As the nation gears up for a grueling general election campaign between the two most unpopular major party nominees on record, most liberal intellectuals and Democratic partisans are still gazing—with a mix of amusement and vindictive schadenfreude—at the epochal implosion of the Republican Party. Here’s Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine:
Why did almost everybody fail to predict Donald Trump’s victory in the Republican primaries? Nate Silver blames the news media, disorganized Republican elites, and the surprising appeal of cultural grievance. Nate Cohn lists a number of factors, from the unusually large candidate field to the friendly calendar… Here’s the factor I think everybody missed: The Republican Party turns out to be filled with idiots. Far more of them than anybody expected.
It’s understandable for liberals to have their share of fun at the GOP’s expense. The party has been captured, without even putting up much of a fight, by a candidate who insults its leaders, who is manifestly unfit for high office, and who appears indifferent or hostile to its official ideology. Like the corrupt and weak-willed university administrations that have been rolling over, left and right, before militant campus activists, the rudderless, visionless GOP establishment is worthy of no small amount of contempt and scorn.
But if Donald Trump is sworn in as President of the United States on January 2017, the Republican Party will not be the only institution to blame. Our system contains a multitude of safeguards designed to block the ascent of incompetent, wicked or dangerous men. Trump has already cleared many of them, exploiting and ultimately hijacking the decrepit organs of the conservative movement and the Republican Party that were supposed to vet him. But he has not yet had to grapple with the final, and most important, hurdle—the all-out challenge from a mobilized opposition party. The GOP has failed at its most basic obligation: presenting the public with a nominee who is fit to lead the the most powerful nation on earth. The question is now whether the Democratic Party is a healthy enough institution to stop him from having that chance.
Normally, a candidate who has never held office, who has insulted large swathes of the American public, and whose favorability rating is underwater by more than 30 points would face impossible odds in a general election. The party that nominated him would merely be publicly declaring, in effect, that it is unprepared to govern. But that does not appear to be true in this election. Despite so-called “fundamentals” (including low unemployment and a relatively popular sitting president) strongly favoring the Democratic Party, the betting markets give Donald Trump a nearly 30 percent chance of winning the election, and few prudent analysts are writing him off. That’s because, for all the understandable focus on the stunning malfunction of Republican institutions, the Democratic Party is on the cusp of nominating a candidate who is also shockingly unappealing to voters—a woman who is accomplished and qualified, yes, but who also has negative charisma, who is under investigation by the FBI, and who is more unpopular among the general electorate than any candidate in history … with the exception of Donald Trump.
The troubled position of the presumptive Democratic nominee is not just a product of contingency and happenstance; it reflects severe institutional failures on the part of her party’s establishment. During eight years of uninterrupted control of the executive branch, Democratic leaders failed to develop and cultivate plausible new presidential contenders—in part because their agenda was so unpopular that down-ballot candidates who might have had presidential ambitions were decimated during midterms. Moreover, the party allowed many of its institutions to effectively fall under the control of the Clinton Machine, a type of 21st century Tammany Hall with global reach, that enabled many of the activities that have trashed Secretary Clinton’s reputation, and that effectively blocked any competitors from entering the race. Clinton’s march to the nomination without any credible establishment opposition, and without much enthusiasm even among her own voters, does not reflect a healthy party; it reflects an enfeebled party, lacking in presidential-level talent and firmly in the grips of an ethically dubious political machine.
In a Republic like ours, the ascent to the presidency of a figure like Trump would require a cascade of institutional failures. Many of those failures have already taken place; one of our great parties has awarded its nomination for the highest office in the land to an unstable demagogue with little to no knowledge of the constitutional system over which he hopes to preside. But if we do find ourselves living in a Trump Imperium, the fault will also lie with a Democratic Party that, spectacularly, was unable to produce a nominee with the standing to expose and defeat such a figure. Liberal schadenfreude is all well and good, but Democratic partisans would do well to remember that Trump is their party’s problem now, and that the rot in our institutions is not confined to the GOP.