Because she led in the polls from the beginning of the race to the end, and because of assumptions, widely shared throughout the political world, about demographic trends in the United States, nearly everything I’ve written about this campaign until now was based on the assumption that Hillary Clinton would defeat Donald Trump for the presidency.
Much of it looks foolish now, of course. And there will be plenty of time for recrimination in the weeks and months ahead. How much of this upset was due to the political media’s obsession with Clinton’s email practices and to its underplaying of Trump’s proto-fascism? How much of it was the FBI director’s late intrusion into the presidential race, raising the alarmist and ultimately inaccurate sense that Clinton was guilty of a crime? How much of it was Republican-led voter suppression in states like North Carolina (enabled by John Roberts’s Supreme Court gutting the Voting Rights Act)? How much of it was Gary Johnson and Jill Stein? How much of it was Clinton herself?
Whatever variables account for the polling failure, though, we have to accept that there was a great deal of truth to what the political analyst Sean Trende dubbed the “Missing White Voter” thesis—that every election year, in rural communities in the rust belt and the panhandle of Florida, millions of white people without college degrees just don’t vote.
The question was: What could the Republican Party, the natural home for that constituency, do to bring them back into the electorate?
We know the answer now, and it reflects horribly on the party and their new voters. What it took was a campaign of undisguised white nationalism—brash, unapologetic scapegoating of immigrants and Muslims. It took not only misogyny, but the endorsement of sexual assault. And it took Republicans who recognized their candidate’s recklessness, ignorance, and racism to decide that closing ranks around him was worth all of the dangers they knew they were inviting into the world, if it meant reclaiming political power.
It is hard to know, at this early stage, what a Trump presidency will mean for the future of the country. I traced an optimistic scenario back in the spring: that even our rickety democratic institutions could contain Trump’s worst impulses; that Trump’s own indifference to conservative ideology might create the space for some legislative compromises that aren’t altogether horrible for progressives. But as I wrote just yesterday, before polls closed, I am no longer confident in such a scenario.
At a minimum, Republicans are going to do incredible violence to President Barack Obama’s accomplishments. The bookend to his remarkable political story will be that he is replaced in the White House by a man who tried to delegitimize him as leader of the birther movement. Trump will almost certainly abrogate Obama’s international climate agreement and the global powers agreement preventing Iran from creating their own nuclear arsenal. Republicans will send Trump legislation undermining Obama’s legacy everywhere they can find congressional majorities to do so, and Trump will sign those bills. Republicans don’t know how to repeal Obamacare, let alone replace it. But they will try.
The Supreme Court will return to conservative control, and over the next four years, it may very well become far more conservative. Voting rights will be further weakened; the constitutional right to abortion is vulnerable to abolition.
But things could get much, much worse. Remember, sitting members of the Republican Senate conference, when they were running against Trump in the GOP presidential primary, warned that he could not be trusted with control over the U.S. nuclear arsenal. They said he was an amoral conman. They were right about all of that. Then they endorsed him. We don’t know what will happen to the global order; we don’t know how Trump will respond to perceived slights by foreign leaders, whether in allied countries, or hostile ones.
It is little solace to say that whatever becomes of this horrible leap into the abyss—whatever happens to immigrant and Muslim and black communities; whatever happens to LGBT and women’s rights; whatever happens to our economy; whatever happens to global stability—Republicans did this to us. As matters of both politics and conscience, they will have to live with this forever. But so will we.