One has to tip his cap to President-elect Donald Trump and his core supporters.
They knew all year what no polling model could predict; the established trench systems of the Republican and Democratic parties as we’ve known them for more than a half century were about to be overrun by working-class Americans who couldn’t give a hoot about the top brass and its damnable battle lines.
Tuesday night was a mutiny against the old order and its entrenched squabbles, an insurrection, a storming of the Winter Palace. It was also a beauty to behold in a We-the-People way, even to this utterly humiliated Never Trumper. Sometimes “the man” has to lose.
That doesn’t make Tuesday’s election results any less worrisome.
President-elect Trump is ideologically unmoored. No one knows for sure what he will do in the White House. Will he follow up on his most controversial campaign pledges like establishing a Muslim citizen database, or will he drop them into a wastebasket marked “successful 2016 campaign rhetoric”? Will he actually move to deport 12 million people living here illegally?
There was a hint of one aspect of Trump’s thinking in his conciliatory 3 a.m. victory speech.
He spoke about rebuilding America’s infrastructure and its inner cities, which makes sense for an old developer like he. Could it be that Trump is planning a massive WPA-type spending program to put tens of thousands of Americans back to work on the government dime? And will he do that while repealing Obamacare, defunding government agencies long in Republican crosshairs, like the U.S. Education Department, and creating a national daycare system led by his daughter Ivanka?
Actions like these would normally be incongruous. But Trump and his coalition of voters just blew up political norms. Trump is neither a conservative nor a progressive; he’s unrestrained by established American orthodoxy. In other words, anything could happen.
Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell are no doubt pleased to have retained their majorities on Tuesday. But they need to be careful what they wished for: They are now the check on Trump’s big government impulses.
Trump is leading a vast army of voters, many of whom don’t hew to small government dogma. Lots of them want stuff, and they don’t particularly care who pays for it or how much it adds to the national debt. Will Ryan and McConnell stand firm, or will the Republican Party surrender its already tenuous claim to fiscal prudence in order to keep winning elections?
Democrats, too, are facing a structural challenge.
Long the party of the American working class, Democrats are now widely viewed as the party of the elites. If the lunch bucket was once the symbol of its average voter, it’s now the glass of Pinot Noir. Does that party filibuster Obamacare repeal and Trump’s proposed strategic tax cuts and risk alienating his coalition of the forgotten? Or do they play along to try to woo back their former base? Does the leftward-drifting Democratic Party move itself back to the rhetorical center over the next four years? And if it does, how would progressives react?
There are far more questions than answers on the minds of Americans today. But one thing is clear: Trump and his voters have upended the American political system in spectacular fashion.
Adieu, le ancien regime.
William F. B. O’Reilly is a consultant for Republicans.