Why exactly did nearly half the country vote for Donald Trump?
Why also did the arguments of Never Trump Republicans and conservatives have marginal effect on voters? Despite vehement denunciations of the Trump candidacy from many pundits on the right and in the media, Trump nonetheless got about the same percentage of Republican voters (88–90 percent) as did McCain in 2008 and Romney in 2012, who both were handily defeated in the Electoral College.
Here are some of reasons voters knew what they were getting with Trump and yet nevertheless assumed he was preferable to a Clinton presidency.
1) Was Trump disqualified by his occasional but demonstrable character flaws and often rank vulgarity? To believe that plaint, voters would have needed a standard by which both past media of coverage of the White House and the prior behavior of presidents offered some useful benchmarks. Unfortunately, the sorts of disturbing things we know about Trump we often did not know in the past about other presidents. By any fair measure, the sexual gymnastics in the White House and West Wing of JFK and Bill Clinton, both successful presidents, were likely well beyond President Trump’s randy habits. Harry Truman’s prior Tom Pendergast machine connections make Trump steaks and Trump university seem minor. By any classical definition, Lyndon Johnson could have been characterized as both a crook and a pervert. In sum, the public is still not convinced that Trump’s crudities are necessarily different from what they imagine of some past presidents. But it does seem convinced, in our age of a 24/7 globalized Internet, that 90 percent negative media coverage of the Trump tenure is quite novel.
2) Personal morality and public governance are related, but we are not always quite sure how. Jimmy Carter was both a more moral person and a worse president than Bill Clinton. Jerry Ford was a more ethical leader than Donald Trump — and had a far worse first 16 months. FDR was a superb wartime leader — and carried on an affair in the White House, tried to pack and hijack the Supreme Court, sent U.S. citizens into internment camps, and abused his presidential powers in ways that might get a president impeached today. In the 1944 election, the Republican nominee Tom Dewey was the more ethical — and stuffy — man. In matters of spiritual leadership and moral role models, we wish that profane, philandering (including an affair with his step-niece), and unsteady General George S. Patton had just conducted himself in private and public as did the upright General Omar Bradley. But then we would have wished even more that Bradley had just half the strategic and tactical skill of Patton. If he had, thousands of lives might have been spared in the advance to the Rhine.
Trump did not run in a vacuum. A presidential vote is not a one-person race for sainthood but, like it or not, often a choice between a bad and worse option. Hillary Clinton would have likely ensured a 16-year progressive regnum.
Trump is currently not carrying on an affair with his limousine driver, as Ike probably was with Kay Summersby while commanding all Allied forces in Europe following D-Day. Rarely are both qualities, brilliance and personal morality, found in a leader — even among our greatest, such as the alcoholic Grant or the foul-mouthed and occasionally crude Truman. Richard Feynman in some ways may have been the most important — or at least the most interesting — physicist of our age, but his tawdry and sometimes callous private life would have made Feynman Target No. 1 of the MeToo movement.
3) Trump did not run in a vacuum. A presidential vote is not a one-person race for sainthood but, like it or not, often a choice between a bad and worse option. Hillary Clinton would have likely ensured a 16-year progressive regnum. As far as counterfactual “what ifs” go, by 2024, at the end of Clinton’s second term, a conservative might not have recognized the federal judiciary, given the nature of lifetime appointees. The lives of millions of Americans would have been radically changed in an Obama-Clinton economy that probably would not have seen GDP or unemployment levels that Americans are now enjoying. Fracking, coal production, and new oil exploration would have been vastly curtailed. The out-of-control EPA would have become even more powerful. Half the country simply did not see the democratic socialist European Union, and its foreign and domestic agendas, as the model for 21st-century America.
What John Brennan, James Clapper, James Comey, Loretta Lynch, Andrew McCabe, Lisa Page, Samantha Power, Susan Rice, Peter Strzok, Sally Yates, and others did in 2016 would never have been known — given that their likely obstruction, lying, and lawbreaking were predicated on being unspoken recommendations for praise and advancement in a sure-thing Clinton administration. Christopher Steele might have either been unknown — or lionized.
Open borders, Chinese trade aggression, the antics of the Clinton Foundation, the Uranium One deal, the Iran deal, estrangement from Israel and the Gulf states, a permanently nuclear North Korea, leading from behind — all that and far more would be the continued norm into the 2020s. Ben Rhodes, architect of the Iran deal and the media echo chamber, might have been the national-security adviser. The red-state losers would be institutionalized as clingers, crazies, wackos, deplorables, and irredeemables in a Clinton administration. A Supreme Court with justices such as Loretta Lynch, Elizabeth Warren, and Eric Holder would have made the court little different in its agendas from those of the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and Harvard Law School.
4) Something had gone haywire with the Republican party at the national level. Since 1988, it had failed to achieve 51 percent of the popular presidential vote, losing the popular vote in five out of the past six elections, writing off as permanently lost the purple states of the Midwest. Most Republicans privately had all but given up on cracking the Electoral College matrix, given the lost-for-good big blue states such as California, Illinois, Massachusetts, and New York, changing demography in the Southwest, and the supposedly permanently forfeited Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
The proverbial Republican elite had become convinced that globalization, open borders, and free but unfair trade were either unstoppable or the fated future or simply irrelevant. Someone or something — even if painfully and crudely delivered — was bound to arise to remind the conservative Washington–New York punditocracy, the party elite, and Republican opinion makers that a third of the country had all but tuned them out. It was no longer sustainable to expect the conservative base to vote for more versions of sober establishmentarians like McCain and Romney just because they were Republicans, well-connected, well-résuméd, well-known, well-behaved, and played by the gloves-on Marquess of Queensberry political rules. Instead, such men and much of orthodox Republican ideology were suspect.
Amnestied illegal aliens would not in our lifetimes become conservative family-values voters. Vast trade deficits with China and ongoing chronic commercial cheating would not inevitably lead to the prosperity that would guarantee Chinese democracy. Asymmetrical trade deals were not sacrosanct under the canons of free trade. Unfettered globalization, outsourcing, and offshoring were not both inevitable and always positive. The losers of globalization did not bring their misery on themselves. The Iran deal was not better than nothing. North Korea would not inevitably remain nuclear. Middle East peace did not hinge of constant outreach to and subsidy of the corrupt and autocratic Palestinian Authority and Hamas cliques.
5) Lots of deep-state rust needed scraping. Yet it is hard to believe that either a Republican or Democratic traditionalist would have seen unemployment go below 4 percent, or the GDP rate exceed 3 percent, or would have ensured the current level of deregulation and energy production. A President Mitt Romney might not have rammed through a tax-reform policy like that of the 2017 reform bill. I cannot think of a single Republican 2016 candidate who either could or would have in succession withdrawn from the Paris Climate Accord, moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, demanded China recalibrate its asymmetrical and often unfair mercantile trade policies, sought to secure the border, renounced the Iran deal, moved to denuclearize North Korea, and hectored front-line NATO allies that their budgets do not reflect their promises or the dangers on their borders.
Trump took on his left-wing critics as few had before, did not back down, and did not offer apologies. He traded blow for blow with them. The result was not just media and cultural hysteria but also a catharsis.
The fact that Trump never served in the military or held a political office before 2016 may explain his blunders and coarseness. But such lacunae in his résumé also may account for why he is not constrained by New York–Washington conventional wisdom. His background makes elites grimace, though their expertise had increasingly calcified and been proved wrong and incapable of innovative approaches to foreign and domestic crises.
6) Something or someone was needed to remind the country that there is no longer a Democratic party as we once knew it. It is now a progressive and identity-politics religious movement. Trump took on his left-wing critics as few had before, did not back down, and did not offer apologies. He traded blow for blow with them. The result was not just media and cultural hysteria but also a catharsis that revealed what Americans knew but had not seen so overtly demonstrated by the new Left: the unapologetic media bias; chic assassination talk; the politicization of sports, Hollywood, and entertainment in slavish service to progressivism; the Internet virtue-signaling lynch mob; the out-of-control progressive deep state; and the new tribalism that envisions permanent ethnic and racial blocs while resenting assimilation and integration into the melting pot. For good or evil, the trash-talking and candid Trump challenged progressives. They took up the offer in spades and melted down — and America is getting a good look at where each side really sits.
In the end, only the people will vote on Trumpism. His supporters knew full well after July 2016 that his possible victory would come with a price — one they deemed more than worth paying given the past and present alternatives. Most also no longer trust polls or the media. To calibrate the national mood, they simply ask Trump voters whether they regret their 2016 votes (few do) and whether any Never Trump voters might reconsider (some are), and then they’re usually reassured that what is happening is what they thought would happen: a 3 percent GDP economy, low unemployment, record energy production, pushbacks on illegal immigration, no Iran deal, no to North Korean missiles pointed at the U.S., renewed friendship with Israel and the Gulf states, a deterrent foreign policy, stellar judicial appointments — along with Robert Mueller, Stormy Daniels, Michael Cohen, and lots more, no doubt, to come.
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