A version of this essay originally appeared elsewhere online in January 2021, just prior to the creation of this publication. I plan to eventually migrate much of my writing here, and due to the topical nature of this piece, I thought it best not to wait. I’ll be posting another such article this week as well. Next week I’ll be back to my usual once weekly output. If you enjoy my writing, please consider subscribing.
Why Trump Won the 2016 Republican Nomination
To understand how Trump won in 2016, it is essential to understand how he won the nomination. Partisanship being what it is, any major presidential nominee in a general election can expect an automatic 35-40 percent of the vote based solely on the letter next to their name. In primaries, you don't get any automatic support. You have to earn every single point. Improbable though his victory in the general election seemed, his victory in the Republican primaries was significantly more so. Here's why he won.
Name Recognition. Donald Trump entered the 2016 GOP primaries as a celebrity with higher name recognition than anyone else in the field. Name recognition matters enormously in primary elections. In the general election, people are voting D or R. In primaries, they must choose which D or R they want. And you can't vote for someone you've never heard of, or know very little about. 17 major candidates ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. Name recognition alone would have carried Trump to the final 3-4 candidates, even if nothing else had gone right for him.
Dominating the News. Not only did Trump enter the race with more name recognition than the other 16 candidates combined, but his antics allowed him to hog a disproportionate amount of the media coverage, preventing his competitors from getting enough exposure. Trump was given billions of dollars of free press, and it turned out that any publicity was good publicity for Trump, even if people were bashing him.
Being a Non-politician. By 2015, the Republican party had been stagnating for a number of years. Neoconservatism and crony-capitalism were falling out of favor, and there was an appetite for something different. Trump offered a break from the same old politics. Furthermore, being a non-politician is seen as a natural asset to many Republican voters. Unlike Democratic voters, who are institutionalist to a fault, Republicans are often enamored of the "political outsider", and many were able to convince themselves that Trump's otherwise unpresidential and boorish behavior was either part of his outside-the-box charm, or a tolerable side-effect of it.
A Large Primary Field That Didn't Consolidate Fast Enough. This is the big one. Remember, even with everything that went right for Trump, he still failed to win a majority of the votes cast during the 2016 primaries. He won the Republican nomination with a plurality of 44.9 percent of the vote, because enough of the 17 candidates stayed in the race long enough to split the vote. Had the 2016 GOP field done what the 2020 Dems did in order to stymie Bernie Sanders — swiftly consolidating soon after voting began, likely on party orders — Donald Trump would never have become the nominee. Because the Republican field didn't narrow quickly enough, the race became a battle royale, and Trump thrived on the chaos of it, surviving to be the last man standing.
Why Trump Won in 2016
It has been endlessly asserted that Trump rode a wave of racism to the presidency — that his voters are mostly racists. And yet, Trump flipped voting districts and states throughout the country that had gone for Obama twice. Is Trump himself a racist? Well, for one, he was the most prominent cheerleader of the racist "Birther" conspiracy movement in 2012. Was there a racist component to his base? Clearly. But these aren't the questions we should be asking. The question is, how did Donald Trump flip roughly eight million Obama voters? Racism does not seem the most helpful explanation.
America Was Not Great. Since the late 1970's, there has been a widening gulf between the productivity of the US workforce and the share of those gains seen by the middle class. Income inequality was/is at an all-time high. Middle class wages were stagnant, while the cost of living was increasing. Millions of manufacturing jobs were automated in the first 15 years of the new millennium, with millions of other jobs disappearing to robots, software, efficiency innovations, or globalization. Swaths of the country had fallen into squalor, opioid addiction, and despair. The country's life expectancy fell for the first time since the "Spanish" flu pandemic of 1918. Whatever one thinks of Trump's approach to this, or what his explanations or proposed solutions for it were, he acknowledged that everything was not okay. For many voters, his policy proposals (such as they were) and his rhetoric were secondary to the fact that he made them feel seen and heard in some sense. Trump famously made his campaign slogan "Make America Great Again." Hillary Clinton's answer to that was "America is already great." Well, the rest is history.
Hillary Clinton Was a Weak Candidate. Hillary was someone with deep government experience and connections to the institutional power structure. To the Democratic establishment, these credentials were sterling. But in a time of discontent with the status quo, Clinton's massive resume didn't communicate the kind of experience Democrats had hoped for. For enough swing voters, Clinton's experience seemed a drawback — if the system was failing, having extensive experience in it meant you had experience only in failing.
That wasn't all. Former President Bill Clinton's legacy was aging poorly, and some of his stink rubbed off on her. Perhaps most consequentially, Hillary ran a weak campaign. Her policy platform was unambitious and uninspiring. She didn't campaign hard or smart enough, she took for granted some states she ended up losing, and she proved to be a personally unlikable figure. She came off as aloof, out of touch, and uncharismatic. I mean, she lost to Donald Trump, a candidate who only a few years prior would have been dismissed at comedy writers' meetings as too ridiculous to be believable. The very fact that she lost to such a figure is evidence of her own weakness as a candidate.
Misinformation and the Rise of Post-Truth. 2016 became the post-truth election. Trump lied more than any politician in modern history — so much so that it became impossible to keep track of, and to the point that the meaningfulness of his lies began to diminish. He did something no US presidential contender has ever done: he pulled off the lying equivalent of drinking himself sober. Once his lies became so numerous and expected that they were devalued as transgressions, it seemed to matter less that he lied. Many of Trump's lies — plus a plethora of additional false stories and claims — were spread online by trolls, both foreign and domestic, often targeting low-information voters in areas where Clinton's hold was weak. With institutional trust hitting generational lows, and hyper/negative-partisanship hitting generational highs, the fact-checks fell on deaf ears, or didn't reach them at all. People began slipping into the abyss of narcissistic solipsism: where nobody can know what is really true, so just believe what you want to believe. With post-truth, Trump and his allies could play political Calvinball — making up and changing the rules as the game progresses in order to give themselves a perpetual advantage. If nothing is true, anything could be true. As with the Republican primaries, Trump thrived on and delighted in chaos. Attempting to play by the rules was to lose the game, because the game was to make your own rules.
The Perception of Authenticity. Even though Donald Trump was a known huckster and pathological liar, he remarkably developed a perception of authenticity among many voters. The authenticity was derived not from Trump's relationship to factual accuracy, or ethics, or personal integrity. Rather, his authenticity was in his embracing who he was and not pretending to be otherwise. Donald Trump never pretended to be an honest or decent person. He never preached, never virtue signaled superior morality, and of all his character flaws, sanctimony was never one of them. In being honest about being dishonest, and in being a proud asshole, he seemed authentic in a way. To be on the "Trump Train" was to never feel judged or shamed, and more than that — to have a kind of moral absolution for one's own flaws. While the perception of the left could most aptly be summed up in the popular refrain: "do better", Trump's very existence told his supporters that they were fine just the way they were.
Luck. That said, pure luck played an undeniable role as well. Luck that the GOP primary field was so large, luck that the field didn't narrow early enough, luck that his biggest competition was Jeb(!) Bush and Ted Cruz, luck that he faced Hillary Clinton, luck that general disgruntlement was high enough that people were willing to roll the dice, luck that for the first time there was a decent chunk of the electorate who got all their information from the internet, and luck that institutional trust was low. And there was also an element of luck in how Trump managed to win small but crucial margins of voters in a handful of just the right places to win the electoral college while losing the popular vote by three million. The proverbial stars aligned for Trump, and he dashed toward victory like Forrest Gump in a Vietnamese minefield.
Why Trump Lost in 2020
Bungling the COVID-19 Response. If not for the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump may very well have won reelection. The economy, while far from robust, was marginally stronger than when Trump took office. There were no new wars, and one of Trump's biggest flaws of 2016, lack of experience, was now remedied by four years of being president. Add to that the natural advantages of incumbency, and the dynamics of the electoral college, which give disproportionate weight to rural (read: Republican) voters, and it's not difficult to see a strong path to victory.
But COVID-19 happened. Trump's lying, managerial incompetence, and callousness were no longer merely doing symbolic damage to "norms"; they were getting people killed. Those early weeks were the critical window to nip the virus in the bud before it got out of control. Trump squandered it downplaying its severity out of a misguided attempt to protect the stock market — and thereby his reelection chances. His failure of leadership, his erraticness, his politicization of mask wearing, his irresponsible and unsafe rallies, and the string of less than compassionate soundbites that emerged over the months hurt him politically. Under Trump's stewardship, America did indeed become #1... in coronavirus infections and deaths. Because of COVID-19, voters 65 and older increased their share of the electorate, going from 16 percent of voters in 2016 to 22 percent in 2020. And Trump's mishandling of the pandemic created an opening that allowed Biden to gain an additional two points in this demographic compared to Clinton — 6.8 million more votes.
Chaos Fatigue. After four long years of chaos, some citizens of the United States of Gotham began to weary of President Joker. For four years, Trump's presidency was a never-ending cavalcade of scandals and controversies, some of them exaggerated, many of them not, and more than a few intensely embarrassing, the likes of which would have sunk a normal politician. Trump changed Cabinet members and White House staffers like they were bubble gum, and the instant a subordinate left his orbit, they had nothing but horror stories to tell. And Twitter... need I say more? In 2016, there was an increased appetite for something different. In 2020, there was a perceptible increase in the sentiment "Make Politics Boring Again."
Joe Biden. Biden was not a particularly strong candidate. But he was an improvement over Hillary Clinton. Whereas Clinton came off as cold, Biden was markedly warmer, more down-to-earth, and more likable. Whereas Hillary couldn’t shake the clinging odor of Bill Clinton, Biden was bathed in the afterglow of the Obama presidency, which represented to many voters a clear upgrade and return to normalcy. Biden, famously gaffe-prone, adopted the unconventional campaign strategy of hiding in a basement somewhere and only emerging now and then to assure the public he was still alive. In one sense, Biden and Trump were alike: they both tended to get themselves into trouble the more they spoke. The difference is that Biden minimized his self-sabotage by keeping his mouth shut, something Trump was constitutionally incapable of. Biden sat back and let Trump dig his own grave.
Higher Voter Turnout. Over 136 million people voted in 2016. In 2020, just shy of 160 million voted. Just as the electoral college tends to advantage the Republican Party, higher voter turnout tends to advantage the Democratic Party. For various reasons, people who don’t reliably vote align slightly more on average with Democrats than Republicans. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many states expanded mail-in and/or early voting, which made it easier and more convenient for people to vote.
Diminished Third Party Votes. In 2016, third parties got 5.1 percent of the vote. In 2020, that fell dramatically to 1.8 percent, with Biden winning decent majorities of these former third party voters. The "protest vote" element of the 2016 election was mostly predicated on the near-certainty that Clinton would win. If many of the 2016 Gary Johnson (Libertarian) or Jill Stein (Green) voters knew that Trump was going to win, they'd have changed their votes. And indeed, they did just that in 2020, when that chance could no longer be taken — when a global pandemic and deep recession made the stakes too high.
While Donald Trump has left office, Trumpism seems poised to linger for some time yet. It's likely that the next two years will show whether the Republican Party leans in to Trumpism, or finally repudiates and purges it from its ranks. The GOP's performance in the 2022 midterm elections will be a good indicator. A part of me hopes this has all been a crazy dream; that I'll wake up surrounded by relatives who are dead ringers for all these political characters, in Wizard of Oz fashion. But I'll settle for a world in which I don't have to hear or read the name "Trump" anywhere near as much going forward. What's concerning is that we ever got to the point where Trump could be a viable presidential candidate, much less win. If we do not begin making serious headway into some of the big problems and challenges facing our country, we will, before long, find ourselves governed by another Trump-like figure — and likely one vastly more competent at utilizing the levers of power.