The 2016 presidential election might very well be the first in American history that results in both parties doing a postmortem.
In the immediate aftermath it can’t be seen, or spun, as anything but an overwhelming and nearly nationwide victory for the GOP. The Republican nominee Donald Trump, who was expected by virtually every poll, as well as by both the opposition party and his own, to be headed for decisive defeat, pulled off one of the most stunning upsets in the chronicles of U.S. politics. He didn’t just win; despite an almost 50-50 split in popular vote, Trump’s Electoral College margin wasn’t close.
Trump’s expected down-ballot “drag” effect was anything but: Republicans retain control of both houses of Congress, which means that with a Republican president and an open Supreme Court seat (there could well be more over the next four years), the GOP is looking to win a branches-of-government trifecta.
Both President-elect Trump and his defeated Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, have said all the right post-election things about healing and unity, as has the man Trump will succeed, President Barack Obama.
But things said right after an election can be no more meaningful — sometimes less so — than things said before one. (If there were calls for unity from the opposition party after the last two presidential elections, they were disguised as crickets and tumbleweeds.)
Either a President Trump or a President Clinton would face a politically Herculean — some would say impossible — task of bringing any kind of unity back to this bitterly divided nation, but Trump’s will be substantially harder. Despite his majority-party status and debatable (at best) voter “mandate,” his campaign capitalized on those divisions in ways that were, and are, beyond troubling. His promise to be a president for all Americans must be the very top item on his agenda.
Also, Trump did not even enjoy unity within his own party, and some very prominent Republicans actively opposed him. Despite the political power the GOP will no doubt use to its advantage going forward (as would the Democrats in similar circumstances), there are many in the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower and Reagan who do not want Donald Trump to be among its enduring legacies.
The Democratic Party might have been more unified (at the end, anyway) than the GOP, but it’s at least as badly broken. Moderate and Republican voters who openly acknowledged that Hillary Clinton was more qualified for the presidency — and we have heard from more than a few — pulled the lever for Trump because they think neither the Democrats nor their nominee really listened to them or understand their concerns. Just how many votes did Lady Gaga and Jay-Z and the usual-suspect lineup of “celib” glitterati bring in for Clinton?
Clinton herself made the stunning political gaffe of referring to a large contingent of Trump voters as “deplorable,” an unforgivably casual dismissal of the legitimate concerns of millions of Americans. It’s exactly the same kind of clueless hauteur as Mitt Romney’s assessment that roughly half the country consists of a freeloading welfare state.
Late in the campaign, Democratic spinners were spotlighting polls (speaking of deplorable) that indicated Clinton was ahead among the college-educated. Seriously? That’s supposed to be a political selling point for millions of Americans far more concerned about their jobs and families than with whose voters have more diplomas on the walls?
Nobody in public or private life needs to — or should, ever — abandon his or her principles and convictions in the interests of getting along. Debate about the state of our nation should continue, and it should be spirited.
But our two major political parties all too obviously are not leading that debate in any useful or even healthy way. That leaves the rest of us.