Well that just happened.
I’ve seen a lot of back and forth on social media and also on some email threads I’ve been cced on about what to make of a racist know-nothing game show host being elected President of the United States. And though there really is a lot to unpack here I think most post-election think pieces are missing a really big point that really need to be reiterated (probably again and again) when it comes to explaining Trump’s victory.
The big point is this: whatever Trump “means” the fact that he won isn’t that inexplicable. He won because he was the Republican nominee and in an era of intense partisanship that was enough to get him over the finish line. Basic “fundamentals” of the election, things like the state of the economy in the election year and the fact the Democrats held the White House for two terms going into the 2016 election, give us all the explantion we need in terms of why Trump was able to win a majority in the Electoral College. Political scientist Seth Masket did a great job explaining this by making, “…a simple scatterplot showing the relationship between economic growth (using per capita real disposable personal income) and the incumbent party’s share of the vote. Clinton’s vote share was right on the line.”
Or as Scott Lemieux bluntly put it, “The Story of the 2016 Election is Republican Voters Voted Republican.”
The simple reality is that the aggregate behavior of the American electorate doesn’t lend itself to telling interesting narratives no matter how much journalists, pundits, and bloggers like me want it to. It’s really hard to hold the White House after your party has held it for two terms, it’s only happened once since World War 2, and so while we should be shocked at who the GOP nominated and is now our president elect, it’s not surprising the GOP candidate won. In fact, from a certain stand point the fact that Hillary won the popular vote by what will probably end up being over 2 million votes shows that she actually ran a pretty good campaign all things considered (or Trump ran a really poor one) even if the undemocratic nature of the Electoral College stopped her from becoming the 45th president.
Still all sorts of people have come up with big explanations for what happened, does this make them wrong? Well not exactly, it’s just there’s no real way to prove Jamelle Bouie was right or wrong when he chalks the outcome up to white racism plain and simple. He could be right! But it’s a really hard thing to ever be able to prove. Kevin Drum summed it up this way right after the election:
When an election is close, you can blame pretty much anything for your loss. There are dozens of people, events, and movements that can make a difference of 1 percent or so. In this election, you can blame Hillary Clinton, Berniebros, Facebook, Jill Stein, neoliberalism, the DNC, white racism, CNN, Obamacare, or anything else you want. They all deserve a share of the blame, so pick your favorite and go to town.
Personally if I’m going to blame anyone I’d go with a broken and hysterical national press corps and their coverage of Clinton, James Comey, and the fact that lots and lots of American men of different races just couldn’t stand the idea of a woman president. But there’s no way for me objectively “prove” this right now and since it will take a while for the CPS data to come out we probably won’t have good answers for years, if ever.
In other words, most explanations for Trump (white people are racist, the Democrats should have nominated Bernie etc) come down to people restating their strong Bayesian priors, which is very understandable, humans as a species love to find ways to justify their preexisting beliefs in the light of new and chaotic events. In fact, Ross Douthat went so far as to blame people not having as many kids as him for Trump. But this doesn't mean these explanations are correct, no matter how much we wish they were.
But while the electoral outcome of the 2016 presidential election wasn’t very surprising at all in terms of vote totals, the substantive consequences of making Trump president are very large. We’ve never had someone like this president and so it’s just really hard to determine how he’ll behave. I could see Trump taking the path of least resistance and going along with Paul Ryan’s plans to gut the social safety net and deregulate the economy as much as possible, in short Trump might behave like a generic Republican. Or I could see Trump being a lot like Jesse Ventura and get bored with governing pretty quickly and not do much of anything other than promote his brands, pick petty fights with other politicals actors, do some popular “free lunch” stuff like cut license plate tab fees, and host some WWE pay per views. Or we he might turn into an American version of Berlusconi and as Brad DeLong sees it govern as:
…somebody who will try to loot as much as he can for him and his friends, and under whom policy will be a combination of random and rent-seeking. Italy seems to have lost a decade of economic growth as a result of Berlusconi.
Other more darker possibilities are out there as well but I don’t really want to write about them right now.
As a liberal though the consequences of his election will most likely be disastrous for what I care about. The Supreme Court will probably be controlled by conservatives now for decades making change in future presidencies even harder. Trump's environmental record is likely to be the worst in American history. He’ll end numerous protections for workers and consumers from things from overtime wages to food safety. The government will be packed full of charlatans, con men (they will mainly be men), and idiots that could do a lot of damage over the long term. His negative impact on issues related to racial, economic, and gender inequality will probably be massive in its own right. A list like this could go on for pages.
But the explanation for why this is happening is actually pretty simple: the GOP nominated him and if you’re the nominee of a major political party you have a good chance of becoming president.
The idea of horrific consequences coming from simple and in many way meaningless causes like party incumbency and wage growth in the summer of an election year is a really hard thing for most people to stomach. But as Azari points out the world still works that way, no matter how hard we wish it didn't.