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A woman views the front of newspaper pages on display outside the Newseum in Washington, Wednesday, Nov., 9, 2016. Susan Walsh / AP

Election 2016: What Just Happened?

To figure out why Donald Trump is poised to become the most powerful person on earth, Democrats should start by looking in the mirror.

By |

In the summer of 2014 I spent about 36 hours in Washington, DC, reporting a profile of Colorado Rep. Jared Polis. As one of the congressman’s aides escorted me around the U.S. Capitol complex throughout a very long day, during an idle moment our conversation turned to the 2016 presidential election.

When I asked him who he thought the likely Democratic contenders might be, he quickly shut down any speculation: “It’s Clinton,” he said.

This was a year before Donald Trump announced his improbable opposition candidacy, a time when all anything most people knew about Bernie Sanders—if they recognized the name at all—was that he was some kooky maverick from one of those New England nosebleed states.

The open-and-shut nature of my guide’s response was jarring. We were more than two years out from Election Day, before any campaigning, polling, or a single vote had been cast, and as far as Washington Democrats were concerned, Hillary Clinton wasn’t just the likely nominee; she already was the nominee

It should’ve been my first clue that something was amiss, but like so many journalists who cover politics, I screwed up 2016 long before the calendar ever turned to this year. Political reporting is merely a portion of my job, but in retrospect, it would’ve been worth probing a little more to figure out why, in the most bellwether democratic system on the planet, our establishment politicians had evidently decided that the actual voting was a mere formality.

Whatever ruin now alights on our system—the amount of carnage Trump wreaks will be somewhere between catastrophic and nil, and I couldn’t begin to guess where on that continuum we’ll land—one of the hidden benefits might be that we’ve finally put the Clintons (and for that matter, the Bushes) behind us. And I say that as someone who proudly voted for Hillary.

The Democratic complacency about the Clinton machine led to this. It shut down debate and dissension about alternatives, and it actively undermined (as we learned from Wikileaks) the one intra-party challenger who might have provided a robust and optimistic counter to Trump’s nasty, nihilistic populism.

Instead the establishment force-fed us Clinton. Most of us gobbled it up, ignoring the fact that her considerable intelligence, unparalleled resume, and groundbreaking status as the first major party female presidential nominee obscured the inescapable reality that a vast proportion of our population—from left to right—deeply despise her.

To be sure, much of this enmity is rooted in irrationality and abject sexism. Although the actual amounts of this distaste can never be accurately measured, our system—or more accurately, our electoral system, because it appears Clinton won the popular vote—instead chose a president whose every remark, almost by definition, is rooted in lies, hatred, and open and sometimes downright gleeful discrimination.

No matter how “presidential” Trump tries to appear from here on out—his victory speech was by far the least unhinged he’s ever acted during the entire campaign—we just showed the rest of the world that his offensive, relentless, and unapologetic words, actions, and threats against women, minorities, and the underprivileged simply don’t bother us enough to keep him from becoming the most powerful person on earth.

Put another way, we Americans followed the election of our first African-American president by succeeding him with one who received (and only reluctantly rejected) the giddy endorsement of white supremacists.

One immediate fallout from this: All that misty-eyed stuff Ronald Reagan used to wax nostalgically about, that America is the “shining city on a hill,” a glorious melting pot and beacon of hope and freedom to other countries around the world? That’s over.

It’s over because we’ve elected someone who embodies the opposite of everything that phrase evokes. “Well, I didn’t vote for him” is no excuse, because we’re all in this now. Every time we let a sexist remark pass, every time we ignore bullying or hate crimes as they unfold in front of us, every time we tacitly encourage cruelty by failing to practice kindness, every time we write off unethical behavior by our leaders and ostensible role models because “that’s business” or “that’s politics,” we’re driving another nail into the coffin of America’s mythical image and self-regard.

Maybe Trump won’t be as extreme as his rhetoric, but maybe he’ll be worse. His early lineup of potential cabinet members—Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich, Chris Christie, Ben Carson—looks like a reunion tour of an aging rock band no one wants to see. In the aftermath of Obama’s 2012 repeat, conventional wisdom said the GOP needed a drastic makeover in the demographically evolving America if it ever wanted to win another big election. Instead, the party most in need of an overhaul is suddenly the Democrats. This isn’t because sexism and hate and white supremacy have won out; they never will, but they absolutely will rage on until they’re finally extinguished.

It’s up to Democrats, liberals, and left-leaning independents to recognize how much we’ve taken the working class, minorities, and women—and their votes—for granted and begin to enact policies that will actually help them break through whatever ceiling, glass or otherwise, that’s still holding them back. We can’t just talk about it; we have to do it.

Colorado may just be the ideal prototype for such a rebuild. We already have one of the most diverse state legislatures in the country and a proud tradition of bipartisan effectiveness. We’re far from perfect, of course, and plenty of policy battles remain, but there’s a balance here that doesn’t exist in many other states.

By accepting Hillary Clinton as a foregone conclusion rather than one of several (or more) viable options, and by ignoring—for years—the class-based issues raging around us, we brought Trump on ourselves. As penance for this, we must now battle Trumpism’s darkest forces with one hand as we use the other to reconstruct a progressive ideology and system that actually works for everyone—rather than making a series of empty promises that only end up benefitting our elite political class.

Follow 5280 editor-at-large Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @LucHatlestad.

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