President Trump. A handful of syllables still hard to get one’s mind around. How on earth did this happen?
There’s no single reason. Any number of factors were involved, and it wouldn’t have taken much for things to have turned out differently. If the Republican Party had been slightly less willing to be stolen by a populist demagogue; if James Comey and the Federal Bureau of Investigation hadn’t waded in (twice) so clumsily; if Wikileaks hadn’t supplied a constant stream of reminders about the hypocrisy and venality of the professional political class; if the professional political class had been a bit less hypocritical and venal in the first place; if any of these things and who knows what else had been different, then Trump the outrageous outsider might have lost.
Still, two things seem to loom large. First, that Hillary Clinton was an objectively bad candidate. Second, that having chosen so poorly, Democrats came up with yet more ways to repel a large segment of the electorate. If I’d been asked to advise them on how to lose an election to a manifestly unqualified opponent, I’m not sure I could have been much help: They had it covered.
From the outset, many voters were clearly fed up with Washington and all its works. Up and down the country, the political establishment was cordially detested. Step forward, Hillary Clinton, wife of an ex-president, champion of the downtrodden, somehow wealthy, trailing scandals, friends in all the right places, anointed after a rigged nomination — in short, the complete representative of politics as usual. Yet if Clinton was a bad candidate, Trump was so much worse. Even many of his supporters acknowledge his unfitness. And remember, the election was close. Something else (aside from the design of the Electoral College) was needed to put Trump in the White House.
The crucial extra ingredient, I think, was the way the case against Trump was framed. Clinton’s goal should have been to detach a slice of his support. The best way for her to do that, issue by issue, would have been to acknowledge the particle of truth in his claims, if any, and say why her approach to the problem was better. Instead, she and her supporters refused to grant the validity of any part of Trump’s pitch. Even that wasn’t enough. Trump was a racist and a fascist, they said. Support him, and you’re no better: Either that, or you’re an idiot for failing to see it.
Apparently it takes more than four years of college to understand this: You don’t get people to see things your way by calling them idiots and racists, or sorting them into baskets of deplorables and pitiables (deserving of sympathy for their moral and intellectual failings). If you can’t manage genuine respect for the people whose votes you want, at least try to fake it.
However, forgive me if I go further. It really ought to be possible to manage some actual respect. The complaints that Trump is addressing deserve better than to be recast in caricature then dismissed with contempt.
Take immigration, the issue that Trump first used to claim the spotlight. Illegal immigration on the scale the U.S. has seen in recent years is a sign, at the very least, that something isn’t working. Comprehensive immigration reform of the kind suggested by Clinton is a much better answer than building a wall. But you can regard illegal immigration as a problem, believe on the whole that laws should be enforced, and see Clinton’s proposal as inadequate, without being anti-immigrant, much less racist.
Trump is a reckless loudmouth, often saying things that beg to be misunderstood — but consider the endlessly repeated “Mexicans are rapists” controversy. What his supporters understood Trump to mean was that illegal immigrants have committed crimes, including rapes; that those people shouldn’t have been in the U.S. in the first place; and that if the system had worked, the crimes wouldn’t have happened. In the universally-sanctioned retelling, this became “Trump calls Mexicans rapists.” Perfecting the device, Tim Kaine explicitly accused Trump of saying, “All Mexicans are rapists.”
This nonsense utterly failed as persuasion. It didn’t refute Trump. It was a patent refusal to engage, expressed for good measure as a slur against people who disagree.
This, to me, is where the oft-mentioned parallel with Britain’s vote to quit the European Union is closest. Yes, plainly, Trump’s election and the Brexit vote are rebellions against elite opinion — that is, against political orthodoxy and its defenders. In both cases, the question is, how does one account for the uprising?
Elite opinion admits of only one answer: People are more stupid and bigoted than we ever imagined. Without denying that there’s plenty of stupidity and bigotry to go around, I think it’s more a matter of elite incompetence. Elite opinion heard the rebels’ complaints, but instead of acknowledging what was valid, it rejected the grievances in every particular and dismissed the complainers as fools or worse.
The elites weren’t deaf. They were dumb.
Crook is a Bloomberg View columnist and writes editorials on economics, finance and politics.