The Democrats will now control next to nothing above the municipal level. Donald Trump will be president. We are going to be unpacking this night for the rest of our lives, and lives beyond that. We can’t comprehend even 1 percent of what’s just happened. But one aspect of it, minor in the overall sweep, that I’m pretty sure we can comprehend well enough right now: The Democratic Party establishment has beclowned itself and is finished.
I think of the lawmakers, the consultants, the operatives, and—yes—the center-left media, and how everything said over the past few years leading up to this night was bullshit.
The midterm losses? That was just a bad cycle, structurally speaking; presidential demographics would make up for it. The party establishment made a grievous mistake rallying around Hillary Clinton. It wasn’t just a lack of recent political seasoning. She was a bad candidate, with no message beyond heckling the opposite sideline. She was a total misfit for both the politics of 2016 and the energy of the Democratic Party as currently constituted. She could not escape her baggage, and she must own that failure herself.
Theoretically smart people in the Democratic Party should have known that. And yet they worked giddily to clear the field for her. Every power-hungry young Democrat fresh out of law school, every rising lawmaker, every old friend of the Clintons wanted a piece of the action. This was their ride up the power chain. The whole edifice was hollow, built atop the same unearned sense of inevitability that surrounded Clinton in 2008, and it collapsed, just as it collapsed in 2008, only a little later in the calendar. The voters of the party got taken for a ride by the people who controlled it, the ones who promised they had everything figured out and sneeringly dismissed anyone who suggested otherwise. They promised that Hillary Clinton had a lock on the Electoral College. These people didn’t know what they were talking about, and too many of us in the media thought they did.
We should blame all those people around the Clintons more than the Clintons themselves, and the Clintons themselves deserve a ridiculous amount of blame. Hillary Clinton was just an ambitious person who wanted to be president. There are a lot of people like that. But she was enabled. The Democratic establishment is a club unwelcoming to outsiders, because outsiders don’t first look out for the club. The Clintons will be gone now. For the sake of the country, let them take the hangers-on with them.
What was the line? Hillary Clinton would do well in a general election, because she’d been “vetted” for 20-some years and there was nothing new Republicans could try? Just writing that, I recognize that it’s the funniest line I’ve ever seen, and yet it was the exact argument Clinton used in two separate campaigns for the Democratic nomination.
The ace ground game, the brilliant ad-makers, the top Hollywood talent, and the best analytics operation ever assembled? This was all a joke. The best analytics team in the world, apparently, couldn’t find in their numbers that it was worth making a single stop to Wisconsin following the convention in a campaign against a Republican whose base appeal was in the Rust Belt. Not that an extra visit would have changed the result.
Think of how wrong the entire national media conversation was—and yes, I contributed my fair share—about how the Republicans were being torn apart as a party. I prewrote a piece Tuesday afternoon, to be published in the event of the expected Clinton win, pushing back against both myself and other members of the media, arguing that Democrats and Republicans were both in existential trouble and that, in the short-term context of a decaying political system, Republicans might even have the edge: Democrats could win the presidency most of the time but never a majority of state governments or the House; while Republicans could always win the majority of state governments and the House, and occasionally—probably in 2020, I thought—the White House. This was wrong. Republicans don’t have a slight edge over Democrats in a decaying political system. Republicans are ascendant. Trump has given them a mission. The country is now theirs.
Whoever takes over what’s left of the Democratic Party is going to have to find a way to appeal to a broader cross section of the country. It may still be true that in the long term, Republicans can’t win with their demographics, but we found out Tuesday that the long term is still pretty far away. Democrats have to win more white voters. They have to do so in a way that doesn’t erode the anti-racist or anti-sexist planks of the modern party, which are non-negotiable. If only there were a model for this.
The few Democratic leaders who remain are going to say that it was just a bad note struck here or there, or the lazy Bernie voters who didn’t show up, or Jim Comey, or unfair media coverage of Clinton’s emails, to blame for this loss. I am already seeing Democrats blaming the Electoral College, which until a few hours ago was hailed as the great protector of Democratic virtue for decades to come, and Republicans were silly for not understanding how to crack the blue “wall.” They will say, just wait for Republicans to overreach. Then we’ll be fine.
Don’t listen to any of this. Everything is not OK. This is not OK.