How Did This Happen?

For months, every outlet guessing the outcome of the presidential election said it was in the bag for Hillary. Five Thirty Eight, renowned for correctly calling every state but one in 2008, and correctly calling every state in 2012, had the most conservative estimate, and it gave Hillary at 71% chance of winning as of Tuesday morning.

Boy, were they wrong. Everyone was wrong—including Trump, apparently. Even his own internal polling showed him losing to Hillary. The attitude from Trump surrogates as they visited news shows on Monday and Tuesday was the attitude you’d expect from the side that thought it would lose. That all began to shift as the election results came in Tuesday night. At first, it was just states that everyone knew would go Republican. Then, North Carolina started to come in. And it was going Trump. Florida started to come in; as predicted, the large metropolitan areas were going Hillary, but every other county was red. Then Ohio. Then Pennsylvania, for crying out loud. Horror began to dawn on Hillary supporters: she was losing counties Obama carried in 2012. The Blue Firewall began to crumble.

“Don’t worry,” we were reassured in the weeks before the election, “Trump would have to win every swing state in order to beat Hillary.”

And that’s exactly what he did.

How did this happen? How did once-reliable Democrats trade a lifelong public servant for a real estate investor and reality TV show host who’s never held any government office in his life?


Trump won despite garnering 700,000 fewer votes than McCain did in 2008, and 1.7 million fewer votes than Romney did in 2012. Hillary, though, won six million fewer votes than Obama did in 2012. This election wasn’t won because Republicans came out in droves to vote for their candidate; it was won because Democrats didn’t.

Part of that was enthusiasm. Hillary was second only to Trump in unfavorable ratings for any presidential candidate since the statistic has been kept. When Trump & Co. talked about “suppression” a few weeks ago, they weren’t referring to actual voter suppression. They were referring to negative, anti-Hillary ads that would encourage people to either stay home or not vote for Hillary (while also not voting for Trump). Apparently, it worked; the so-called Obama Coalition didn’t show up. And even though Trump underperformed Romney nationwide, he outperformed Romney in the places where it mattered most.


Racism certainly played a large part in electing Trump. After all, why would a nonracist vote for him in spite of the vile things he’s said about Mexicans, Muslims, African Americans, and so on? But race doesn’t paint the whole picture. Hillary lost counties that Obama—an African American man—carried in 2012. On the other hand, African Americans didn’t vote for Hillary in the same quantities they did for Obama. And Trump performed better with Latinos than Romney did. Ultimately, racism and misogyny were less important than economics. Many whites simply ignored those things; they voted for Trump not because of his racism, but in spite of it.

Hillary won the popular vote by over 400,000 votes as of this writing. But looking at the electoral map reveals that this election was a battle of The City versus The Country. The City won, but not in the right places. Because of the electoral college, Democratic concentration in a handful of states couldn’t overcome Republican presence in multiple states.

Education was a factor, as well. Voters with and without college degrees backed Obama and Romney by about the same amounts; however, voters with college degrees backed Hillary by nine points, whereas voters without backed Trump by eight points. Moreover, nearly twice as many white voters without a college degree supported Trump over Hillary. Plus, Trump got an additional four points of white college graduates over Hillary. Unlike the last two elections, if you were a white person of any age, gender, or education, it was more likely you voted for Trump.

The “Outsider” Theory

A recurring theme I’ve heard is that voters didn’t want a “Washington insider.” To the extent this is true (which it might not be), Trump is the prototypical outsider: he’s never held any elected office, anywhere, ever. Hillary, on the other hand, is the very definition of Washington insider: she’s been in Washington since 1993, whether as First Lady (and, at the time, a policy proponent—a position she quickly lost after the failure of so-called HillaryCare), U.S. senator, or Secretary of State. The spectacular defeat of every other Republican candidate, all of whom (except Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina) had some sort of electoral experience, tends to support the “outsider” theory.

The Media

Last summer, the announcement of Trump’s candidacy was greeted with derision as though it were a joke. This guy thinks he presidential material? For a very long time—too long, in fact—the media gave Trump a pass, and, indeed, encouraged him, gleefully reporting on every ludicrous thing he said or tweeted. It became clear that the need for Republican “debates” with more than 10 candidates was little more than a ratings-grab; networks like CNN or Fox News knew that people would tune in to see the latest colorful insult Trump had to hurl at his competitors. Trump received billions of dollars’ worth of free news coverage. All he had to do was say something over-the-top. Eventually, voters became numb to all the scandals; no single scandal had time to stick because, just as it was exiting the news cycle, another one popped up.

Only in September did The New York Times, after much agonizing, finally call Trump a liar. Networks like CNN followed with chryons calling out Trump’s blatant falsehoods, but by then it was too late. The media, in its quest for elusive “fairness,” had decided anything Trump said or did must be met with something Hillary said or did—something that they reinforced by continually referring to Hillary’s emails. Viewers got the impression that both candidates were equally unhinged and scandal-plagued, when in fact that wasn’t the case at all.

Because we spent so much time on circuses, we never got to down to the actual policy. What was Trump’s plan to “repeal and replace” Obamacare? He never really elaborated, and no one really asked. Were the American people aware that Trump’s tax plan was a gift to the wealthy that would greatly increase the national debt? Apparently not; also, no one cared. This election was about the personalities of the candidates, not anything substantive they brought to the table. The media encouraged this carnival.

The Candidate

Then we get to the thorniest issue of all: Hillary Clinton. The Clintons have been plagued by phony scandals ever since the ‘90s, whether it was Whitewater, one of the many “gates,” the emails, or the Clinton Foundation. None of these scandals ever amounted to much; each was a “nothingburger,” as David Plouff might say. At most, they revealed that Hillary, or Bill, or both, had a history of making dumb decisions and then buttoning up about them. But the quantity of the accusations left voters wondering, if she hasn’t done anything wrong, why are they always investigating her? It didn’t help that Hillary herself has a penchant for secrecy—no doubt brought about by the continuous investigations into her life—but that secrecy feeds the flames. When asked for the contents of the speeches she gave to Wall Street firms like Goldman Sachs, she refused, which suggested she had something to hide.

Furthermore, and I’ll say it explicitly, Hillary lies. They’re not big lies, certainly not on the scale of Trumpian lies, but she doesn’t always tell the whole truth. When asked why she used a private email server in the first place, Hillary said it was because she didn’t want to carry two devices. That turned out not to be true. Then she said no one had ever told her not to. Well, that’s true—but she also never asked. Then she justified it by claiming her predecessors had used personal email accounts. That was technically true, but Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice probably communicated with State Department officials through personal email accounts a dozen times, combined. These little things don’t amount to much individually, but added together, it gives the impression, even if mistaken, that Hillary is hiding something.

Finally, there’s the enthusiasm. Since 1992, the Clintons have led the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) wing of the Democratic Party. This wing, also called the New Democrats, formed after the repeated Democratic presidential losses of 1980—1988. The party concluded that, because Reagan was so popular, the key to winning the presidency was to be like Reagan. New Democrats were socially liberal but fiscally more conservative than their ancestors, leading to things like Bill Clinton’s welfare reform. In 2008, Barack Obama was elected on a platform that promised hope and change and sounded quite different from the DLC side of the party. In 2016, Hillary represented a return to the New Democrat style of governing, but that wasn’t what the country wanted anymore.

So what did the country want? I’ve heard no end of the claim that Bernie Sanders would have soundly beat Trump in the general election. That “what if” scenario, however, is based on polls taken eight months ago. If Tuesday’s election results are any indication, voters weren’t interested in a “progressive,” either; both Russ Feingold and Zephyr Teachout lost their respective races after campaigning on progressive platforms. Hillary soundly trounced Bernie in the primaries—without any DNC meddling, “rigging,” or anything like that. Hillary beat him by four million votes, fair and square. But as Bernie supporters noted at the time, she beat him in many places that were never in question. For example, Hillary beat Bernie 2–1 in Texas, but was Texas going to turn Democratic? She beat Bernie in states Obama lost in 2012, like Georgia, Arkansas, and Mississippi. On the flip side, she also beat Bernie in Democratic strongholds like California and New York. But Bernie beat her in Wisconsin and (narrowly) Michigan, two states which, incredulously, turned the tide of the general election. (On the other hand, she also beat Bernie in states Obama won in 2012, like Florida and Ohio, so it’s hard to draw any conclusions from these figures.)

All of this is to say that it’s not clear Bernie, a self-avowed socialist, would have fared better. Many voters were concerned with a rise in insurance premiums. Imagine how the Republicans would have spun Bernie’s insistence on single-payer; i.e., government-run health care. Like I said, it’s not clear what the country wanted. It just didn’t want Hillary Clinton. But it’s also not clear they wanted someone “progressive.”

In the end, Hillary wasn’t at all the perfect candidate. She was exceptionally qualified, but the voters didn’t seem to care; indeed, a plurality of voters chose the opposite of qualification. Perhaps it’s because “qualified” can be synonymous with “I’ve been a politician for a long time”—something the voters didn’t want. Those damn emails didn’t help either, and it’s likely James Comey’s eleventh-hour letter to Congress—which, he later admitted, amounted to nothing—sealed Hillary’s fate.

The Perfect Storm

In the end, it looks like all of these things, The Perfect Storm, conspired to elect Donald Trump. It was improbable, but, as Nate Silver constantly hedged, not impossible. Enough disaffected whites who voted for Obama were more than willing to look the other way when Trump insulted women, minorities, and disabled people. They were more concerned with his outlandish promises that the good manufacturing jobs requiring only a high school education were coming back. Furthermore, the group Hillary called the “deplorables” came out in force. They were never interested in economic growth, and they didn’t vote for Trump in spite of his racism; they voted for him because of it. They’re white men and white women, college educated and non-college-educated, young and old, and they’re growing scared that minorities are in positions of power. President Obama doesn’t look like them, and increasingly, people on TV don’t look like them. This, they feel, isn’t the way things are supposed to be. They—white people—are supposed to be in charge, and minorities are not. That’s not to say they necessarily think minorities should be persecuted, but they should undoubtedly know their place, and that place is one of subordination. With the election of Trump, they hope things will go back to the way they used to be, when any white man could walk into a room and be in charge by default.

Finally, the enthusiasm gap destroyed Hillary. The vaunted Obama Coalition didn’t show up for her. This election, we should have realized, was all backwards. It wasn’t about who the voters liked; it was about who they disliked less. Obama inspired people; Hillary didn’t. Hillary was the “eat your vegetables” candidate, and millennials—whose only political experience thus far was with a hip, youngish man not entirely unlike them—expected every election to contain someone like that. Had they been alive a little longer, they’d have realized an Obama is the exception, not the rule. In 2004, John Kerry was the “eat your vegetables” candidate: Democrats were expected to vote for him because he wasn’t George W. Bush. Democrats did not, and Kerry, like Hillary (and unlike Al Gore in 2000), lost narrowly, although unlike Hillary, Kerry also lost the popular vote. As it turns out, “enthusiasm” is real.

Now What?

It’s been disheartening to realize that a plurality of the country could excuse Trump’s racism, his misogyny, his xenophobia, his Islamophobia, his lack of understanding or intelligence, his childish temperament, his vindictiveness, or his pathological lying. Any one of these reasons would have been a disqualifying trait 20 years ago. Instead, his voters lapped it up. For that reason, I’m not sure I can forgive and forget. Sure, you may have voted for Trump because of the economy or because Hillary was “crooked”—but you did so despite knowing that Trump is a terrible person with all the above-mentioned negative traits. It’s like they used to say about Mussolini: at least he made the trains run on time.

The rise of Trump is less worrisome than the rise of Trump-ism, which takes all of those negative personality traits about Trump and packages them into a normalized worldview. Mitt Romney, John McCain, George W. Bush—they all had bad policies, but were they bad people? Of Trump I can say, yes: he’s a bad person. He shouldn’t have been allowed to ascend to the most powerful office in the world. The things he believes have no place at the helm of a 21st-century liberal democracy. And yet, there he sits, setting an example for racists everywhere that racism is okay again.

Trump’s victory speech was more conciliatory than anyone expected. Rather than boast and brag, he urged the nation to come together. He even thanked Hillary for her years of public service. What happened to “Crooked Hillary”? Why was he thanking his enemy? Like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get with Trump. Because he’s hungry for attention, he’ll do and say whatever he thinks gets him that attention. It may very well be that he has no ethical system at all. One thing is for certain: Garrison Keillor (one of those intellectual elites that you can probably safely ignore) wrote this week in The Washington Post that the first group to feel the brunt of the Trump presidency will be his supporters. Places like California and New York believe in social safety systems; their citizens will be fine as Republicans in Congress gleefully begin the process of dismantling every single bit of Obama’s legacy. But in Trump strongholds throughout the country, Republican governors and legislatures have repudiated the social safety net, gutting what remains of “welfare” and refusing Medicaid funds that would help the populations who are most in need of it. Writes Keillor, “The uneducated white males who elected him are the vulnerable ones, and they will not like what happens next.”