The #LolNothingMatters election

The American electoral system was supposed to be resilient against the siren call of the populist demagogue. This is by design. In many electoral systems, a party that can attract 15% of the population will receive (roughly) 15% of the representation. The United States is a winner-take-all system. Our lengthy, two-stage, extraordinarily expensive electoral process is designed to reward two centrist parties that each try to appeal to the broad center of the electorate. 

And yet… Here we are. Donald Trump won the Republican primary over the opposition of virtually the entire Republican party leadership. He offered a message of xenophobia, a message of renewed racial dominance, a message that echoed fascist, autocratic appeals heard in other countries in decades past and present. Having won the Republican primary, his party leadership mostly fell in line, and Republican voters committed to voting for him regardless of his history or positions, his qualifications or his policy promises. That set up an inevitably close race in a deeply divided country. And against all expectations (including his own campaign’s predictions), he emerged as the winner of that race.

This should not have happened. Setting aside the large-scale diplomatic, regulatory, and policy implications of Trump’s victory, it should not have happened because Donald Trump ran a ludicrously poor campaign. He failed to pay his pollster. His field operation was a series of puff-yourself-up rallies with little call-to-action at the end. His data operation was effectively nonexistent. His messaging was designed to appeal to the worst impulses of a shrinking white electorate. His communications team was mostly concerned with keeping their candidate locked out of his own Twitter account. He lost all three debates, confirming the worst public fears about his awful temperament. He had a terrible convention, beset by own-goal mistakes practically every night. He picked fights with his own fellow Republicans, and with the families of fallen soldiers, and with individual reporters on the campaign trail.

Hillary Clinton, by comparison, ran the type of sophisticated, professional campaign that we have come to expect in modern American politics. She had better data, better field operations, better fundraising, and better communications. Her television commercials were marvelous. She was weighted down by a faux-scandal about her use of a private email server, by interference by the director of the FBI, and by interference of Russian hackers and WikiLeaks. But those were challenges that were not created by her own campaign. They were problems that the campaign tried its best to respond to.

It is tempting to reconstruct the history of this campaign in order to fit the outcome. Surely, if Donald Trump was the victor, he must have outmaneuvered his rival, or stumbled upon some secret formula for campaign success. We should resist this urge. Donald Trump ran a godawful mess of a campaign. His only strength was his singular, message: that American politics is (a) simple, (b) broken, because of (c) corruption and incompetence, and that (d) everything would be better once he was put in charge. That is the siren song of the strongman dictator. It is a rejection of liberal pluralism, which holds that politics and governance is messy and complicated, and requires a subtle hand to achieve positive change. 

America has never had such a pure demagogue run for President before. Past presidents, dating back to the founding fathers, all concurred with the assumption that government is complicated, and requires deliberate intricacy to run successfully. American institutions – both parties and media organizations – were supposed to be strong enough to reject such an appeal.

But many white Americans were swayed by the siren song of right wing demagoguery. And many people of color faced difficulty when trying to vote at the polls, due to voter suppression efforts crafted by the state itself. The result was that Hillary Clinton received a couple of million more votes than Donald Trump, but they were not the right votes in the right states. (Democrats also received several million more votes in the House of Representatives, and will have 47 fewer seats than the Republican party.)

America now lives under one-party Republican rule. It is a party that received fewer votes, a party that prioritized suppressing votes rather than reaching out to new voters, a party that has made impossible promises that run counter to deeply-held American norms and values. It is a party now led by an unstable individual who lacks the respect of his own partisan allies or even a modicum of policy expertise or diplomatic temperament.

We did not reach this state through a sophisticated propaganda operation, or through reasoned policy debate, or through the self-immolation of the non-authoritarian party. Donald Trump did not hide who he was. His mistakes and limitations were plain to see. But a substantial minority of the electorate chose to ignore his flaws, to behave as though American policy making and diplomatic leadership no longer mattered.

So here we are. Donald Trump is the legitimately elected president of the United States. If campaigns mattered, if policy details mattered, if endorsements mattered, if competence mattered, then Hillary Clinton would be President. Political scientists such as myself entered this election believing that all of these things mattered, at least a little bit. We, and our fellow citizens, are now left wondering if anything matters at all.