This is one of those things that seems so obvious it feels a little bit stupid to say it, but: Donald Trump won the presidency because it was the GOP’s turn.
It feels stupid to say this, because we all know, on some level, that power gets handed back and forth between the two parties; despite the Clinton campaign’s sense that it was her turn, we know that after we’ve had Democratic governance for a while, we’ll get a Republican president. So it feels… too obvious to observe that beyond all that sound and fury about white rage and electoral misogyny and economic anxiety and vote-hacking and so on and so on—beyond the entirety of 2017 that pundits seemed to spend trying to explain how Donald Trump could have happened—it was basically just the GOP’s turn.
But it was. Sitting presidents usually win reelection and lame-duck presidents usually pass the presidency to the other party. Incumbency is only an advantage for the incumbent, not for their anointed successors; vice presidents are virtually never elected to carry on the work of their predecessor, and the same goes for administration insiders. Instead, the clear historical pattern is that while first-term presidents almost always become second-term presidents, second-term presidents almost always hand the presidency to the other party in the next election. Each party gets two terms—very occasionally one less or one more—before it’s the other party’s turn.
It’s not an iron law, but it’ll do: Roosevelt’s was the last one-party dynasty, and his successor won re-election, but Truman’s two-term presidency (D) gave way to Eisenhower’s two terms (R), which gave way to Kennedy and Johnson’s two terms (D), and then two terms shared between Nixon and Ford (R). Carter only got one term (D), but like Bush’s third term for Reagan’s administration (R), these rare exceptions on emphasize the broader pattern, which has been unbroken ever since: Clinton’s two terms (D) became George W. Bush’s two terms (R) became Obama’s two terms (D).
Here is how unpredictable our presidential elections have been: DD-RR-DD-RR-D-RRR-DD-RR-DD.
This passing of the torch is more consistent than could be explained except by reference to it; if you had to explain to an alien how we decide who our next president will be, you could do a lot worse than explain that there are two parties who take turns, and almost any other explanation would be worse.
This is worth saying because it actually isn’t obvious. And as we enter the hellish, endless election period, it’s worth keeping this pattern in mind because of all the hyper over-narrating that will soon afflict us. Pundits and political scientists will set out to predict and explain the results by presuming that they are a measure of something real, something important, but something unseen: an underlying zeitgeist, the “mood of the country,” economic conditions, or something else. They will conjure into existence all manner of invisible causes and underlying factors; the key for this election, they will declare, both before and after, is X! or Y! or perhaps it is Z.
This is how the shocking fact of President Donald Trump was first made unthinkable–before it happened–and then made thinkable, after it did. The nation’s experts turned to all sorts of underlying realities that could explain how that shocking outcome first couldn’t and then did come to be. But how shocking was it really? What if we assumed that the Democrats were most likely going to lose—that Clinton was an administration insider at a moment when the Obama administration was handing power back to the Republicans—and that whoever won the GOP nomination was most likely to win? Then the problem looks very different. It would be a much less interesting story to tell–because there’s so little to explain–but we would have had better luck predicting the result and less work to do explaining it.
Obviously, it could have gone a different way, and Clinton did win the popular vote, just like President Gore. But the idea that Clinton was the obvious favorite—which everyone seemed to take for granted—starts from a very different point of view than the one I’ve been laying out. To imagine that the Republican candidate—any Republican candidate—wasn’t the default favorite to succeed Obama, you have to not know that the best historical predictor of electoral success is how long the other party has been in power, how tired the electorate is of them, and how desperate they are for a change. If this is the case, and if the clock starts ticking down when a party takes power—as it seems to have for the entire post-war period—then the default, baseline expectation should always have been that winning the GOP nomination would most likely win that candidate the presidency.
This wasn’t the baseline expectation, however, because it would have left our nation’s pundits and political commentators without something to explain. Worse, they would have had to admit that our government is effectively unified by a power-sharing agreement, that we do not really choose between two parties, but instead rotate the imperial presidency between them in a regular sequence. They would have to admit that our politics might as well have been designed to maintain a constant, endless balance: each president undoing the accomplishments of their predecessor, just in time to have their own accomplishments undone in turn, a system which might as well have been designed to maintain a roughly-churning status quo.
If we start from the presumption that the thing might as well have been rigged, however, we’d have to anticipate that the next president will be a Democrat, who will be succeeded by a Republican. Maybe Trump only gets one term; that has happened, once, in the modern era, so it could happen again; or maybe he gets another term before handing it over to that Democrat, or maybe he manages to be succeeded by a Republican who gives the GOP a third term (that, too, has happened precisely once in the modern era). But however different and consequential those three outcomes are–and I’m not pretending they aren’t–they are still variations on a single theme, a single consistent rhythm. We are now in the Republican era, when Obama’s accomplishments are being taken apart, which will be followed, eventually, by a Democratic era, in which Trump’s accomplishments will be reversed. And so on.
To break this cycle would require breaking the parties; short of a truly revolutionary upheaval, the party with the D and the party with the R will circle the drain forever. If the GOP became non-fascist, that would be nice, and if the Democrats became an actual party of labor, that would be nice too. But the ritual antipathy between them–the effort to undo what the other has done and by undone by them in turn–is more enduring and stable than perhaps any other aspect of electoral politics, a consequence of our airlessly two-party system, and the class of explainers that obscure its simplicity by pretending that the majority of Americans don’t hate the majority of their political class and long, desperately, for release.
This is why politics need to be explained. If they didn’t, then we wouldn’t know that there is something more going on than that Republicans wanted not-Obama and the Democrats want not-Trump. If politics didn’t need to be explained, we wouldn’t know that what we see–a nation of alienated politics-haters–is only the surface, the tip of the iceberg, and that we shouldn’t believe our lying, ignorant eyes; we wouldn’t know that with greater scrutiny and deeper analysis, a different reality would come into focus.
There are different kinds of explanations, of course. Depending on your epistemological proclivities, you can be a conspiracy-monger or a data-journalist or a taxi-driver and coal-miner whisperer; you can read economic signs and polls and even cherry-picked historical precedent. But these are all “paranoid” readings–in the sense that Eve Sedgwick uses the term–which allow us to defer and deny the more obvious, easy, simple, and true explanation: that our politics never really change very much, and might as well have been designed that way, and that what seems like a changing of the guard is more like turning an hourglass over and over and over and over.
By contrast, if the story you find yourself telling is always how what is happening now is unique–and that the next election result will be a unique result of this unique contemporary moment–you will find yourself doing a lot of work to predict something that you could have predicted quite easily. But if you always know that what you see isn’t the real story, there’s a kind of comfort in that. However horrible our politics right now are—and everyone agrees that politics are uniquely horrible right now, just as they always have and have been—you can interpret the data in ways that ease your horror, if you are so inclined; you can explain why Trump happened, and by doing so, make him the anomaly against with a “normal” might re-emerge. The more unique each event is–each horrible political event–the more normal it will have always been for it to be another way, and the more possible it will seem for change to happen.
Part of the work of “explaining” politics is providing that comfort, making that other “normal” seem more plausible. The presidential pattern is just too regular and simple to be interesting, but on some level, we’d all prefer that every election feels like a particular, unique crisis (not least because this is the story that campaigns always tell, over and over and over again, “the most important election of our lifetime”). It allows us to imagine that crisis might give way to change, that crisis and emergency really do portend some new emergence. And we don’t, I think, like to admit that our politics are driven by a cycle of distaste and alienation, that we vote one party in until they’ve disappointed us so much that we vote in the other guys, and that no other choice is possible. It would overturn our sense that democracy works to admit that we have a de facto power-sharing agreement, rigged by two parties, and that the electorate is driven less by idealism than by cynicism and anger because no other option is on the ballot.
We tell different stories, if we do, because who would want to understand how our politics work? Who would want to realize that anything we vote in a president to do will immediately go on the chopping block for the next president to undo? What the electorate declares with their votes–anything but this!–the explainer class does with their explainers.
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