2016 U.S. election: A Clinton win would still spell turmoil

If the results come close, the idea that the election was rigged — even if false — could blow up into a serious storm. Stephen Blank on what to expect in the final months of the campaign, and after.

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August 19, 2016
Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton holds a rally at West Philadelphia High School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, August 16, 2016. REUTERS/Mark Makela

All things being equal, Hillary Clinton wins. But in this circus, things are not always equal. And the election outcome may be less important than what follows.

Clinton faces two possible game-changers between now and Nov.8. The first is Clinton herself. Second is Donald Trump. 

Poll numbers notwithstanding, she’s not popular. Aside from not being trusted (her numbers on trust are only slightly better than Trump’s), she is not liked. For some, because she’s a woman; for others, because she’s a Clinton; and for others, she’s devious. She’s been around for a very long time and is, perhaps, overly familiar. President Barack Obama’s popularity is relatively high at the moment, but many Americans deeply, profoundly dislike – hate is not too much here – him. And Clinton is deliberately stepping into his shoes – the few differences she points out notwithstanding.

Unlike Bill Clinton, Obama, Bernie Sanders or even Trump, she does not ignite an audience, and despite reams of plans and programs, she has not enunciated a clear mission statement.

Hillary is big on listening. And she does. But she does not seem to share. Or when she does, it doesn’t seem to work. The mishandled emails which could, many believe, have been handled with a degree of grace by an admission of carelessness and an apology, continue to haunt.

Many people are “with her” because they are terrified of Trump, and one wonders how contingent this loyalty is.

So far, Trump is playing to a loud and enthusiastic but limited demographic, indulging in its passion but distancing himself from building broader support. Could the Donald change his stripes and erode some of Clinton’s weak support? Some voters might shift to Trump after a severe terrorist event or a new revelation about Clinton (or her husband’s) life or income.

Bottom line: Clinton’s problem is that too much depends on voters disliking Trump rather than embracing her.

Other parties? (Despite a lack of media attention, they still exist.) Some disgruntled ‘Bernies’ and some disgusted conservatives will wander. The Greens will pull urban, educated whites – but these are Hillary’s largest constituencies and not enough will desert to change the electoral outcome in her strongholds. More conservatives (and some Sanders veterans) will vote Libertarian and might affect the outcome of a few marginal Republican states. It’s possible that Trumpism and new Clinton revelations would drive these numbers up, but at the end of the day, those on the left-democratic side will not want to put Trump in power and will vote for Clinton.    

Expecting a post-Trump world

Let’s assume she wins. What happens then?

A Clinton win would probably also give Democrats control of the Senate, at least until the 2018 mid-terms. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, now in her 80s, would probably retire, giving the president two Supreme Court nominations. This would bring about a shift in the balance of the bench. But getting enough votes to break a filibuster (that is, 60) is very unlikely.

But there’s no chance of a Democratic majority in the House. The Democrats might pick up 10 or a dozen seats, but the conservatives will control. And more will be red-meat fundamentalists as the last of the House moderate Republicans disappear. This means that budgetary politics will continue to be budgetary wars. How bloody the war will depend on a bunch of variables.

Trump says that if he loses, the election will have been “rigged.” It’s hard to tell exactly what he has in mind. To Trump, everything that doesn’t go his way is “rigged,” so no big deal. But if the election is close – even if the Electoral College outcome is not – the idea that the election was rigged and the outcome illegitimate could blow up into a serious storm. This kind of thing – armed resistance and such – seems wildly unlikely. But take a look at Thomas Ricks’ article in a recent issue of Foreign Policy (scarcely a fringe journal). Ricks, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former reporter for the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, quotes Trump advisor Roger Stone saying, “If there’s voter fraud, this election will be illegitimate, the election of the winner will be illegitimate, we will have a constitutional crisis, widespread civil disobedience, and the government will no longer be the government.” Unlikely, but, as others have pointed out, the rhetoric of violence has become widespread in this race.

Even discounting this worst case, there’s little doubt that President Clinton would face extraordinary turmoil upon taking office. Loud voices will demand that she be arrested (Disturbing calls for far worse have become the battle cry of some Trump supporters). Others will press that she be impeached. President Clinton would not be likely to enjoy much of a honeymoon after her inauguration.  

How serious this post-election tumult would be will turn on how the Republican Senate and House leadership – in particular, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell – choose to act after Nov. 8. Would they follow Trump and his people or disown them?

"Genies cannot be put back in the bottle. The impact of Trump's campaign is likely to remain."

Continuing gridlock would force Clinton to rely on executive authority. Obama began his administration opposing the use of executive authority but his inability to win legislative answers forced him increasingly to rely on executive actions. It’s likely that Clinton would have to begin with this approach to governing because Congressional legislative action would be largely blocked from the start. This limits what can be done (executive authority extends only so far, lacking legislation) and will surely lead to even more lawsuits, particularly by Republican-led state governments.

The critical element? Republican divisions

The core issue of U.S. politics remains the fate of the Republican Party. How will the pieces of the deeply fragmented Republican Party that have been finally shattered by Donald Trump reform in a post-Trump era? 

Will Trump remain on the scene? Could he claim the leadership of the GOP? Or in the case that Trump disappears, will we see a new Republican order launched, say, behind Ted Cruz? Will the free-for-all of the primary campaign resume post-Trump? How will the various Republican Senators thinking about the 2020 presidential campaign behave? And how will this affect already dysfunctional Washington?

Note that the divisions in the Republican Party have perversely weakened Clinton. In trying to reach out to disaffected Republicans at the same time as she has sought to embrace Sanders supporters, she dilutes her core message – never very clear in the first place – and leaves core constituencies wondering what they are buying. 

Some genies cannot be put back in the bottle and even if Trump leaves the stage, the impact of his campaign is likely to remain. Trump, clearly, did not create the underlying anger that has motivated so much of his (and Sanders’) campaign. But he encouraged and legitimized its expression in ways outside of the American political experience – at least for many years.

The 2016 campaign has released some of the nastier elements of U.S. politics and it is unrealistic to think that this will all disappear. Barring remarkable – and totally unlikely – economic and social transformations, the anger and violence that emerged in this campaign could well be mainstream elements of U.S. politics in the foreseeable future. 

Finally, although it is hard to lift one’s eyes from the Trumpcapades, bear in mind that in the U.S. all politics is local. For a sense of emerging trends in American politics, watch the states. Republican domination of state governments is not likely to lessen. If anything, the collapse of mainstream Republicanism and the legitimation of anti-Washington sentiments will intensify the shift among state leaders to fundamentalism.