It has become a common refrain, from Republicans who want to deflect responsibility to angry Bernie-loving Democrats to your garden variety against-the-grain think pieces: Donald Trump’s victory was the fault of Hillary and the Democrats.
Yes, it’s a bizarre type of logic to claim the people who didn’t vote for Trump are responsible for his election. But contrarian reasoning is how you get noticed in an overflowing media landscape, even though the argument is flawed in two distinct ways.
The argument proffered in the “it’s Hillary’s fault” camp is founded on the premise if the Democrats had simply nominated a better candidate, then Trump wouldn’t be president. Even if you grant that a better candidate would have won, and that’s arguable though not provable, it doesn’t naturally follow that this was the cause of the loss. This conclusion derives from a bit of flawed reasoning I call the Fallacy of the Isolated Factor.*
This logical breakdown is an idea I first came across in my days covering sports. Specifically, it was during a 1994 game at Purdue against visiting Seton Hall. The Boilermakers, who would go on to a No. 1 seed and loss in the regional final that year, beat the Pirates 69-67 on a Sunday in January.
After the game, one of the reporters, or perhaps it was SH coach P.J. Carlesimo, remarked that “rebounding was the difference in the game,” a comment based on the disparity in rebounding between the Glenn Robinson-led Boilers and the Pirates. However, the Hall had a chance at the end, missing a corner 3-pointer at the buzzer that would have won the game. Had that shot fallen, the rebounding disparity wouldn’t have been the difference at all. And Purdue’s fans and coaching staff would have looked at some other statistical disparity or stretch of play or individual breakdown, to find its own “difference.” The search for a single difference, very common among sportswriters and anaysts, was a fool’s errand.
The same thing could be said about the 2016 presidential campaign. Yes, it’s possible the Democrats would have won the election with a better candidate (such as Bernie or Biden). It’s also possible the Dems win if Comey doesn’t make his surprise announcement 10 days before the election. Or if Podesta’s emails hadn’t been hacked. Or if white Midwesterners had a better understanding of the economic issues working against them. Or if Wisconsin and other states hadn’t successfully restricted voting in the years before the election. The point is, any number of factors could have swung the election the Dems’ way, even with a candidate as flawed (both real and perceived) as Clinton.
Now, it’s true that when you hold all the other variables firm and change the facts of a single one, you can see a different result, whether in a ballgame or an election or any other event. That’s particularly true in a situation where an outcome is closely contested. But the same is true if you change a different variable. The flaw is believing the single variable that you’re examining, the Isolated Factor, is the “cause” of a result.
There was no “single cause” for the Trump victory, as there is very rarely a single cause for anything. But we like to ascribe one, because as people we don’t like complexities when a simple solution can be suggested. And we like concrete explanations, even when the real answer is much less well-defined.
But running afoul of the Fallacy is not the only problem with the Dems Are to Blame for Trump theory. Because it also ignores the simple fact that the Democrats had no bearing on Trump winning the Republican nomination to begin with.
The 2016 race for the GOP nomination featured the largest field in memory, a 17-person roster stacked with all types of competitors. Former governors and senators and private sectorians. It offered rock-solid conservatives, Rockefeller Republicans and a rock star Libertarianish character. Republican royalty and Grand Old Party crashers. You had one guy who made his bones busting unions, another who did so busting criminal enterprises and another who busted her own company. Pragmatists and ideologues. A handsome, young Latino and a grotesque, beach-going Jerseyite. Policy wonks and seat-of-the-pants decision makers. You had various shades of brown people, and the guys who don’t like brown people. You had a second crazy dude in the race, but a pleasant one. You had a genial idiot. And you had whatever radioactive gunk Ted Cruz is composed of.
And from that glorious smorgasbord of options, of delightful menu items ranging from heart-healthy entrees to decadently delicious desserts, Republican voters opted for the spoiled potato salad. Yes, the GOP looked over the entire buffet and chose to give the country food poisoning.
Republican voters decided the best choice was the thrice-married, proud adultering sexual deviant (and the only guy in the entire Republican party more icky than Bill Clinton); a long-time Democrat with no electoral experience; a thin-skinned bully who combines proud ignorance with unwarranted self-confidence and an awful temperament; a man with questionable ethics in every facet of his existence; a person who supports none of the traditional hallmarks of small-market conservatism, but expresses admiration for authoritarian and murderous dictators; a man who blasts foreigners even while he’s barely intelligible in his native tongue; a man with a history of racist comments and behavior, including five years of leading the unfounded claim that the previous office holder was not entitled to his position; and a man whose connection to Christianity can best be described as “at least he’s heard of it, I think.”
That wasn’t on me, or Hillary, or Debbie Wasserman Schultz, or the gang at MSNBC or George Soros (excuse me, I have to step away to pledge my undying allegiance to our dark overlord at any mention of his name)…………………………………….(cue dilly dallying music)………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… OK I’m back. Where was I? Oh, yeah, we didn’t have anything to do with the Tangerine Nightmare winning the primary, thus unleashing his brand of idiocy on a public who was apparently voting, en masse, completely stoned. When it comes to the ascendancy of 45, whatever factor you want to assign the lion’s share of the “blame” to, it starts right there.
*The Fallacy of the Isolated Factor is almost certainly not my creation. I’m sure it has a much more sciency name and background, complete with graphs and proofs and even a few random Greek letters, rather than sharing blog space with photos of Rush Limbaugh and Chrissy Teigen accompanied by phony quotes. But as long as I don’t bother to investigate that possibility, I can continue to claim it as my own.