Donald Trump should have been easily defeated on Tuesday. The widely unpopular Republican candidate had a 61 percent unfavorable rating on Election Day (the worst since Gallup began polling in 1956), and ran a hopelessly incompetent and offensive presidential campaign. He was caught boasting about sexual assault, he lied incessantly from day one, he threatened to jail his political opponent, he intimidated the press, he mocked and scapegoated the most vulnerable members of society, he advocated violence at rallies; it goes on and on.
Trump appeared to repeatedly sabotage his own campaign, as if he knew, deep down, that he was in way over his head and unfit for office. The farce had gone too far, and every single self-sabotaging act should have shattered his chances at winning the election.
And yet, here we are, just two months away from Trump, reality-TV star and compulsive Twitter troll, becoming the 45th president of the United States. The first African American president will be succeeded by a vindictive, narcissistic know-nothing who was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan and an assortment of neo-Nazi groups.
It is a sad time to be alive for anyone who believes in social justice and economic fairness; but self-pity will only help the reactionary movement that has taken this country — and the world — by storm. The millions of progressive Americans who watched in horror and disbelief on Tuesday night must quickly come to terms with the fact that Trump is now president-elect. After this, they must reflect on how this nightmare happened, and then figure out how to combat and defeat the reactionary movement that delivered Trump to the White House.
Now is not the time for defeatism; but before progressives can begin the long fight ahead, they must make sense of how everything went so terribly wrong.
First of all, millions of Americans minimized the resentment and rage of their fellow citizens, as well as the desperation and financial anxiety that so many poor and working class people feel today in our post-industrial economy. But, even more crucially, the country’s political and economic elite underestimated just how fed up people are with them and the status quo they preside over—and just how far they’d be willing to go to smash that status quo.
The GOP establishment downplayed this populist ethos during the primaries, which assisted Trump; and it is now clear that the Democrats made the same mistake when they chose to nominate Hillary Clinton.
Whether you love her or hate her (or, like most people, fall somewhere in between that dichotomy), no one can deny that Clinton epitomizes establishment politics more than any other presidential candidate in recent history. Since the Clintons entered the national spotlight three decades ago, they have come to represent poll-driven politics as usual and Wall Street-friendly neoliberalism. All these years left Clinton with substantial political baggage—from the Goldman Sachs speeches and Wall Street ties to the Clinton Foundation’s dubious business practices and the email server controversy—but it was her reputation as a dishonest, establishment politician that put Trump over in the end.
Throughout the campaign season, partisan Democrats responded to most of these criticisms of Clinton with denial, arguing that all of the “scandals” were invented by the right and that the candidate’s trust and image problems were almost entirely due to sexism and the media reporting on falsehoods and innuendo. And there is a great deal of truth to both of these claims—the majority of Clinton scandals have been manufactured (or at least exaggerated) and the sexism during this election was overt and palpable. But it is also true that Clinton’s history is full of very real instances of political duplicity and unscrupulous behavior that warrants scrutiny.
What truly screwed the Democratic Party and Hillary in 2016, however, was not Clinton’s baggage, but her decision to run on a platform of self-satisfied complacency during a time of populist revolt. This complacency was evinced by her choice of Senator Tim Kaine—a pro-trade, Wall Street-friendly centrist—as her running mate. In the past, the choice of a vanilla, middle-of-the-road white guy like Kaine would have made perfect sense; but it was a colossal blunder in an election year where the establishment was literally on trial. After eight years of centrist rule under President Obama, a complacency has set in within the Democratic Party, and the Clinton campaign was focused predominantly on protecting Obama’s legacy, which was simply not enough to thwart Trump’s populism.
It would have been much more sensible for the Democrats to have nominated a true populist like Sen. Bernie Sanders to challenge the faux populism of Trump. According to favorability ratings, Sanders was and remains one of the most popular politicians in America (about 54 percent favorable, compared to Trump’s 61 percent unfavorable and Clinton’s 55 percent unfavorable), and the senator regularly defeated Trump by over 10 points in the polls throughout the primaries. Sanders is a genuine populist who people trust, and he does not have the type of baggage that plagued Clinton (unless one counts his democratic socialist label as such). Today, it seems more than likely that he would have handily defeated the unpopular Trump on Election Day.
Of course, we will never know for sure, and speculating about what could or should have been is largely futile. But one thing is abundantly clear: Donald Trump was a immensely unpopular candidate who shouldn’t have won this election. Only a weak and widely distrusted candidate like Clinton, combined with a vapid, self-satisfied campaign, could have lost to Trump.
The reactionary movement that Trump currently leads is much stronger than anyone could have predicted a year ago, and nothing less than a massive popular movement on the left akin to the Tea Party backlash against Obama will be necessary to defeat it. For the next several years a battle for the Democratic Party’s soul will doubtless ensue; and after Trump’s victory over Clinton, one should hope that progressive populists can win this battle and then quickly move on to confronting the Trump nightmare.