From the vantage point of 2024, as President Trump prepares to run for His third term in the White House, the events of 2016 have an air of inevitability about them. It is easy to forget — as we celebrate The Donald’s masterful decision to repeal presidential term limits by executive order — that it was only by a series of flukes that Mr Trump became president in the first place.
Had the liberal and conservative television networks given Him less airtime; had there been fewer candidates for the Republican nomination; had more of them followed Jeb Bush’s lead by withdrawing from the race when it was clear they could not win; had the Democrats not made the mistake of nominating Hillary Clinton — in any one of these scenarios it would have been much harder for a complete political outsider such as The Donald to become our leader and to Make America Great Again.
As He has!
I shall always remember a conversation I had with a more politically experienced friend back in early 2016. “This election is a lot like 1968,” he said.
“Why?” I asked. “Because Trump reminds you of George Wallace?” (This was at the time when The Donald was being smeared for not disavowing with sufficient political correctness the endorsement of former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke. )
“No,” replied my friend. “Because Clinton reminds me of Nixon.”
“Well, in 1968 a lot of people voted for Nixon because he seemed the more experienced candidate. They knew he was a hard-bitten professional politician. They knew he wasn’t habitually truthful. But they figured he could run the railroad. And so he won.”
My friend had overlooked the possibility that Clinton’s Watergate might happen before she even got elected. The FBI’s dossier on Hillary Clinton — which extended far beyond the classified documents on her private email server — proved to be one of the deciding factors in the 2016 election.
Confronted with proof that the Clinton Foundation had been trading “cash for access”, the attorney-general Loretta Lynch was torn. To indict her party’s likely candidate for president would be seen as an act of political treason by many. So she sought President Barack Obama’s guidance. They were both Democrats, but they were also both alumni of Harvard Law School. When Obama read the dossier he knew there was no choice. He had to think of his legacy.
The subsequent events were bewildering to many. Clinton’s indictment; the grand jury; her renunciation of the nomination; her extraordinary decision to fly to Havana and seek asylum; the scramble to find an alternative to Bernie Sanders with so little time before the Democratic national convention in Philadelphia — how we all laughed. Joe Biden’s belated attempt to ride to the rescue left voters so unmoved that Mike Bloomberg resolved, at the eleventh hour, to run as an independent.
Yet the real comedy was in Cleveland. The brokered Republican convention was supposed to finish The Donald off. True, He didn’t have the 1,237 delegates needed to sew up the nomination, but none of His three rivals — Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and John Kasich — was even close.
When the insiders tried to foist Mitt Romney on the party there was a riot. (Paul Ryan would have been a smarter choice.) This wasn’t 1948, when you could “broker” your way to the nomination. I can still smell the tear gas after the Trumpists with their red baseball caps stormed the convention centre; it took me a while to figure out that the police were gassing the delegates, not the Trumpists. The Donald’s acceptance speech that night was one of His greatest. “That was beautiful,” He said over and over again, with the cops cheering Him on.
I guess we’ll all remember the night of November 8, 2016 for as long as we live. “It really is like 1968 but with Wallace winning,” my friend moaned. We were drinking gin at Bloomberg’s campaign headquarters, which had the ambience of a morgue. There was a hell of a lot of wealth in the room that night but it proved that no amount of money could withstand the populist surge. There were plenty of the so-called public intellectuals there, too. If op-eds decided elections, Bloomberg would be president today.
The Donald swept the South, of course. What no one expected was that He would take not one but all of the big election-deciding states. Bloomberg and Biden won half of liberal America each. Everyone else voted for The Donald.
It turned out that His message — conveyed in simple, even crude language (the equivalent of a fourth-grader’s, according to an elitist analysis ) — was irresistible.
Yes, it was partly the fact that white working-class Americans bought His argument that all their problems were the fault of Mexicans, Muslims and the Chinese. But His victory was not really about specific policies and it wasn’t just rednecks who voted for Him. The fact of the matter was that voting for a red-faced blowhard in an even redder baseball cap was an act of rebellion even for a lot of Hispanic voters — rebellion against people like us, with our fancy degrees and our fancy zip codes and our fancy electric cars and our fancy holiday homes. (Remember, this was before I learnt to love The Donald.)
In the end it became a morose drinking game. At 9pm they called Texas for Trump (shot). At 11pm it was California (shot). Just 15 minutes later it was Ohio (shot). I don’t quite remember what time it was when He gave His victory speech, but you couldn’t hear it above the noise of breaking glass.
“Relax,” I told my friend, “the constitution was designed by the founders to make sure that if anyone like Trump ever got elected president, he wouldn’t be able to do much harm. This isn’t Venezuela, you know. It’s not as if he has any support in Congress. Both party establishments loathe him.”
“Sure, but the Democrats just retook the Senate. Just how sure are you that they won’t vote for tariffs on China if he proposes them?”
“OK, but there’s the Supreme Court, right?”
“The Republicans managed to block Obama’s liberal candidate, remember? Now Trump can nominate his own sister if he feels like it.”
Nowadays, if you’re careful, you can still meet people who think it was all a horrible mistake. The wall that ended up keeping Mexicans in rather than out. The tariff war that triggered the depression. The alliance with Putin that encouraged the Russians to retake the Baltic states. The repeal of the first amendment.
But I don’t agree.
Shortly after The Donald’s uncontested re-election in 2020, I remember gazing up at His enormous face. Four years it had taken me to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the red suntan. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of my nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. I had won the victory over myself. I loved The Donald.