It’s been a week now since the presidential reality boggled the precast minds of politics, punditry and even fact-based journalism. Ever since, the experts of our craft have been owning up to their predictive failures by issuing collective, blame-sharing wea culpas.
From now on, Nov. 9 will be remembered as the date on which any seemingly rock-solid wall can fall.
Nov. 9, 2016: The fall of America’s so-called Blue Wall of presidential electoral politics is confirmed by bleary-eyed newscasters in the predawn hours after Election Night. You’d probably grown tired of hearing pundits and pols talk about the Blue Wall — the 18 states on their maps that stretched along both coasts and across the crucial Midwest Rust Belt. Rock-solid for Democratic presidential candidates since 1992, three states — Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan — in the wall collapsed on Election Night. (“Without warning!” the experts insist; but we’ll get to that.) The anti-pol Republican Donald Trump captured most of the once-Democratic, working-class vote and is now president-elect.
Nov. 9, 1989: The Berlin Wall came tumbling down — and more than a million citizens of communist East Germany began pouring into democratic West Germany. (“Without warning!” the experts of global intelligence in government, think tanks and yes, the media, insisted then — and still insist; but we’ll also get to that soon.)
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The fall of those two very different walls reveals one common lesson. Experts always seem to be intent on impressing their fellow experts. They rarely dare to suggest something colleagues might deride as worse than unlikely.
But that’s how change sometimes happens.
Consider the expert predictions of Hillary Clinton’s chances of victory being as rock-solid as that Blue Wall. Something else was there to be seen. In July 2015, Donald Trump was being ridiculed as a national punchline by late night TV comedians, pols and pundits. And while I disapproved of his crude patter, I kept thinking back to how it seemed to be winning over his working-class audiences. I hadn’t seen anything like it since my first presidential campaign in 1968, when Alabama’s Gov. George Wallace went over bigtime with working class voters in the Rust Belt. I discovered it had nothing to do with his segregationist history. People told me what they liked Wallace for the same reason they used to like Robert F. Kennedy, who was very liberal. Kennedy was assassinated in June and they’d switched to Wallace. They weren’t ideological — they just explained Kennedy and Wallace were the only politicians who ever seemed to be really talking to them!
So more than a year ago, on July 22, 2015, I wrote about how Trump’s populist pitch seemed to be appealing to the non-ideological working class voters who were fed up and angry at a government that seemed to be ignoring them. Already, a quarter of likely GOP voters had backed Trump in a poll. Yet the politicians and pundits were sure he had no chance. I told readers that on Election Night 2016, they might discover that “America’s fed-up, mad-as-hell voters just chose your next president.”
Yet Clinton never really found a campaign message that appealed to working-class voters who were fed-up and frightened as factories were closing and Washington seemed to be only helping the poor — not them. Not once in the fall campaign did Clinton visit Wisconsin. As long ago as that July 2015 column, I wrote that I didn’t understand “why the Trump Phenomenon clearly blindsided” so-called experts — “and why we keep being surprised every time this happens.”
Today, more than a year later, I’m still surprised (stumped, really!) about why our so-called best and brightest — the ones who run campaigns and cover them — haven’t yet forced themselves to ignore the conventional wisdom and see the reality that sometimes is there to be seen.
EPILOGUE: Oh yes, about the Berlin Wall: At the end of December 1988, CNN assembled a panel of six of us talking-heads to predict next year’s biggest news story. I’d researched Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s struggles to deal with the unrest in East Europe. Let’s go to the old video tape: “The Berlin Wall will come down in 1989,” I said. “Write it down. It will happen.” And that ignited a good bit of hooting and guffawing by my colleagues.
On Nov. 9, 1989, the East German government made a low-keyed announcement that East Germans were now permitted to go to the West. West Germany’s ARD TV anchorman Hanns Joachim Friedrichs announced the big news: “This 9 November is a historic day. The (East German government) has announced that, starting immediately, its borders are open to everyone. The gates in the Wall stand open wide.” East Germans heard the broadcast, massed at the Wall, and began flooding through the checkpoint gates and climbing over the Wall. By that weekend, more than 2 million East Germans had fled to freedom in the West.
Martin Schram is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.