Just days ago I was in Ohio. I was talking to Republicans, and this was the refrain I kept hearing: Donald Trump is throwing this election away. He has no real campaign here. No get-out-the-vote operation. No ground game. Nothing that signifies or befits a truly serious presidential candidate.
These Republicans thought that he’d win the state — barely. But they didn’t think that he could snatch victories in some of the other places that he did on Tuesday, or draw so close to Hillary Clinton elsewhere, or compete so tightly in the election overall. It was done, over, finished.
She had the best experts that money could buy, the most sophisticated data operation that the smartest wonks could put together and the dutiful troops who went door to door, handing out “Stronger Together” literature and pleading her case.
He had his hair and his ego.
And yet Donald Trump was just elected the 45th president of the United States, soon to take a seat at the most important desk in the most august office in the most consequential residence of the world. Yes, Donald Trump. That gale-force sigh of relief you heard was Chris Christie’s. That demonic cackle of glee was Rudy Giuliani’s.
That shriek of horror was mine.
Trump defied the predictions of pundits and pollsters, more than a few of whom foresaw an Electoral College landslide for Clinton. That’s what their numbers told them.
But that’s not what America had to say.
On Election Day, Trump did what he had throughout his surreal campaign: exploded the traditional assumptions, upended the usual expectations and forced us to look afresh at the accepted truisms and hoary clichés of our political life. There are important lessons to learn and crucial questions to ask.
Democrats are in the same position that Republicans were when Trump romped to their party’s nomination, which they were convinced for so long he could never get. They need to look seriously at the way they do business and how they arrived at this surprising, humbling destination.
Are the unglamorous, tedious approaches to rounding up votes as powerful as the booming voice of a celebrity with hours of free television time and millions of rapt Twitter followers? Does the imprimatur of the establishment and a towering stack of endorsements and a bulging retinue of pop stars and Hollywood actors make any difference when there’s a fury out there that you haven’t fully and earnestly tried to understand? Does accurate polling lag behind the nature of contemporary American life?
And is a party being remotely realistic – or entirely reckless – to try to sell a candidate who personifies the status quo to an electorate that’s clearly hungry for some kind of shock to the system?
There was an arrogance and foolishness to lining up behind Clinton as soon as so many Democratic leaders did, and to putting all their chips on her.
She fit the circumstances of 2016 awkwardly, in the same way that Jeb Bush did.
She was a profoundly flawed candidate unable to make an easy connection with voters. She was forever surrounded by messes: some of her own making, some blown out of proportion by the news media, all of them exhausting to voters who had lived through a quarter-century of political melodrama with her.
She never found a pithy, pointed message. One Ohio resident noted to me that while Clinton’s campaign workers showed up at his doorstep several times a week, they dropped off pamphlets dense with the rationale for her candidacy, the policies she’d espouse, the promises she was making.
To read it was a commitment, and you couldn’t reduce to one sentence, or even two, what the meaning of her candidacy was.
It’s insane that a pledge to “make America great again” works better, because the vow is so starry-eyed and pat. But it’s concise. Digestible. It takes emotion into account. Democrats in general and Clinton in particular aren’t always good at that.
The party had a night so miserable that its leaders cannot chalk it up to the Russians or to James Comey, although there will be plenty of talk about that, much of it warranted. They had a gorgeous chance to retake their Senate majority, and not only did they fail to do so, but Democratic candidates who were thought to be in tight races lost by significant margins.
Clinton struggled more than had been predicted in the so-called Rust Belt – states like Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania – in yet another illustration of how disaffected working-class white men had become and how estranged from a new economy and a new age they felt.
Their anger was the story of the primaries, the fuel not just for Trump’s campaign but for Bernie Sanders’ as well. And it manifested itself in the general election. Both parties are going to have to reckon with it.
And they should. If this were all that Trump had shown us, we’d owe him our thanks.
But there are darker implications here, too. After all the lies he told, all the fantasy he indulged in, all the hate he spewed and all the divisions he sharpened, he was rewarded with the highest office in the land. What does that portend for the politics of the next few years, for the kinds of congressional candidates we'll see in 2018, for the presidential race of 2020?
I can’t bear to think about the conflagrations to come.