Timothy Stanley: A year later, the 2016 election still transfixes liberals
If they want to win, liberals should instead focus on energizing the left and occupying the center for the future, he writes
Editor’s Note: Timothy Stanley is a historian and columnist for Britain’s Daily Telegraph. He is the author of “Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration Between LA and DC Revolutionized American Politics.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
On November 8, thousands of Americans say they will mark the anniversary of Donald Trump’s election by meeting across the country to “scream helplessly at the sky.” The Facebook page for the event in New York says 2,500 will attend and 15,000 are interested. I’m skeptical: The mood seems ironic, and the cool weather might put people off. But Trump would love it. He lives for division, he succeeds by driving his opponents mad. Screaming is a concession of defeat.
The emotions implied are understandable. Not only was Trump not supposed to win in 2016 on account of his personality and views, but also, by some counts, he didn’t win. He lost the popular vote and captured the electoral college so narrowly that but for 80,000 people in three states, he would’ve lost.
To the liberal mind, he triumphed by error, by accident, by Hillary Clinton’s own fault – forgetting to campaign properly in Michigan the same way that you might forget to fasten a window and, damn it, you let a burglar in. These are the tantalizing “what-ifs” of history that keep us all living on a knife edge. What if James Comey hadn’t announced that the FBI was looking at some emails related to Hillary Clinton just days before the election?
The answer is that he did, so deal with it. The Democrats’ constant, tortured analysis of what went wrong, howling at the moon in anger or jest, is not only backward-looking but an insult to the voters who made the rational decision to switch to Donald Trump.
They aren’t all racists. They weren’t all duped. They weighed up the candidacies of Trump and Clinton and concluded, on balance, that one represented change and the other continuity.
Having Clinton constantly on TV a year later – like some exiled monarch, still furious with the peasants that threw her out – only reinforces the sense that the Democrats are less angry with Trump than they’re angry with the voters. And that is no way to win a future election.
It’s a false analysis. Trump didn’t win by luck and, although it’s too soon to say for definite, I don’t think he won by conspiracy either. He won because he identified with the despair of enough people in precisely enough parts of the country. And the very fact that the inspiration for the liberal scream fest came from a Boston Facebook group, now shut down, points to the challenge that many liberals simply don’t live in the parts of the country that feel this existential pain.
That’s not a judgment on liberals: Not everyone who voted for Clinton was a rich, white college student. On the contrary, she won comfortably among those demographics who probably have the strongest claim to be alienated, marginalized and in real need of help, although not as convincingly as Barack Obama did.
Meanwhile, Trump, the outsider, managed to identify the concerns of powerful constituencies in the heartland: rising crime, bad infrastructure, war and job loss. Were his solutions the best? Most of the country thought not. Has his time in office begun to turn things around? Slowly, maybe, we hope. But the point is that on that November 8, 2016, Trump spoke to many Democratic voters in a way that the actual Democratic nominee failed to do. Rather than being frustrated at the Republicans for that, it makes more sense to scrutinize the Democratic Party.
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This is happening: It feels like there might be a reckoning over the charge that Clinton and the DNC “rigged” last year’s primaries. But where is the new generation of candidates to challenge Trump in 2020? What is the answer to Trump’s new direction in foreign policy and trade? Is there a center-ground to fight on in the culture, a safe space from both televangelists and gender-bending radical pronouns?
Trump’s popular support has slipped since last year, narrowing and solidifying on the hard-right of American life. The Democrats have to both energize the left and occupy the center, which is very hard to do. But screaming publicly or internally won’t help. Liberals risk becoming as obsessed with Trump’s election victory as he is – locked in a never-ending debate about the past, while the rest of the country dreams of moving on.