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How did I go wrong on analyzing President-elect Donald Trump’s rise during this epochal presidential campaign? Let me count the ways.

My first post on this populist phenom expressed full confidence that he would never win the Republican presidential nomination – or even “come close.” Although I didn’t explicitly say it, I viewed the idea that he could win the White House as positively ludicrous.

After several of his insult barrages and other verbal bombshells, I was all but certain that his campaign was finished.

I had no doubt that, as with third party presidential candidate and fellow tycoon Ross Perot in 1992, his unwillingness to take advice – especially of the critical kind – would cripple his candidacy. Similarly, I believed that he would run his presidential operation the same way that many successful business leaders engage in politics – incompetently.

So I guess I’m qualified to be a Mainstream Media pundit! But seriously, since I got at least some things right – like translating Trump-ish into language that the chattering class should have been able to grasp – I’m not totally sheepish about serving up a first batch of thoughts about what all Americans either are chewing over or should be in the weeks ahead.

>For all the teeth-gnashing about the ugliness of the presidential campaign, and for all the responsibility for it that Trump deserves, imagine what the race for the White House would have been like without him. The Republicans would have nominated either a tool of the Cheap Labor and Offshoring Lobbies like former Florida Governor Jeb Bush or Florida Senator Marco Rubio, or a social conservative extremist like Texas Senator Ted Cruz. And none of them would have felt major pressure to pay attention to the Republican base’s anger about mass immigration, job- and growth-killing trade deals, or the income stagnation they fostered.

On the Democratic side, this kind of conventional Republican nominee may well have enabled Hillary Clinton to win that party’s crown without many nods to the populist positions taken by her chief rival, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders – including on trade policy, along with Wall Street reform.

What a clueless – and maybe dangerously clueless – campaign that would have been! In particular, with no political safety valve, the continuing buildup of working- and middle-class rage that both major-party standard-bearers would have kept blithely ignoring could have exploded much more powerfully.

>The Trump victory could be a milestone in not only American politics, but policy. Yet the potential may never become performance unless this most successful outsider in U.S. history meets a staffing challenge that has hung over his campaign since his strength starting being apparent. Specifically, where is he going to find the populist policy specialists and academics and business types and politicians to fill the hundreds of key cabinet and sub-cabinet posts where presidential ambitions can just as easily die a lingering death as produce real, on-the-ground change?

The institutions needed to nurture and train such cadres simply haven’t existed. Or they’ve been way too small (i.e., modestly funded) to produce the needed numbers and possibly the needed quality. After his first White House victory, President Obama dismayed many of his followers by appointing to key economic positions in particular the kinds of Wall Street-friendly Clintonians that he had raked over the coals during that campaign (including Hillary Clinton, his rival for the Democratic nomination that year). His response? As I recall at the time (and I’m still looking for a link), something to the effect “What choice do I have?”

Although Mr. Obama never intended to bring the substantive break with the past that his successor has vowed, Mr. Trump could find himself in the same position, and his administration could drift steadily, and even imperceptibly towards a more conventional, and indeed donor-class-friendly, form of conservatism.

>Finally, for today, the Trump triumph places the Republican party in its current form in just as much jeopardy as a narrow Trump loss.

Had Trump lost in a landslide, the GOP’s future would have been easy to predict: The Never-Trumpian Washington establishment would have loudly crowed, “I told you so,” and advanced an overpowering rationale for returning to its low-tax, small-government, free-trading, open-borders, global interventionist orthodoxy of recent decades.

But last night’s results could be the death knell of establishment Republicanism – at least as a viable political force. It’s entirely possible that this establishment’s corporate and similar funders could decide for the time being to keep afloat the think tanks, media outlets, lobbying shops, and political consultancies comprising the GOP/conservative establishment. Indeed, since Trump could flop disastrously, preserving this infrastructure in preparation for 2020 makes perfect sense.

But for the foreseeable future, this is Donald Trump’s Republican party (whether he has to staff his administration with lots of standard-issue Republicans or not). House Speaker Paul Ryan, who strongly opposes his own party’s president-elect on issues ranging from trade and immigration to entitlement reform to foreign policy, can talk all he wants about reestablishing party unity. But the key question surrounding such calls is always “Unity on whose terms?” Until Mr. Trump fails a major test of leadership (or even two or three), or until events beyond his control render him ineffective (like a weakening economy) he’ll be calling the shots.  

And however lavishly financed the party’s establishment may remain, this election has made painfully obvious that its grassroots are shrunken and browned out. Since one of the prime takeaways of this election cycle is that voters ultimately count even more than money, it will become increasingly difficult even for the donors to treat the Washington Republicans as a true national political movement, as opposed to a self-appointed clique of supposed leaders with embarrassingly few followers.

So there’s of course a chance that the Ryan wing (emboldened by some truly desperate plutocrats) might at some point bolt and try to reclaim the Republican brand as its own or launch a third party. But these well-heeled dissidents will face the strongest of tides with the weakest of paddles – the more so given Ryan’s acknowledgment that Trump’s unexpectedly strong showing helped the GOP retain both houses of Congress

Tomorrow I’ll be offering some further initial thoughts. Until then, like so many others, I’ll go back to catching my breath!

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