Every January I write a column exploring my faulty analysis and failed prophecies from the preceding year. After last year’s installment, in which I explained how I had underestimated a certain celebrity tycoon, I received a note from Trump Tower – a clipping of the column, scrawled over with a markered note:
“Thank you – Now I will work to get you to go a little bit further. Best wishes, Donald Trump.”
A year has spun past since then, and whatever comes of the Trump presidency, he can claim at least one promise kept. That column described Trump as a remarkable political phenomenon who nonetheless could not win the Republican nomination, let alone become the president. Now just as he predicted, I must go further: Mea culpa, he could, he has, and I was wrong again.
But my error was different this year than last. In 2015 I underestimated the man himself: Before he descended the Trump Tower escalator into history, I had no idea that he had the savvy, the discipline, or the stamina to run an effective populist campaign.
By the time the primary voting began, though, I had a clear-enough handle on the nature of his populist appeal. What I misjudged in 2016 wasn’t Trump; it was the strength of the institutional forces standing between him and the presidency.
Which was odd, because I had always imagined that I saw those institutions’ flaws with a cold-eyed clarity. I am a conservative who has long regarded the Republican Party as a sclerotic mess, a member of the media elite with a relatively low opinion of the media, an Ivy-educated meritocrat who often holds meritocratic liberalism in contempt.
But in a strange way my negative view of the GOP and what Trump’s reactionary fans call “the Cathedral” – the whole liberal media-political-academic-entertainment complex – was a crucial part of why I assumed that Trump could not defeat them. The more time you spend complaining about a given feature of the political or cultural landscape, the more you can come to take its power and permanence for granted, to imagine that its decadence must be too resilient to overthrow.
In the case of the GOP, that decadence was the party’s “Reagan yesterday, Reagan today, Reagon forever” commitments, which seemed to me misguided but powerfully entrenched, so that an assault on party orthodoxy as frontal as the one that Trump mounted would eventually forge a defensive unity among the party’s politicians and ideological enforcers.
As indeed it did – in exactly one place, the Wisconsin primary. But everywhere else, from the talk radio dial to the halls of Congress to Fox News, Trump’s assault revealed that the party’s would-be statesmen were mostly hollow men and its enforcers were mostly ratings-hungry cynics. I had thought that the GOP was run by true believers in a dated catechism. But really it was run by people for whom the Reaganite catechism only mattered because they controlled the inquisition, and once Trump’s army of heretics refused to disperse they had no stomach for a fight.
Then there was liberalism, the province of technocrats and cultural commissars, of data worship and arc-of-history propaganda. Was its worldview blinkered, self-deceiving, vulnerable to an effective populist attack? No doubt. But still I thought that the liberal establishment was at least pretty good at its core competencies: pretty good at data, pretty good at propaganda, and good enough that if you gave it a foil as unpopular and prone to self-sabotage as Trump, it would push even a flawed candidate like Hillary over the top.
Not so. In a close race everything matters, Comey and WikiLeaks and everything else that liberals have reached for in their agony of blame. But what mattered most was that all the messaging and advertising produced by the Clinton campaign and the culture industry couldn’t persuade millions of voters who feared Trump to vote against him – and that the Hillary campaign’s data and turnout operation, staffed by the technocracy’s best and brightest, couldn’t turn a small but solid polling lead into the electoral vote advantage that they always knew they needed.
So a year ago, I imagined that conservatism was sclerotic but ideologically committed, and that liberalism was wrong about the world but pretty good at fearmongering and voter targeting. But my intellect and experience were wrong, and Trump’s Napoleonic intuitions were correct: The Republicans were all low-energy men underneath, and the liberal elites were as vulnerable to him as the Cameron Tories and Blairites were to Brexit.
Now, having made grim predictions about what a Trump presidency might bring, I have no choice but to hope that I'll be proven wrong again, that a few years hence I'll have to write another mea culpa.
Confession is good for the pundit’s soul. Let’s hope our new president remains a godsend.