The Obama era is over, and his successor is not Hillary Clinton. Why not? What combination of factors came together to put us in this disturbing situation?
With Donald Trump’s presidency off to an even worse start than expected, it is worth taking another look at how we got here, because there are a lot of people who will be harmed—quite possibly for generations to come. An accounting is in order, but an accounting with an optimistic conclusion.
My purpose here is, therefore, forward-looking in the sense that we need to understand what just happened in order to know how to undo the damage that looms. But I am undeniably also looking to cast blame—because when something bad happens, it is important to ask what caused it. In this case, that necessarily involves asking various people who should have known better: What were you thinking?!
To avoid burying the lead, I can state my conclusion up front quite succinctly. The two groups that I believe bear a special responsibility for 2016’s unthinkable outcome are Republican officeholders who knew better and non-voters (especially younger voters) who ignored their responsibility to the future—their own futures as well as those of generations yet unborn.
The good news is that although younger voters bear a unique responsibility for passively enabling Trump’s presidency, they also have every motivation to actively oppose it now and to restore the country’s true greatness as soon as possible.
The Many Possible Explanations for Clinton’s Loss
I agree with my colleague Michael Dorf’s call to move the post-election discussion beyond the intra-Democratic Party recriminations over whether Clinton or Sanders was more electable, which Professor Dorf points out has become a proxy argument over the future policy agenda of the party.
Even though that intramural debate is a dead end, however, there are plenty of plausible explanations for Trump’s eye-of-the-needle win that are worth thinking about, even this long after the fact.
The author Michael Lewis (Moneyball, The Big Short), in a recent appearance on Stephen Colbert’s show, pointed out that people often have a very narrow sense of alternative realities. We might say that “if only Donald Trump had lost the New Hampshire primary he would have faded away,” but people rarely say, “if only Trump had never been born,” or “if only he had been loved as a child.”
Although Lewis’s observation is provocative, the most immediate causes of the 2016 non-majority victory for Trump are still important. Most obviously, FBI Director James Comey’s late intervention in the election (along with his prior gratuitous efforts to vilify Clinton even as he declined to prosecute her) was almost surely enough to have changed the result.
Of course, Comey’s irresponsible actions only had traction because of the mainstream press’s willingness to sensationalize and distort the whole email-server story in the first place. If we are to engage in “if only” thinking, therefore, why not say that “if only the media had developed a culture in which they had reported a non-story like Comey’s correctly, his intervention wouldn’t have mattered”?
There is not enough room here to run through the entire list of candidates for blame, so I will focus on only those that provide the most useful or interesting clues to the puzzle of the 2016 election and how we might move forward from here.
First, of course, are the people who voted for Trump. Although many people (including me) have tried to understand why people who have nothing to gain and everything to lose from a Trump victory were nonetheless drawn to him, it is also true that those “reachable” Trump voters were a distinct minority of his coalition.
This is not to say that Trump was the first choice of many Republican voters. It does mean, however, that most Republicans knew exactly what they were getting with Trump, and they were fine with it. After all, millions of Republicans voters are Republicans precisely because they are anti-environmentalist, anti-abortion, anti-minimum wage, anti-tax, anti-government, anti-diversity, pro-inequality conservatives. Like the other Republicans who have come to dominate the party, Trump gives them almost exactly what they want.
So if we are looking to cast blame, it is arguably odd to be looking at the few thousand people who might have been the decisive factor in the swing states. In Lewis’s sense, we are looking at the small what-if explanations, not the largest one. Without the base of people who are absolutely on board with movement conservatism, Trump (and the entire Republican congressional contingent, for that matter) would have no traction.
Here, however, I am willing to set the biggest explanation aside. It would be wrong to give those voters a pass simply because their views are so entrenched and extreme, but it is at least worth asking how we could have overcome the large barrier that they represent to rational governance.
The Republicans Who Tried to Have It Both Ways
A large number of Republicans who hold (or have held) public office tried to play it too cute during the election. Knowing that Trump was a disaster waiting to happen, these Republicans hoped somehow to see Trump lose without taking the personal and career risk of offending Trump’s supporters.
For example, one veteran of several Republican administrations attacked Trump harshly after the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape that contained Trump’s boasts about committing sexual assault. Even so, she told interviewers that she would vote for Clinton only if the election were close in her state.
This person lives in Florida, and she deserves credit for announcing the day before the election that she had voted for Clinton in what did turn out to be a tight race in her state. Even so, her public announcements essentially communicated a damaging message: “Both candidates are horrible, and you should stay home unless you absolutely must vote for the she-devil over the threat to all humanity.”
That approach, however, was better than most other prominent Republicans. As I argued in a column in October, there is a special arrogance in the public stances of Republicans who piously announced that they would not vote for Trump but stopped short of supporting Clinton.
I focused in that column on Senators John McCain and Susan Collins, along with a few others. (House Speaker Paul Ryan continues to be a fascinating study, almost but not quite evoking pathos.) Ohio Governor John Kasich, for example, announced that he wrote in John McCain’s name on his ballot (in a state where that vote would quite literally not be counted).
It continues to be a mystery to me that people do not understand the simple logic of voting. If you do not vote for Trump, he loses a vote. But if you do not vote for Clinton, either, Trump is one vote closer to winning.
The point, however, is not merely that these Republican leaders did not vote for Clinton. They also did not band together and do everything that they could to prevent Trump from winning. These people know that the attacks on the Clintons (Benghazi, emails, and so on) were partisan nonsense, so they had no reason to believe that Clinton was the Lady Macbeth of right-wing legend, much less as bad as Trump.
Where were the advertisements with prominent Republicans (the Bush family, for example) denouncing Trump and endorsing Clinton? “We disagree with Hillary Clinton about many policy issues, but we know that she respects the rule of law and would not be a tyrant. We urge you to save America by voting for Clinton.”
As I argued early last summer, this would have put the new President Clinton in a box from which she could never escape. She would have had to go out of her way to show that she was as generous as her former detractors had been.
Yet even though there was partisan advantage to be had, and even though the alternative was to sit on their hands while watching Trump’s rise, these Republicans decided that they could rely on someone else to stop Trump.
The Unique Responsibility of Younger Generations to the Generations that Will Follow
For the past several years, I have been writing—both in my scholarly work as well as in columns and blog posts — about the obligations of current generations to future generations. It turns out that our obligations are much more complicated than we usually appreciate.
My starting point was to respond to the standard right-wing attack on government debt: “We are burdening our children and grandchildren by piling debt on their backs.” Most people are surprised to learn that reducing debt (or refusing to take on debt when needed) can harm future generations’ prospects whereas taking on more debt can be the most wealth-producing strategy available.
As I have thought through these issues over the years, however, it became obvious that the focus on fiscal policy was far too narrow to analyze the obligations between generations. Environmental and education policies are only the most obvious examples of policies that have a direct effect on the lives that young people and their progeny will enjoy (or endure).
Even after expanding the range of policy questions, however, the question of justice between generations turned out to be still more complicated. After all, the United States Constitution itself is a gift from an earlier generation that (with a lot of necessary amendments and interpretation over the centuries) has kept on giving. The rule of law is the most valuable legacy that any generation can bequeath to posterity.
There is a quote from Ronald Reagan that has become so ubiquitous that I have even seen it framed and offered for sale in a high-end gift shop in suburban Maryland. Reagan said:
Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. The only way they can inherit the freedom we have known is if we fight for it, protect it, defend it and then hand it to them with the well-taught lessons of how they in their lifetime must do the same. And if you and I don’t do this, then you and I may well spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it once was like in America when men were free.
It has long been a source of some amusement (or embarrassment, depending on one’s point of view) that Reagan was actually warning the nation about the evil that would come from enacting Medicare. Yes, the same Medicare program that is so popular that Trump, in a nod to his older white voting base, promised not to touch it.
Let us leave that historical context aside, however, and look at the quote itself. Reagan warned that taking freedom for granted was dangerous because it can be taken away so easily when people do not protect it. And people do not protect it when they think that there is no reason to do so.
In a column that I wrote shortly before the election, I exhorted younger voters to go to the polls to vote for Clinton and against Trump. My argument came in two parts.
First, I noted that younger voters have much more at stake than the rest of us do, because decisions that change history (like the 2016) election can take decades to reverse, if indeed they can be reversed at all. And because 25-year-olds have many more decades left on the planet than 45- or 65- or 85-year-olds, younger voters needed to wake up and realize that more years of their lives were on the line. My life is more than half over (gulp!), so at least I will be able to spend what might be the Trump decades remembering what free elections were like.
The second point, however, was more powerful (to my mind, anyway). In debates about the obligations of current generations to younger and future generations, we inevitably confront the question of how democracies should take account of the interests of people who cannot vote. How should we give voice to the voiceless?
To a certain degree, we assume that people of all ages will care about the effects of their decisions on younger and future people. For example, even people who do not have children of their own have embraced recycling programs, paid taxes to fund schools and universities, and so on.
Even so, the youngest eligible voters are arguably the people who are most capable of thinking about what their own children and grandchildren will want and need. They are, as I argued in that column in November, the best proxies available to represent the generations who will benefit or suffer from our decisions today.
In short, the responsibility that we place on younger voters springs from a recognition of their own interests as well as the confidence that they are better situated to speak for the future generations who would love to be able to speak for themselves.
Admittedly, younger people might argue that they never asked to be the spokespeople for the future, and they would be right. If ever a responsibility accompanied a privilege, however, this is it. None of us had any role in being born into a time and place where we can enjoy the advantages that we have enjoyed. If we appreciate those advantages, we should preserve them for others.
Trump’s threat to constitutional democracy has been obvious from the very beginning of his campaign. I wrote about it multiple times (for example, here), but I have hardly been alone. And Trump’s post-election treatment of the press is but one indication that he is at least as dangerous as he seemed during the campaign. (See also his environmental policies.)
The Millennials and the Election: Get Off My Lawn!
As I wrote above, everyone who voted for Trump deserves a big dose of the blame for what is now happening. Even so, there is something uniquely troubling about the people who did not vote, and something even more troubling about young people who did not vote.
Were there plausible arguments for not voting—by which I mean not just sitting at home but also voting for third-party or write-in candidates?
The argument that Clinton would be just as bad as Trump is beyond laughable. No matter how much of the anti-Clinton Kool-Aid one might have drunk, she did not represent a threat to the future of the country and the world. As Trevor Noah said at one point on “The Daily Show,” we could survive Clinton if she turned out to be a bad president, because we could vote her out of office later. That is not at all guaranteed with Trump, because he looks so much like a dictator in the making.
Non-voters said, in essence, that they could not stand Trump but that someone else should take responsibility for voting for his only plausible alternative. Taking solace in the polls that said that they could safely sit at home, they learned the hard way the dangers of group action (and inaction).
Even in the formerly industrial states where Trump secured his Electoral College victory, Clinton’s loss was more a result of Democratic-leaning voters not voting at all, not because of the now-mythologized white working class voters who flipped from Obama to Trump.
Many young non-voters told interviewers and pollsters that they could not get excited about Clinton. She seemed wonky and boring, and they could not find the energy to support her in the way that young people turned out for Obama.
Again, everyone who stopped short of doing what was necessary to stop Trump shares in the blame. It is especially poignant, however, that the group that had the most to lose—for themselves, but also for the voiceless generations whose interests they needed to protect—in such large numbers could not recognize that not all choices are ideal.
During the election, a joke was going around that described disappointed Sanders voters who were threatening to vote for Trump: “This bar doesn’t have my favorite craft beer, so I’m going to drink some bleach instead.” The problem is that, because so many people chose not to vote for Clinton (even if they did not vote for Trump), we are now all being force-fed the bleach.
Luckily, Ronald Reagan was wrong that those who fail to protect freedom will see its extinction. Constitutional democracy can be degraded and even lost, but it can also be protected and recovered. We can hope that everyone who thought that they had no important role in protecting freedom will respond to Trump’s autocracy by fighting harder than ever to restore what we have temporarily put in peril.