WASHINGTON-Here inside the Beltway bubble, we don't really know what's happening in real America. (To that end, the satellite radio monopoly has given a radio show to Salena Zito, chronicler of the salt of the earth for those people for whom Hillbilly Elegy is too heavy a lift.) Unlike many of the cynics and elitists hereabouts, I maintain an optimistic view of my fellow Americans out in the boonies. I think they're all going to get together next October and announce that it's all been an elaborate prank.
I hope that's the case because, otherwise…yikes. From The Buffalo News:
"I'd vote for him again 20 more times if I could," said Hal McWilliams, 59, a self-employed contractor from Portageville. "Build the wall! ...Democrats do everything in their power to destroy this country. Hillary Clinton was everything I am against. She was out to destroy the culture that made this country: Hard work, guns, freedom."… "He's about action," said Clark, who didn't vote for Trump but said he would do so if he could vote again now. "I believe he's doing pretty much everything he promised to do." That's what Keith and Bobbi Muhlenbeck think, too. "We love him," said Keith Muhlenbeck, 46. "We support him in everything he's doing. He's a businessman who knows how to get things done, and you can tell he has America's best interests at heart." Washington pundits might be criticizing Trump for his recent reversals on a number of policy issues, including trade with China and the future of the Export-Import Bank. But Bobbi Muhlenbeck sees the president as a tough talker who stands his ground. "I like that he doesn't back down," said Muhlenbeck's wife, 49.
I mention all this because one of the more interesting sidelights of what certainly will be a deluge of post-mortems regarding the 2016 presidential campaign is the widely held notion that Hillary Rodham Clinton was gifted with a uniquely easy opponent. This idea is central to the narrative that holds that HRC's campaign was a uniquely bad one, and she a uniquely bad candidate. She couldn't even beat a reality-show star who doesn't know North Korea from East Hampton. True, there were a number of things that HRC and her campaign did badly, but they did get three million more votes than did Trump, which counts for something.
You want a textbook example of a thoroughly bad campaign, look to the Dukakis juggernaut in 1988, not the Clinton campaign of 2016, no matter what you're hearing from people pitching books full of gossipy back-stabbing and obsequious resume-polishing. The fact is that the current spate of Clinton-bashing completely ignores one undeniable fact: Donald Trump was a helluva candidate. In fact, for the cultural and political context within which that election took place, he might have been a perfect candidate.
Yes, the elite political media-and, especially, the cable news stations and, especially, CNN-put the wind beneath his wings with stunning regularity. And, yes, he got a lot of help from James Comey, the renegade New York office of the FBI, and (likely) Macedonian adolescents in the pay of Russian plutocrats. But you do not do what he did, and you do not overcome all the self-inflicted lacerations that he suffered, simply by being a traveling freak show.
Consider this: Whatever you may think of how he won the presidency, and we'll get to that in a minute, Trump took on a Republican field composed of what was alleged to be the best that party had to offer, the deepest part of its allegedly deep bench, and he utterly destroyed it. Scott Walker, popular scourge of middle-school history teachers, never even made it to the starting gate. Rand Paul, brogressive libertarian heartthrob, was reduced to invisibility. Chris Christie was demolished as a national political figure. Marco Rubio-The Republican Savior, according to Time-is still wandering the political landscape looking, as Abraham Lincoln said of General Hooker after Chancellorsville, like a duck that's been hit on the head. And, when he finally got around to it, he took the heart out of Tailgunner Ted Cruz in Indiana, alleging on the morning of the primary that Cruz's father hobnobbed in New Orleans with Lee Harvey Oswald.
Trump took on a Republican field composed of what was alleged to be the best that party had to offer, and he utterly destroyed it.
That Trump never paid a price in the eyes of his voters for that kind of meretricious goonery is the best evidence there is that, in 2016, anyway, he was in every sense a formidable political force. And, let it not be forgotten that he brought with him a Republican Senate, a Republican House, and massive gains out in the states as well.
Moreover, and I owe a hat tip to Scott Lemieux here, it's likely in retrospect that Trump's plan of action, while unconventional in the extreme and relentlessly eccentric, also was based in a kind of mad logic. There really was a big slice of the electorate, concentrated in states that were vital in the Electoral College, that was uniquely susceptible to Trump's appeal. He and his people spotted it and campaigned accordingly. As Nate Cohn shows in the piece linked above, HRC performed about as well as could be expected among Democratic base voters and, as we said, she did win the popular vote by more than three million.
The myth of Trump's vulnerability has two sources, I think. The first is the apparently irresistible impulse in some quarters to score some sort of final victory over the Clinton family. (We dealt with that on Monday.) The other is the reluctance of Republicans-and of the elite political classes at large-to accept the reality that Trump is merely a cruder manifestation of the political prion disease that has afflicted conservatism and the Republican Party since it first ate the monkeybrains 35 years ago. It was all leading to someone like Trump, and something like last year's election. There are any number of reasons for people to deny that simple truth.
The margin of victory was to be found in a unique candidate responding uniquely to a unique set of circumstances. Nobody lost that campaign. Donald Trump won it.
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