I’m starting this blog because I don’t want to look back at some point in the future and say, “I wish I’d said something.” I’ve already had that thought too many times to count over the last month, as I’ve looked back on the 18 months leading up to the election. Because I knew from Day One that a President Donald Trump was possible. I said it in passing to my sister, in one-on-one conversation with friends, in occasional comments on Facebook. But I wish I had said it louder, with a bigger megaphone, to anyone who would listen. I wish I had shouted from the rooftops, “We need to take Donald Trump seriously. Don’t laugh him off. He can win the whole darn thing.” I don’t know if it would’ve made a difference. Probably not. But at least I’d know I had tried.
When I first sat down to write this post, I wanted to lay out all the things I saw developing over the last eight years that led me to realize we’d reached a place where a man like Donald Trump could win the Presidency. But that was turning into a very long, unwieldy post, and I don’t want to bore you to pieces before you even get to know me! So instead, I’ll try to give a more general overview, beginning with this bottom line: I had been observing over those years the phenomenon that became clear to most everyone by the end of the election – that there’s a pretty large group of Americans out there who are very angry, very frustrated & have completely lost trust in most of our institutions.
This manifested most prominently as (1) anger at both the Democratic & Republican “establishment”, (2) anger toward & mistrust of the mainstream media & increasing reliance on alternative media sources (which has led to the now much discussed “fake news” problem), and (3) anger toward “elites,” the definition of which can vary by user. Perhaps most infuriating to this angry/frustrated segment of the public: many of them viewed these 3 groups as conspiring together to hold on to their power, willing to do whatever it took to keep their grip on the reins while locking everyone else out.* Trump exploited this sentiment expertly, but he didn’t create it. It had already been simmering for years by the start of the 2016 race.** To some degree, it had been developing for decades (going back to the days when Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh entered the scene), but during the Obama era it expanded & accelerated with ferocity.***
So when Trump blew into the primary contest, all angry outbursts & bluster, I just had a feeling that this angry, frustrated camp had found its man. They wanted to know someone felt their anger and would express it for them. They weren’t just looking for the right words, they wanted to see that someone truly had the emotion to go along with it. Trump could do that like no one else. Even better, he was doing it with the mindset & image of a winner – a winner who knew how to make you a winner too. (Compare this to 2012’s Rick Santorum, who very much directed his appeal to similar targets but somehow came across more like a whiner than a winner & could never really gain much enthusiasm from voters). After years of fecklessness in Washington and years spent on the losing end of the resulting corruption (in the view of these voters), Trump had the combination they’d been waiting for.
Trump then quickly had his first real “controversy” of the primary season, where he criticized John McCain’s hero status, saying, “I like people who weren’t captured.” The media predictably went nuts, with all of the outlets saying that was the end for Trump, he was through, and I suddenly had a very disconcerting realization: “wow, they have really not been paying attention these last 8 years.” A friend posted on Facebook that Trump was obviously done, and I replied “No way. The people who like Trump hate John McCain. And they hate the media who are piling on him even more. This is just gonna make them cheer Trump even harder.” And it did. And that was pretty much the story of the entire election cycle – wash, rinse, repeat.
At the same time, it was clear to me that if Trump did indeed become the nominee, he would have at least as good a chance at winning the general election as a more conventional Republican candidate would have. It was obvious that Republicans officials (e.g. Rick Perry, Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz) would ultimately line up behind him no matter what sorts of extremely negative things they were saying about him during the primary, even things that were far outside the bounds of typical campaign rhetoric. The opportunity to control Washington, enact their agenda & reverse Obama’s legacy would far outweigh any concerns expressed about Trump during the primary. (See my book recommendation below for an analysis of how the political parties – the Republican party in particular – have become increasingly tribal).
And it was predictable that Republican voters – even most of those expressing apprehension about Trump – would overwhelmingly line up behind him as well. This coalescing was entirely foreseeable because politics today has become polarized to a degree we’ve never seen before, with voters on each side feeling intensely negative toward members of the opposing party. Around half on each side even say the other party makes them feel “afraid.” In an environment like that, it wasn’t hard to predict that the vast majority of voters would stick with their party, regardless of the candidate (even one they had grave reservations about) rather than venture over to the other side.
So I mentioned these concerns in passing to a handful of friends who shared my interest in politics, but that was basically it. And eventually, like most other anti-Trumpers, I became reassured by the polls, which were so consistent for so long, it was hard to doubt them. And now I regret that I didn’t yell louder & longer. So starting today I’m going to yell as loud as I can for as long as I can. I’m going to try my best to hold Trump and his administration accountable. To document what they are doing, especially when they casually shatter our centuries-old norms or take steps toward dismantling our democracy. I won’t be able to cover everything, but I’m going to try to cover the things that I think are the most important or that aren’t getting enough attention elsewhere. I’ll also cover some things that are just interesting or entertaining, (and non-Trump stuff as well), because we’re all definitely going to need a break every once in a while! And that – to sum it up – is why I’m here.
* Note: I realize this sounds like an over-generalization, and it is. But I do recognize that the anger & the mistrust – there were different reasons for it. So while I believe that many people ended up with the same pent up emotion that, by 2016, was ready to explode, I don’t think that it all had the same origin. (In some future posts I may talk about where I think some of the anger came from & how Trump capitalized on it).
**In fact, we saw this restlessness stirring in the GOP base during the 2012 primary. Though the GOP had, up to that point, nearly always given the nomination to the previous cycle’s runner up, Mitt Romney actually had a fairly difficult time securing the nomination in 2012. He was challenged by a host of Tea Party-type, anti-establishment candidates who ran against Washington. For much of the primary process, these candidates, together, gathered a slight majority in the GOP polls and voting.
But unlike this year with Trump, no individual candidate among them could ever capture a majority. Republican voters swung wildly from candidate to candidate, searching for an outsider candidate to fall in love with, but each time they’d grab on to one, something seemed to happen to send voters running to the next one. (Michele Bachmann had a turn in the sun, followed by Rick Perry, then Herman Cain, and finally Newt Gingrich who yes, somehow managed to position himself as an outsider). While the “anti” voters were splitting their votes among those candidates, Mitt Romney, as the only establishment candidate, was able to rack up enough votes to keep himself going for the long haul until his competition eventually narrowed.
***If you’re interested in the institutional history of how some of this dysfunction & mistrust in our politics developed, beginning with Newt Gingrich but most particularly during the Obama era, I highly recommend reading, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, by well- respected political scientists Thomas Mann & Norman Ornstein. The book was originally written after Obama’s first term, so it focuses on that time period, but they’ve updated it a couple times since, including (I think) with some Trump material.