A miserable century?

Nicholas Eberstadt, one of the most perceptive analysts I know of, contends that “things have been going badly wrong in America since the beginning of the 21st century.” He makes a solid case, and I’m not here to dispute it, much less to argue that this century has been a bed of roses.

Eberstadt attributes President Trump’s stunning victory to the “miserable” century Americans outside of the “bubble” have been enduring. You can find a similar analysis in this piece by historian and journalist Robert Merry and this USA Today column by Glenn Reynolds (which relies in part on Eberstadt’s analysis).

But do the presidential elections since 2000, and even the election last year, support the dark picture Eberstadt paints? This is a separate question from whether that picture is accurate.

During the period since 2000, both incumbent presidents were reelected. In the most recent case, 2012, the victory was comfortable.

Twelve years of successive presidential rule by a single party is quite rare. It hasn’t been achieved in two attempts this century. However, it was nearly achieved last year.

Hillary Clinton won many more votes than Donald Trump. Her margin was 2 percentage points. She lost because Trump successfully drew to an inside straight, winning by razor thin margins in a few key states.

Could Obama himself have been reelected? At least one poll suggests he would have been, but I’m not convinced. If he had running for a second term in 2016, though, there’s a good chance he would have won it. Even the thought that he might have seems inconsistent with the idea that great dissatisfaction prevails in our land.

In 2008, John McCain was decisively defeated in his attempt to win a third straight term for the GOP. However, his defeat can plausibly be blamed on the near-collapse of the U.S. economy due to a discrete crisis, as opposed to long-term malaise. (Just before that crisis emerged, McCain was running basically even with Barack Obama). Whatever one thinks of the Obama “recovery,” and I am not a fan, it was sufficient to facilitate his reelection and the near election of Clinton.

I don’t feel qualified to explain Trump’s victory, having not come close to predicting it. However, I wonder whether it could be explained by reference to only two factors: (1) the fact that the other party was seeking a third consecutive presidential victory and (2) Hillary Clinton’s unattractive qualities as a candidate.

The second factor can’t be quantified, but neither can it be denied. John Hinderaker predicted Trump’s victory and based his prediction almost entirely (I think) on the Hillary factor.

Let’s ask this another way: If Americans (1) viewed their situation as being miserable and (2) were utterly fed up with politics as usual and our “elites,” would Hillary Clinton, the unattractive symbol of politics as usual and the embodiment of elitism, have won more votes than Donald Trump?

It’s possible to answer “yes.” Maybe Donald Trump was also extremely unattractive as a person. Maybe biased media coverage propelled Clinton to her popular vote plurality.

I believe that Trump’s unattractive qualities did hurt his candidacy, but he had attractive qualities beyond just being “anti-establishment” that helped it — e.g., his plain speaking, his ability to entertain, and his aura of personal success. It’s far from clear that a different insurgent candidate, one who echoed his themes without his personal qualities, would have fared better, on balance, than Trump did.

As for the mainstream media, a nation thoroughly disgusted by its elites would be expected to tune it out — as, indeed, it many people did.

It’s often a mistake to build a religion around one presidential election. The Democrats tried to build one after the 2012 race, the outcome of which was more decisive than this year’s. Nate Silver and David Axelrod were the high priests. Robert Merry describes some of the dogma, as he lays out its replacement. We should be skeptical of both versions.

But the case Nick Eberstadt presents doesn’t rely on inferences from the 2016 election. It should be evaluated based on the facts he presents about the American economy, American health, and the American family. Many of these facts are chilling.

And it can be is chilling to contemplate that in the 2016 election, Americans may not fully have reacted to the discontent they arguably are justified in feeling.

What would a more thorough reaction look like? A Bernie Sanders type?