The Never-Ending 2016 Election

Column: Why Trump, Clinton, Comey won't go away

Clinton Comey Trump
Photos via Getty Images
May 5, 2017

I thought she'd disappear. I thought if Donald Trump became president Hillary Clinton would recognize her error, would spend more time in the woods. Maybe she'd give some thought to why she lost: How she blindly followed Barack Obama and traded the traditional Democratic message of working-class security for professional-class diversity financed by Wall Street, Hollywood, and Silicon Valley. What Clinton and her lieutenants never realized was that the success of Obama's message was unrelated to its content. The message worked because of the messenger. And when that messenger changed, when the suave, eloquent, dapper, youthful Obama was traded for a woman who was none of those things, the inevitable occurred. The Democrats capsized.

Yet there was Hillary Clinton on my television screen last week, where she seems to have been for, oh, the past two years. She confided to Christiane Amanpour that she is "writing" a book about her experience on the campaign trail—her ghostwriter must have a high tolerance for rationalizations. Always eager to join the cool kids, she called herself a member of the resistance. And when asked if she took responsibility for her loss, she said sure—and then proceeded to cast blame on the Russians, on James Comey, on fake news, on the Electoral College. I guess her answer depends on what the meaning of "responsibility" is. There wasn't the faintest glimmer of an apology, the tiniest speck of self-awareness. Forget about trade, forget about the banks, forget about calling my fellow citizens deplorable, and forget about not campaigning in Wisconsin: The election was mine; it was stolen from me; I am entitled to rule.

The 2016 election will not end. Neither the president nor his opponents seem tired of bringing it up. Clinton's non-apology apology was grist for the Trump Tweet mill: "FBI Director Comey was the best thing that ever happened to Hillary Clinton in that he gave her a free pass for many bad deeds! The phony Trump/Russia story was an excuse used by the Democrats as justification for losing the election. Perhaps Trump just ran a great campaign?"

Perhaps. It didn't seem quite that great while we were living through it. What Trump did have was an intuitive understanding of his base, a means of bypassing or exploiting media gatekeepers, a talent for conveying authority and drama at the set-piece rallies that dominated the news. Instinct told him that the Democrats were no longer speaking to the nation as a whole. The party of Jefferson, Jackson, FDR, and Kennedy seemed more interested in mobilizing ethnic, racial, and sexual minorities, in protecting the rights of immigrants both legal and illegal, than in promoting economic growth or combating Islamic terrorism or reforming the culture of Washington. This disinterest in the middle of the country convinced many voters to gamble on the uncouth celebrity from New York; some 78,000 of them in three states made him president.

We keep fighting the 2016 election because no one wants to stop. Not even James Comey, who has succeeded in annoying just about everyone in the country while somehow retaining his job. Comey was also on television this week, telling Congress that the thought he might have influenced the election makes him nauseous, that he felt compelled to announce he was reopening the investigation into Clinton's emails because of the optics of Loretta Lynch's tarmac summit with Bill Clinton, that Huma was forwarding classified emails to Anthony Weiner's computer, and the investigation into Russia's interference in the election and possible ties to Trump aides is ongoing but sorry he can't say anything more. If the 2016 result is a wound on the American body politic, then James Comey is happy pouring salt on it: He refuses to answer questions, and continually raises others, when what we need are answers, closure.

If Clinton, Trump, Comey, and Congress won't move on from last November, who will? Not the media, which have been driven to new heights of sensationalism and hysteria and snark and vulgarity. And not the political parties, either. One of them is leaderless, divided, focused only on stopping the president. The other is the Democrats. (I kid, I kid.)

Better to dwell on the past than look to the future. Reading the entrails of 2016, arguing over campaign strategy and tactics, and spinning conspiracy theories is a far more pleasant, more comforting activity for the parties than facing reality. And there are many parties. We have not two but three of them: the GOP, the Democrats, and Trump. Though global politics may be increasingly defined by nationalism and identity, the Republican Party in Congress is as committed to the Reagan agenda as ever: limited government, deregulation, tax cuts, defense spending, and internationalist foreign policy. But that might not be enough to maintain the allegiance of their new base of working-class populists; the Republicans could well lose the Congress in 2018. The Democrats are just as addled, trying to ride the wave of hostility to Trump to victory, even if they aren't sure what they'd do with it. As for the president, suffice it to say he has yet to acclimate to Washington, yet to submit to the norms of political life. Washington, meanwhile, is trying to figure out "How Trump could get fired."

None of us, no voter or official or institution, has yet to fully assimilate the fact that Donald Trump is president, that this unpopular and unpredictable man holds what has become the primary office of our constitutional system. He certainly doesn't make our jobs any easier: It is hard to read or watch his recent interviews without holding one's head in one's hands. And yet there he is. His daily presence is an accusation, a rebuke, an admonishment, a reminder that the country we thought we lived in might not have actually existed. The shocks of deindustrialization and the financial crisis, of unchecked immigration, multiculturalism, and the transgender revolution, of digital and social media, of inconclusive decades-long wars, of rampant heroin addiction seem to have made large parts of the country unrecognizable to those of us living in coastal cities and their affluent suburbs. Is our country really this divided, our politics this polarized, and our culture this degraded? Was 2016 not a fluke but a warning? What of?

No one wants to answer that last question; no one knows the answer. The question itself, though, may be an answer. Why can't we let go of 2016? Because we're too afraid of what might happen next.