And so after everything—the relentless lies, the twisted misogyny, the mocking of a disabled man, the racism open enough to have won the enthusiasm of white supremacists, the invitation to a foreign adversary to find and leak information damaging to his opponent, and all the rest of it—we’re hitting the point of no return. The Electoral College meets Monday, and unless he shoots someone on Fifth Avenue in the meantime, it’s done. The electors are going to certify him as the next president.
As they do so, the electors will not be doing their job. Lots of people by now have written pieces, like this very good one by Peter Beinart, explaining that the Electoral College was created precisely to prevent a demagogue from taking office. This was the design even if such a move went against the will of the people. But in this case it wouldn’t even be doing that, as Hillary Clinton won nearly 3 million more votes than Trump.
They’ll be joining a long list of people who didn’t do their jobs this past year. The list starts with the Republican Party and Reince Priebus. As Trump went from one outrage to the next in 2015, the Republican Party should have and could have found a way to stop him and unify behind one of the other candidates, all of whom, even Ted Cruz, fell within the scope of normal and weren’t utter demagogues who made their contempt for the Constitution plain. Priebus is now rewarded with a big important job, but for a president who’s already not very popular and who will be besieged by scandal from the moment he says “so help me God.” Indeed, a couple more juicy CIA leaks between now and January 20 might persuade a majority of Americans that the very concept of Trump as president is illegitimate before he even starts the job. Priebus will now be saddled with all this, and if there’s a just God up there somewhere he’ll yet get the deserts he’s earned.
The Democratic Party didn’t do its job. There is no way that an incumbent party with a popular president and a good (not great but certainly good) economy should lose an election. The Clinton campaign—I’ll get to it next—may have made some jaw-dropping tactical errors in Michigan. But after the auto bailout and what Obama did to save that state’s economy, losing there should have been a bullet-proof impossibility. Obviously they all took it for granted, but that’s really bad messaging that the Democratic Party, starting with Obama, didn’t make sure—and not just during this campaign, but on an ongoing basis since 2010—that Michiganders knew that the Democrats saved GM and Chrysler and the Republican Party was ready to let them die.
The Clinton campaign. Yes, Robby Mook has a hell of a lot to answer for. He was the guy in charge of the field operation and the whole vote-getting strategy. It was wrong in just about every meaningful way it could have been wrong. Clinton herself, and all the other higher-ups, made the mistake of not doing enough positive economic messaging—no one could associate her with two or three core things she wanted to do.
And last but most, the press. Complete failure. I don’t even need to say the ways, do I? A free press exists at core to prevent a demagogue from taking power. This year, the press enabled a demagogue to take power. With a few exceptions (the Beast, happily, included), the press was horrible.
All of the above failures had to happen to give the demagogue his chance, and improbably enough, they all did. And even then he needed to be pushed over the goal line by James Comey and Vladimir Putin, without whom he never would have won. But here we are. Can we count on anything better from any of the above actors?
The Clinton campaign no longer exists, and the Clintons won’t have much influence in the party going forward.
The Republican Party will do nothing to hold Trump accountable for anything. There’ll be some intramural squabbles here and there, but if the Republicans do anything well it’s to close ranks. So Ivanka is calling GOP legislators trying to sell them on paid family leave? This was socialism pure and simple when Obama or Clinton talked about it, but if Trump really wants it, he’ll get it. They’ll say it’s different, and it is—his campaign plan was vague and full of the usual holes. But they’ll give it to him. It’ll be his No Child Left Behind, his attempt to look like he cares about something nice. And so it will go, unless and until the day comes that Trump is so unpopular and so scandal-pocked that their own polling of their states and districts shows that Trump is dragging them down. Then they’ll start to ditch him. But not before.
The media? I’d advise you not to expect much. As long as Trump means high ratings and plenty of page views, most of it will keep playing along. There will be courageous exceptions and lots of good investigative reporting. But Trump will dismiss it all as lies, and political reporters will feel obliged to report it as he said-she said, and cable news (with a few noble exceptions) will find it all too complicated to explain to viewers at the level cable news has decided it needs to speak to people, which is to say roughly ninth grade or thereabouts. If Trump starts a war on the media—taking away credentials, limiting First Amendment rights, that sort of thing—then maybe the media corporations will get riled up. But even if they do, half the public will be on Trump’s side.
This leaves the Democratic Party. The Dahlia Lithwick and David Cohen Times op-ed Wednesday that lamented how the party hasn’t been taken Trump on at all seemed to catch fire and reflect how most liberals are feeling right now. Everybody has remarked upon, myself very much included, the fact if the situation were reversed, the GOP would be moving heaven and earth to prevent Clinton from even taking office, and why can’t the Democrats do that?
Well, they don’t. They’re not build that way. I’m not excusing it. Just pointing it out to you. Elected Democrats tend to understand and accept that under the rules as they exist, Trump did win.
But as long as the question is open as to whether he won fair and square, Democrats need to keep that issue right in front of Americans. No debate, over family leave or the budget or Syria or anything, should be engaged without the matter of Trump’s legitimacy being part of the conversation. The Democrats have to push hard on these hearings Mitch McConnell has agreed to. If the Republicans try to structure them in a way that’s going to hinder pursuit of the truth, Democrats need to make sure every American knows about it. But the main thing is Trump’s legitimacy. If four months from now the Democrats have let that drop and nobody’s even thinking about Putin anymore, it will be a massive failure on their part.
And it won’t be just a partisan failure. They will have failed the Constitution and the republic. That’s what Democrats need to stand for. Every politician’s Achilles Heel—the thing that will ultimately prove their downfall—is identifiable from the moment they start running. Bill Clinton’s was women. George W. Bush’s was that he was in over his head. Hillary’s was that she was too secretive and distrustful. (Obama had the weakness of inexperience but, leaving office near 60 percent, he had no downfall.)
Trump’s is that he is not a small-d democrat. It’ll catch up with him. Maybe soon. But not if the Democrats let the public forget, and he is able to distract them into thinking about something else.