In a fitting conclusion to this surreal presidential campaign, it seems that those who wished both major-party candidates could lose have had their wishes granted, in a manner of speaking.
Donald Trump narrowly lost the popular vote; Hillary Clinton lost in the Electoral College. Of course, the latter is the only one that matters, which means that we are now facing the unthinkable: President Trump.
What happened? And what now?
For some, the answer to the first question is clear: White America is deeply sexist and racist. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that Barack Obama carried quite a few of the counties and states that have now gone red. And while Trump has defeated a female opponent who is, by any measure, vastly more qualified for the job than he is, sexism can hardly explain that during the Republican primaries he defeated 17 better-qualified opponents, all but one of them men.
The standard explanation for Trump’s success is the economic anxiety driving the backlash from the “forgotten” white working class. But Trump voters were also driven by anger that their beliefs and values were held in contempt by the elites. Resentment of “political correctness” — which encompasses everything from rhetoric that demonizes whites and males to intolerance toward dissent from progressive dogma — undoubtedly played a role as well.
However, while the left deserves its share of blame for creating its own backlash, so does the conservative movement for harboring the extremism that enabled Trump’s rise — everything from conspiracy theories to the demonization of liberals, immigrants and Muslims.
Too often, mainstream conservatives who do not share these views did not repudiate peddlers of hatred and paranoia such as Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh. With Trumpism, the chickens have come home to roost.
Yet numbers also show that the 2016 vote was less a surge in enthusiasm for Trump (whose totals were about the same as for John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012) than a major dip in enthusiasm for Clinton, compared with Barack Obama. Amid a backlash against the political establishment, she was seen as its personification: a candidate with strong ties to Wall Street and to failed foreign policy initiatives, including the war in Iraq.
An even worse Clinton problem was the trail of scandal. One can debate whether the hits she took were fair: the last-minute FBI announcement of a new investigation into her private email server, the erroneous report that indictments were imminent over the practices of the Clinton Foundation, the Wikileaks disclosures of Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee emails that often inflated fairly innocuous passages into shocking malfeasance. (The blatant targeting of Clinton by Wikileaks, very likely working in tandem with Russia, also raises disturbing questions about foreign interference in the election.)
Nonetheless, the fact remains that Clinton badly handicapped by her baggage, some of it going back to her time as first lady. Her handling of the email scandal shows both recklessness and failure of honesty (however maddening it may be that she lost to a serial liar). And one reason Trump could survive multiple allegations of sexual misconduct — and the revelation of a 2005 tape that showed him bragging about repulsive, arguably criminal behavior toward women — is that Clinton could be plausibly accused of enabling and covering up similar misconduct by her husband.
At the end of his awful campaign, Trump gave a surprisingly gracious, even humble acceptance speech. This hardly removes the apprehensions about his ability to govern. The best we can do is hope that Trump proves better than his past, and that the American political system is still effective at constraining excess.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.