The 2016 Election is Not Reversible

Today, the bipartisan ruling class, which the electorate was trying to shed by supporting anti-establishment candidates of both parties in 2016, feels as if it has dodged the proverbial bullet. The Trump administration has not managed to staff itself—certainly not with anti-establishment people—and may never do so. Because the prospect of that happening brought the ruling class’s several elements together and energized them as never before, today, prospects of more power with fewer limits than ever eclipse the establishment’s fears of November 2016.

But the Left’s celebrations are premature, at best. As I explained a year ago, by 2016 the ruling class’s dysfunctions and the rest of the country’s resentment had pushed America over the threshold of a revolution; one in which the only certainty is the near impossibility of returning to the republican self-government of the previous two centuries. The 2016 election is not reversible, because it was but the first stage of a process that no one can control and the end of which no one can foresee.

Trump’s troubles

The Left’s optimism is not unfounded. Trump, in his Afghanistan speech, told his voters that he is reversing a campaign promise because he was instructed that his, and their, basic instincts on foreign affairs are wrong. Similarly influenced, he is continuing to use unappropriated funds to subsidize insurance companies that practice Obamacare even though a Federal Court held this to be unconstitutional—far from undoing it as he had promised. Nevertheless he complies with rulings by single judges that overturn major political commitments of his. Unforced errors, all.

Meanwhile, the leaders of the Republican majorities in the Senate and House reject responsibility for failing to repeal Obamacare and even for failing to pass ordinary appropriations bills. They take every occasion to distance themselves from Trump, notably imputing to him insufficient disdain for racism and other political taboos. When Corporate America withdrew from the president’s business council, it premised this officious separation on implicit accusations of the same sort. In short, the Republican establishment now joins Hillary Clinton in leveling “deplorable” allegations against Trump and, above all, of his supporters. Nevertheless, Trump agreed to endorse that establishment’s candidate in the Alabama senatorial primary against one of his own supporters. Counterintuitive.

Not incidentally, he well-nigh cleansed his White House staff of people who had supported his election, and put it in the hands of persons who just as easily could have been in a Clinton White House—people who agree with the press that their job is to control Trump. Secretary of State Tillerson’s remark that the President’s words on America’s values are merely his private opinion epitomizes this transfer of effective power.

With the Left in full cry, the Republican majorities in the House and Senate put no legislative obstacles in the way of the “resistance” to the 2016 election. These Republicans, having now effectively demonstrated that the arguments that won them four consecutive election cycles were insincere, can no longer reprise them. Believing that the 2016 elections were an anomaly the effects of which they are containing, that Trump will pass and the “resistance” with him, they move from putting distance between themselves and Trump to defining themselves against him and with “moderate Democrats”  in concert with whom they hope to enjoy their powers.

Trump himself, far from leading public opinion from the bulliest of pulpits, limits himself to “tweets” of 140 characters, which observers from all sides characterize as “plaintive.” In short, the ruling class’s “resistance” met feeble resistance—that is, insofar as it concerns Donald Trump.

Donald Trump is not and never has been the issue. With or without Trump, the nightmare of those who resist the 2016 election was, is, and will remain the voters who have chosen and will continue to choose candidates who they believe are committed to reducing the ruling class’s privileges and pretensions.  

It’s the contempt, stupid!

That is why the “resistance” has increased rather than diminished the 2016 election’s import as a revolutionary event. To ordinary Americans, the winds that now blow downwind from society’s commanding heights make the country seem more alien than ever before. More than ever, academics, judges, the media, corporate executives, and politicians of all kinds, having arrogated moral legitimacy to their own socio-political identities, pour contempt upon the rest of America. Private as well as public life in our time is subject to their escalating insults, their unending new conditions on what one may or may not say, even on what one must say, to hold a job or otherwise to participate in society.

As I  have argued at length elsewhere, the cultural division between privileged, government-connected elites and the rest of the country has turned twenty-first century politics in America into a cold civil war between hostile socio-political identities.

During the 2016 primaries the U.S electorate’s obvious, consistent, attempt to affirm its identity in contrast with those of the ruling class set aside concerns about particular policies. It produced Donald Trump as the Republican candidate because his campaign was all about identifying himself with those Americans who had felt most keenly the abuse coming from above. Socialist Bernie Sanders almost became the Democratic candidate (but for his party machinery’s interference) by showing that he was even more in tune than Clinton with his constituency’s arrogation of moral supremacy over the rest of the country. In sum, the 2016 elections were won and lost on the ground of this new kind of identity politics.

The ruling class and its Democratic Party had been practicing identity politics with increasing intensity for more than a generation. The elections’ outcome convinced them that they needed to engage in it just about exclusively, and in a warlike manner. Possessed of the modern administrative state’s manifold levers of power, they expect to win that war. That is unlikely, if only because its components’ notions of their respective identities’ demands are ever expanding. Hence they preclude imposing any extended peace among themselves, never mind with the rest of America. This impossibility of socio-political peace is the reason why the revolution in which we are living is just getting started.

By contrast, however, the post 2016 Republican Party is perhaps even more wary than ever of embodying the socio-political identities of the people who have been voting Republican. Hence, with the Republican Party disqualifying itself from the battle that is actually taking place, there is no political vehicle that exists by which Americans may challenge the ruling class.

There is much demand for such a vehicle. How may the political marketplace supply it?

What now?

President Donald Trump is the obvious, first-order answer. Anyone possessed of the enormous institutional and political powers of the modern U.S. presidency is better placed to make victims than to be one. Most recently, Barack Obama showed that the practical limit of a “stop me if you can” presidency is the one-third of the Senate needed to block impeachment. Obama decided not to enforce laws on the books and to create new ones by executive order. When courts intervened, he ignored them. Always, he accompanied his “pen and phone” actions with explanations that excited his supporters’ support while casting aspersions on the people they love to hate. For better or worse, Americans who wanted to reverse what Obama had done rejected outright candidates who they felt would be hampered by the Republican Party. And they were less moved by Constitutional scholar Ted Cruz than by Donald Trump, whose demeanor promised that he would do for them what Obama had done to them.

Let us be clear: the 2016 electorate chose Trump and they saw Trump as the vehicle by which to challenge the ruling class. During the first half of 2017, the Republican Party finished discrediting itself as a possible vehicle for that job. Since this is so, were Donald Trump seriously to bid for the presidency in 2020, it would have to be by leading a new party focused on the identities of anti-ruling class Americans. Carrying the Republican label would be an impossible burden.

Were an energetic, unambiguous, unapologetic Trump to affirm the majority of Americans’ political identity, not all Republicans would follow. Nor does he need them all. By bringing new elements into his following and, yes, by dropping some Republicans from it, Trump would effectively build a new party, with intact credibility. The departure of major corporations from his business council—big business is deeply unpopular on Main Street America—is an example of  how to gain by shedding baggage. At any rate, it was never possible that the entire Republican Party would represent America against the ruling class.

align=”right” Let us be clear: the 2016 electorate chose Trump and they saw Trump as the vehicle by which to challenge the ruling class. During the first half of 2017, the Republican Party finished discrediting itself as a possible vehicle for that job. Since this is so, were Donald Trump seriously to bid for the presidency in 2020, it would have to be by leading a new party focused on the identities of anti-ruling class Americans. Carrying the Republican label would be an impossible burden.

But by the same token, each action taken by anyone who is creating a new movement must speak for itself more loudly and clearly than the words used to explain that action. Democracy does not tolerate pairing big words with small accomplishments. Today, Trump’s role in fulfilling the political marketplace’s demand is up to him even more than it was in 2016. But now as then, America’s open political marketplace invites all. The anti ruling class constituency is bigger than ever. If Trump does not lead it, someone else will.

2020 politics

Regardless of what Trump does or does not do, America’s cold civil war is likely to be waged between three or four sets of constituencies, each with its own identity. Herewith one estimate of how and why each may fare in the elections of 2020.

The ruling class’s set—educators, blacks, never-married women, government employees, corporate executives, etc. will enter the contest with enormous advantages in organization, and with a near monopoly of favorable media attention. But its constituencies seem to be contracting a bit rather than expanding. Disillusionment of some blacks with the rewards received for faithfulness, and of young people with the Democratic Party’s bureaucratization, demonstrate key weaknesses in this coalition, as does its substitution of insult and penalty for attempts to convince those outside of it. Nevertheless, almost surely, the Democratic Party will be the #1 or #2 recipient of popular and electoral votes.

It is impossible to tell at this point to what extent the Democratic party may lose the farthest Left  parts of its left wing. That is because the Party’s extreme Left—violent in word and deed—has been its only area of growth and enthusiasm. But while the Left’s defection would surely push the Party leftward and could harm its prospects, it is difficult to imagine it putting a dent in the party’s rock-solid organization, never mind contending for electoral votes.

The ruling class’s violent “resistance” to the 2016 results has whipped together the coalition that elected Trump in 2016. That coalition, consists of that three-fourths of Republican voters  dissatisfied with the Party’s leadership and who now hate it, anti-establishment independents, and even Democrats turned off by their Party’s anti-nationalism as well as its embrace of abortion and homosexuality. Its growth has been independent of Trump’s political fortunes. Regardless of the name that it may adopt, given competent leadership, it can be forged into the anti-establishment vehicle for which the political marketplace has been clamoring. It has a solid shot at overtaking the Democratic party in popular and electoral votes.

In 2020, the Republican presidential nomination will not be worth having. It is by no means clear why anyone looking for relief and protection from ruling class rule would vote Republican. Judging from Republican leaders in Congress and from The Wall Street Journal, the GOP has only to present itself as the alternative to rule by Democrats and cite some well crafted, subtle differences in policy to reap the bountiful harvests of votes it has received in recent cycles. Besides, the Party is awash in money. In 2016, this line of thought produced $150 million to promote Jeb Bush’s primary presidential candidacy, which yielded a total of three delegates out of almost 2500. In 2020, the Party having proved that life under Republican majorities in both Houses and a Republican president is no less subject to ruling class outrages than it was under Democrats, this line of thinking is likely to yield even less. Hence, the only near-certainty about politics in 2020 is that the Republican Party’s presidential candidate will come in a distant third.

align=”left” In 2020, the Republican presidential nomination will not be worth having. It is by no means clear why anyone looking for relief and protection from ruling class rule would vote Republican.

If then—a not so big if—the Democratic party failed to secure a majority of electoral votes, the Constitution would turn the election over to the House of Representatives, each state having one vote. Given America’s demographics, the majority of states has a majority of conservative Republican congressmen. Unless these Congressmen were to commit political suicide by associating themselves with the candidate who got the least votes just because of the label Republican, they would identify with the coalition that Trump started in 2016. Their votes would be signatures on the new party’s birth certificate.

For the revolution’s next stage, the number of contenders would be down to two again.


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About Angelo Codevilla

Angelo M. Codevilla was a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness. He was professor of international relations at Boston University and the author of several books including To Make And Keep Peace (Hoover Institution Press, 2014).