Madison is filled with progressives who live and breathe politics. We may be in the flyover Midwest, but in many ways we resemble Berkeley, Austin or Bethesda more than we do Wausau, Racine or Green Bay.
With our world-class university, state Capitol and fast-growing technology sector, the city attracts waves of educated, upwardly mobile people, a vast majority of whom are politically progressive.
That profile might help explain why the city seems to have never really recovered from election night 2016. When Donald Trump eked out those razor-thin swing-state victories to win despite losing the popular vote, Madison seemed to descend into a funk from which it has still not recovered.
I know people who were made physically ill by the outcome. I also know people who incessantly watch, night after night, a series of essentially duplicative one-hour indictments of Trump on cable television.
It may be overreach to suggest this is some form of post-traumatic stress syndrome, but I know people whose lifelong faith in the essential goodness of the American electorate was shattered.
The 2018 victory by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, ending a decade of single-party, far-right Wisconsin government, certainly helped, but 2016 aftereffects remain.
These days, with Trump’s campaign flailing and failing, it seems that most Madison political conversations — sooner or later — get to some cautionary “Remember 2016!” moment.
It’s hard to tell whether this phobia prevents overconfidence, making it more likely that Democrat Joe Biden will win, or maybe it creates an atmosphere of fear and dread that causes untold stress signifying nothing.
Either way, the good news is that 2020 does not resemble 2016, no matter what emotionally scarred progressives fear.
Let’s look back.
In the wake of the 2016 election, the conventional wisdom was that journalists had all missed accounting for huge numbers of disaffected voters, mostly less-educated people in small towns and rural America.
In the months and years after the election, journalists swarmed to those places to chronicle their residents’ stories, often about feeling forgotten and ignored, stories that frequently had an element of white grievance blended in.
Washington Post columnist Matt Bai could be describing many in Madison when he recently wrote that progressives “have long suspected that a huge part of white, rural America is irredeemably racist and misogynistic,” that Barack Obama’s election was an aberration and that those same Trump voters could arise again this year.
But Bai wrote that people who see things that way have it wrong, that exit polls showed many voters were not enamored with Trump but voted for him anyway because of their disdain for Hillary Clinton.
“Some critical slice of voters who thought Clinton eminently more qualified for the job couldn’t bring themselves to vote for her,” he wrote. “And they decided their only option was to take a flyer on a guy who seemed manifestly unfit for the job — and destined to lose in any case.”
Nothing that has happened to Trump since 2016 portends growing strength. The 2018 midterm elections were a nationwide repudiation of the GOP, as Democrats regained the House of Representatives on the strength of moderate candidates in swing districts.
Recent weeks have seen Trump’s fortunes very nearly in freefall. Consider a few days ago, when three major setbacks for the Trump campaign were packed into a single weekend.
First was Attorney General William Barr’s botched, mob-style attempt to fire a respected federal prosecutor as a way to squelch investigations into Trump allies. That effort blew up in Barr’s and Trump’s faces.
Then came Saturday night’s paltry crowd at Trump’s rally in Tulsa after he had bragged for weeks about how it was going to be the biggest, best ever.
And Trump’s performance in Tulsa? There was his truly bizarre defense of his physical and mental acuity after his much-ridiculed appearance at West Point’s graduation, where he had trouble walking and drinking water.
Then there was Trump saying that too much testing for the coronavirus was leading to too many cases. His staff then tried to say he was joking, but then Trump undercut them by saying he doesn’t joke.
You can’t make this stuff up.
Then Sunday night, John Bolton, the former national security adviser, was devastating in a national television interview portraying a president who, in every way, is precisely what he so desperately wants not to be — weak, ignorant and played for the fool.
Many Democrats are angry that Bolton held back these details from their impeachment inquiry for his new book, but I thought Bolton masterfully filled in blanks to complete the ultimate Trump portrait.
Is Trump the stable genius he claims to be?
Quite the opposite. Bolton described an incurious president who reads virtually nothing, who thought Finland might be part of Russia, who did not know the United Kingdom was a nuclear power and who is generally ignorant of most any basic fact around the current world order.
Is Trump the consummate dealmaker he claims?
Hardly. Vladimir Putin is playing him like a fiddle, Bolton said. The Russian dictator understands Trump’s laziness, vanity and narcissism and has made great strategic strides for Russia as the U.S. is hopelessly divided and, in its diplomacy, careening aimlessly.
But Trump is committed to helping his blue-collar followers, right?
Well, no. Bolton describes Trump’s singular obsession with his own personal political fate, most jarringly by begging Chinese dictator Xi Jinping to buy crops from U.S. farmers to help him get re-elected. Stunningly, Bolton’s foremost summation of Trump is as a person who always puts his personal interest ahead of the national interest.
Yes, we knew details about Trump withholding aid for Ukraine to blackmail its president into launching an investigation of the Biden family. But before Bolton, the portrait of Trump’s comprehensive corruption was fragmented. After Bolton, the Trump canvas, you might say, is complete.
Trump is every bit as self-obsessed, ignorant, incurious and malleable as critics believed, a man who adores dictators and wants oh-so-badly to be one.
By midweek, the first New York Times/Siena College poll had Biden ahead 50-36 percent nationally.
Despite all this — trust me — we will spend the next few months being reminded of 2016. A recent Politico story on the national political landscape was headlined: “Despite dreamy polls, Dems can’t shake their 2016 nightmare.”
Get ready for more of that.
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