Not in possession of a high tolerance for hours of televised punditry, especially of a partisan kind, I went to bed early on American election night, fully expecting that the sun would rise on a Hillary Clinton victory. My column earlier that day in the National Post held that “she will win the election, but has lost her presidency.” Turns out that there will be no presidency for her to squander in a miasma of corruption. I was wrong about the election result, but so were a few others. The upset result – upsetting to many – will provoke much commentary. Here with some disparate first thoughts.
I wrote in that same column that Donald Trump was “unfit” for the presidency, but now America has chosen its very own Silvio Berlusconi. Perhaps he is unfit for the presidency but more or less a good fit for American culture. I don’t look forward to a Trump presidency, but there is the compensatory reality that Hillary and Bill Clinton – aka Billary - are now definitively to be looked back upon. For a quarter-century the Clintons squatted upon national and global politics, and no doubt part of her loss was the desire to see the back of them definitively. Americans specialize in producing families which devote multiple generations to the acquisition of power. Before the improbable rise of Justin Trudeau, it was unusual in Canada. Only the Martin family comes to mind, though the current premier of Alberta, Rachel Notley, is the daughter of the late Grant Notley, NDP leader in Alberta more than thirty years ago. From 1948 to 2003, either Paul Martin Sr. or Paul Martin Jr. sought the Liberal Party leadership every time it came open, with the sole exception of 1984. There was a sadness when, after more than half a century of chasing after power, Martin’s premiership was so brief. Not sadness for the nation necessarily, but for a man who devoted so long a search for so brief a prize. Happy as I was to see the end of the Clinton era, there was a measure of sadness for Hillary, who chased for so long a prize denied her by the most unpopular presidential candidate in history.
Too much was immediately being made of a “revolution” in American politics. Clinton narrowly beat Trump in the popular vote. Had a few hundred thousand votes switched in key states, she would have won the presidency. Moreover, Trump won the election with fewer votes than either Mitt Romney or John McCain gained. Trump’s win is very significant, but it was a very closely-fought election, not a revolution.
That being said, the Trump election looks a bit like the Ronald Reagan win in 1980, which was transformational. Reagan was a two-time governor of the nation’s largest state, but he was regarded as a cowboy from the movie business. Yet he saw that a Republican could appeal to the working class, creating the phenomenon of the “Reagan Democrat.” Trump heard those voices, too, and fashioned for himself a winning coalition. Whether it is a passing phenomenon or an enduring change remains to be seen.
The election was an upset, but Americans remained true to form at the same time. Since 1952, the pattern has been absolutely fixed: One party wins two successive presidential elections and then the other party wins two terms. Voters even managed to arrange this twice while giving the popular vote to the losing candidate (in 2000 for Al Gore and in 2016 for Hillary Clinton). The tradition held this year, with the Republican candidate winning after the two Democratic victories of Barack Obama. There was only one exception to the two successive elections rule – the Reagan exception, on both ends. Reagan defeated a one-term president and managed to hand over the presidency to a Republican successor. Reagan, together with FDR, was the only truly history-changing president of the 20th century, beginning with changing the history of presidential election results.
The dominant line after the election was that it was a victory for the “outsiders” over the “insiders.” I live most of my life among what would be called the “insiders” – faculty and students at an elite university, journalists at a leading newspaper, occasional contact with influential people in government and business. Yet more often than not I find myself outside the insider consensus. Thus I have a sympathetic reaction to outsider victories, even independent of causes or candidates. What surprises me is how few commentators, especially those who present themselves as the champions of the little man, are inspired by outsiders rising up against the insider class of money and influence.
There was precious little appreciation that the Trump campaign was built not on the vast sums raised from the one per cent and spent on the industry of campaign consultants, but on the old-fashioned means of massive campaign rallies and television interviews. Up until Election Day, analysts fretted (or gleefully pointed out) that the Trump campaign did not have an effective “ground game” – a network of offices across the country to get out the vote.
Trump’s ground game was to hold a rally of ten or twenty thousand people, who would then vote themselves and encourage their friends and family to do the same. His eschewing of expensive advertising in favour of free social media was another seeming triumph of the little guy. Trump’s very rise to prominence was the result of reality-show TV, a mostly repellant cultural phenomenon but undoubtedly democratic – the people get what the people choose to watch. The negative reaction to the Trump campaign and victory was itself an indication of one of the causes of its success, namely resentment at the denigration of ordinary voters.
My National Post colleague has been having palpitations for some time now over Donald Trump. Andrew Coyne’s post-election column might have put him right into danger of an imminent heart attack: “To the Trump supporters … Trump’s majority in the electoral college is a comprehensive repudiation of everyone who stood in their way: of everyone who has always stood in their way. The idea that you should tell the truth, or know your facts, or treat people decently, all of these and more can now be dismissed as elitist folderol, the precious fancies of people who use words like ‘folderol.’” That is truly precious. Also funny and with much truth in it. No doubt Clinton won the folderol vote. For the record, I aspire to be a person who would use words like folderol.
With the massive negatives of both candidates, there was no repeat in 2016 of the messianic dimension of the 2008 election, when Barack Obama was presented as a latter day Biblical figure. Defeated vice-presidential candidate Tim Kaine, though, infused a little old time religion in his introduction of Hillary Clinton for her concession speech. He spoke of the parable of the vineyard owner who hired labourers to work at morning, noon and afternoon, and then paid them all the standard daily wage. No prize for who was cast in the role of the Lord of the vineyard. I thought it was odd to bring up money in the context of the Clintons, but perhaps Kaine thought that parable a better choice than other options – say, the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, or implying the House of Clinton was built on sand.
Clinton gave her concession speech the morning after the night before, at the Wyndham Hotel in midtown Manhattan. The election night plan had been for Clinton to address the nation from the cavernous Javits Centre on the Hudson River. It had been chosen because it actually has an enormous glass ceiling, and Hillary would appear there as the first female president-elect.
In the event, Clinton opted not to appear at her own HQ. So while she stayed away, roadies dismantled the stage built in the shape of the United States, the pyro technicians were sent home, and campaign workers emptied the cannons of green confetti. Why green? They were intended to look like shards of shattered glass, debris from the broken glass ceiling. Clever. They should have shot off the cannons anyway, littering the Javits Centre in wasted green. It would have been a fitting image of all the vast Clinton cash raised and spent in the most expensive of all campaigns.
The night before Election Day, Clinton held a rally in Philadelphia headlined by Barack and Michelle Obama, Jon Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen. The Boss was back for the entrance music at the Hillary concession speech. She entered to a thumping Springsteen rocker, We Take Care of our Own. Obama used it in his 2012 re-election campaign. Like many Springsteen songs, it’s about the plight of the struggling working class wrapped in odes to patriotic solidarity. The first line – “I’ve been knockin’ on the door that holds the throne” – might well be a motto for Hillary’s entire life. The song unwittingly explained why Clinton lost. The people Springsteen sings about felt that “we” – the American system – was no longer taking care of its own. Those voters concluded that we take care of our own accurately described how the corporate and political elite behaves. And it would be hard not to see in the rocking refrain a fitting summary of the Clintons 25 years at the pinnacle of American politics. They did take care of their own.
During the campaign I had an engagement in Washington and upon emerging from the Metro stop near the Mall, I found myself across the street from the new Trump International. The former Post Office building, Trump turned it into a glittering luxury hotel, opened during the election campaign.
Wandering into the lobby, I saw the surreal sight of Trump being roasted on CNN in the lobby bar of his own hotel. No doubt the hotel at 1100 Pennsylvania Avenue will get a boost from having its proprietor living down the street at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, otherwise known as the White House.
I don’t know if it’s obligatory for the president to live in the White House. When another billionaire New Yorker, Michael Bloomberg, was elected mayor, he declined to live at Gracie Mansion, the New York mayor’s official residence, preferring his own Manhattan residence. Perhaps Trump might prefer the more spacious quarters of his own hotel?
Sometime back there was a profile of Trump in The Atlantic which, after all that has been said and done about all that was said and done, seems to best describe Trump voters and the incredulity of the establishment at what they wrought: “It’s a familiar split. When he makes claims like this, the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.” That seems right and the best explanation of what happened in this long, most curious election campaign.
 Salena Zito, “Taking Trump Seriously, Not Literally”, The Atlantic, 23 September 2016. http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/09/trump-makes-his-case-in-pittsburgh/501335/