By Steven R. Maher
Ronald Reagan told a great anecdote whenever he had a set-back: the story was about a young teenage boy who came home and saw horse manure all around the house. The teenager became happily excited. Looking at the mess, the boy’s mother asked him why he was so happy. “Gosh mom,” said the teenager,” with all this horse manure, there has to be a pony in here somewhere.”
On November 8, 2016, a political earthquake off the Richter scale struck the United States of America. In a surprise few Americans have experienced in their lifetimes, Donald J. Trump captured the Presidency in an astounding upset. Against the findings of the pollsters, pundits, and political elites, Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States.
“I will be studying this for the rest of my life,” pollster Larry Sabado told Fox News, admitting that he, like so many others of his profession, blew it.
The 2016 Presidential election will fascinate historians and political scientists for generations to come. The accusations, name calling, and negative television spots will be pored over by analysts to see what worked and what didn’t. We can expect voluminous studies of the FBI’s and Russian intelligence’s rather brazen interventions in the electoral process. Which polls accurately predicted the outcome will be fodder for the pundits. The careers of political consultants will be made or broken.
Most importantly, how did Trump win, while making provocative remarks that in any other election would have instantly destroyed his candidacy?
“Trump did not create the forces that propelled his candidacy,” conservative columnist Patrick J. Buchanan wrote in a column published the day before the election. “But he recognized them, tapped into them, and unleashed a gusher of nationalism and populism that will not soon dissipate.”
Buchanan, who worked in both the Nixon and Reagan administrations, ran for President in 1992 in the Republican primaries based substantially on his opposition to trade deals like NAFTA. Since then, Buchanan has stuck to traditional conservative ideals, denouncing the budget deficits caused by George W. Bush long before anyone had heard of Barack Obama or the Tea Party. In one memorable column, Buchanan said Bush made Bill Clinton, with his balanced budgets and controlled spending, look like Barry Goldwater.
But the two things Buchanan most railed against were the trade deals that deindustrialized America, and the “neocon” advocacy of America’s involvement in endless wars. The losers on both were America’s white working class, whose jobs were sent overseas to the benefit of the Republican elite, and whose sons and daughters were sent overseas to fight in places like Iraq.
Buchanan was an economic bellwether, a Paul Revere of the right who urged a return to the economic nationalism of Alexander Hamilton. The first Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton called for the implementation of tariffs on imports to protect and promote American manufacturing.
America’s city, towns and suburbs were hollowed out in the three decades since Buchanan sounded his alarm. As the major industries faded away to China or Mexico, the smaller businesses in the supply chain began to close their doors leaving behind empty buildings, industrial park vacancies, and devastated inner cities. “Company towns” became as desolate as the steel mills of Ohio, as the companies fled in search of cheaper labor. The company towns often no longer had the company to support them. Many of these were in the rural parts of America, which turned out in droves on election day to vote for Donald Trump.
This writer saw this first hand during a visit to an insurance appraiser on West Boylston Street in Worcester. I had not been in that neighborhood in ten or fifteen years and was shocked at the number of closed restaurants, shuttered businesses and sense of economic dislocation that was palpable in a neighborhood which had once teemed as a hub of economic activity.
Trump was not the first “populist billionaire” who saw in the trade deals the undoing of America. In 1992 – the same year Buchanan sought the Republican nomination – Ross Perot ran as an independent, calling on the federal government to balance its budgets, invest in infrastructure, and opposing trade deals like NAFTA.
Perot would compare a Tennessee auto worker making $15 an hour to a Mexican making $1 an hour. Under NAFTA, said Perot, “the Mexican worker’s wage would go up to $8 an hour, while the American worker’s wage would go down to $8 an hour.”
“Doesn’t make you feel warm all over, does it,” Perot would sneer.
Perot was reportedly told by Republican political consultant Edward Rollins it would cost $130 million to finance a viable campaign. Perot apparently didn’t believe in himself enough to risk the money, and went on to place third as a fringe candidate.
Trump didn’t mimic Perot’s mistakes. Trump ran for the Republican nomination instead of running as an Independent. Trump also put into his campaign the money necessary to win.
The Donald ran a unique campaign. It revolved entirely around Donald Trump. Trump flew from state to state for campaign rallies. He seemed to draw strength from the cheering throngs, and they responded in kind, growing stronger from Trump’s confidence and self-assuredness, their faith deepened, their commitment strengthened. Clinton’s campaign would bus voters directly from her rallies to the local city clerk’s office to register and vote. Trump’s supporters didn’t need to be bused to vote; they showed themselves able to get to the voting booth on their own.
Trump’s speaking tours reminded some of Harry Truman’s whistle stopping train tour of the country in 1948. Truman’s 1948 victory was probably the last time an America election surprised the people as much as Trump’s triumph did.
Trump’s rough edges appealed to America’s working classes as much as they appalled the political elites. Showing a marked disinclination towards political correctness, Trump vigorously denounced illegal immigrants, profiteering businessmen who shipped jobs overseas, ISIS, and other threats to the republic. He bluntly termed George W. Bush a liar and said Bush should have been impeached. Trump made himself an easy target for commentators of all stripes to sling their rhetoric at.
Looking back, it seems the more Trump was attacked, the more it solidified his base. “They believe Trump alone will secure the borders and rid us of a trade regime that has led to the loss of 70,000 factories and 5 million manufacturing jobs since NAFTA,” noted Buchanan. “They believe Trump is the best hope for keeping us out of the wars the Beltway think tanks are already planning for the sons of the ‘deplorables’ to fight.”
Clinton ran a sophisticated Presidential campaign. Her debate preparation and performance were extraordinary. Her ground game was state of the art and would have, in any other election season, brought her victory.
What Clinton did not speak to was the anger felt by the large mass of white noncollegiate American males. They remembered a time when getting a good paying manufacturing job, buying a home, and raising a family on the man’s income alone seemed part of an American birthright. In this regard, Clinton’s gender likely counted against her. Bill Clinton’s incredible economic performance as President in the 1990s – the 23 million new jobs, the large budgetary surpluses – were apparently a distant memory to those traumatized by the Great Recession. Many of the millennials who came of age since the 2008 election had no personal memory of the 1990s boomtime.
Americans also thought that Trump would keep them safer. The 2016 election took place against a backdrop of terrorist attacks and mass murders by deranged or deluded jihadist wannabees and homegrown self-described “patriots”. Trump talked of walling off Mexico to keep out illegals, and stopping the flow of drugs to stem the tide of the opioid epidemic. In an America worried by the display of disrespect to lawful authority, Trump presented himself as a law and order candidate sympathetic to law enforcement.
Democrats made the same mistake with Trump in 2016 that they made in 1980 with Reagan. They believed that Reagan’s rhetoric was so bizarre and out of place with ordinary Americans that he would be easily defeated. The November 8, 2016, dramatic electoral denouement reminds one of the adage that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
FBI and the Russians, too
There is one other factor which needs to be recounted in looking at the 2016 election results. That is the intervention in the election of two outside entities: the American Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR).
“If Trump wins, I suspect he owes a big ‘thank you’ to Jim Comey,” New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof tweeted on election day.
Politico reported, “There is some evidence that Comey’s actions did erode Clinton’s lead in the polls. Before Comey’s bombshell announcement that he was investigating another batch of emails found on Anthony Weiner’s computer, 538 [a polling website] gave Clinton an 81 percent chance of winning, but it dropped to a 65 percent chance after Comey’s Oct. 28 letter to Congress.”
There is a good chance historians will conclude that Comey’s letter to Congress, announcing he was reopening the email investigation, destroyed Clinton’s campaign. The emails were found on Anthony Weiner’s laptop. Weiner, who was the husband of top Clinton aid Huma Abedin, was being investigated for texting to a fifteen old girl pictures of Weiner half-naked.
The polls were trending towards Clinton at that moment, showing Clinton with double digit leads in the battleground states like Florida and North Carolina, which Trump later won. Political pundits at the time were talking of the Democrats being certain to recapture the Senate, and as to the many Congressional seats Clinton’s expected landslide coattails would bring in with her. The Democrats, at the time this is being written, picked up one Senate seat and seven House seats. Hillary Clinton was not the only potential winner knocked out of the box by Comey.
Trump got the news of Comey’s reopening of the investigation as he was getting ready to speak before a rally. Trump reportedly caucused with his campaign advisers, stepped off the plane, and the over the next eight days proceeded to vitriolically denounce with gusto “Crooked Hillary” for email crimes which she would surely be indicted for. Trump said the nation would be paralyzed by a constitutional crisis if Clinton were elected.
“Maybe the system is not as rigged as I thought,” commented Trump.
Fox News’ Bret Baier broadcast a report that sources at the FBI confirmed that five foreign intelligence agencies had hacked into Weiner’s computer and found confidential information. Baier’s statement was completely and totally false, but by the time he retracted the story two days later it had gone viral in the right-wing blogosphere.
This was enough to rally old time, Clinton-hating Republicans to get behind Trump. These newly enthused Republicans likely provided Trump’s margin of victory.
Vladimir Putin, a former agent in the Communist secret police, the KGB, had an old human motive for having the SVR dump, in the weeks leading up to the election, documents damaging to Clinton. Revenge. Putin blamed the United States for the breakup of the Soviet Union, and both Obama and Clinton for the colored revolutions in the Ukraine and eastern Europe. The SVR had hacked into Clinton campaign manager John Podesta’s email. and then proceeded to release them over WikiLeaks daily in batches, which Fox News in particular played up. The Clinton campaign must have experienced the daily release of embarrassing emails, showing infighting and backstabbing, like the slow drip drop of a Chinese water torture.
Comey’s announcement of his closing the reopened investigation was probably an attempt to make things right. That didn’t stop Trump, as fast as his mind could think and his tongue speak, from repudiating his position earlier in the day that the process was not rigged and the FBI would see justice done. Trump immediately reversed himself and took to once again denouncing a rigged system that would steal the election.
For Hillary Clinton, the damage was done. Comey’s October 28 announcement was a bell which couldn’t be unrung.
This writer, looking at the matter objectively with the end of the campaign and the passage of time, believes that Comey was altruistically motivated by a desire to announce the reopened investigation before someone inside the FBI leaked the Weiner emails. Comey, who is a person of conscience, is likely to spend the rest of his life torturing himself mentally for electing Donald Trump President.
The pony in the room
The noted historian Arthur Schlesinger wrote that American history has been one of cycles, in which pro-government liberals have alternated with small government conservatives.
Democrats will not have to refight old battles over Social Security and Medicare, which Trump has promised to preserve and expand. Trump has promised to replace Obamacare with something better, not leave elder health care to the tender mercies of the market place. He is not talking George W. Bush’s hogwash of privatizing Social Security. Trump recognizes the dangers of deficits, and is uniquely positioned to make the politically painful decisions necessary to balance the federal budget.
If Trump succeeds in reviving the manufacturing industries, he may be planting the seeds for a Democratic renewal. Democrats might want to see this as the pony in the room. A revitalized working class with a strong union movement might be the Democrats’ pathway back to power when the next liberal cycle begins.