“We must reclaim our country’s destiny.”
Those words rang out in the victory speech given by Donald J. Trump as he became the President-elect of the United States.
From the reactions, ranging from complete horror to thundering silence from Clinton’s loyalists on Twitter, it was clear that this turn of events was something the political and media establishment never thought would happen. And from the sea of disappointment and disbelief, several popular narratives emerged, from incorrectly attributing blame to third party voters to blaming FBI Director James Comey, to writing it off as the country taking a step back against political correctness in favor of bigotry and xenophobia.
However, none of the popular explanations capture what actually put Trump in the White House. In retrospect, Clinton's defeat was glaringly predictable. As the embodiment of our current political establishment in year when people were demanding change, she was unable to tap into the wave of populism sweeping the nation and driving a realignment.
Yet, facing an overwhelmingly favorable GOP field, the Democratic Party took for granted that their candidate would win, regardless of who it was. Clinton's team even pushed to legitimize Trump as a “Pied Piper candidate.” This is why the party leadership pulled out all the stops to nominate Clinton, whose fundraising network and connections were vast indeed.
The DNC coordinated with the Clinton campaign to schedule the debates, a fact now verified by Wikileaks emails. That was why there were so few of them at times when viewership would be predictably low, and why they began after the deadline to change voter registration in the potential battleground state of New York. Allies in the media also worked with the campaign. Interim DNC chair Donna Brazile, while working at CNN, fed Clinton's team questions before multiple primary debates. DNC officials even coordinated on narratives and to downplay potentially damaging stories—even at the expense of Clinton's challenger, Senator Bernie Sanders.
Despite resorting to these lengths—which should have been an indication of trouble ahead—it never seemed to occur to anyone in the insider bubble that there was more going on around the country. Even when protesting and a walkout erupted at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia when Clinton secured the nomination, the political and media establishment insisted nothing was wrong.
From inside the ivory tower, Obama's recovery was slow but steady in spite of GOP obstruction. The stock market had picked up, and the middle class was making incremental gains. Who could have realistically asked for more?
But America’s working class voters were done with incremental progress. They had waited eight years for change following the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. In that time, they saw nobody held accountable for their hardship, and little financial gain. Policy outcomes were still mainly driven by the demands of the donor class while almost all of the gains of the Obama recovery went to the economic elite.
Meanwhile, the relationship between the political and media establishment had strayed from antagonistic and adversarial to partnership. Acting as colleagues, insiders rejected the realignment. As the frame shifted to issues of economic and political inequality, they honed in on the inevitable flare up of xenophobia and bigotry, common with any period of economic uncertainty. With laser-focus on those issues, they mistook all opposition to Clinton—including that from Bernie Sanders supporters—for “sexism,” “racism,” “privilege,” and ignorance. Moreover, they dismissed calls for sweeping changes as naiveté.
Former president Bill Clinton accused progressives of wanting to “shoot every third person on Wall Street,” while Hillary chastised them for thinking only in terms of “what we can give to you.”
These decisions proved fateful as they stoked public resentment towards the party. When the inevitable email leaks from the DNC and Clinton campaign hit, revealing not only the unsavory dealings that skewed the primary but Clinton’s baggage as well, it was all but certain that the Democratic presidential candidate would lose.
On top of all of that, there was the simple reality that the country had made a huge leap forward electing and then reelecting Barack Obama, the first black president. To follow that up with potentially the first female president was a tough pill to swallow, not only for the leap it represented, but for how much airtime was devoted to that narrative. Voters were concerned primarily with their financial insecurity, and all CNN or mainstream media could talk about was how history could be made.
But despite the conclusive evidence, America’s ‘reasonable people’ insisted that Clinton was fine. Matthew Yglesias of Vox declared among other things that the 2016 race was shaping up to be uninteresting, with Clinton ahead consistently. FiveThirtyEight gave the former Secretary of State a 73 percent chance of winning, but to its credit, cautioned that swing state polling was inconsistent.
This confidence was based on a profound disconnect with the sentiment of voters and the issues driving the direction of the country. Trump won because he faced Clinton. His populist appeals on the issues like trade resonated with working class voters who felt left behind by the America she represented. He was the outsider, and she the embodiment of everything wrong with our political system.
Now he has not only solidified his hold on the GOP, eclipsing Paul Ryan’s laissez-faire dogma with his brand of pseudo-populism, he has control of the nation.
Needless to say, Democrats snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Senator Bernie Sanders could have dominated this election, having both outsider appeal and charisma.
That said, there is a silver lining. The 2020 election coincides with a Census, meaning down-ballot voting will determine the makeup of the House of Representatives for the next decade. In order for the Democrats to control that process, the would have to win in both 2018 and 2020, and even then they will face a steep battle. However, whereas President Clinton would have precluded any chance the party had (this should be obvious by her defeat last night), now, there is the possibility for victory. In order for that to happen, Democrats must regroup around progressive candidates—and they will.