I wrote this in February but never published it. I was job hunting at the time, and one of my interviewers had a Donald Trump cookie jar on his desk. This didn’t seem like the sort of thing I needed on the web during a job search. Two months later I’m still job hunting, but I do not want to work anywhere that will expect me to stop analyzing the world as honestly as I can.
Before any discussion of the election, we should stipulate to one fact–it was a damn close thing. 79,646 votes in 3 states tipped the race. That’s 79,646 out of 128,824,246 or roughly .06% of the votes cast. It would be unwise, then, to draw too many sweeping conclusions or any conclusions that are too sweeping from these results. No one event put Donald J. Trump in the White House. Had the FBI not interjected on two occasions, had Hillary Clinton built an impregnable firewall between the Clinton Global Initiative and the State Department, had the Russian security services not hacked the DNC and campaign e-mails, we might be listening now to Donald Trump’s fevered rantings about a rigged election (oh, wait….).
The more interesting question, however, is what would have happened without Trump’s perceived own goals? What if he had NOT been caught on tape in that bus with Billy Bush? What if he had NOT attacked Khizr and Ghazala Khan? What if he had NOT attacked a federal judge for his ethnic heritage? There is no question that some of Trump’s perceived liabilities were real liabilities–his many bankruptcies and the Trump University lawsuits undermined his core narrative of business genius and straight talk. The victims of Trump University were exactly the sort of voters Trump needed to win. His outrageous statements and tweets, however, may have been an asset. Plenty of people have looked at how they were received in Trump country, generally focusing on the remarkable extent to which his supporters failed to care. What we haven’t really studied is how they affected the Clinton campaign. Did they draw the Clinton campaign into some of the classic failings of counter-insurgents?
As Donald Trump moved from one outrage to the next in the summer of 2016, it is understandable that Hillary Clinton’s highly conventional campaign targeted his offensive statements and turned their resources to ensuring that as many people as possible were aware of and outraged by Trump’s statements about women, Latinos, Muslims, African-Americans, and others. Barack Obama had won two consecutive presidential elections by building a coalition of various identity groups and by running a remarkably competent and efficient campaign that mastered the blocking and tackling of 21st century politics. Many observers, myself included, believed that Hillary Clinton would win the election by energizing the various elements of the Obama coalition and then doing the basic manual labor of voter turnout in the key swing states during the voting weeks. Trump showed no signs of understanding, let alone mastering, the mechanics of modern elections. While turning his ground game over to the Republican National Committee might have been smart outsourcing in some elections, it placed the party in an awkward position in key swing states with candidates for the Senate and House distancing themselves from the presidential candidate. How could the party turn out the swing voters it needed to retain the Senate without those same swing voters undermining Trump? In the end, of course, it didn’t matter. 79,646 voters in three states turned the tide, and GOP Senate candidates in all three states retained their seats, even Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson, judged the most endangered candidate of the election.
Those of us who have spent the past decades fighting Islamic insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan can apply some of what we’ve learned to understand one of the reasons Hillary Clinton failed. As Donald Trump offered up softballs in the form of open mic recordings, 4 am tweets, and disastrous debates, the Clinton campaign began focusing their efforts on highlighting Trump’s own words. In the first debate, Clinton laid an obvious trap for Trump by awkwardly bringing up Alicia Machado out of seeming thin air. Trump appeared to walk straight into the trap–signaled by the obvious non-sequitur–and Clinton’s campaign promptly dumped their carefully prepared opposition research on the airwaves. From the beginning of the Democratic convention to election day, Clinton banked on the power of identity politics and uniting various groups in a sufficiently large coalition to overcome the shrinking pool of white, male voters.
Mao famously stated that the revolutionary is a fish who swims in the sea of the people. Insurgents blend into the population because it faces counter-insurgents with a painful choice between two evils. If the counter-insurgent strikes the insurgent within the population, he causes collateral damage, killing innocents, destroying homes, and increasing sympathy with the insurgent. He creates opportunities for the insurgent to show his concern for and connection with the people. In Lebanon, Hezbollah differentiates itself from the government with extensive, efficient, prompt, and legitimate social services. The Muslim Brotherhood and its various offshoots and imitators have always maintained a symbiotic relationship between their social services and their political/military arms. In Baghdad, the Office of the Martyr Sadr provided food aid to those who attended Friday sermons, sermons favorable to the Jaish al Mahdi militia and the Sadrist movement.
If the counterinsurgent chooses not to strike, then he faces a different set of problems. He cedes the people to the insurgent who lives openly in defiance of authority. The government looks weak while the insurgent looks fearless and strong. If the insurgent holds a rally in public without response from the government, then his authority challenges the government’s. If the insurgent dispenses justice through “revolutionary courts,” the swift decisions paint a glaring contrast with the tedious and often corrupt proceedings of the official courts. Because the insurgent is not bound by the rule of law, he can play both sides by impeding official courts, through intimidation of witnesses for instance, and then dispensing swift and effective justice from his own courts.
By attacking women, Muslims, Latinos, the disabled, and others, Donald Trump may have been employing the insurgent handbook, albeit without having ever read it. When faced with the Hobson’s choices above, too often counter-insurgents choose to hit the targets they can hit, simply to show that they’re doing something. In Iraq, Sadr City housed over 2 million people, but it was effectively inaccessible to both Iraqi government and foreign forces. Coalition targeting was guided first and foremost by accessibility. There was no sense worrying about targets we could not reach. Every once in a while that played to our advantage when senior leaders’ tolerance for risk increased and changed the ground rules. In the spring of 2008 with Sadrist forces firing rockets into the Green Zone and the airport, the powers-that-be accepted the risks of a series of strikes judged too costly before. Over three days in May we struck three times, the last with six MLRS rockets as close as 30m from a hospital, and the Jaish al Mahdi leaders fled Baghdad. For a brief moment, we gained an advantage, but then we failed to press it home.
Hillary Clinton’s campaign was prepared to fight a policy election. She posted hundreds of carefully crafted and vetted proposals that addressed real issues. Because she had decades of policy experience and a competent, experienced staff, the proposals were coherent and feasible. She went out of her way to ensure they were all paid for through some means or other so Republicans could not attack her for wild deficit spending. Her policy portfolio had the strength of realism but lacked the strength of simplicity. Because these were real policies to deal with complex, difficult problems, there was no way to reduce them to sound bites.
Donald Trump frustrated the Clinton campaign by failing to produce any policies. He literally disbanded his embryonic and understaffed policy shop. Not one of its products ever made it to Trump’s mouth or the campaign website. To the governing professionals of the Clinton campaign and the college-educated voters of the cities, Trump’s policy desert seemed like a glaring weakness, but it presented a challenge. Every time Clinton proposed a carefully constructed policy, Trump responded with an unsubstantiated claim that his policy would be better. Clinton could not attack Trump’s “tremendous, beautiful” policies, because they didn’t exist. She couldn’t compare the costs of his policies because they were too vague to score. The Mexican border wall presents the clearest example. Building a wall between Mexico and the U.S. is a laughable excuse for an immigration policy. Clinton was quite right to point out that it did not address the way illegal immigrants come to the U.S. today, that border walls have been frequently defeated in other countries, and that the wall would be difficult, if not impossible, to build and very expensive. Trump responded that he was a builder (as if that somehow overcame the laws of physics), that his wall would be bigger than other border walls (as if the others had failed because they were too short), and that Mexico would pay for the wall. He never settled on just how high his wall would be, so it was impossible to demonstrate that the height would not make a difference. He never addressed the issues of terrain or land ownership that will impede the wall. And most notably, he never explained how he would get the Mexicans to pay for a wall they oppose.
Clinton’s campaign, faced with a shifting set of simplistic, squishy soundbites in place of a policy portfolio decided instead to attack the available target–Trump’s character. Unable to fight on the ground of their choosing, they launched missiles at the targets that presented themselves. Here is where the counterinsurgency analogy is useful. It is quite possible that those 79,646 voters did not see Trump attacking a Gold Star family. They saw him attacking a Muslim man with brown skin and an accent. They were disturbed and uneasy about the encroachment of multi-culturalism into their formerly lily-white lives, and Clinton’s attacks on Trump seemed to be attacks on them for feeling uneasy. If you don’t want to press 2 for English and you want to be surrounded by people who share your values, your language, and your heritage, then you are racist, she seemed to say. Those of us who live in multicultural urban areas understood her perfectly, but Trump voters were the sympathetic civilians blown up by the airstrike. She was attacking their view of themselves, and that just made them more defensive.
Insurgencies succeed because of cultural affinity. Successful insurgents manage to convince a sufficient number of people that the insurgents share their values and concerns while the ruling elites are aliens. Ethnicity and religion form the most effective cultural glues, but sometimes economics or other markers can suffice. The Clinton camp made the mistake of believing that Donald Trump, billionaire, could never forge a strong enough bond with white working class voters to get him over the top. They failed to understand that Donald Trump, Kentucky Fried Chicken eater and inarticulate spouter of jingoistic platitudes, felt far less alien to those voters than college-educated urbanites steeped in the language of multicultural cosmopolitanism. By striking the targets of opportunity–Trump’s offensive speech–Clinton failed to do the hard work of forcing Trump to fight on policy grounds. Rather than force him to defend his misogyny (the very word screams “liberal elite”) she might have forced him to articulate a plan for health care, or at least made him pay for his lack of a plan.
So when and how do insurgencies fail? Some fail because the government manages to align with the people. It addresses their legitimate grievances while drawing the insurgents into undeniable atrocities. People begin to blame the insurgents for their miseries and for blocking the government from improving their lives. Often, the very identity factors that aid some insurgencies play against others. For instance, the British counterinsurgency in Malaya provides a rare example of a foreign power defeating a large-scale insurgency, but the Malayan insurgents were nearly all ethnic Chinese. They were just as alien to the bulk of the Malayan people as the British, and in this case the impermanence that often defeats external counter-insurgents played to the British advantage. By the time of the Malayan emergency, the British Empire had crumbled, and a British victory was almost certain to lead to independence. A rebel victory, on the other hand, seemed likely to lead to permanent rule by Communist ethnic Chinese.
Unfortunately, insurgencies most often fail after they succeed. The prime tools of the insurgent are chaos and disruption–anathema to actual governance. Successful revolutions nearly always result in purges because the best revolutionaries are incapable of governance. Sometimes, as in Algeria, the purge happens before the revolution is won as ruthless leaders send the true revolutionaries out to die in the final battles, leaving the field clear for post-war reconstruction. In the Soviet Union, the ruthless dictatorship of Lenin gave way to the Stalinist terrors, and Mao followed up his successful revolution with decades of murder and chaos.
The Trump campaign seems, however, to bear more resemblance to the Arab revolt. The first two weeks of the Trump presidency look more and more like the scene in Lawrence of Arabia after the Arabs take Damascus. That leaves people concerned with governance another Hobson’s choice: hope for Trump to get his act together so he doesn’t drag the country down into chaotic dysfunction, or hope Trump fails utterly so he doesn’t drag the country down into an authoritarian dystopia. Which you choose depends on just how dangerous you thing Trump really is.