It feels as though decades have passed since Donald Trump’s reputation rose from that of an eccentric game show host on entertainment television. In truth it wasn’t all that long ago that Trump was viewed by many as nothing more than a conspiracy theorist with too much time and money. More of a political punch line than a legitimate player, Trump seemed to be making a living off of extremist claims and wild theories that no serious person believed to be true. Even as he rose to challenge Democrats in the general election, the appearance of Trump’s growing and resilient support seemed to do little to nudge liberals out of their Clinton comfort zone.
Then 2016 happened. And now the man that Obama once smeared for his seeming irrelevance is heir to the most powerful political office in the world. And what makes Trump’s victory particularly ironic is that the American left has been trying to explain their defeat with the same type of fringe conspiracy theories they once associated with Trump himself.
Today, just a few days prior to the inauguration, Democrats and left leaning independents are still engaging in the same kind of biased, unfounded conspiracy claims that Trump pioneered years ago. Many of Clinton’s supporters have tried to console themselves, for example, with the notion that FBI Director Comey is to blame for their loss. The director’s “strategically-timed” memo reminded the public of Clinton’s inability to handle classified information, and that must have swayed last minute voters away. Russian hacking is another popular theory for the left, with resident Obama today levying ultimatums and sanctions against Russian intelligence officials and diplomats. And if either of those theories fail, progressives can always default to tired complaints against the Electoral College and the rules of American politics that preclude simple majority rule.
None of those theories hold any real potential to change the verdict of the election, however, nor do they do much to actually explain why Trump won. The reason for this is that the 2016 election wasn’t all that close, and such theories cannot begin to explain the sound defeat Clinton experienced in swing states like Pennyslvannia and Ohio. The fact that progressives are still clinging to them shows that they remain ignorant of the strong pulse of the American public that Trump tapped into during the campaign. Trump’s massive movement grew from his promise to take on the status quo and corrupt establishment in Washington, D.C. He promised to “make America great again,” and to return the country to a time when the United States had a bright economic future and a system that rewarded traditional values and hard work over elitism and political cronyism.
But as much as he talked about “the good ol’ days” and America’s radiant past, Trump’s campaign was far more about America’s future. It was this aspect of his campaign that truly captured the country’s imagination and its vote. Trump’s crowning achievement was that he and his supporters seized America’s political future from the pre-written narrative that progressives liked to believe was inevitable.
The very concept of progressivism as an ideology is built on an assumed notion that society is moving unswervingly towards the future – and not just any future but a very particular one. Progressives believe that the change they welcome into the world is of an egalitarian, humanistic variety that prizes secularism and abstract reason over the supposed simplicity of tradition, family values, and religion. Progressives assume their imagined future to be undeniably and obviously superior to the status quo as well as the past. They believe the triumph of such an agenda is ultimately a forgone conclusion merely requiring the process of time.
Donald Trump, for all his faults, threw a much-needed wrench into this false narrative. Trump reminded progressives that America’s political future has not yet been conclusively written, and he articulated the very real possibility that the America of tomorrow could look very much like the one from the past. His impassioned, unorthodox, and at times messy campaign served to breathe life into America’s stiff political process. His rise shocked the educated elite, sent college progressive students running to safe spaces, and dethroned the media’s narrative of a queen walking into the White House. Instead of the teleprompted narrative they expected to receive, progressives discovered a wide open election and an unanticipated victor. Trump reminded them what it feels like to lose, and he taught them that a progressive future is just one of many possibilities for our country.
What will Trump’s presidency be like? It’s certainly hard for anyone to predict. No doubt progressives are already predetermining his failure for not ascribing to the same values they hold. The ascension of an unscripted right wringer doesn’t fit neatly into their narrative, and so elites will soon seek to explain Trump away as a short detour on the otherwise steady path to victory. But many attentive progressives might actually be pleasantly surprised by a President Trump who personally seems to share more in common with them than the traditionalists and religious right who helped Trump rise. Those conservatives may eventually get the Supreme Court nominees they were promised, but much to their frustration they could discover an entirely different and even liberal Donald Trump if Democrats regain Congress. Even more so, the establishment should prepare themselves for a volatile love-hate relationship with a president as likely to enrich them as levy an export tax without warning. With so many groups, and so many different opinions of the soon-to-be President of the United States, only one thing can be known for certain.
We are in for one wild ride.