November 15, 2016
As the smoke clears from Donald Trump’s election, there is a lot for political observers to process, much of which is overlapping and difficult to separate out into coherent thoughts or articles. Though Trump’s victory was always the less likely outcome, it was far from unforeseeable, at least for those taking an honest look at the polls. However, it does tell us much about the electorate and the state of politics in this country, and certainly will be the subject of much analysis in the coming weeks, months, and potentially even years. For now, the most urgent question facing our nation is how will Trump govern?
It is for this reason that the selection of his chief of staff was so highly anticipated. Candidate Trump didn’t give us a whole lot of insight into his core beliefs or policy positions, and how he governs will depend in large part on with whom he surrounds himself. His dual pick of Reince Priebus as chief of staff and Steve Bannon as chief strategist is the first glimpse into how Trump will govern, and I am heartened by both, as I think they, along with Trump’s willingness to compromise on Obamacare, point to Trump as a pragmatist. With Priebus, my optimism is self-explanatory; he is a long-time political operative with the relationships and know how to help Trump navigate Washington and enact his legislative agenda. It’s no wonder that the media have chosen instead to focus on the pick of Bannon, as that selection is a lot more complicated.
Much has been made of Steve Bannon’s alt-right associations, but the fact is he helped Trump pull off the upset and win the election. As I mentioned earlier, I think the extent of the upset has been overstated by the media. Of all the things I was wrong about in this election, I said that it would take a Trump comeback and a polling error for Trump to win, and that’s what ended up happening. Nate Silver and Sean Trende have both written excellent summaries on this topic, so I won’t waste too much time and space on it, but suffice it to say that the polling error in this election was no more than it has been in the past. More importantly, FiveThirtyEight gave Trump about a thirty percent chance of winning, Nate Cohn a fifteen percent chance, and betting markets about a twenty percent chance. Very roughly, we flipped a coin twice, and it came up heads both times (25 percent chance). Though this outcome was unlikely, it also should not be that surprising. Generally, people shocked by the outcome either a) don’t know how to interpret data, or b) were using the data to confirm what they wanted to believe.
All that being said, an upset is an upset, and Steve Bannon deserves his share of the credit. This is especially so given the manner with which Trump pulled off the win, taking Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, probably Michigan, and competing in Minnesota. These are states that the conventional wisdom took off the map, save maybe Pennsylvania, and Bannon’s strategy painted them red. Though I’d attribute much of the turnaround in the Trump campaign to manager Kellyanne Conway, the fact remains that Bannon is a major asset to Trump as a strategist. Donald Trump cannot and should not cut ties with such a useful member of his team because his political opponents object. Though I would like to see Trump strike a conciliatory tone rather than the confrontational one Obama consistently took, if and when a political fight breaks out, he needs smart strategists in his corner.
That’s not to say that the pick of Bannon as strategist is all rosy. As I mentioned, it’s a complicated pick. While I like Bannon in the Trump administration as a strategist, things might not turn out so well if he becomes a major policy advisor, or if Trump begins to value his advice at the expense of the advice of others. I am also not a fan of creating two “equal” posts. I think this creates unnecessary confusion and tension, especially if the domains of power are not clearly defined and separated. It’s also a possible indication that, when faced with a difficult decision, Trump may have the tendency to waffle and attempt to hedge, rather than making a definitive, albeit difficult, call. With all these caveats, however, I do think keeping Bannon on shows that Trump sticks with talent and sticks with winners, even if the face of wide-spread criticism. This, at least, is encouraging.