Two questions are on everyone's mind this week: how did this happen? and what will it mean? Let me begin with the first.
The story played by the media so far--that Trump was elected by an extraordinary surge of white voters--is only a half truth. In the aggregate, as my older son pointed out to me yesterday morning, who did not vote was more important than who did. Turnout was way down this year, and Donald Trump earned only half a million votes more than Mitt Romney did in 2012 across the nation. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, secured nearly 3 million votes less than Barack Obama. The fear that I and so many others enunciated as much as a year and a half ago, before Donald Trump emerged, came true: Clinton simply was unable to keep the Obama coalition alive, particularly among black people and youth. Because black Democrats voted more heavily than young ones in primaries, she won the nomination, but neither category voted in sufficient numbers to elect her. She was the candidate of the professional class and the intellectual and media elite. It wasn't enough.
A look at the critical states, however, shows a somewhat different story. 48 hours ago, we thought that the election would be decided in Florida, North Carolina, Ohio,. Iowa, Nevada and New Hampshire. Had that prediction held true, Clinton would be clinging to an electoral majority of 2 thanks to a lead of about 3,000 votes in New Hampshire, having lost all the other states--a possibility that I took very seriously on election day. Unfortunately, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania had to be added to the mix. In Wisconsin Clinton's failure to turn out Obama voters undoubtedly cost here the state: Trump and Romney's totals were almost identical but she ran 240,000 votes behind Obama in 2012. Something similar happened in Michigan, where Trump got 167,000 more votes than Romney but Clinton drew 205,000 fewer than Obama. Iowa also showed this pattern, as Trump gained only 71,000 votes--not enough to have beaten Obama's total--while Clinton lost 165,000. But Pennsylvania was somewhat different story. While Romney had 2.612 million votes, Trump had 2.913 million, barely enough to have beaten Obama's total in 2012. Clinton ran behind Obama but by only 62,000 votes. Trump also won enough new votes in Ohio to have beaten Obama's 2012 total, but once again, Clinton's total fell 380,000 votes short of Obama's, while Trump beat Romney's vote by just 178,000. Florida, along with Pennsylvania, is the second state where a surge of Trump voters undoubtedly changed the result--both Trump and Clinton increased their party's vote by six-figure margins but Trump's increase was much larger. II Clinton had matched Obama's vote totals in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio, she would have secured 32 more electoral votes, but that would have left her with only 264, 6 votes shy of election. But had she managed to increase Obama's total by as little as 10,000 votes in Pennsylvania, she would have won. The Democratic party's racial politics failed to deliver, and with good reason. Clinton expected Hispanics and black Americans to turn out in massive numbers and vote for her simply because she has turned her year with the Children's Defense Fund into a lifetime of service to the poor and dispossessed, and because she is not Donald Trump. It didn't happen.
Trump, therefore, will take office on January 20. What does this mean?
The general on the battlefield, Clausewitz teaches us, must remain calm in the midst of danger, chaos, and uncertainty. He must keep his head while all around are losing theirs, avoid emotional extremes, and try to grasp the truly critical elements of any situation. He must also, in my opinion, admit to his own uncertainty. If you're really smart, I often say, the three words you are not afraid to utter are "I don't know." And I feel fairly certain that no one, least of all Donald Trump himself, knows what the next four years will look like.
Six weeks ago the New Yorker published a good article by Evan Osnos on Trump's transition team, which had already formed, and its plans. They apparently want Trump to take a series of immediate steps to indicate a radical break with the past. The first--also signaled by Paul Ryan in his press conference yesterday--could be the repeal of Obamacare. House Republicans will undoubtedly pass it yet again in the first ten days or so of January, and in the Senate Charles Schumer, the new Democratic leader, will face his first major test: whether to try to use the filibuster to save it. That in turn will raise the issue of how many of the Democrats, especially those up for re-election in two years, will join him. There is certainly a significant chance that the filibuster might be defeated, clearing the way for immediate repeal. Trump will also undoubtedly withdraw some of Obama's executive orders. Last but hardly least, Newt Gingrich, one of those closest to Trump, told Osnos about plans to embark on a Scott Walker-style war on the rights of federal workers, essentially doing away with civil service protections. While this would be wildly popular with the Republican base, it may be a bridge too far.
Many pundits, stuck in the denial stage of grief, are hoping that Trump might finally "pivot" to respectability as President. Certainly by turning moderate he and the Republicans could bring the crisis in our politics to an end and start a new era of US history, but I do not think that will happen. I see two possibilities. One is that Trump will simply go along with Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and implement the conservative Republican agenda of a new round of tax cuts and some kind of "entitlement reform" that puts a major dent in Medicare and even Social Security, at least for younger generations. They will also dismantle a good deal of our regulatory structure. The role of the Justice Department in relation to local police departments will surely change, and I would not be surprised if the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Education, which has become a Ministry of Truth for institutions of higher learning, was disbanded entirely. (Alternatively it might focus on the free speech rights of conservative organizations and religious groups on campus.) All this could be accompanied by another one of Trump's signature proposals,. a big infrastructure program--if the Republican Congress would go along with it. That is a very open question.
The three biggest question marks, I think, are immigration policy, trade policy, and foreign policy, and here the key will be the people whom Trump chooses to appoint to key positions. Already there is talk about the traditional Republican foreign policy elite making its peace with Trump, and this might easily happen if Gingrich,. as rumored, became the new Secretary of State. But on immigration Trump's rhetoric has been so heated and his supporters have been so committed that I expect some fairly drastic steps. Hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions, may well be deported, and I will not be surprised if immigration from certain Muslim countries is banned--a step well within the President's power. Trade could easily be handled more subtly. Trump will be under enormous pressure from our economic elite not to do anything too drastic, and he may find it more convenient to make extravagant rhetorical claims about his success than to actually block imports, just as he has often done in his business career. There is, of course, no way that he can possibly bring millions of industrial jobs back to Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.
That raises perhaps the biggest question of all: how will Trump's base react when he betrays their interests, as he will surely do? And will the Democrats actually be able to make new inroads among t them? We do not know. Ultimately, the answer to the puzzle lies within Trump's psyche. If he is simply driven by a narcissistic need for affirmation, he may take the path of least resistance, adopt in practice relatively less radical and disruptive measures, and further entrench our corporate elite while putting the cultural left more on the defensive. But if he is driven by real hatred stemming from his childhood, as Hitler was, he will undertake truly radical and brutal measures both at home and abroad, with potentially world-historical consequences. Trump, as I have argued, only became a successful businessman, a tv celebrity, and a presidential candidate because of the bankruptcy of our institutions and values. A sound financial system would have put him out of business decades ago, a healthy culture would have had no place for him, and he would never have been nominated in an age of strong political parties. We have left ourselves vulnerable to a demagogue like him. He will decide what the consequences will be.