when they aggregate preferences, fall apart. Always, always, power lurks. The technocrats have to believe in mass politics, believe for real that ordinary people, when they organize, can change their own destinies. Whether that happens depends on the party that gets built, and the forces behind it.
I spent four days in Dover, New Hampshire, up through Election Day, getting out the vote for the Democrats. Why Dover? After a youth misspent as a Democratic ward boss in Cambridge, Massachusetts, election season says New Hampshire, the swing state whose rhythms I best understand. I got in touch with an old political friend, who knew the regional field director, who sent me to Dover. To be clear: Dover made manifest the problems of the Democratic Party, but I crossed the border into Massachusetts on a glorious Election Day afternoon convinced we’d win New Hampshire. And, indeed, Hillary Clinton eked through, with a statewide margin of just 2,736, and so did Maggie Hassan, the sensible governor running for Senate, and Carol Shea-Porter, fighting her fourth race for the House against a sleaze named Frank Guinta. New Hampshire now has the first all-female, all-Democratic delegation in the history of Congress. Their visions of our party may not be precisely mine, but I felt a certain pride that I’d given time or money to elect every single one.
As I canvassed packet after packet, I got a sense of Dover. The city, prosperous in colonial days and in the heyday of the Cocheco Mills, fell on hard times after the mills shuttered in 1937. It’s now gentrified a bit: there’s a juice bar and a gastropub. Clinton won Dover by 4,103 votes and 24 percent, both results smack between the ones for 2008 and 2012. Right in town, the old millworker housing is mostly transients now—I had to explain the rules of same-day registration more than once. (The incoming Republican governor, a member of the locally prominent Sununu clan, has taken aim at same-day registration.) The spiffed-up Victorians were catnip for us, though a few of the grander Georgian and Federal houses had oversized signs for the downballot Republicans. In the split-levels with hurricane fencing, the signs were all for Trump. The garden apartments had a little of everyone: young families, retirees, folks on disability. The well-kept low-rise homes of the Dover Housing Authority on the outskirts of town—how straight in the long afternoon shadows seemed the through-line from the poorhouse to the projects—stood stark and treeless. Only a few residents appeared in my packet. And where the suburbs gave way to the countryside, the McMansions swung both ways politically while, beside a Greek Revival farmhouse down a dirt road, a Bernie sign lingered in the leaves.
As so often in American history, occluded alternatives all felt very close. Viz, on women and firsts—and also on inequality and wage stagnation and power: late-morning on Election Day, cutting my way back to the office through a little park behind the Cocheco Mills, I found a plaque commemorating the first strike in America waged by women workers, back in 1828. Curiosity piqued, I found their remonstrance. “We view with feelings of indignation,” it explained, “the attempt made to throw upon us, who are least able to bear it, the effect of this ‘pressure’ by reducing our wages, while those of our overseers and Agent are continued to them at their former high rate.”
What I saw in Dover was too much campaign spending and too little party building, a campaign-in-a-box imported from outside, flaunting best practices but tied too weakly into the community, mobilizing too little and too late. It was the Hillary Victory Fund event made flesh.
The Dover Dems were the best part of the office. They knew what had to be done, and they’d seen it all before. They met once a month all year round, their chair told me, with a bit of socializing—sometimes, blessedly, with booze—mixed in with business. They’re well funded as local parties go. Their revenues of just over $15,000 in the 2016 cycle would have bought a seat, but not a grip-and-grin with the candidate, at a fancy fundraiser down the stretch. Their side of the office, by the welcome table, was abuzz with social capital; they seemed to know everyone from those Tocquevillean little platoons—the PTAs and church suppers and, of course, campaigns long past. But though they kept the lights on, it’s hard to build a local party at a time when organization has atrophied—without paid staff, templates, or support for canvassing outside of campaign season, without Organizing for America or Our Revolution actually telling supporters to head out for the Democratic Party.
So the work fell to the young staffers, and there the trouble started. The tensions between the paid staff and the Dover Dems occasionally flared up, usually over whether to follow or ignore late-breaking bad advice from staffers one step up the ladder. The “field rats” got judged on how many contacts they made in a given day, and had every incentive, like a regional commissar under a Five Year Plan, for fabulism. So they spent their time compiling exactly how many knocks and calls had been completed. Somehow—and many years doing and studying campaigns has never explained to me quite how—these outputs are supposed to tell the campaign “where we’re strong,” and “how we’re doing,” though what exactly anyone can learn from bad data badly reported still remains a mystery.
As the parties have polarized and the number of swing voters declined, campaigns have shifted from persuasion—reaching the cross-pressured and the undecided—to mobilization, reminding and trying to fire up unenthused would-be voters. For GOTV, we did mobilization, as we should have. For Democrats across the whole cycle, it is, to quote the Third Way types (no fans of mass parties, they), a false choice. The luxury of time makes a necessity of organization. Persuasion, good experimental evidence shows, comes from “deep canvassing,” from involved, person-to-person conversations about important issues. In a “Front Porch Focus Group” at the end of 2015, Working America, the AFL-CIO affiliate, warned of Trump, and added that “face-to-face conversations are critical for breaking through reflex thinking on difficult issues.” So persuade all year round, rather than in a wave just as folks tire of opening their doors to strangers. And devote the resources, funneled through state and local parties themselves, so volunteers can do the work. The further up one goes in the income gradient, the likelier to report a contact not just from the Republicans, but from the Democrats. Mobilization, for its part, works best when campaigns properly identify as many voters as possible individually, rather than playing guesswork about who gets turned out. And good data matter for volunteers, too. There’s no way to turn off volunteers faster, not even a field office that has run out of coffee and doughnuts, than to tell them to canvass a bad list.
We hit the same voters in the same houses time and again, whether they were the right houses or not. “How come,” a voter, late-twenties guy in a wool Celtics hat, middle-class neighborhood, asked me, “you always come for her”—was “her” a sister, maybe?—“and never for me?” They voted, he said, about equally often, and always for Democrats. I smiled and said that I was coming for him, but had no good answer. How badly, as I made my way through the smattering of addresses in public housing in my packet, I wanted to do a blind pull and knock every door in the Whittier Park Homes, and then on Election Day, assemble a big team for knock-and-drag, and walk voters directly to the polls. But the lists told us otherwise.
“How did your packet go?” the staff at the return table asked—only to then ignore our answers. Those answers collectively contain the answers to what works on the doors, but nothing happened to them; we were, bizarrely, warned not to write notes on the packets. (A friend who came up for the day violated the rule to warn future canvassers off the voter who tried to run her car off the road.) Just as A. J. P. Taylor described in War by Timetable, on July 1914, mobilization proceeded entirely apart from events, and led to ruin.2
My Days Inn years having past, I took a room at the Silver Fountain Inn, a creaky-charming number with the requisite four-poster bed and iffy hot water. A fellow canvasser was staying upstairs, and over breakfast, we got to talking. He grew up in Florence, had American citizenship from somewhere, spoke with a mid-Atlantic accent, read PPE at Oxford a few years ahead of David Cameron, had worked in private equity, knew Milo Yiannopoulos from back when he’d been a scoop-hungry tech journalist, told a delightful story about visiting Eton with his son. Tim Kaine, as DNC chair, had stayed with him in London. (A source high up in the Clinton finance operation, reached secondhand, reported that the really big givers who wanted to say they’d canvassed had gone to Philly, where they stayed at the Ritz, just as they did for the convention.) He wore a well-tailored jacket with his red H finance pin to canvass, but to his credit made his way through packet after packet. I saw him last over an early breakfast on election morning. He planned to fly down to New York at noontime on Tuesday, and back to London the next evening.
Another young staffer had grown up in Chappaqua, gone to Duke and joined a frat, interned at a hedge fund that specializes in collaterized loan obligations, and on graduation spent a year in Brooklyn on the Clinton campaign’s social media team. A month out, he got shipped off to New Hampshire, which to him was like being rusticated in the Cultural Revolution. At the table where packets got returned—where small talk is so important, to excite volunteers to head out once more and return tomorrow—he could only manage a scowl. One evening, I remarked how much I’d missed being in a field office. He looked at me funny. The work, he complained, was “menial.”
The senior-most figure in the office, a few years out from the Kennedy School and now at a consultancy in New York I’d never heard of, largely stuck to the small private office in back, where she spoke jargon into the telephone. She seemed equally unhappy, quite unable to muster the banter and bonhomie that translate drudgery into solidarity. The Sunday of GOTV weekend, her compadres from the Truman Project, an ideas-and-networking shop for Democrats who want jobs in national security, arrived to share with Dover their “vision of how to utilize all of America’s unique hard and soft power capabilities to lead towards a safer, more prosperous world.” They posed for selfies and played volunteer like Marie Antoinette played peasant at Hameau de la Reine. Two or three of them shared a single packet, after which they skedaddled straight home. As the afternoon shadows grew long, the pea coats and branded fleeces had all gone, and the purple SEIU for Hillary hats headed out one last time. So there it was, all in one field office in a strip mall, the finance and the nepotism and the warmongering.
“It will be as exciting as the 1930s, greater than the Reagan revolution—conservatives, plus populists, in an economic nationalist movement,” says Steve Bannon, who will serve as Donald Trump’s chief strategist. It will be exciting, all right, but probably not like Bannon imagines. In comparison with its counterparts in Latin America, the American presidency is weak. The president cannot dissolve the legislature or order snap elections, cannot submit legislation for a straight up-or-down vote, cannot—thank heavens!—assume emergency powers and rule by decree. Everything, rather, depends on the reaction of the rest of the political system. If Congress felt like shutting down Donald Trump, impeaching him under the emoluments clause or whatever else, it could do so in a heartbeat. But in the short run, the logroll is clear, even if a figure or two from the parade of plutocrats and generals fails to make it through. Congressional Republicans finally have their chance to mount the frontal attack against liberalism long denied them, slashing taxes for the rich and programs for, at least, the poor. Trump signs whatever comes to his desk as long as Congress fails to investigate him. Where Congressional Republicans want to claw back power, it is from agencies exercising their discretionary and rulemaking powers, not the nerve center of the presidency.
Trumpism, from the vantage point of legislative output, looks less new and scary than old and scary, histrionic takes about a party system divided between cosmopolitans and left-behind-ers to the contrary. In the transition, ethnonationalism and finance capital have married with remarkable ease. Much of the Second Reconstruction, the Long Great Society, and the New Deal hangs in the balance. At stake are the battles that Northern liberals fought in the 1960s, trying to defend flawed but vital legislation watered down so it could pass with the votes of the kinds of Northern Republicans who don’t exist anymore. Jeff Sessions and Ben Carson are set to administer the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act, to whose destruction they are committed. The same will be true of the Trump National Labor Relations Board, with the caveat that the statute itself is at greater risk.
The means-tested lower tier of the American welfare state has proven far more resilient than the block-granting of welfare in 1996 might alone suggest. But it may all come crashing down. Paul Ryan is spoiling for a fight. It will happen under cover of darkness, aided by every trick of what the late Barbara Sinclair termed unorthodox lawmaking. Chief among them will be a procedure known as budget reconciliation, enacted by reform-minded liberals in the wake of Watergate, that for certain bills limits floor debate and allows Senate passage with a simple majority. For eight years of Obama, Republicans have fulminated against programs for the disadvantaged, taking up once more the long-racialized and -gendered notions of the deserving and undeserving poor that the colonists brought over from Elizabethan England. Yet many of their constituents benefit. It remains to be seen how much they will make them suffer. The solution, as for welfare in 1996, is likely to shift authority, and hence blame, to the states, where the dirty work will happen. For the Obamacare exchanges, Medicaid in all its parts (the expansion, traditional Medicaid for the non-elderly poor, Medicaid for the elderly), and food stamps, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Republicans will have to decide to give states either an outright block grant, under which they’d get cash to spend more or less as they please, or, more likely, the “flexibility” to impose work requirements, throw recipients off the rolls, or make them pay for their benefits. And in state capitols, where so much of the action will take place in coming years, the Republican Party has learned to how to play for keeps.
Partisan majority in Washington breeds overreach. Paul Ryan aims for Medicare and Social Security, hoping to break both of them as guaranteed defined benefits. Democrats, all of them, would love the fight, and Donald Trump, who so far more closely follows the logic of the European far right, of a welfare state for me but not for thee, may not be on board with his co-partisans, though that may change. Cutting Medicare, even for future retirees, aims square at the Republican base: 76 percent of Medicare recipients, but only 42 percent of non-elderly Medicaid recipients, are white. Because Social Security, the innermost citadel of the New Deal order, is exempt from budget reconciliation—funny how rules matter—Democrats would need to sign on in the Senate, and there even the most spineless among them would probably not be so imbecilic as to capitulate. Of all the ways Trumpism might break, a frontal assault on the Democrats’ finest legacies would be a fitting one.
Even when conflicts inside the party boil over, maybe even to the point of impeachment or resignation, Republicans all find Democrats so abhorrent that even severe internal conflict will not likely undo any damage, at least in the domestic sphere. That task will have to come from elsewhere: from states and cities, as Democrats rediscover federalism; from judges, where they have the will and the numbers to resist; from flooding all the notice-and-comment procedures that make the wheels of government turn slowly; from the civil service and perhaps even the “deep state”; from the streets.
Existing categories seem altogether limited to represent how wild the dangers and at the same time how linked the perils of party and person. To take two tropes from recent weeks, January 20 will, indeed, uncork a bacchanal of corruption, and Trump is, indeed, not normal. Yet neither corruption nor normalcy shapes politics in any determinate fashion. Scruples against fleecing the public fisc still linger across the political spectrum, and may well cost cabinet secretaries their posts. Simply because kleptocracy is new need not render it our worst fear. Nor should efficient administration alone get raised to the summum bonum in the life of a free people. As for normalcy, is threatening a reporter abnormal because George W. Bush didn’t do it, but torture normal because his administration did? And anyway, why trust that the norm violators in the legislative branch will police an even more egregious norm violator in the executive branch? The correct conclusion that democracy depends on norms bleeds into the fantasy that policy somehow separates from norms, and then into the even more dangerous fantasy that policing norm violation will somehow magically give courage to other actors inside the political system.
Assuming that Trump makes it through his term, the odds for 2020 are in his favor. Presidents who usher in a new era of partisan control usually win reelection. Of course, no factor will loom so large as the economy. For Trump’s reactionary Keynesian boom, it’s all in the timing. If Trump gets a pop in the spring of 2020, he will be in good shape. If it comes too early, then the ride may get wilder. Just as Jimmy Carter’s appointment of Paul Volcker doomed him in 1980, a hard-money Fed—and especially a hard-money Fed that does not do the White House’s bidding—could take away the punch bowl. And if that happens, and Trump must run on ethnonationalism alone, woe betide the republic.
Even if, after 2016, it seems like we’ve seen it all, it all feels like prelude to the real moment when paths shift irrevocably—a period like the late 1850s, early 1890s, and late 1920s—rather than a genuine resolution to any contradictions. But as Stephen Skowronek notes, presidents in the crises of the old orders, have often proven rigid in the face of events as their worldviews collapse around them: Buchanan, Cleveland, Hoover, Carter. Mike Pence seems to come from the same playbook. Donald Trump, not so much.
In the longer view, if Trump is neither the last in a dying era nor the first in a new one, then where from here? Perhaps an evenly divided government will simply chug on for a few more decades. Polarization and gridlock, the regular bugbears of the chinstroking classes, will join with creeping Caesarism as problems pile up. Perhaps economic nationalism will prove a more durable formula than Reaganite conservatism. Republicans will finally achieve their dreams to cut and voucherize and privatize even as they also collect tariffs and subsidize favored sectors. The Supreme Court will roll back the core protections of the Warren and the early Burger Courts. Trumpism will appear more a variant of long conservative hegemony than a sharp break. Perhaps, after some serious bad governance, the right will get a rejection far more permanent than its temporary defeat of 2008, such that the apostles of the old order retreat deep into the shadows, their very names, like Herbert Hoover’s, for decades a pox on their party and in some short window, a 1935 redux, the harsh limits that confine the American left will briefly lift. Or perhaps the whole Madisonian flywheel will come undone, the entire edifice crashing down, and scenarios too horrible to contemplate start to get real.
The relation of race and class here becomes complicated. Class analysis, rooted in people’s lived experiences in their neighborhoods and at their jobs, has atrophied just when it seems so urgent. In surveys, scholars deduce class only through income and education and status—maybe the defining feature of the Trump appeal—not at all, which is why, even (and maybe especially) now, the debate about Trump and the “white working class” feels so flawed and frustrating. Commentators fight about experiences of class and status, without much in the way of systematic data to resolve the catfights. Bright-eyed experimentalists eager to do social science on the cutting edge should take heed. ↩
To put the point in language that may get the analytics types to listen up, good Bayesians should update their priors; the Clinton team signally did not. ↩
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