Writers and analysts, those of us at TAI very much included, have spent the past several months writing about what seemed like the spectacular institutional failure of the Republican Party, which allowed its presidential nomination to be seized by someone whom its elites considered thoroughly unqualified for the highest office in the land. Party institutions were once strong enough to influence the outcomes of their nomination processes—to serve as gatekeepers and ideological enforcers. But the Republican Party apparatus was weak, distrusted, and vulnerable to a populist takeover. The institutional Democratic Party, meanwhile, was able to capitalize on its organizational and financial reach to clear the field, control its primary, and guide voters toward the ultra-establishment choice.
But insofar as you consider the election of Donald Trump a great failure on the part of the nation’s political elite, last night’s electoral earthquake highlights the fact that the Republican Party is not the only institution that was negligent. In a well-functioning democracy, when one party offers the nation a candidate with the highest disapproval ratings in modern history, the opposition party would put forward a candidate who can defeat him. And on this front, the Democrats failed almost methodically. As I wrote in May:
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.
Donald Trump won the Republican nomination because the GOP elite’s control over their party was weak. But he won the presidency because the Democratic elite’s control over their party was strong—strong enough that Hillary Clinton could feel confident going on a Wall Street speaking tour in the run-up to her campaign, strong enough to shield her from real scrutiny in the primaries, strong enough to keep Joe Biden out of the race.
The election of Donald Trump can only happen in a country where many institutions are deeply, deeply broken. This is the culmination of a cascade of failures across broad swathes of the elite. The question now is whether the Age of Trump will mark the beginning of reform and renewal, or merely an acceleration of a long decline.