Sometimes you can’t just plan for the ball; you have to plan for the hangover, too. No matter how 2016 ends, there will be a headache that haunts the country for years to come.
Let’s start with the most obvious but less likely scenario: Donald Trump wins the presidency in perhaps the biggest black swan event in the history of American politics. Whether you think Trump’s presidency would be an unfolding disaster of biblical proportions (“The Potomac! It’s turned to blood!”), or the unfolding of a biblical prophecy to save America (“The Winning! So. Much. Winning!”), or something in between, no one can deny the enormous change it would represent, and the hostility and fear it would likely elicit from various institutions and constituencies, particularly the news media, but also Hollywood, higher education, our NATO allies, unions, left-wing activists, and perhaps even Wall Street, the Pentagon, and much of the federal bureaucracy.
Fortunately, Donald Trump has the Lincolnesque qualities of political subtlety, magnanimity, and foresight to quell any such misgivings.
There’s no need to dwell on that scenario right now, as Trump seems poised for the worst showing by a GOP nominee since Barry Goldwater’s drubbing in 1964. But a Trump defeat may carry quite a wallop as well. Over the last few days, as he’s begun to realize that he’s self-sabotaged a winnable race, Trump has taken to claiming that any loss will be the result of a “rigged election.” When his surrogates, including running mate Mike Pence, Rudy Giuliani, and Newt Gingrich, insisted Trump was merely complaining about hostile media coverage, Trump ran to Twitter to insist that, no, no, many “polling places” are rigged too. Trump never misses an opportunity to humiliate those who would try to save him from himself.
Trump’s strategy makes no sense in terms of cobbling together a winning electoral coalition, but it is a cynically savvy way of locking in market share for what may be his next venture: a media empire designed to fan the flames of cynicism, paranoia, and alienation for the populist forces fueling his presidential bid. If that happens, one can expect the feuding on the right to continue well into 2017 and beyond.
And even if Trump shows a level of graciousness in defeat that is hard to fathom right now, the hard feelings on the right will endure for a long time to come.
All of this has gotten a lot more attention than the equally inevitable headaches a Clinton victory will entail.
During the Cold War, the Russians mastered the use of slow-acting poisons to kill victims long after they were stabbed with an umbrella tip. Fittingly, the WikiLeaks e-mails may act like ricin or anthrax, wreaking havoc on Clinton’s presidency long after they’re released. In a normal election year with a normal GOP nominee, the WikiLeaks revelations might prove fatal to Clinton’s candidacy. Instead, it seems almost a sure thing that they will poison Clinton’s presidency for years to come. The allegations of pay-for-play between her foundation and the State Department, her speeches to Wall Street, the animosity of some of her closest advisers for Catholics: All of these things will have a long half-life. As will her manifest lies about the use of her private server.
The populist Sanders-Warren wing of the Democratic party has been given ample evidence to support their suspicions of Clinton as a conniving and cynical politician. The populist Trump wing of the Republican party — and large swaths of the rest of it — is already locked into the belief that Clinton is a singularly nefarious force in our politics. If elected, she will have fulfilled the only mandate that unites large numbers of voters: She’s not Trump. (Nearly a third of her voters say that is the No. 1 reason they are voting for her.)
Right now, and for the foreseeable future, America is being torn asunder by populist passions on the left and right that lead people to distrust nearly every major institution in this country.
Fortunately, Hillary Clinton has the Lincolnesque qualities of political subtlety, magnanimity, and foresight to quell any such misgivings, right?