I have seen cropping back up of late the tenacious narrative that anyone-but-Hillary-could-have-beaten-Trump (which is code for Sanders-could-have-beaten-him, of course, because who thinks Lincoln Chaffee would have prevailed?)
Let’s examine the logic of this assertion. The premise is that Trump was so awful that it should have been laughable easy to defeat him. Everyone on the Democratic side actually agreed with this when she ran, which is why they concentrated so hard on making her campaign about Caligulyam’s awfulness. But the same articles upbraid Clinton for this strategy, citing the real problem as her not offering a positive vision to enthuse the voters. This sidesteps the fact that the level of irrationality was arguably the highest among previous Obama voters who switched to Trump. Clinton was endorsed by Obama and pledged to continue his same policies. This part of the electorate wasn’t voting for or against policy — however it had been delivered.
Why should we think that Sanders’ message would have resonated with these same voters, even though Sanders’ endorsement of Clinton (and campaigning for her) were unable to sway them? Oh, that’s because — according to this narrative — Clinton had so much baggage. Really? Would anyone like to compare Clinton’s list of flaws with Trump’s? Speeches at Goldman Sachs? Poor email-management? Does anyone really believe that voters who chose Trump reluctantly were really more concerned about her negatives than his? Or did they succumb to the pressure of seeing their entire neighborhood populated by Trump signs? How would this same pressure not been at work if Sanders was the nominee?
Maybe Sanders might have done better in the three rustbelt states where it counted most, but an assumption is made that everyone who ended up voting for Clinton would have voted for him. Who knows how many voters — particularly minority women — driven by the desire to see a female successor to Obama in the White House, would have stayed home? Who knows what the effect of Trump’s attacks on Sanders would have been? What damage opposition research against Sanders — inaccurate or not — might have done?
For all of her supposed shortcomings, Hillary received 3 million more popular votes than Trump. The reason that did not translate to a win was the insanely undemocratic Electoral College, which Sanders could have just as easily lost by a thin margin. (Perhaps, then, he would have led a campaign to abolish it — another wasted opportunity after the marshaling of such passionate support.)
The argument that Sanders would have done better against Trump is based on the conception of voters as responsive to particular policy proposals. Really? Have they met the American voter? There are people who crammed town halls denouncing the “death panels” of Obamacare in 2009 who went back to Congressional offices to protest the repeal of the ACA this summer. Trump would have tarred Sanders as “Crazy, Do-Nothing Bernie.” You can be sure he would have used the Jane Sanders/Burlington College scandal (whatever its validity) against both of them. Would Bernie have gotten down in the mud? Or would he have or responded like Dukakis in 1988, who answered a question about the imagined rape of his wife with cool detachment? How’d that work out for him?
Clinton acquitted herself admirably in the three debates with Trump, and so would have Sanders. Any voter making their choice based on a rational assessment of what they would do in the office would have voted accordingly. But this was an election unlike any in memory; in which an extraordinary percentage of voters heard coherence as lying and incoherence as truth. And whatever my issues with Bernie, (almost none of them on policy) I would never accuse of him of incoherence. It is a huge leap to assume that the same voters who rejected utter sense-making in Clinton would have embraced it in Sanders, in a year where the complete inability to make sense clearly held an incomprehensible but undeniable appeal.
In the end, there is no getting around the bizarre truth about 46% of the American electorate went temporarily insane, frankly. They were not appalled by what should have appalled them. Even worse, many who were appalled convinced themselves that very sensation was actually a response to authenticity — a quality they didn’t find in the 17 other candidates who Trump defeated, and admittedly did not find in Clinton.
Perhaps then, despite his 40 years as a politician, they would have found Bernie authentic enough in sufficient numbers to have made him president. I think that’s an arguable point. But if we’re still trying to figure out why Trump won, can we just retire the laundry list of Clinton’s mistakes as the focus of the blame? The only analysis of the election that will come to any insightful conclusion is the one that abandons old paradigms in attempting to understand the behavior of the Trump voter.
A dark, irrational wind blew in 2016. Trump did not produce it; it produced Trump. Whether the vomit from the American zeitgeist is a temporary or permanent phenomenon remains to be seen, but blaming Hillary will not yield an understanding of what caused it. It’s just easier.