Little Rock There are a million lessons from the recent US election campaign but many of them are reminders of what we always knew in our guts, but intellectually tried to rationalize away for lack of better alternatives. The most basic is that it “takes a horse to beat a horse.” That’s especially true in a horse race. A machine can’t run in a horse race. It has to be horse, those are the most basic rules. Election Day seems to have told us not only that a movement can always beat a machine, but that a machine can’t run the race without a horse that can really carry it the whole way to the finish.
In some ways we were reminded of this over and over again, whether we wanted to believe our lying eyes or not.
Donald Trump winning the Republican nomination should have been more than enough to let us know that there were real signs that winter was coming, though in our desperation to ignore all the weather reports, we forced ourselves to believe differently. But, even before Trump, Bernie Sanders and his close contest in the Democratic primary should have convinced us that without huge adjustments we were in trouble. Look at the incredible odds Sanders had faced. Start with the unlikely phenomena that he was older than dirt, and millennials were pushing and shoving to get in his rallies and support him. Add the fact that in the minds of many Americans, he was stone cold “red,” as a self-declared Socialist, which a couple of decades ago would have disqualified someone from being elected dogcatcher, but was water off a duck’s back in this contest.
Take money and its role in politics which is huge and corrosive. Money was still way too big a factor in race after race, but both Trump and Sanders turned the tables on the billionaire sweepstakes, especially Sanders. The early money “primary,” seen by the pros as so fundamental, was won by Jeb Bush and of course Hillary Clinton. They didn’t win on the money as much as they lapped the field many times over. Trump claimed he was largely self-financed, but even so he ran such a non-traditional campaign that he needed less money and made up for it with earned media and the willingness to provoke. Sanders, the novice fool that he was, refused to take big donations and PAC money, and created a small donor phenomenon of support and went head-to-head with Clinton through most of the primaries. Meanwhile Clinton spent valuable time throughout the campaign, even after winning the nomination, currying donations from the rich, while the big money, including the Kochs and others, pretty much stayed clear of Trump. Who in America who wants change could have missed how important this was?
Contrary to what some are saying, I can’t see how anyone can blame Sanders or hold his campaign responsible for Trump’s victory. Yes, a tough contest exposes weaknesses in the opponent, but it also should make you stronger and teach lessons. It’s not fair to blame the teacher for the student not doing homework when it comes time for the real test.
Finally, the real email damage to Clinton may have come from WikiLeaks as much as from her own server stumble. The emails showed her as weak and indecisive, rather than having core commitments and vision. For every time Trump seemed to be resisting and saying he would do it his way, it seemed like she was running by committee and coming to positions with polls.
For people wanting change, they have to see the vision, and believe the messenger. Trump and Sanders were wildly unlikely and deeply flawed messengers, but their ability to deliver a vision, consistently and clearly, moved people to accept the messenger. The same could be said for Obama and his campaigns that were powerful enough to allow the first African-American to be elected. We just didn’t get that with Hilary, and we knew that, no matter how much we tried to wish it away.