Did Trump Actually Win (In 2016)?

The Washington Post is out with a report today from NYU saying that Russian disinformation on Twitter probably had very little impact on the 2016 Election. The basic finding is that the tweets probably didn’t reach nearly a big or broad enough audience to really make a difference. The report notes that Facebook posts reached a much wider audience, and “hack and dump” operations against the DNC likely did reach the broader public, based on other studies. In the end it’s nearly impossible to see exactly how much Russian operations were because of missing variables.

Setting aside the issue that Twitter has more of a “political influencer” crowd on it, there’s not a lot to argue against from the report. As the years have passed since 2016, I have not for one second doubted that Russia was messing around in our elections, or that Trump was okay with it. I’ve had two basic problems with the whole narrative though. First, “collusion” is not the crime, conspiracy would be, and that would require a direct agreement of some kind, which hasn’t been totally laid out to us. Second, I spent most of 2016 in Northeast Pennsylvania and Eastern North Carolina- do I really think all the Trump voters I saw needed Russia to convince them? Sure, bad people tried to do bad things, but is that really why Trump won?

It’s an uncomfortable conversation for a lot of liberal-leaning Americans, because I don’t think we like the implications, but Donald Trump did win the 2016 Election. Sure, he lost the popular vote, but that isn’t our system. So much of the conversation about Russian interference in our elections has been an attempt to discredit the result, rather than secure the future, and that is probably energy poorly spent. In 2012, the swing states broke mostly as a group towards Barack Obama, while the rest of the country voted along red and blue lines. In 2020, the swing states broke narrowly towards Joe Biden, while the rest of the country voted along their partisan lines. In 2016 they broke the opposite way. Typically the winner of the election is the candidate who does best where the paid communications are happening, which is to say the swing states. In 2016 that happened to be the Republican nominee.

Part of the reason the Russian interference narrative is a comforting way to explain 2016 is that it avoids saying that nearly half the country actually agrees with what Trump is saying. The truth is, they do though. It wasn’t an accident, it wasn’t a fluke. Joe Biden needed north of 81 million votes to narrowly beat him four years later. To treat Trump’s win as though it didn’t really happen is to comfort one’s self in a reality that never really existed.

Political EQ

A couple of Thursday’s ago, after a nice dinner out, I was sitting in my friend’s living room and we had stumbled onto the topic of job hunting and how running for President of the United States, and for that matter any public office, was so different than seeking any job you could possibly think of in the private sector. Her and I both have a similar vantage point to this discussion in that while she’s not in the political field now, she has been in the past, we can both view political issues in a bit of a wonkish way, but we’ll say we both have known how to live wild in times past (she went to Arizona State, I’m definitely not worthy).

Naturally we stumbled onto perhaps the best illumination of this discussion possible- Bush 41 and Bush 43. On paper, Bush 41 is obviously a far, far superior candidate for the job than his son. If this was a CEO position being chosen by a corporate board of directors, there’s literally zero chance Bush 43 would be chosen over his father. That would be his father who served in Congress, ran for the U.S. Senate, ran the CIA, served as Ambassador to the United Nations, ran for President, served eight years as the Vice-President of the United State, all before winning the Presidency in 1988. Of course Bush 41 beat possibly the worst political candidate of the last 40 years, Michael Dukakis, in a 1988 blowout that was caused by Dukakis being even worse at connecting to normal people than Bush 41. Four years later when two far more charismatic and capable politicians ran against Bush 41, including maybe the most charismatic man since JFK (Bill Clinton), Bush 41’s Presidency was over. Have no fear though, just eight years later his son, a wild college frat boy that did some cocaine, wrecked an energy company, got some DUI’s, ran a baseball team into the ground, and then found Jesus and a cowboy hat, he won the White House by beating the wonkish nerd Vice-President, a man with qualifications a lot like Bush 41. Bush 43 not only won, he won a second time and is the only Republican President since his father’s 1988 victory to win a majority of the popular vote in a Presidential race. One could argue the far less qualified and prepared Bush is the best Republican politician of the internet era in America.

So what about that man who served between the two Bush Presidencies? Yes, Bill Clinton, the politician that probably could have served four or five terms had our constitution let him. That would be the man who was so popular he survived scandals that would have destroyed even other great politicians. His 1996 margin of victory over Bob Dole might not be matched in a Presidential election any time in the rest of my adult lifetime. Yes, he oversaw a booming economy and relative period of peace, but Joe Biden can argue historically low unemployment and ending our longest running war right now, and it’s not saving his approval rates. There is just something incredibly different about a politician like Bill Clinton. He told you he felt your pain and you actually believed him. He played the saxophone. He liked music like you, he ate really unhealthy McDonald’s food like you, you’d see him at a ball game sitting court side. Even his affairs gave him a certain “normalcy” at a time when divorce was becoming far more common place in America. Bill Clinton could relate to you, or you could to him, depending on how you saw it. He succeeded where Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, Kerry, and even Carter had failed in the post-1960’s world, standing as a Democratic politician who didn’t scare the living hell out of a country that had long since turned it’s back on New Deal and Great Society liberalism. He was bigger than life, playing the saxophone on Arsenio Hall, and yet he was really very normal.

If you want to be an executive at Goldman Sachs, or SpaceX, or Meta, or Apple, or Verizon, there’s a pretty good chance you will face an interview with people who are experts in what you want to do. If you want to be a college professor, the track from getting your doctorate to being hired, let alone to being hired, requires a lot of peer review. Doctors not only go through med school, but not-so-high-paying post grad work to prove your skills. Lawyers pass the bar to even be allowed to work, let alone get a high paying job in the field. Professional athletes are picked by scouts who draft them and develop their talent to the major leagues, or can cut them if at any point they don’t see the development they want from the player. Almost any other job in the world that is “elite” requires you to be peer tested, and to show your qualifications to get the position. Even being Vice-President requires you convincing the Presidential nominee of your political party (and the vetting team on their campaign) that you are the best pick for the job, then winning a national election of the public. Even rock stars and actors convince someone along the way that specializes in that field to believe their talents can bring millions of fans to buy their product and make everyone involved money. Society simply does not hand out any job worth having to any old shmuck that comes along. Let’s be honest, there’s an interview process for everything, and it’s almost without fail supervised by someone who knows exactly the qualifications and skills they want for the job. Except for President of the United States. We literally let almost any shmuck out in society have an opinion or even a say in whether you’re the right pick.

Let me put this in a little bit more crude terms- super unqualified people get just as much of a say in who the next President is as members of Congress do. Often times, candidates with better resumes lose. Al Gore, Mitt Romney, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Bob Dole, and John McCain are among the recent people to lose a Presidential election, and absolutely zero of them qualify as stupid people, unqualified to do the job, or somehow lacking in the faculties to serve in office. Donald Trump never served a day in government office of any kind before he won the White House. Barack Obama had been in the United States Senate less than two years when he jumped into the 2008 Presidential race. George W. Bush had barely recovered from the sting of being denied the Commissioner of Baseball job when he was being sworn in as President. Today he looks super qualified for the job, but Bill Clinton faced questions about “only” being Governor of Arkansas when he won the White House in 1992. Joe Biden looks like a post-Cold War outlier today sitting in the White House, a man with a long political career at the time of his election. We really don’t care that much about who has more lines on their resume when we hand the nuclear codes to someone who will serve in the Oval Office for four years. That’s just a bit startling.

American politics really is less about qualifications and more about relatability. Spending all of your political capital arguing “deep weeds” policy points and trying to be perfectly right in every argument does not have a great track record of winning elections, it has a great record of getting you the top job at Boeing. American voters really want to know you have something, anything, in common with them. That you relate to them. They’d like to know something more about you the person, at your core. John Kerry won all but two issues in most of the network exit polls against George W. Bush in 2004. He lost the question of keeping the country safe and leadership qualities. It turns out that trumped all the other issues. Republicans were astonished that their attacks on Barack Obama as unqualified and weak fell flat, as the country wanted someone they genuinely liked, and felt like he actually related to the pain they were feeling at that time. Democrats laughed at Trump’s appeals against “the elites” and asking “what the hell do you have to lose?” It turns out a lot of people felt really alienated by Washington, D.C. at the time. Bill Clinton didn’t leave office with better than 60% approval ratings because of the brilliance of his first Budget Bill, or entirely because of his record job creation, but in large part because of how he made people feel. It turns out emotion is stronger than being right, quite often in politics.

The friend I was sitting with that night, she’s quite literally one of the smartest people I know, I really enjoy my conversations with her. I don’t enjoy them just because she’s smart though- there’s something fun and relatable about her. It turns out that these things matter a lot in human interactions. In an era where society is incredibly analytical and precise with so many of our actions, it turns out that we often seek out “real” people in our lives, and when we actually get a choice about who is going to be on our television for the next four years of our lives, we’re not picking them based on some checklist of issues. There is a want for some sort of common touch, something relatable, something that makes us forget that our government is largely run by an Ivy League/Beltway class that has little in common with how we live out in the real world. Being “right” is less attractive than being somehow authentic in politics, and that makes us make decisions that sometimes make no sense in rational terms. No Fortune 50 company would pick someone who bankrupt a casino, or ruined a baseball team, to run their operations. Some random high school, or even college educated person living 50 miles from a major American city just might vote for that guy though. And occasionally they may surprise us with how they do. While I basically oppose every policy decision George W. Bush made in the months and years after 9/11, there’s something to watching him throw a strike for the first pitch at Game Three of the 2001 World Series. It made a lot of other people feel a helluva lot better about the terror in the world at that time. There’s more than a little to be said for making people feel. Even just a little bit of “emotional intelligence” can sometimes beat being the smartest person in the room- even when you are the smartest person in the room. Does this make electing an ignoramus right or okay? No, hell no in fact. Perhaps it should serve as a lesson to the “right” people though about how to sell the “right” ideas and stop being such a damn stiff.

On Liz Cheney

Liz Cheney lost last night. Very badly too. She lost her primary by 37%, again proving to us that Donald Trump owns the GOP. He’s still the overwhelming favorite to win their 2024 nomination. It probably is true that no person can beat him for it.

I’m not crying for Liz Cheney. I began my political career literally *hating* her father. This woman once basically disowned her sister’s marriage and family. She cheered the Dobbs decision. She voted for Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy to be the Speaker of the House. There’s not much we politically agree on. Sure, her opponent yesterday was a moon howling nut job. Sure, Wyoming and America are worse off to have this person instead of a smart, principled conservative. I don’t much care for most of those principles though, and so there’s nothing for me to be upset over.

I think to a large extent Beltway media and Democratic activists cheering Cheney on is why we’re here. Did Wyoming Republicans want to hear that? Did it help Cheney to receive such “advocacy” on her behalf from us? No. Wyoming Republicans alone had the final say on her, and for them it was clear she had betrayed them. Her disloyalty to their party, in their eyes, was unacceptable. It is perfectly fine for the rest of us to judge this and have opinions on it, in fact we should. It won’t change it though.

It’s perfectly fine for the rest of to be afraid of what is going on today. We have just two serious political parties and one is a mentally unstable cult. They kicked out the daughter of a former Republican Vice-President, just months after the nephew of a former Republican President got trounced in Texas, but this was worse. She was removed for telling the truth- Donald Trump lust the 2020 election clearly, fairly, and in every way. That gets you beat in the 2022 GOP. Loyalty is to but one man.

While I’m not crying for Cheney, we’re all worse off today. This woman chose principle over expediency, truth over lies, and facts over fiction. Her service on the January 6th Committee was exemplary. She was willing to give away a promising political career because she knew lying about our elections and encouraging domestic terrorism were wrong. That should be a low bar to clear. She was rare in doing it though. I don’t like her at all. I completely respect her all the more for it.

My Very Low Expectations for the January 6th Committee Hearings

I have very little expectations for the January 6th hearings, no matter what production wizardry the committee pulls to make them more interesting. Committed Trump loyalists aren’t going to believe anything they say, even if the testimony came from Ivanka’s mouth. Ultimately the Justice Department isn’t (and shouldn’t) charging Trump with anything unless it’s a virtual lock he will be convicted- an acquittal would help the guy. The reality was always that 90% plus of the arrests for the terrorist attack on our Capitol would always be low level people, with the slim possibility some Trump aides got mixed in here too. The ultimate reality was that random “Proud Boys” and “Boogaloo” members were always taking the fall on this, because ultimately the actual “constitutional crisis” never came to pass- Biden was elected by the electoral college that night, regardless of how ugly it got. Yes, frankly it’s more important the ring leaders go to jail, but that was never likely.

So what exactly am I hoping for out of this? Not much. I don’t see many people moving politically because of these hearings. People watched the Capitol riots on live TV and still a third of the country either doesn’t think it’s a big deal or thinks it was fake. I’m not sure what question Liz Cheney is going to ask to change their mind. In the end I think the price of gas is going to matter a lot more to the upcoming elections than this. While some hope that like the Watergate hearings these hearings will simply stun people into demanding action, that’s overly hopeful.

My chief hope from this committee is that they can produce a report by January 3rd that offers the Justice Department a kind of “soft indictment” to guide their investigation. I don’t think this ever reaches Donald Trump himself, but you never know. If not, it is what it is at this point. Charging him with no chance at conviction is pointless.

The Impossible Presidency

I’m not saying things were easy for Bill Clinton, being President is hard. It was easier than it was for Barack Obama though. Being President was hard for Barack Obama, I’m sure of it, but it was probably easier than it is for Joe Biden though. You probably are scratching your head and asking how I came to this conclusion, and where I’m going with this. The fact is, foreign relations are considerably harder today than they were right after the Soviet Union fell. The federal courts were much easier to navigate pre-Trump. The steady decline of Congress is 30 years further along than they were when Clinton came to town. The Republican Party’s decay is accelerating in the post-Bush world. And yes, Joe Biden faces more opposition within the Democratic Party than any Democratic President in my lifetime.

It’s amazing the guy wants the job.

In the moment after the Berlin Wall fell, America was the lone super power to shape the direction of the world. In the time since a lot has happened. Globalization has accelerated. Terrorist groups replaced foreign nation-states as the chief threat to our borders. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drained our treasury, lost us lives, and diminished our global standing. Maybe most important though, China emerged as a super power and Russia took a newly aggressive posture towards us under Vladimir Putin. A new anti-democratic consensus emerged among our rivals, challenging our world view. Attempts at more normal relations with Cuba and Iran didn’t go very well. Amidst all this, we had our first post-World War II Presidency where the United States questioned our own commitment to our European alliance. In other words, the world just ain’t what it used to be, and I’m not even diving into global issues like climate change.

Presidents Clinton and Obama faced Supreme Courts that were at times adversarial, but they had 5-4 conservative majorities. During their Presidencies, the Solicitor General could defend government actions at the court by focusing on one or two potential swing justices. Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy could be persuaded to allow the government to act on legitimate issues and even to protect the rights of the marginalized on some matters. President Biden faces a Supreme Court, and federal court system radicalized by Donald Trump. There are now six Republican appointees on the bench, and the Biden Administration needs to win over two of Chief Justice Roberts, Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh. The court is showing an open willingness to ignore precedent and act from the bench that we haven’t seen in generations. Worse yet, four of the six Republican appointees are likely to be there for decades to come, so change is very unlikely to come to that branch. Civil rights and government power are likely to be seriously narrowed, and the only option President Biden and future successors have to push back is to eventually either try to get Congress to expand the court (dead end right now) or provoke a Constitutional crisis. This is not workable.

Congress no longer works. There simply aren’t dealmakers on the Hill to get much done with anymore. Like his recent Democratic predecessors, President Biden got a stimulus bill through to deal with the economy, and one major generational bill (infrastructure), and then everything ground to a halt. Even consensus issues like insulin prices, gun safety measures, and raising the minimum wage to at least $12 go to Congress to die. Narrow Democratic majorities are undone by both the filibuster and more aggressive House progressives forcing demands on bills that can’t be squared up. The reality is that Democrats are unlikely to see massive majorities into the future either. With the Rockefeller Republicans long dead, and the Blue Dog Democrats close behind, there’s simply no one to make deals with on Capitol Hill, no way to build legislative consensus. Democrats can only pass legislation where they either have near unanimous support in their own caucus of both houses, or where the bill is so non-controversial that everyone is ready to go along. This is a problem for a nation facing crises with climate change, guns, public education, immigration, and health care. The main goal of many new members of Congress is to get a seat on an oversight committee where they can yell at witnesses and use props to get internet attention, not to get a seat on Appropriations where they can find actual solutions. In short, Congress doesn’t work.

Once upon a time, the Republican Party was an actual governing party. No Child Left Behind was their education policy. Welfare Reform was an actual bill. There was a bipartisan “Gang of 8” immigration bill that John McCain and George W. Bush tried to pass. President Nixon (!) created the EPA. When deficits soared after the 1981 tax cuts, Presidents Reagan and Bush 41 accepted the reality that some tax increases were necessary. President Bush 43 sent record funding to Africa to fight the AIDS epidemic. Some of this was good policy, much of it in my opinion was bunk- but these were policy positions. A political party must have some ideas if they want to be a political party. Basically since President Bush’s failed 2005 attempt at reforming Social Security, the Republican Party has completely abandoned any sort of coherent policies in favor of slogans and “own the libs.” The GOP of today is a grievance party, nothing more and nothing less. They want to cut off immigration with a wall on the border, shame transgender athletes, and make voting harder if they don’t win elections. During the Trump White House their only major achievements on Capitol Hill were a massive amount of federal judges, a major tax cut bill, and “phase 1” of criminal justice reform, which was basically all the really easy stuff nobody objected to. While they talked about major changes to NAFTA and trade agreements, the changes we got were virtually nonexistent. They promised a border wall, but never delivered it. Basically, you got infrastructure week, on repeat, with no infrastructure bill. It should come as no shock that they are proposing no solution to get more workers into the supply chain right now, or that their plan for gas prices is “drill baby, drill,” when we drilled more in 2021 than we did in 2017. They are not a serious party. Their most “successful” policy in implementation was banning Muslims from entering the country for no reason. This is our “partner” party to negotiate with, a party that idolizes Jim Jordan and nominates Herschel Walker and Dr. Oz for Senate. The GOP is completely broken.

As if all of that wasn’t enough, Joe Biden contends with a Democratic Party that more accepted him than wanted him. Had it not been for the wisdom of Black voters coalescing behind President Biden in South Carolina, would white moderate Dems have got their act together and coalesced behind the only electable candidate in the field? While the party rallied behind the Biden-Harris ticket during the election, the White House has faced more attacks from inside the party than any in recent memory. Congressional Democrats and Vice-President Gore had a rally for President Clinton when he was impeached, while Joe Lieberman’s career ended after he opposed Barack Obama in 2008. Today, Elizabeth Warren and Chuck Schumer take to Twitter regularly to criticize President Biden for not using an executive order to forgive student loan debt at levels he never promised to during the campaign. AOC and “The Squad” mostly voted against Biden’s biggest achievement as President, the infrastructure bill. Vice-President Harris routinely faces tough articles from “inside sources” at the White House, criticizing her work and staff members exiting the building. There is open talk of who should run for President in 2024, from Democratic sources, if President Biden does not. When the President speaks on matters of policy, as he recently did about Taiwan, anonymous White House sources race to the media to “correct” what he said to meet their policy objectives. In short, the President and Vice-President do not enjoy unanimous support from their party, far from. Some of this is kind of obvious- in an era where identity and “self expression” drive our politics, an old, straight, white man is leading the Democratic Party, and a chunk of the party wishes they had a different voice. The bigger problem that President Biden faces that President Clinton never really faced, and President Obama only kind of faced, is a shifting geography of Democratic elected officials and activists. The large bulk of Democratic members of Congress, state legislators, and municipal leaders represent super blue urban areas and very diverse suburbs. Most Democratic votes and donations come from those districts. Unfortunately there are not enough of those districts to build a working majority, and people who want White Houses and Congressional majorities need broader electoral appeal than these folks want. When you combine those geographic tensions with a louder, more independent critics class inside the party, you get a President facing larger scale defections in his party than we’ve seen since the 1980 primary season. There is simply now a chunk of voters left of the political center now who demand either a more leftist ideology from the party, or an identity for the party that matches their view of where the votes are from. Joe Biden doesn’t really meet either of those demands, and so he lacks the rock solid support of Democrats in the recent past. While the reality is that these demands make the party unelectable, trying to convince some people of that is seemingly impossible.

Joe Biden inherited a pandemic, a government rocked by scandal, an economy that was shut down, a Capitol that had just been the victim of an attempted coup, and a job that was already extremely difficult because of trends facing our nation that I outlined above. Some of the problems he’s had were predictable, others were not. I have to wonder out loud if there was ever going to be a way to appease the nation in his position. Governing is hard enough, doing it while at the center of a hurricane is nearly impossible. I think he’s doing a good job, I’m just increasingly wondering if anybody cares.