We Survived the 2016 Presidential Primaries
It’s been a long, dark night of the soul, but sunrise is approaching.
I’ve spent most of the weekend thinking about the Democratic National Convention, held last week in Philadelphia; the Republican National Convention, held the week before that in Cleveland; and, more generally, the events of the past year. We can all agree that this year’s presidential election has defied expectations and it will surely continue to do so. The general election many pundits would have predicted two years ago, between Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, would not have been the most exciting affair in American political history. All things considered, however, it probably would have been preferable to the one we’re about to have instead.
Saturday, coincidentally, marked the one-year anniversary of Donald Trump’s first appearance here on BurkaBlog. His decision to briefly visit the border city of Laredo spurred me to comment on his bid for the Republican nomination, which he had announced in June. As of Thursday, when Clinton officially accepted the Democratic nomination, the 2016 presidential primaries are officially over, and we are now less than one hundred days away from the general election, on November 8.
No one can be absolutely certain what its outcome will be. But my assessment of Trump has not changed since the first time I wrote about him. Insofar as he is a leading candidate for president, his daily demands for attention do, in a sense, have implications for the public interest and they will, I trust, be covered at length in the national media. As for me, though, I continue to find covering Trump profoundly dispiriting. He’s been a good Rorschach test, in that he reveals lots of interesting things about the people observing him, but he is, himself, basically an ink blot—and, after a year of his campaign, I’m not sure how much further diagnostic value we can expect from the exercise.
Plus, at this point, I think it’s fairly safe to predict that Trump will lose. So I’d like to lay out my reasoning on that today, and then, having done so, resume my focus on subjects that are more worth our time.
It was clear, in Cleveland, that Trump and the Republicans would like it to be a referendum on one of the nominees—although, somewhat amusingly, the party and its newly minted leader don’t seem to be on the same page about which nominee they hope the referendum will concern. Republican officials may still think they can induce Trump to train his focus on Clinton’s misdeeds, or the nefarious Democratic agenda she represents, despite the grandiose speech he gave about himself while accepting their nomination. If so, I’d recommend that they read Jane Mayer’s profile of Tony Schwartz, the former journalist who is now haunted by remorse over his stint as the ghostwriter for Trump’s The Art of the Deal. It’s a very interesting profile and would therefore be a better use of their time.
Democrats, in any case, resisted the temptation to turn their convention into an extended coronation of Clinton or a weeklong takedown of Trump. Supporters of Bernie Sanders may deserve credit for the former, but the latter seemed to reflect a shrewd strategic decision. Michelle Obama, whose remarks at the 2008 DNC had been warmly received in Cleveland, didn’t even mention Trump’s name while dressing him down from the stage. Barack Obama took things a step further; he threw many Republicans into an existential tailspin by giving exactly the speech that they would have wanted their own nominee to give–and then, in a zen-master move, standing up for his critics in their hour of anguish: “What we heard in Cleveland week wasn’t particularly Republican. And it sure wasn’t conservative.”
Hillary Clinton, too, extended an olive branch to her longtime adversaries. Historically, she has been critical of America’s vast right-wing conspiracy, and she could easily have chosen to cast Trump as an example of the people she’s been warning us about all these years; he did, after all, win the Republican presidential nomination. It was telling, then, that Clinton cast Trump as a break with tradition; Trump had, she said, “taken the Republican Party a long way—from “Morning in America” to “Midnight in America.” And like so many of the speakers who had preceded her, she rejected the idea of Trump as the captain of a rival team. “He wants to divide us—from the rest of the world, and from each other,” said Clinton. “He wants us to fear the future and fear each other.”
And no speech at either convention, probably, made more of an impact than the one offered by Khizr Khan at the DNC. He and his wife, Ghazala, who stood by his side as he spoke, are bereaved parents of a fallen soldier; their son Humayan, an Army captain, was killed in combat in Iraq. As immigrants and Muslims, they are members of two of the groups of Americans that Trump has freely maligned. But the case Khan made against Trump was, ultimately, rooted in a different aspect of his identity. “Have you even read the Constitution?” he asked, taking a copy of the document out of his pocket; if not, Khan added, he would be happy to let the candidate borrow his.
All of these speakers were arguing, in their own ways, that Trump’s attacks on various groups of Americans are attacks on us all. And so, over the course the convention, Democrats framed the election as binary choice that ultimately has nothing to do with politics. On the one hand, they were saying, is Trump: not the Republican Party, not the conservative movement, just Trump. On the other, you have the foundational principles enshrined in our Constitution and embodied by a diverse and pluralistic American public. Since it’s the American people who will decide the question in November, that’s a compelling way to frame the question. If asked to choose between Trump and ourselves, presumably, the latter will prevail.
Even if the frame that Democrats offered in Philadelphia fails to gain traction, though, I think it’s reasonably safe to predict that Clinton will win. FiveThirtyEight gives her a narrow chance of doing so, based on its models, as does most general-election polling thus far. What I can add is that all the quantitative evidence I’ve seen thus far is consistent with my own premises about the electorate, and this election in particular. My current prediction, in other words, may not prove to be correct. But like all the ones I made during the primary, it’s not being pulled from thin air. Perhaps the most key fact to keep in mind is one that Republicans kept referencing in Cleveland: in a two-party system, presidential elections boil down to a binary choice. The general election can’t be a referendum on Clinton, full stop; it can, at most, be a referendum on her qualifications for the office, relative to Trump’s.
If that’s what the general election becomes, millions of Americans would vote against her, for various reasons. There are, after all, many legitimate criticisms one could make of Clinton’s long public record. The fact that she has a long public record is, in itself, arguably a liability, given how many Americans seem to be in a mutinous mood this year. And although the 2016 election is not about policy or ideology, there are some voters who continue to care about the issues. If they’re conservative, they don’t have great options this year, frankly. But many, no doubt, will pin their hopes on the notion that Paul Ryan and Mike Pence can persuade Trump to be an advocate for their party’s stated priorities.
Still, though, Clinton isn’t running in a vacuum. She’s running against Trump. And although we don’t know what will happen this November, we do know what happened in the last one.
The day after the 2012 election, I argued that Mitt Romney lost because he was the nominee of a party that had proven itself susceptible to certain tendencies that millions of Americans were bound to find off-putting, regardless of their ideological alignment or views on fiscal policy and so on. Some Republicans, that year, had casually maligned various groups of Americans on the campaign trail, and a number of voices on the right had gleefully applauded their various abuses. It would have been easier to dismiss candidates like Todd Akin and George Allen as anomalies if not for the fact that so many other Republicans leaders kept insisting that they were. Similarly, it would have been easier to ignore the more vitriolic rhetoric, if not for the fact that so many Republican leaders were insisting that we should. In my assessment, the Republican Party had ultimately guaranteed Obama’s re-election: “Americans can take pride in the fact that a majority of them voted in favor of each other. Even if the Democratic Party’s policies are not always to their liking, its intention of inclusion clearly is.”
In retrospect, I think, my analysis of the 2012 election holds up pretty well. And Romney, of course, was not one of the Republicans clamoring to lead the party in a more degraded direction. If he couldn’t win the presidency because of the pathologies we now summarize as Trumpism, it doesn’t seem likely that Trump himself will be able to do so. I can even see a scenario where Trump’s defeat serves as a salutary wake-up call for those on the right whose contributions to the national political discourse have been even more baboonish than usual lately, thanks to his emboldening influence.
Regardless of what happens on Election Day, though, it’ll take a while for American politics to recover from the Great Trumpling of 2016. This election has been a long, dark night of the soul, and we still have three months to go until sunrise. At this point, though, I’d like to get back to work writing about things other than Trump: there’s light on the horizon, and no harm in waking up early.