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GOP Counterfactual History

It was one year ago tonight (Kobby Dagan/Shutterstock [1])

Donald Trump was elected president a year ago today, radically scrambling American politics. As we know, he lost the popular vote, and only eked out a victory because a relatively small number of Upper Midwest voters went his way. A victory is a victory, and he won fair and square.

But what if he had lost? What would be going on in the Republican Party? Granted, the GOP is a big mess today because he won, but what would be happening to the party had Trump lost? They would still hold both houses of Congress, and would no doubt be doing their dead-level best to thwart President Clinton’s agenda. Beyond that, though, what do you think would be happening within the party and within conservative intellectual circles?

Because I am genuinely curious to hear thoughtful speculation, I will warn you that I’m not going to publish smarty-pants or otherwise trollish commentary. Give the question serious thought, and let’s hear serious answers.

UPDATE: Gang, please, let’s hear some actual counterfactual speculation, not simply your opinions on whether or not the 2016 result was good or bad. It’s fine with me if you speculate also on how the Democratic Party would be today if HRC had won.

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55 Comments To "GOP Counterfactual History"

#1 Comment By St Louisan On November 10, 2017 @ 2:17 am

A relatively narrow Trump loss would have been the best thing possible for a GOP “Red Tory” wing. Ambitious GOP politicians across the country would think to themselves “Hmmm…this nostalgia-tinted, conservative economic populism was so powerful that even someone as ridiculous as Donald Trump came within sight of the White House with it. I’ll find out if whoever wrote his convention speech is available for my 2020 campaign.”

#2 Comment By red6020 On November 10, 2017 @ 10:21 am

But what if he had lost?

It somewhat depends on the scenario. If Trump lost Michigan and Pennsylvania (he won by 0.23% and 0.72%), including the faithless electors, there would have been no electoral majority, but he would still win in the House of Representatives. However, it would have been a bloodbath and any dissident Republicans in the House would probably not run for re-election. There would be huge calls for the abolition of the Electoral College from Dems and Hillary Clinton. People would say Trump is illegitimate, but that’s not new.

However, it only took a little bit more to lose Wisconsin (he won by 0.76%). Then Hillary wins outright, even considering the faithless electors she lost (and assuming she doesn’t lose anymore).

In that scenario, Trump graciously concedes, comes out every once in a while to voice his opinion and cause a stink but I’m doubtful if he makes that many waves post-defeat.

The whole world will be shocked he came so close to victory. All the media and the elite will feel they dodged a bullet. Night talk shows, evening news, all other cultural institutions will be congratulatory and upbeat about the future. Much talk of “our first woman president”, the historic moment, how good everyone feels. *insert clip of little girl crying with joy*

The real repercussions would be in the Republican Party. Total warfare. With Scalia’s SCOTUS seat up, replacing it turns into a bloodbath. Ultimately, Merrick Garland or Hillary’s choice gets confirmed.

The loss will be put squarely on faithless Republicans. Jeff Flake, Bob Corker, etc. will still decline to run for re-election.

Corey Stewart will win versus Ed Gillespie and will also win the VA governorship on the wave of angry conservative Republicans and over the depressed turnout of lackadaisical, uninspired Democrats.

Hillary’s presidency will be hamstrung by a Republican congress and continuing scandals and divisions within the Democrats.

2018 would be a Republican wave. What’s more, it’d be a Trumpian wave. Lots of populist candidates tear apart the Establishment GOP. Then they get elected on the backs of an angered Republican base.

Essentially, the recriminations would come fast and quick and the Establishment would be in the worst possible position with every Democratic victory put on their shoulders.

The “Alt-Right” would probably be doing better having a firm enemy to position against and not embarrassed by a flailing Trump presidency. Of course, Richard Spencer would still likely catapult himself into “leadership” of the “Alt-Right” and do his usual Heilgate/self-aggrandizing routine.

You’d probably also see Amnesty passed and the DREAM Act legalized and there would be massive repercussions for that, as well.

Throw in a war with Syria, escalation with Russia, I think you’d get violent conflict by now (Nov. 2017). That’d cause even more turmoil (and amongst Democrats too).

In sum, the GOP/Conservative Mov’t Establishment would have the same old prescription for “success” (More Moderation!!! Party like it’s 2003!!!) and would simultaneously be losing all power. The Populist Right would be gaining strength in the GOP and there’d be simultaneously more cooperation in Washington and more recrimination.

#3 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On November 10, 2017 @ 12:10 pm

If Hillary Clinton had won, it would have been a different kind of disaster, but at least we could console ourselves that Barack or Michelle Obama would fill Justice Scalia’s vacant seat on the Supreme Court. (I would have favored Michelle Obama in that scenario).

#4 Comment By WEG On November 10, 2017 @ 12:14 pm

“Had Hillary Clinton won, we would be seeing an inactive government, same as post-2010 Obama Presidency, because the GOP Congress would resist everything HRC attempted, just as they did w/ Obama.”

Much like we’re seeing now, right? What major change in policy direction has the GOP Congress actually accomplished this year?

“I suspect that if HRC does well enough to win in WI and PA, Ross and Feingold manage to do it too.”

This comment elides the fact that the Presidential races were much closer than the Senate races in these two states.

Other commenters have suggested that Cruz or Rubio would have been the GOP nominee in 2020 – this strikes me as very unlikely, as neither one really did very well in 2016. “Not being able to do very well against Trump once the field was whittled down” is hardly much of an accomplishment.

I’d say that in any realistic counterfactual, the main thing is that very little would be different. Presidents have very little impact on the economy (thank God!), and in any case both Trump and Clinton were campaigning on a lot of stuff they were never going to accomplish. (Look at how little Trump has accomplished or is even trying to accomplish vis-à-vis his “signature” issues).

Assuming Trump doesn’t blunder into something like a nuclear disaster, the main difference between Trump and Clinton winning is which party will get a boost going forward – with Trump winning, the Democrats now have the momentum, whereas if Hillary had won, the Republicans would be better off. Remember, both nominees were record-setters as far as being disliked by the voters – both broke Goldwater’s negative polling records. As much as people disliked them before being elected, I think in both cases more familiarity would have bred even more contempt.

Finally, the most interesting counterfactual with Trump losing would be Trump running again – maybe he would have turned into a Republican version of William Jennings Bryan. Of course this is pretty unlikely given that Trump is old and not exactly Bryanesque as far as being a man of ideas and principles and character….

#5 Comment By Ray Woodcock On November 13, 2017 @ 7:29 pm

If Hillary had won, I think the key word would have been “continuity.” People would have noticed the ways in which she varied from Obama, but the variations would not generally have been profound. That would apparently also be true across the aisle: it seems the GOP would have tended to remain in its previous pattern. Its presidential candidates in 2020 would probably have been unimpressive; its Congress would surely have sought to perpetuate the obstructionism and extreme partisanship that characterized the Obama years. As such, it would have remained an opposition party, as distinct from a party of ideas – not that the Democrats have distinguished themselves in these regards.

Hillary would have been divisive for the country as a whole, but would have continued in Obama’s role of providing a sense of unity on the right. There would always be those who call endlessly for her head, but developments over the past year suggest that they might at last have begun to connect with a larger audience. President Hillary would have been a juicy target for media and for the mainstream, in ways that washed-up Hillary will never be. Instead of being a martyr blamed on the electoral college, President Hillary Clinton might have become a poster child for the centrist liberal hoax previously manifested in Obama’s failure to deliver change on Wall Street in 2009.

If Hillary had won, I doubt Republicans would have taken to the streets en masse wearing pussyhats, shouting “not my president,” or otherwise behaving like spoiled brats. The experience of losing a presidential election is more familiar to young Republicans; there wouldn’t have been the same shocked disbelief. At the same time, just as it’s not clear that Democrats have learned from their loss, I doubt the GOP would have internalized the 2016 presidential loss and focused itself on a winning strategy for the future. This is the nature of our two main parties: they dominate the landscape in ways intended to serve themselves – and then, too often, they fail at even that.

Clinton’s views on social issues would have been horrible, for those whose God is extraordinarily preoccupied with what people do with their penises. But on a less trivial level, her victory might have been, paradoxically, a step backwards for feminism, if it generated a sense that women had arrived and the time of urgency was past. Also if it made women a lightning rod, or facilitated a “See? How could we be sexist?” reprise of white voters for Obama, or if it undermined the myth that everything would automatically be better if a woman — any woman — were in charge. By now, despite gaps and imperfections, the women’s liberation that Clinton embodies is so established as to be passé. Her presidency might have cemented that. We might have reached a turning point. It might have seemed more obviously timely to look at her and ask to what extent second-wave feminism has excessively undermined or vilified men (especially poor or “deplorable” men), for example, along with marriage, tradition, and la différence.

For purposes of breaking up the GOP, if that is the eventual outcome, I think Hillary would have been less effective than Trump. When people don’t have much, they may find themselves compelled to get along. If you really want to see how they feel about each other, give them money and power. That is where the GOP is now.

Although Hillary’s victory would have been more in line with the alleged fading of white America, there is the counterargument that “white” has a way of being synonymous with American success – such that, over the generations, peoples not previously considered white do eventually align themselves with that dominant culture. For instance, some who are one-quarter black may prefer to see themselves as three-quarters white. In this sense, Hillary joins Trump in favoring “white” America. She certainly uses more effective phrasing to that end. She obviously would have appointed and honored far more tokens, and would have favored spending more money on minorities. In doing so, she would have made essentially white culture more accessible and appealing to nonwhites. But with or without her, there is no prospect of a mass movement, in this country, sincerely dedicated to the replacement of the dominant “white” culture. Too often, what we have on this point is a lot of posturing around the relatively peripheral question of whether people on the far right are to be considered Americans in good standing.

Hillary’s continuity from Obama would have extended to foreign policy. Instead of popping the gasbag of American engagement in the Pacific, for instance, it appears she would have sought to perpetuate the “pivot” myth that we would invite our own nuclear destruction by retaliating against a Chinese nuclear strike on Japan. Granted, the odds of any such development are scant; the point here is just that Trump has ventured forth, without much grasp or love of diplomatic ambiguity, to expose our essential nakedness in Asia. I’m not confident that a more sophisticated president, Democrat or Republican, would have rolled the dice that way. At potentially enormous cost, he has thus given us unprecedented latitude to take our toys and go home, and conceivably the leverage that goes with that approach to the game.

The general belief advanced here is that the GOP would have been relatively more able to perpetuate a dysfunctional status quo following a Clinton victory, and would have been counterproductively inclined to do so. There would have been a greater public fixation on Hillary’s scandals, real or imagined. Her performance as president, along with some aspects of her personal life, might have augured the graying of second-wave feminism. The U.S. might have been less rudely compelled to face geopolitical realities. In short, it would have been easier to avoid an update on where America actually is. The GOP does not presently seem to be making enormous headway in developing that update. But at least it does not have Clinton as an excuse to avoid it.