(I’ve considered deleting this post as it’s based on the presumption that Hillary Clinton would win the election, which was sadly wrong. However, I stand by everything I write even when I’m wrong, so I’m going to leave this up as a monument to hubris and a historical reminder of how people viewed the 2016 campaign at the time.)
Whenever people look back on elections, particularly Presidential elections, they always use a simple narrative to explain it. The 1964 and 1972 elections used the narrative that if you nominate an extremist, you’ll lose in a landslide. 2004 was about fear and the War on Terror, whereas 2008 was about hope and change. So what will be the narrative of 2016?
While considering this, I noticed that there is little consensus among commentators on any topic and most “analysis” is just applying pre-existing opinions onto a new situation. So any future narratives of the 2016 election will be heavily based on the viewpoint of the speaker. In fact, there is rarely one narrative but rather a collection of them competing for dominance. It is only future decisions (like who wins the 2020 election) that will decide the narrative of 2016.
In fact, so heavy is people’s bias in how they view the election, that I don’t even need to wait for the election to happen to know how people will react to it. I know that there will be roughly five main narratives, representing the five main factions of politics at the moment (3 Republican, 2 Democratic) as each candidate and faction tries to imprint their narrative on the election.
The Trump Narrative
I’ll start with Donald Trump because he certainly will be the loudest in pushing his narrative. His narrative is that the election was rigged against him by the establishment. It’s highly likely that he will claim voter fraud when he loses and conservatives on social media certainly will. Given his propensity for believing conspiracy theories, he will certainly endorse some elaborate schemes to excuse his defeat regardless of how scanty the evidence is. This is the most worrying and dangerous possibility and in the conservative echo chambers, little is needed to convince people that Clinton is immoral or just plain evil.
Trump has a very flexible definition of rigged so he will spread his net wide when it comes to blaming people. The media will certainly get a lot of bashing in post-election reviews by Trump supporters. Trump didn’t lose because of the horrible things he said, but because the media was biased against him. The “establishment” didn’t want him to win, wouldn’t let him win. Globalist forces are a popular conspiracy, immigrants of course will be blamed and knowing Trump he’ll work black people into it as well.
Republicans too will get blamed too. Only one of the previous nominees, few members of congress, almost no senators endorsed him and those that did, did so with great reluctance (some have retraced their endorsement). The GOP convention was remarkable for the lack of support Trump received from the rest of the party and by how many major Republican politicians didn’t attend. Many prominent Republicans refused to endorse Trump and some even endorsed Clinton. Trump supporters will push the narrative that the entire establishment, including that within his own party, was against Trump. He had to fight a two front war and that if only his own side had supported him, he would have won.
The Moderate Republican / Ryan, Kasich Narrative
This is the narrative that Trump lost because he was too extreme. Naturally, this is popular among pundits outside the party, but it’s likely that Kasich and/or Ryan will run in 2020 on a platform of a more moderate and inclusive party. Key to this will be the claim that Trump lost because he alienated too much of the electorate. Of course, moderate is a relative term and almost every Republican is extreme in some way (although Ryan is spoken of as a moderate now, he was viewed as very conservative in 2012. Kasich was once considered a Gingrich conservative). They will argue that had Trump not been so brash in in his arguments, had not proposed ideas he hadn’t thought through and hadn’t made wild claims without evidence, he would have won.
There will certainly be a counter-attack from the “moderates” over the soul of the Republican Party over the coming years. There will be those who claim that the only way the Republican Party can win again is if it takes a more moderate stance and is more welcoming to racial minorities. They will use the defeat of Trump to argue that the Republican Party has no future as a White Nationalist party and that the demographics doom this path.
The True Conservative / Cruz Narrative
This is the narrative that Trump lost because he wasn’t truly a conservative, wasn’t really a Republican. There is plenty of evidence for this, such as the fact that Trump only registered as a Republican in 2012 and was a Democrat from 2001 to 2009. Trump didn’t pay much attention to conservative social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. He rarely mentions God or religion. Unlike most Republicans he has not launched massive attacks against big government or the welfare state and has even claimed he will protect social security. His tax and budget plan is a contradictory mess, but he doesn’t have the obsession with the national debt that consumed Republicans during the Obama years. He also had affairs (while married) with married women and generally acted in a sleazy manner towards women. Essentially, he is the opposite of the typical family values candidate that Republicans nominate.
So Cruz and others will claim that Trump failed because he did not rally the Republican base and appeal in the traditional manner. They will claim that he lost because he abandoned core Republican values. They will claim that voters were put off by his lack of convictions and his wandering hands (whereas a good Christian Conservative would never have said what Trump did). There will be a host of politicians in 2020 claiming they are a “True Conservative” and that Trump is an example of those who wander from the true path. This has the attractive advantage of not requiring Republicans to change anything or do any soul-searching, they were right all along, they just needed a better messenger.
The Moderate Democrat / Clinton narrative
This is the narrative that only a moderate Democrat like Clinton could have won, by appealing to dissatisfied Republican and by offering a calm and moderate comparison against Trump. Supporters will argue that Clinton was everything Trump is not and therefore highlights his flaws. She’s a woman, she’s calm and composed, she’s popular with minorities, she’s highly experienced, the party was united behind her and her policies were moderate and well thought out. By taking a moderate stance, she made it easier for Republicans to cross over to her and also gave Trump enough space to self-destruct.
This narrative argues that nominating Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist, Democrats would have thrown away the election. Many Republicans were uncomfortable with Trump as a candidate but putting a socialist against him would have thrown them back into Trump’s arms. Sanders radical policies would have made it much easier for Republicans to endorse and campaign for Trump. Many Republicans were uncomfortable with Trump, but the fear of Sanders radical policies would have energised them. The media with its love of balance and willingness to create false equivalences, would have portrayed the election as a battle of two extremes and claimed that Sanders was just as extreme as Trump. There may even have been a moderate third party candidate to split the vote.
While Sanders was doing well in polls and had high favourability, this was because the Republicans had refrained from criticising and attacking him. Do you really think that Fox News and Trump would have gone soft on a socialist? He would have face a constant onslaught of attacks and scandals both real and imagined. If a minor issue like Clinton’s emails were blown up into a major scandal, the same would probably happen to Sanders. He visited the Soviet Union for his honeymoon for example, Trump probably would have used that to claim he was a Soviet agent or a Stalinist. Considering the bizarre allegations he made against Clinton, who knows what he would accuse Sanders of.
The Liberal Democrat / Sanders Narrative
This is the narrative that while Clinton was able to scrape a narrow win over Trump, Sanders would have won much bigger and implemented better policies too. Trump is probably the worst candidate nominated by a major political party in a generation, if not longer. It’s arguable that anyone, no matter how radical their policies, could have beaten him. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a better candidate for Democrats to run against. Yet whenever Clinton began to pull ahead, some scandal of hers, usually related to her emails, would pull her back down again. Clinton’s high unfavourable were a millstone around her neck, in contrast, Sanders was one of the most popular politicians in the race. Clinton almost lost to a terrible candidate, because she is a very weak candidate.
The polls showed that Clinton was not seen as honest or trustworthy by voters and even a compulsive liar like Trump is seen as better than her. Due to her scandals, the election has been seen by many as a decision between two terrible choices. Clinton had a serious problem motivating her supporters and had little to offer except not being Trump. Sanders on the other hand, was seen as incredibly honest and passionate, even by his opponents. He was a candidate worth voting for. He could challenge Trump’s dishonest and use him as the perfect image of the inequality problem in the country. The polls showed him with double the lead over Trump that Clinton had. He could mobilise his supporters much more than Clinton did and challenge Trump’s appeal to the white working class voters.
Now I’m not saying which narrative is correct (if any are) or if I support one more than another. But I’m certain these are the arguments that will be made over the coming days, months and years as pundits run the election through a microscope. Future elections will be fought not only on contemporary issues, but also by what lessons candidates and voters took from previous elections. This is how the candidates and their supporters will argue over the legacy of 2016 and how we view the past shapes our decision for the future. If you control the past, you control the future.