The election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States is one of the most surprising things to happen in American political history. Whether we deplore or approve this outcome, we ought to try to understand how it could have happened. Why would a sufficient number of voters, in a more than sufficient number of states, choose to elevate this man to the highest office in the land? Moreover, why would they do such a thing despite repeated warnings from a wide range of prominent political and opinion leaders against doing it—warnings that presented Trump as not only inferior to his opponent but as entirely unfit for the presidency?
Many subtle explanations will be offered. Some of them will be technical—noting, for example, Trump’s mastery of social media in an age when newspapers and broadcasting have a smaller audience than in the past. Some will be constitutional—such as complaints that the electoral college permits a candidate to win the presidency without winning the popular vote. Such explanations should be pursued, because many of them will contribute to the overall explanation that we need. Nevertheless, in our quest for subtlety, for the explanations overlooked by most observers, we should not neglect the obvious.
In this essay, I offer a general, even superficial, account of how Trump could win the presidency over the strenuous objections of the nation’s bipartisan elites. Such an explanation is useful for two reasons. In the first place, in the search for subtle explanations, the general or the superficial is often itself overlooked. Sometimes there really is an “elephant in the room,” dominating the scene but unnoticed or unremarked by almost everybody.
In the second place, the general or the superficial probably played some role in the decision of a significant share of voters. Here I have in mind non-ideological voters, those who don’t follow politics as closely as their more partisan fellow citizens. Such voters are not a majority, but they were essential to Trump’s victory. Trump won a plurality of independent voters (48 percent to Clinton’s 42 percent). And although he lost with self-described moderates, his 41 percent share with them surely helped him across the finish line in some key states.
Looking at the Big Picture
In order to see the big picture that might have influenced non-ideological voters to support Trump, it is helpful to cast our minds back over the last thirty-five years of American politics, considering only the really big impressions that might stick in the minds of people who vote but who don’t follow politics very closely.
As everyone knows, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were very different men and very different presidents. Yet there is a general sense in which their administrations were similar: you could say of both men that their presidencies pretty much achieved what they set out to achieve. Reagan wanted to do three big things: build up the military and bring down the Soviet Union, cut taxes and restore economic growth after a period of stagflation, and balance the federal budget. He succeeded at the first two and failed at the third. But, as they say, two out of three ain’t bad. Responding to the country’s rightward move under Reagan, Bill Clinton ran as a moderate, a New Democrat who would balance the budget and reform welfare. With the help (and the cajoling) of a Republican Congress, he did both.
It is shocking to ideological voters that somebody could vote for both Reagan and Clinton. Yet many Americans did just that. And it is reasonable to suppose that they did so simply because they estimated, rightly, that each man would deliver what he said he would.
The same could not be said of the last two presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. We should ask ourselves: what are the two biggest public policy initiatives of the last fifteen years? The answer is obvious: the Iraq war and the Affordable Care Act. Both were sold as matters of great urgency for the country. In both cases, the people were assured by their leaders that these policies would solve a set of problems with relative ease. And in both cases they failed—badly—to live up to their billing.
It is hard to judge a presidency a success when its signature policy is a flop. Nevertheless, it is possible that a string of smaller achievements could outweigh even one big failure. Unfortunately for Bush and Obama, however, when we drill down to their less-famous policy initiatives, we still find a record that hardly seems to inspire public confidence. Bush championed the No Child Left Behind Act, a law regulating public education that nobody seems to like. The housing collapse and subsequent economic crisis also happened on his watch. Taking over from Bush, Obama tried to address the Great Recession through a massive stimulus bill that was controversial when passed and ultimately failed to deliver the promised degree of economic recovery. Obama encouraged hopes that the “Arab Spring” would lead to peace and democracy, but it instead led to chaos and bloodshed.
This is not to say that these presidents accomplished nothing worth noting. The forty-third president won passage of the Bush tax cuts, and President Obama secured the enactment of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. These policies, however, are hardly remembered in comparison to their more striking failures.
Bipartisan Failures with No Accountability
This is a bipartisan record of inadequacy not only in the sense that each party has had its share of failures, but also in the sense that both parties had a hand in several of them. Many Democrats supported the Iraq war when it was launched. Both Republicans and Democrats supported policies that contributed to the housing market bubble and the economic crisis that followed its bursting—policies that encouraged risky lending and banking practices. Bush also secured bipartisan support for No Child Left Behind. During the Obama administration, Republicans showed more partisan discipline in opposing the president and thus insulating themselves from his failures. Hardly any voted for the stimulus, and none of them voted for the Affordable Care Act. Nevertheless, some very prominent ones supported President Obama’s ill-considered interventions in the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring.
Perhaps these numerous miscues would have been sufficient of themselves to convince enough voters to take a risk on Trump. But if not, another aspect of the record would surely have closed the sale. Is it not a little remarkable that during this whole sorry course of miscalculation no government official was fired or forced to resign? The people most responsible don’t even seem to be embarrassed by any of it! It appears that no amount of failure can disturb the cast-iron self-regard of the country’s ruling elites—both those who direct the government and established commentators on public affairs. Over and over again, things did not work out as they promised. Yet over and over again they refused to question their own judgment or reexamine their own worldview. Indeed, it does not even seem to have occurred to them to do so.
The failures of our country’s governing elites—combined with their inability to admit that anything has gone really wrong while they have been in charge—opened the door to Trump’s candidacy. And how did these same elites react to that candidacy once it emerged? By denunciation and dismissal. That is, they denounced it as based on nothing but irrational motives, as if no sensible person could be deeply dissatisfied with their custodianship of the country’s interests; and they dismissed it by making confident predictions—repeatedly disproven and repeatedly reiterated—that it was going to collapse at any moment.
Is it any wonder that pragmatic, non-ideological voters, beholding this spectacle, would conclude that America’s supposedly enlightened governors are both error-prone and incapable of learning from their errors—that it was time to send in the B team, regardless of its inexperience and lack of refinement? Our elites insisted that Trump is not fit to be president, but it was unclear to many voters why our elites should think that they are fit judges of fitness to govern.
The Path of Magnanimity
America actually came into existence as the result of a similar failure: the failure of British elites to understand the people they were trying to govern in the American colonies. This lack of understanding misled them into a series of measures that alienated the colonists more and more. Foreseeing and seeking to avert the coming revolution, Edmund Burke urged his British brethren to pursue a course of conciliation. He admonished them that “magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom; a great empire and little minds go ill together.”
In our day, the path of magnanimity would have been for our elites to admit their failures, to admit that Trump and his followers had a point about the mismanagement of the country. Such a course might have won back the confidence of enough voters to prevent Trump from winning the Republican nomination or the presidency. But our elites were too small-minded to do this. As a result, Donald Trump will be president of the United States.
Right now, it is not clear whether these elite minds will be expanded by adversity and defeat. In his Harvard Address, Alexander Solzhenitsyn suggested that some minds are so closed that they can only be opened “by the pitiless crowbar of events.” Is it possible that the minds of our elites are so closed that they cannot even be opened by the repeated blows of that pitiless crowbar—Trump’s candidacy, his nomination, and his election? If so, it is a tragedy. But at least America is vast, diverse, and free enough to give itself a new governing elite if the old one can’t learn.
Carson Holloway, a political scientist, is the author of Hamilton versus Jefferson in the Washington Administration.