During the second debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, journalist Jeff Greenfield tweeted, “All year, I’ve told people who asked about an alternate history for 2016: ‘This IS the alternate history.’”
Yes, indeed. And as this bizarro fever dream lurches toward its conclusion—likely in the form of a smashing Clinton victory—it’s hard not to fantasize about what might have been. To mentally play out the 2016 election in a plane of reality devoid of Clinton and/or Trump.
To be sure, Americans have wistfully indulged in “What if?” scenarios for pretty much every election in history—if not every major news event, period—understanding, as we do, that one tiny hiccup in the space-time continuum can have a transformative effect on the course of human events. Since reality itself is unknowable until it becomes known—and sometimes not even then—alternate reality has an otherworldly allure tailor-made for those who’ve had it up to here with the truth and would rather reside in the warm, reassuring embrace of pure fiction.
In 2016, that describes just about everybody, doesn’t it?
Let us begin, then, with Bernie Sanders and his vision for a more economically egalitarian way of life. Had he somehow prevailed in the Democratic primaries—say, by attracting more African-American voters or by more aggressively attacking Hillary’s most vulnerable policy positions—would his general election campaign against Trump have been measurably different from Clinton’s?
Damn straight, it would. For all the substantive agreement between the two Democratic candidates, Sanders would’ve presented as an entirely different species of opponent for his Republican counterpart—a simpler target in some ways, while a considerably more vexing one in others.
Most conspicuously, perhaps—particularly in light of recent events—Trump could not credibly have attacked Sanders on issues of character. Unlike Hillary, Bernie hasn’t a whiff of scandal or corruption about him; he has rarely, if ever, altered his views for political expedience; he has not engaged in “pay-to-play” shenanigans with lobbyists or big banks; and he has not, in any case, been a party to the so-called “rigged” system that both he and Trump have vowed to fix.
As well, for all his theatricality in front of a crowd, Sanders is an utterly decent and morally serious person who went to extraordinary lengths to avoid a dirty primary fight against Hillary and presumably would’ve tried to comport himself similarly against Trump. What’s more, even if he had chastised Trump for all the terrible things he’s said over the years—as he has been wont to do as Hillary’s loyal surrogate—what exactly would Trump have lobbed back in response? We all know how much the Donald depends on projection to get his message across, but would anyone really have bought into the idea (if Trump floated it) that Bernie Sanders is a “liar” and a “bigot,” or that he has “tremendous hate in [his] heart”?
In other words, Trump’s attacks on Bernie would’ve come from an entirely different playbook from the ones he’s using on Hillary, and our imagination can only get us so far in picturing just how that might’ve panned out. In all likelihood, as a 25-year far-left member of Congress, Sanders would’ve been painted as a feckless insider and/or an extremist loony toon—a line of attack that would surely be more effective from a messenger who is not, himself, a raging, unprincipled nut job.
In short: If the last few months have taught us anything, it’s that Trump would’ve found a way to disqualify himself regardless of his Democratic opponent. He can’t help it: He is just too good at being bad.
But what if we removed Trump from the equation altogether? What if Republican primary voters hadn’t gone totally insane last spring and, instead, nominated a comparatively normal (i.e. electable) candidate like Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush?
In other words, what if this election made any sense at all?
For the answer to that, we would do well to consult history, beginning with this rather remarkable piece of data: Since 1945, 11 different men have been elected commander-in-chief, and of those 11, only one was picked to succeed a member of his own political party. Except for 1988, when Republican George H.W. Bush took over for Republican Ronald Reagan, every presidential transition since the end of World War II that was not triggered by the president’s death or resignation involved a switch from a Democrat to a Republican, or vice versa.
If there is a central fact about the American electorate, it’s the desire to throw the bums out as soon as their natural term is up. Although we have lately made a habit of re-electing the incumbent—itself something of a historical anomaly—we have shown an innate aversion to having a single party control the executive branch for more than eight years at a time—an inclination that explains why virtually every successful candidate in modern history has run on a platform of “change.”
Which is all to say that a Republican should’ve been elected president in 2016—or, barring that, that the race should’ve at least been quite close. With 26 days until the polls close (thanks to early voting, many have already opened), it appears that neither of those things will happen, and the explanation for this really can be boiled down to two words: Donald Trump.
In a Trump-less universe, could Rubio or Bush—or John Kasich or Chris Christie—have defeated Clinton? Sure, why not? All the anti-establishment momentum would’ve been in his favor, Clinton’s own shortcomings would’ve remained glaringly evident to all, and—most obviously—none of those other candidates (except perhaps Christie) would’ve been so completely crushed by the weight of his own ego.
As we learned in 2008, Hillary Clinton is hardly an infallible candidate. For all her knowledge and experience, she can always be relied upon to get in her own proverbial way by being needlessly secretive, paranoid and/or outright dishonest. It was her unbelievable good fortune to be pitted against the most cartoonishly unqualified opponent on planet Earth, and the fact that this election wasn’t over months ago is a testament to how much trouble she might’ve found herself in against a Republican foe who actually took this job seriously and wasn’t busy fighting off multiple accusations of sexual assault.
So if we are to write an alternate history of the 2016 campaign—or, as Jeff Greenfield would have it, the non-alternate history—we would require either a version of Donald Trump that was everything the current version is not, or a Republican electorate with the basic common sense not to tether itself to an unelectable thug.
Like I said: Fantasy.