We’ve all seen these kinds of games. The team gets pushed around all over the gridiron . . . but it wins anyway. The opposing squad marches up and down the field with apparent ease, piling up yardage, chewing up clock. But each time, something goes wrong at the critical moment: here a fumble near the goal line, there a tipped pass intercepted and returned for a touchdown. At the end of the game, you stare at the stat sheet in disbelief: Your guys have been outgained by a whopping 150 yards, the other team has held the ball almost 40 minutes out of 60. Yet, somehow, you won, 10–3.
Now, let’s be clear. A win is a win. It’s totally legit, and no one can take it away from you. And while not an every-Sunday occurrence, such contests happen often enough that they can’t be thought of as flukes. Could you say the winning team got outplayed? Maybe. It is equally fair, though, to say that at crunch time, when it got down to the game’s handful of decisive plays, the losing team came up small. For long stretches of the contest, it looked like they were in total control. But it was the plodding kind of control: uneasy, uninspiring, and, in the end, unable to get it done. The losers can talk all they want about piling up yardage, but everyone knows the rules — the game is won on points, not yards.
For one thing, it is laughably dishonest. Take the Electoral College. As experience teaches, social-justice warriors hale from the heads-we-win-tails-you-lose school. They don’t care how they win, just that they win. It was hardly out of the realm of possibility that Trump would secure a plurality of the 135 million or so votes cast, but that a few hundred thousand Clinton votes would flip a few battleground states, giving her the decisive Electoral College majority. Had that happened, you know as sure as you’re reading this that you’d have been hearing paeans to James Madison from the direct-democracy crowd — notwithstanding that, where the Constitution is concerned, Democrats tend to be strict destructionists.
Plus, Mrs. Clinton didn’t win a majority. Had she managed to prevail in the Electoral College, she would have been a president that most of the country voted against. As her husband can tell her, having won twice without ever capturing 50 percent of the vote, legitimacy does not hinge on raw vote totals. That is why, with just 43 percent of the vote in 1992, Bill Clinton garnered 370 electoral votes, significantly more than Donald Trump’s 306.
Trump won fair and square, but it’s as razor-thin as it gets. A populist revolution ought to be able to claim most of the populace.
Comparatively, Bill Clinton’s electoral vote haul dwarfs Trump’s. Yet Clinton’s plurality wins could hardly be called landslides. Of the 58 presidential elections in our history, Bill Clinton’s two Electoral College majorities rank smack in the middle: the 370 electoral votes (68.77 percent of the total) he scored in 1992 rank 30th, and the 379 (70.45 percent) in 1996 rank 28th. These spreads fall far short of real modern-era landslides like Ronald Reagan’s 525 (97.58 percent) in 1984 and 489 (90.89 percent) in 1980, Richard Nixon’s 520 (96.65 percent) in 1972, or Lyndon Johnson’s 486 (90.33 percent) in 1964. Yet Clinton’s margins are much more impressive than Trump’s, whose 306 electoral votes (56.88 percent) place him an exceedingly modest 46th out of 58.
There’s no shame in that, just as there’s no shame in being statistically outplayed while barely outscoring the other team. But the sensible thing to do after a win like that is say, “Thank you,” take gracious note of how hard the other team fought, and move on. Talking about landslides when there wasn’t one sounds delusional.
Of course, politics is prone to hyperbole. You won’t actually become delusional unless you start taking your rhetoric too seriously.
The Democrats may be there. Camp Clinton continues dismissing the nearly 63 million Trump voters as irredeemably racist alt-righters. Social-justice warriors don’t do introspection. They’ve learned nothing from Hillary’s calamitous campaign smear of half the electorate as a “basket of deplorables.” Instead of grappling with why they lost, Democrats are doubling down on unhinged (see, e.g., the recount hijinks, the reelection of Nancy Pelosi as House minority leader, and the serious candidacy of hard-Left Islamist fellow traveler Keith Ellison for the party’s chairmanship.).
Yet Trump fans make a similar mistake in over-interpreting their man’s win as a populist revolution — even a “thunderclap.” Trump won fair and square, but it’s as razor-thin as it gets. He is to be congratulated for winning in such erstwhile Democratic strongholds as Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. But a populist revolution ought to be able to claim most of the populace. Instead, 54 percent of voters — over 70 million — voted against Trump. And many of those who voted for him did so only reluctantly. The best thing he had going for him was not populism or nationalism. It was Hillary Clinton.The most valuable lesson Trump might draw from Bill Clinton’s plurality wins is that his 46 percent of the popular vote has won him 100 percent of the presidency. That’s not a landslide, but it is an opportunity.
Most of what ails the country is cultural, not political; it can be exacerbated by Washington, but it cannot be fixed there. And debt aside, most of what will challenge President-elect Trump has not happened yet — he will be judged less by his campaign banter than by how he handles the now unknown.
So . . . want to make America great again? Then let us be America. Preside over a government that stops telling us how to do it, that pretends its “progressive” pieties are “our values.” Preside over a government that does well the few things we need it to do and gets reacquainted with its limitations.
Do that and there will be no need in 2020 to explain how you can eke an electoral victory out of a popular minority.
— Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior policy fellow at the National Review Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.