The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Reflections from a progressive on what just happened and what it means going forward

Protesters march past burned garbage in downtown Oakland, Calif., on Nov. 9. President-elect Donald Trump’s victory set off protests. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group via AP)
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Some of us woke up to an America that was hard for us to recognize. That’s surely because we are an even more divided country than I thought, but it’s also because we, or at least I, don’t adequately understand what motivates so many people to make what I see as such a reckless choice.

Though there are many numbers still to be parsed, a few early observations suggest how the upset occurred.

First, while the polls broadly failed to pick up the extent of Donald Trump’s support, the result also reminds one how important it is to understand basic probability, something we humans are not hard-wired to do. My take from the poll aggregators, such as the Upshot or 538, was that going into Tuesday night, Trump had something between a 15 percent and 30 percent chance of winning. Well, occurrences with those odds happen not infrequently.

This moved my thinking: A couple of days ago, Nate Cohn wrote that “A victory by Mr. Trump remains possible: Mrs. Clinton’s chance of losing is about the same as the probability that an N.F.L. kicker misses a 37-yard field goal.” Now, I hardly watch football, but I thought to myself, “Hmmm. I’ve seen kickers miss that field goal. And I seldom watch football. So clearly this ain’t over.”

As I understand some early takes, two basic factors were in play. First, people didn’t tell pollsters their true intentions. Second, when political polls fail these days, it’s almost always a matter of getting the turnout projections wrong. Trump managed to significantly ratchet up the turnout among his supporters while Hillary Clinton managed the opposite feat. I suspect we’ll find out that his base far surpassed turnout predictions, and vice-versa for her base. His base may also have been broader than was commonly understood (see point about how people don’t tell the truth to pollsters) as more nonurban, college-educated voters and Hispanic men (?!?!) may have tilted his way.

So what happens now? A few random thoughts, FWIW, ranging from unspecified nausea to budget minutiae.

— I’ve long argued that government dysfunction is much more than a crass political tactic. It’s an overarching, antigovernment strategy with the ultimate goal of proving to a broad swath of the electorate that government only makes things worse. Therefore, it must be defunded and shrunk. The ultimate goal of the strategy is to provide large tax cuts to the wealthy and, if possible, significantly reduce social insurance.

— In Trump’s run, this strategy took on a number of extremely potent themes. Not only is government feckless, but it’s providing a leg up to bad people who want to disrupt our way of life. Trump argued that he could get rid of those people and restore that way of life. Even while some of his supporters didn’t believe he could do so, the message still strongly resonated.

— The other piece of this potent argument was the view that Clinton’s agenda was to ratchet up this role of government, further displacing white America while providing opportunity that should be theirs to immigrants, Muslims, Mexicans, minorities, women, etc.

— The extent to which establishment members of both parties have long ignored the damage that globalization has done to communities in areas where the Trump vote was strongest cannot be overemphasized. Putting aside any commentary about the merits or shortcomings of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, it is remarkable that while this election was being contested, the Obama administration was, as it is, planning to try to pass the TPP in the lame-duck session. Again, let’s grant that the TPP is an awesomely great trade agreement. Proceeding with the status quo at this moment suggests how out of touch our leaders are on the perceived impact of globalization.

— While I was skeptical about how much Clinton could accomplish with the tough Congress I expected her to be facing, I thought that a key part of her agenda would be protecting gains made by Obama, including Obamacare, Dodd-Frank financial regulations and the executive orders and rule changes. All of these — every single one — is at great risk and is unlikely, I fear, to survive. I know that sounds sweeping but I predict that at the first sign of filibuster in the Senate, where the R’s remain short of a 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority, Senate leadership will invoke the “nuclear option,” enabling them to pass legislation and approve Supreme Court justices with 51 votes.

— Similarly, everyone needs to learn about a legislative tactic called budget reconciliation. It’s basically a process by which the Senate can avoid the filibuster, and in a government where one side holds both the White House and simple congressional majorities, reconciliation allows big-ticket items to reach the president’s desk that, absent this tactic, would have died in the Senate. To be sure, Democrats have used reconciliation to great effect themselves: It’s how Obamacare got passed. George W. Bush used it to jam his tax cuts through, and I predict Trump/Paul Ryan/Mitch McConnell will follow that model. Pulling this off requires phony budgeting, like pretending your tax cuts will sunset with the budget window, but something tells me that won’t be much of a constraint.

— I further fear that all of the above will exacerbate inequality, slow growth (both through anti-immigrant impacts on labor supply and anti-investment impacts on productivity), damage global markets, reduce trade flows, undermine the Federal Reserve (Trump will be able to appoint numerous Fed governors), and leave the federal government largely unable to respond to the next recession.

I don’t have an uplifting ending, but like many to whom I’ve spoken, I’m shellshocked. I know we’re a resilient nation and have survived many an existential threat. “This too shall pass” is a source of comfort. But I don’t see how there isn’t a lot of pain between where we are now and the other side of what just happened.