The Democratic establishment worked as hard as it could to nominate a corrupt, mediocre candidate. The Republican establishment sat idly by as Donald Trump rose.
Democrats mustered all the self-discipline they could to nominate a corrupt mediocrity, while Republicans mustered no self-discipline at all. Ok, so that’s what an establishment looks like. It’s hard to remember a time when the two parties offered greater contrasts in discipline, manipulation, and sheer Machiavellian grit than they do right now. As Hillary Clinton basks in the glow of her historic “first,” it’s worth recalling just some of the establishment string-pulling that dragged her across the finish line. The Democrats began the cycle showing a virtue utterly alien to ambitious Republicans: self-discipline. Leading contenders such as Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden refused to run, the few also-rans dropped out when they failed to catch fire, and that left Clinton to face just one real challenger, a self-proclaimed socialist who only just joined the Democratic party and proudly advocates policies that would result in simultaneously the biggest government expansion, biggest tax increases, and largest deficits in all of human history. Even then, she almost lost.
When the road got dark, the establishment lit her way. Superdelegates put Sanders in a hole from the beginning, leading to countless discouraging stories about his nearly impossible task. She was saved from a humiliating Iowa caucus loss in an opaque process featuring (and I’m not making this up) multiple coin flips and run in part by a party chair who drove a car featuring an “HRC 2016″ license plate. Debates were few, far between, and scheduled at odd days and hours. I half-expected one to pop up after a 2:30 a.m. rerun of “Judge Joe Brown.”
In the pièce de résistance, the AP announced — on the eve of the hotly contested California primary — that the combination of elected delegates and those nefarious superdelegates had put Clinton over the top: The Democratic establishment had succeeded in nominating a corrupt candidate who may be the only Democrat in America who could lose to Donald Trump.
The Republican establishment, which is commonly viewed as a malevolent, controlling entity with the power to “force” unpopular candidates on Republican voters, has emerged from this primary season looking downright hapless by comparison. Its first and perhaps most strategically damaging sin was an utter lack of the self-discipline Democrats marshalled. In the contest between ambition and restraint, ambition won again and again — until the Republican debate stage was overflowing with hopeless candidates, each of whom seemed to believe that the right combination of debate sound bites and stunning Fox News appearances would allow them to emerge from the scrum.
But it’s hard to catch fire when you’re scared. And for months, most of the candidates kept their heads down lest they suffer the same fate as Jeb Bush — a good man subjected to withering, petty put-downs from Donald Trump. To the extent the Republican party actually did manipulate the process, it did so in the worst way — not by showing leadership and influencing the candidate recruitment process or by implementing rules that would require transparency and disclosure, but by stacking the deck for the front-runner (whoever the front-runner was) with absurd winner-take-all and winner-take-most primaries that allowed a candidate who sometimes lost more than 60 percent of the vote to take all or most of the delegates. It’s as if the RNC looked at the primaries of ’08 and ’12 and decided simply that “short” is better than “long” — regardless of the result.
But the worst was yet to come. Legions of grassroots conservatives had long complained that GOP leaders were unprincipled opportunists. Then, when the pitiful primary process yielded a nominee whose philosophy and core values contradicted virtually everything the GOP claimed to stand for, its leaders went ahead and proved that they were, in fact, unprincipled opportunists — falling over themselves to endorse Trump and then, inevitably, finding themselves squirming as they tried to defend the indefensible. The Democratic establishment led decisively, yet led badly, nominating the one person who might lose to Donald Trump; the Republican establishment didn’t lead at all, and now it stands ready to nominate the one person most likely to lose to Hillary Clinton.
It’s a stunning turn of events, and it stands as enduring evidence of the failure of the American political elite. If it’s true that a combination of popular indifference and ignorance keeps them in power — politics is a subculture, after all, one to which few Americans pay close attention — it’s also true that a lack of accountability disincentivizes their exercise of moral leadership. While there are still chances for a better outcome, both establishments are poised to reap what they’ve sown and will now “lead” America through what is likely to be a period of strife and pain. Perhaps there will be a renewal on the other side of that reckoning, perhaps not. But for now, we only know the view from this side, and it is unworthy of the greatest nation on earth.
David French is an attorney and staff writer at National Review.