My co-author, historian Larry Schweikart, believed early on that Trump would win. But although I believed Trump could win, I did not think he would. And when I originally conceived the idea for the book, I prepared a conclusion in the event he lost.
The following is an excerpt of that original conclusion — a view of a fate narrowly avoided.
It is important to put a Trump loss in its proper perspective.
The 2016 presidential election was always Hillary Clinton’s to lose. She was certain to be the Democratic Party’s nominee (though the party hierarchy had to rig the primary to ensure the result). As such, she was going to be the first woman with a real chance at being elected. That opportunity to be part of history had drawn many voters to Barack Obama, and it would be a near-insurmountable argument for her also.
A rational Republican voter, looking at the extended GOP field in late 2015, could be forgiven for deciding that none of these characters, regardless of their qualifications, could be counted upon to defeat Hillary Clinton — and, more important, to defeat the media, which would doubtless be pushing as hard for her victory as they could.
Trump alone had seized the popular imagination, and for that reason alone, he stood out: he was a risky choice, but perhaps only a risk would do.
The silver lining is that a Trump loss does not mean a loss for conservatism in general or the Republican Party in particular. It is clear that Trump ran as an alternative to both, despite some of his policies and his formal political affiliation.
And so the opposition will be split. The Republican establishment hopes to exploit a Trump loss, which it sees as a necessary lesson for the party’s base in the dangers of populism and outsider candidates. The leadership will pick up where 2013’s ill-fated “autopsy” left off, and press for immigration reform as a way to show the media that Republicans have learned their lesson from the Trump adventure, that they are ready to make compromises rather than standing in the way.
But there will also be a backlash in the other direction. Trump supporters may blame a loss on the party’s leaders, and perhaps on the small but vocal NeverTrump faction, depending on how close the November 8 result turns out to be.
As for conservatives, the challenge since the primary has been to understand why their agenda, centered around a restoration of constitutional and fiscal limits to government, failed to gain popular traction despite fueling the Tea Party wave in 2010 and the surprise Senate sweep of 2014. The populist and nationalist movement behind Trump will not simply disappear after his defeat, and will present a continued political puzzle to more libertarian-minded conservatives.
Of course, a Trump victory would have made resolving these divisions and contradictions much easier. Differences would remain, of course, and would have guaranteed a rocky relationship between the Trump White House and the new Congress.
But the spoils of winning offer new opportunities to mend fences. Losing requires Republicans and conservatives to dig deep and find the leadership, in defeat, that has eluded them in six years of frustratingly partial success.
Whatever the future of the Republican Party and the conservative movement more generally, what was lost in 2016 was the opportunity to deliver a verdict on eight years of radical left-wing governance by President Barack Obama.
The Republican resurgence after 2008 — from a party that seemed doomed to demographic destruction — was built entirely on the prospect of reversing Obama’s perceived abuses of power. And yet the Republicans elected to Congress failed to do that, as did moderate Gov. Mitt Romney, who failed to fight hard enough to win in 2012. Trump’s loss in 2016 meant that there would never be a reckoning for Obama, but rather, through Hillary Clinton, an acclimation.
And then there was the man himself.
Throughout the campaign, skeptics wondered aloud if Trump was serious in his ambition to become president. Was he running just as a lark, a vanity project? Was it all an effort to boost his brand? Was it an effort to launch a new media network? Or was he — as some conservative critics suggested — a secret Democratic Party plant, winning the nomination only to throw the election to Hillary?
What none of these theories could explain is why a man would put his entire life at risk — his business, his family, his personal safety — for the sake of what looked, at the outset, like an impossible goal.
Why would anyone subject themselves to salacious accusations of sexual misconduct, or the close scrutiny of decades of business dealings and legal proceedings, if not to win the ultimate prize? Surely nothing but victory itself could be worth the incredible price.
Trump announced his ambition was to “Make America Great Again.” He failed — and perhaps no political campaign could ever achieve that. Perhaps America is in a decline that has become irreversible.
It is impossible to imagine, for example, how the United States will regain the great strategic geopolitical advantages it held at the start of Barack Obama’s term in office, and which it squandered away, often in pursuit of naive, vain, and politically motivated policy objectives.
It is also difficult to imagine how a nation that has doubled its national debt, to $20 trillion, in the past eight years can possibly hope to recover its fiscal health, short of some kind of default.
And given the numerous constitutional violations of the Obama administration — many of which the courts failed to stop — it is difficult to see how the decay of the rule of law can be stopped, and how government can be limited again. America’s experiment in exceptionalism may be over.
Trump’s movement will live on, because the causes that gave rise to it — frustration with trade and immigration, for example, as well as anger at the entire political class — persist.
Yet the fall of Trump suggests something has died in the American imagination: the idea of greatness itself, whether of a man or a commonwealth of men and women. Unlike the collapse of a tower, the collapse of that idea is silent. But unlike a tower, that belief, once crushed, cannot be replaced.
And then November 8 happened — and a new chapter in the book, and American history, was written.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. He was named one of the “most influential” people in news media in 2016. His new book, How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, is available from Regnery. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.