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Lisbon, Portugal — Europeans have always regarded the United States of America with curiosity and awe. We’re the muscular, uncouth youngster never quite knowing our strength, a commander of the World Order with serious impulse control. Admire us or fear us. Pay heed to the manifest destiny. It’s easy to forget there’s only one country in history that’s unloaded atomic weapons on human beings.
Seventy-one year later, Donald J. Trump has been elected president, and I am looking on from Lisbon, where I flew the coop to talk about politics at a conference. I imagined I’d be analyzing a second Clinton presidency, and what it meant for the world that Barack Obama was bequeathing the White House to a beloved successor. Continuity or subtle deviation? Who’s going to be her secretary of state?
At the election night party I attended, hosted by the American Embassy in the converted garage of a Marriott, a straw poll was taken sometime before Clinton lost Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, and a bunch of other states she was supposed to win. Portuguese and American expatriates watched CNN in stunned silence. Not so surprisingly, Clinton won about 83 percent of the vote in the room.
Europeans, as shell-shocked as we are, want to know how this happened. They ask me, horror in their eyes, How? I have no good answer. I know very little. The media, pundits, various operatives, and the rest of whatever qualifies as an establishment repeatedly misread and misdiagnosed the Trump phenomenon. The prediction business deserves to go out of business.
What I can say is that we are entering a moment of terrifying uncertainty, with a president-elect who, at his worst, could rule the nation as a tin-pot authoritarian. At the minimum, he will lay waste to Obama’s legacy. The trouble with executive orders is that another executive gets to undo them.
But if anyone deserves blame for this disaster, it’s the Democratic establishment. It was this constellation of elected officials, operatives, donors and media talking heads who promised us Clinton was thoroughly electable, and worked as hard as they could to ensure there was no competitive primary. They sneered at Bernie Sanders, the only candidate who dared to oppose someone who, with Obama’s blessing, locked up all traditional avenues of fundraising for a viable campaign. They said it didn’t matter that Clinton offered no overarching vision, that she was a retread, a status quo candidate in a year of sweeping change; that she was a Clinton offered up to a country clearly in no mood for political dynasties.
The great theme of 2016 will be elite failure. On every level, people in positions of power or those believed to be experts — whatever that word means anymore — were wrong. From Obama on down, the idea of crowning Clinton as the Democratic nominee seemed appealing to them because they weren’t listening to the American electorate. It was a farcical and catastrophic proposition in retrospect, considering the stakes. How could Democrats actually believe a candidate tone-deaf enough to give six-figure speeches to investment banks before she ran for president was someone who deserved a coronation? How could Democrats actually believe a candidate enmeshed with a foreign foundation littered with conflicts of interest was someone who was ready to win? With or without merit, Clinton was under federal investigation for much of her campaign. How the hell was clearing the field for her a good idea?
As Obama proved, change beats continuity, though he apparently never applied the lessons of 2008 to 2016. He will pay the price. Imagine, for a moment, a conventional Democrat without Clinton’s baggage facing down Trump. Imagine a Democrat without soaring unfavorable ratings, a vote for Iraq, a decision to destabilize Libya. What if Martin O’Malley was allowed to run a campaign with Clinton’s resources? What if Elizabeth Warren competed in the primary and won? What if other candidates — active governors, senators, people of merit — were permitted to step forward?
There will be talk of sexism, WikiLeaks, and media double standards undoing Clinton, as well as the revolt of the white working class; this chatter has some merit. But it all means nothing when framed against the reality that Clinton was a dreadful Democratic standard-bearer who couldn’t stop Trump or help her party retake the Senate. Trump was very beatable. The Clinton dynasty is now dead. Thousands of hangers-on will have to find a new way of life. Welcome to Donald Trump’s America.