I was reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s long article on the Obama presidency a few days ago. This passage stood out to me:
Last spring, I went to the White House to meet the president for lunch. I arrived slightly early and sat in the waiting area. I was introduced to a deaf woman who worked as the president’s receptionist, a black woman who worked in the press office, a Muslim woman in a head scarf who worked on the National Security Council, and an Iranian American woman who worked as a personal aide to the president. This receiving party represented a healthy cross section of the people Donald Trump had been mocking, and would continue to spend his campaign mocking. At the time, the president seemed untroubled by Trump. When I told Obama that I thought Trump’s candidacy was an explicit reaction to the fact of a black president, he said he could see that, but then enumerated other explanations. When assessing Trump’s chances, he was direct: He couldn’t win.
There’s a vast difference between saying that something can’t happen and that it won’t happen. Ever since the election, I’ve been puzzling over the fact that friends of mine, people whose opinions I generally trust, substituted “can’t” for “won’t”. One of my close friends emailed me, back in February, that “I will be at a complete lack for words if [Trump] wins the general, or even the primary.” Another asked me, a week before the election, “There’s no way he can win, right?” (I tried to shake him out of his complacency, but to no avail.) And yet another told me that he couldn’t fathom Dubya winning reelection in 2004, let alone Trump in 2016.
For what it’s worth (probably not much), here was my February take on the election, written in response to my friend’s email:
I guess I have the following questions for Trump skeptics:
1) If Trump’s so much of an idiot, how has he been surviving (and even winning) the Republican debates so far?
2) If elections are really about issues, and being knowledgeable about them, how can we reconcile Trump’s incoherence and heterodoxy with his success? (As Jamelle Bouie says, “Trump’s appeal lies not in what he says, but how he says it”)
3) Why is it assumed that Trump will debate Clinton using an insult-comic style, in the same way that he debated Jeb(!) ? He appears to be a canny political strategist, and willing to change his tactics.
4) And if politics are not really about issues, but instead about character, then how will independent voters — the most poorly informed voters in the electorate — assess Clinton’s character vs. Trump’s? Is it not plausible that Trump wins on that comparison, by appearing iconoclastic, politically incorrect, mavericky, anti-establishment, not beholden to anyone, and personable, while Clinton appears the opposite?
5) Isn’t Trump a better politician than Mitt (who was probably the antithesis of personable), while Clinton is worse one than Obama? So one would have to imagine that the election will be closer than 2012, ceteris paribus.
I still think Clinton will win, simply because minorities are going to turn out in yuuuge numbers to defeat Trump, and because demographics are becoming more favorable for Dems. But I wouldn’t at all be surprised if Trump surpasses Romney’s share of the white vote (59%), and makes things very close.
So how is it that smart people, people who follow politics, and even people who are in politics (like President Obama), found the prospect of Trump’s success unfathomable? How could they get it so wrong, even after the “impossible” was presaged by the Republican primary? In short, why didn’t they get it? Coates hints at the answer in his next paragraph. Obama was sanguine, he explains, because of his “innate optimism and unwavering faith in the ultimate wisdom of the American people.” I think that’s true of my friends as well. Trump was so obviously despicable and deplorable that any right-minded person wouldn’t vote for him. Even if he attracted the cretins and deplorables that constitute the base of the GOP, the rest of the country wouldn’t fall for his bullshit. Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo made the argument more eloquently than I can, in May 2016:
What worked in the GOP primaries does not work in a general election. What worked for a couple decades in New York City, with a bemused public, an assortment of sycophants and a barbed but generally pliant tabloid press does not work nationwide. If Trump were interested or capable of learning, I think he could actually give Clinton a run for her money. But he can’t. It’s not in his DNA. It’s not who he is. He has one game. And it has limits.
A lot of arguments that Trump wouldn’t win (and couldn’t win) hinged on the “ultimate wisdom of the American people”. Here’s Jamelle Bouie at Slate, for instance,
Donald Trump begins the general election with a huge deficit in head-to-head polls, deep unpopularity, and major demographic headwinds. Unless he wins unprecedented shares of black and Latino voters, or, barring any improvement with nonwhite voters, unless he wins unprecedented shares of white voters, he loses. And he has to do this while running as the most unpopular nominee in 30 years of polling. He has to do it while running against a Democratic Party operating at full strength, with popular surrogates (including a former president) crisscrossing the country against his campaign. He has to do it with a divided Republican Party. He has to do it while somehow tempering his deep-seated misogyny and racism. All this, again, in a growing economy with a well-liked president—solid conditions for a Democratic candidate.
In other words, an obviously misogynistic candidate would fail with women voters, an obviously racist candidate would fail with black and Latino and Asian voters, and an obviously stupid and unpopular candidate would fail with the rest of America.
And here’s yet another variant on this theme, from one of my friends, “I guess my thought is that the debates will force Trump into saying something so stupid/outrageous that people finally notice he’s seeking attention rather than running for president.”
So what’s the problem with all of these seemingly sensible-sounding pronouncements? Many Americans aren’t wise, nor self-interested, nor rational, nor necessarily paying close attention to politics at all. For many (not all), voting is not a rational decision, but instead an emotional one. Here are some numbers from exit polls that many might find startling, but I find depressing instead. 28% of Latinos voted for Trump, roughly the same percentage that voted for Romney. Trump won a majority of votes from white women, the voters that Bouie hoped would be appalled by his misogyny. Trump won 42% of union voters, and probably a majority of white union voters, even though his party, his cabinet, and his likely Supreme Court nominee despise unions. Trump won 18% of the vote from the 30% of the electorate who believed that Obamacare didn’t go far enough. He won 23% of the vote from the 17% of the electorate who believed the next president’s policies should be more liberal than Obama’s. And he won 66% of the vote from the 15% of the electorate who thought neither candidate was qualified to be president.
Ron Fournier is the epitome of an establishment journalist hack, but he actually committed the sin of real journalism back in September 2015, and talked to people supporting Trump. Here’s the key passage:
Trump offers bracing change. Thousands of people wait in long lines and bad weather to attend his rallies. They send donations to a billionaire who denounces PAC money. Many know Trump to be a flawed candidate, even a flawed man, but they hear him speaking for them. I call his supporters, respectfully, “Crazy Buts.” Trump might be crazy, they tell me, but he’s a winner, and they’re tired of America losing. I hear versions of this that amount to saying:
“Crazy, but he can’t be worse than what we got.”
“Crazy, but he’s punishing the establishment.”
“Crazy, but he’s driving the media nuts.”
“Crazy, but he says what I can’t say.”
If you, like President Obama (or at least Coates’s depiction of President Obama), believe that politics is an activity wherein millions of wise, rational people go to the polls and pull the lever for the candidate that best represents their ideology and interests, I doubt that these quotes, and the poll figures that preceded them, make any sense to you. And if you’re a social science wonk who believes in “rational choice theory” and “rational actor models”, you’re probably equally confused.
This is a real problem. Smart people are apparently not smart enough to understand that politics is a giant ball of stupidity and self-delusion and emotion and cognitive dissonance. Many people – particularly in “real America”, where votes count for more than they do elsewhere – want to vote for someone who appeals to them on a deeper level than economic calculation and brute self-interest. Trump was that candidate. So was Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. Al Gore, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton were not.
In 2020, Democrats will again be fighting among themselves over whom to nominate to take down Trump. And our calculus will be informed by the same policy wonks and flabby hacks and establishment wankers and politically clueless liberals who influenced the primary (at least, at the margins) in 2016. I just hope we remember then, as clearly as we do now, who gets it and who doesn’t.