Like traumatized soldiers after a devastating and unanticipated defeat on the battlefield, a certain kind of partisan Democrat is still struggling with President Trump's (absurdly narrow) victory over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. Just witness the furious reaction occasioned by a New York Times excerpt from Amy Chozick's new book about Clinton's defeat. Because Chozick dared to write that Clinton lost "the most winnable presidential election in modern history," she (and others, like myself, who've made similar claims) inspired a tidal wave of criticism.
The liberal excuse-making begins like this: The 2016 election was never going to be a cakewalk for Clinton — because of what political scientists call the "fundamentals." A Democrat looking to succeed a two-term president of the same party will always have a tough time of it (just as Republican John McCain did in trying to succeed George W. Bush in 2008) because of the tendency of voters to prefer a change of party. For this reason, Clinton would have had a much easier time of it had she won the nomination in 2008 instead of Barack Obama.
But then, these partisans say, there are the numerous contingencies that were unique to 2016: Russian interference, including the WikiLeaks email hack and news dump; James Comey's decision to reopen the FBI's investigation of Clinton's email server practices just 11 days out from Election Day; the obsessive, unrelenting focus of the mainstream media on the email scandal; ambient racism and sexism in the electorate that gave Trump an unexpected edge; and Cambridge Analytica's use of data gleaned from Facebook to try and manipulate voters. And on and on.
All of it adds up to a view that's nicely captured in the line that Chozick attributes to Clinton: "They were never going to let me be president."
Clinton's "they" presumably refers to what she once called the "vast right-wing conspiracy," but in truth it might as well stand in for the whole constellation of causes that conspired to make the election anything but uniquely "winnable." Given all of those obstacles, this line of thought goes, the truly amazing thing is that Clinton managed to do as well as she did, prevailing in the popular vote by a margin of three million — revealing yet another structural handicap she faced in her ill-fated campaign for president.
Some version of this account of the election is fast becoming the liberal conventional wisdom. That's unfortunate. Like the Clinton quote about an amorphous "they" who wouldn't "let" her become president, it's suffused with a mixture of bitterness, self-pity, passivity, and denial, along with a heavy dose of revisionist history and post-hoc reasoning.
During the 2016 campaign, it was almost universally assumed that Trump's presidential bid was unique, an outlier from historic norms, a black swan event unfolding before our eyes — albeit one that would end with a conventional outcome: The "normal" candidate would beat him. On the eve of the election, Nate Silver hedged his bets by putting Clinton's chances at a mere 71.4 percent. (He took a lot of heat for his caution through the final stretch.) Other data journalists were far more bullish, with Nate Cohn putting her odds at 85 percent, while HuffPost gave Clinton a near-certain 98 percent chance of beating Trump. All too many experts were convinced that the election was eminently winnable for the Democrat.
But rather than sticking with this real-time assessment and judging the Clinton campaign harshly for blowing it, a great many Democrats have now chosen to purge their pre-election presumptions in favor of a much darker hypothesis: Trump wasn't a black swan after all. In all respects except one, he was a run-of-the-mill Republican who motivated 90 percent of GOP voters to show up at the polls, just as any other Republican candidate would have done. Where he diverged from the norm was in the overtness of his racism and sexism, which single-handedly "reorganized the electorate," giving him an added edge in the decisive states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin — three reliably Democratic states that tilted narrowly away from Clinton once the dog whistles deployed by standard Republican politicians were replaced by Trump's unapologetic barks into a bullhorn at his rallies and in his Twitter feed.
Fundamentals plus forthright bigotry plus the marginal manipulations of Putin and Comey and … presto! Clinton just barely loses.
This story might be comforting to liberals. But it isn't accurate.
Just because the election's outcome roughly comported with what a "fundamentals" theory might predict doesn't mean that Trump was a normal candidate. He wasn't. Trump was morally compromised, flamboyantly corrupt, transparently ignorant of policy, and incredibly unpopular with voters — loathed even — and for reasons they we're reminded of on a daily and sometimes hourly basis. Yet he won despite it all. Why? Part of it was negative partisanship and longstanding loathing of the Clintons among Republican voters, which stories about an ongoing FBI investigation and shady dealings at the Clinton Foundation were more than enough to (re)activate. But that wasn't all.
Trump's message undeniably included racist appeals, and his biography was filled with examples of flagrant sexism. But this was at most one aspect of his populist appeal. Like George Wallace before him, and far more than any prior Republican candidate for president, Trump tapped into currents of anger and despair in the American heartland by directing fury and frustration at institutions of the establishment — the leadership of both parties, mainstream media outlets, the banking and financial sectors. He promised to change course away from policies on trade, immigration, and international affairs that these establishments had championed and that had contributed to the decline and immiseration of communities across wide swaths of the country, many of them in the three "blue wall" states that Trump (barely) managed to turn red.
On some of this, Trump's message overlapped considerably with that of Bernie Sanders. I have no idea if Sanders would have fared better against Trump than Clinton did. But I do know that Clinton was the worst possible person to answer the angry accusations of a populist insurgency from either the protectionist right or the socialist left. She was too much a contented representative and beneficiary of the very political and economic establishments against which Trump directed his fire. She was the Davos candidate, the woman who defied the advice of her handlers to accept six-figure speaking fees from investment banks at events where she wooed rooms full of potential donors by dreaming of a world of open borders — a world in which the last remaining businesses to pay a decent wage in the Rust Belt would be given the green light to flee in pursuit of ever-higher profits.
To counter that Trump-the-corrupt-real-estate-mogul is just as much a member of the nation's economic elite misses the political point entirely. A populist defines himself by those he attacks, and Trump attacked those in power. Who did Clinton attack? The "deplorable" voters who were tempted to vote for Trump — and she did it, of course, at a big-ticket fundraiser, before a room full of wealthy liberal donors.
Maybe, given the realities of polarization, negative partisanship, and certain fundamentals at play in 2016, no Democrat would have won against Trump in a landslide. But I'm quite sure a different Democrat — a Democrat who didn't so badly misjudge the political moment and squander her many advantages, and who wasn't incapable of taking a stand on behalf of those many Americans who feel they've been left behind by the prevailing policies of the past generation — could have won convincingly, decisively.
Until the party demonstrates a willingness to learn from its mistakes, it will run the considerable risk of repeating them.