I’ve now read both Devil’s Bargain, by Joshua Green, and Shattered, by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes. Together, these two books provide insight into the 2016 election that you could never get from either alone. I highly recommend reading both, starting with Shattered.
Trump’s election really was the perfect storm, but not in the sense that he got really lucky. There was far more to it than that. And there are lessons to be learned.
The most important lesson, politically speaking, is that primaries have a purpose, and when the primary process is manipulated to clear the field, it likely won’t work out well in the end. We’ve seen this in prior campaigns, but 2016 will be the textbook case for decades to come. I’ll return to this point later in the post.
The hard truth in 2016 was that Hillary likely was the only Democratic candidate Trump could beat and Trump was the only Republican candidate who could beat Hillary. Was that cruel irony, or the inevitable result of a corrupted candidate selection process?
Regardless how you answer that question, Trump’s win required a fluke confluence of events. It required the Trump campaign to be as focused on its path to victory as the Clinton campaign was unfocused. It required the Clinton team to stick to entirely conventional campaign strategies while the Trump campaign strategy was outside the box. And it required a system for electing candidates that makes that states in which a candidate’s voter base resides more important than the size of that voter base. Did it require the actions of Jim Comey shortly before election day? We’ll never know, but after reading Devil’s Bargain, you may find the certainty of Democratic Party partisans unwarranted.
Devil’s Bargain is as much about Steve Bannon as it is about Trump. Green was in a unique position to write Devil’s Bargain, because he’d learned a lot about Bannon from his work as a reporter. It was Bannon’s genius (evil genius perhaps, but genius just the same) that elected Trump. Bannon recognized an army of angry white voters who Trump could reach and inspire the way no traditional politician could. Interestingly, Bannon’s keen insight came only partially from his post at Breitbart. From a failed business venture, he’d also learned about an army of World of Warcraft players, overwhelmingly male, who could be motivated in large numbers. The reality that this group could be large enough to swing an election is chilling.
I wrote months ago on Matt Taibbi’s review of Shattered. After reading the book myself, I agree with Taibbi’s point that Shattered is as much about the Democratic Party establishment as it is about Hillary and her campaign. I didn’t take the book as a slam on Hillary, as so many others have. In fact, my opinion of her softened from reading it. My sense of her is that she’s terribly flawed as a politician, but not a terrible human being.
Which brings me back to where I started. In 2008, efforts to clear the Democratic field for Hillary were resisted and ultimately thwarted. The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, however, allowed the Clintons to take far more control, critical control I submit, of Democratic funding sources in 2016. It’s not hard to pressure a mainstream candidate out of a primary race if he/she knows not only that you can choke off funding for the primary campaign, but also for his/her next Senatorial run.
As a result, we saw a Democratic field in a race to succeed a popular Democratic President with a dearth of candidates. Was that healthy? On social media, there is an endless debate as to whether Sanders would have won the general. The more healthy debate, in my mind, would be how a Democratic candidate who would have run if not pressured out of the primaries would have fared in the general against Trump.
If you’re with me so far, and you consider it at least possible that a vigorously contested, multi-candidate Democratic primary might have produced a general election winner (without getting bogged down in speculation as to who that winner would have been), consider next the mindset that fosters acceptance of the “clearing the field” strategy. Is Taibbi, describing the mindset of DC politicians, on to something in that regard?
Most don’t see elections as organic movements within populations of millions, but as dueling contests of “whip-smart” organizers who know how to get the cattle to vote the right way. If someone wins an election, the inevitable Beltway conclusion is that the winner had better puppeteers.
Seems he is. The contrast between the Clinton campaign and the Trump campaign could not have been any starker than it was on this front. But the mindset Taibbi describes not only was fatal in the general election campaign, it’s what makes the practice of clearing the field permissible in the first place. After all, if you think “better puppeteering” is what will win the general election, the qualities of the candidate herself lose relative importance, thereby allowing you to discount the notion that an uncorrupted primary campaign identifies the most electable general election candidate.
In my mind, Taibbi’s observation gets to the heart of what happened in 2016. The Republican Party chose a candidate who led an organic movement. Yes, it was an ugly, angry, race-based organic movement that could succeed only in America’s undemocratic, anachronistic electoral system. But it was indisputably an organic movement. The Democratic Party chose a candidate with the level of funding perceived to be more than adequate to hire the best puppeteers.
And the puppeteers lost.