The past two and a half decades had not been good for Republicans. First, there had been the successful Bill Clinton presidency from 1992 to 2000. Clinton inherited a record budget deficit from Republican predecessors Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush and left us eight years later with a record budget surplus.
This would have been a good thing except Clinton was a Democrat. Republicans had done everything possible to take him down. They had finally impeached him for lying about an extramarital affair with a White House intern, but Clinton had come out of it more popular than ever, as many people blamed Republicans for wasting millions of dollars on what was perceived as a partisan witch hunt.
In 2000, the Grand Old Party got lucky. Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore, who had been vice president under Clinton, made a grave miscalculation. He tried to disassociate himself from Clinton on the campaign trail because of Clinton’s philandering rather than ride the coattails of a popular, outgoing president. Gore actually (and obviously) even made a point of avoiding saying Clinton’s name.
Most Democratic voters didn’t give a hoot about Clinton’s infidelity. Gore came off as wooden and disingenuous. In a race that shouldn’t have been close, the Supreme Court ended up waving off a recount in Florida and awarded the election to George W. Bush in a 5-4 vote.
The GOP ruled the White House for the next eight years. Unfortunately, Bush’s presidency is viewed, even by Republicans, as one of the worst in history. The GOP’s own website called him “one of the least popular commanders in chief in the nation’s history.” First, 9/11 happened on his watch. Then he started an unprovoked war in Iraq that cost thousands of lives, destroyed the economy, and laid the groundwork for what morphed into the terrorist group the Islamic State.
Then in 2008 came Republicans’ ultimate nightmare: Barack Hussein Obama. Some Republicans stressed Obama’s middle name during the election campaign so their constituents might think he was a foreigner or Muslim or maybe even a terrorist! At the very least, Obama was a Democrat and African American and, because of those two, perceived to be very liberal—reason enough to hate.
Republicans put up no less than Arizona Senator John McCain, one of the most respected people in the party, to run against Obama in 2008. McCain might have won, too, had it not been for his selection of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. Palin’s inadequacy for office spooked even the staunchest Republicans.
The GOP made gains in Congress during Obama’s presidency. In 2010, it won control of the House and in 2014, the Senate, but divisions within the party kept Republicans from getting much done even with majorities in both halls of Congress.
The 2016 election offered fresh hope. Republicans had a chance to take back the White House while maintaining their majorities in the House and Senate. By June 2015, no less than 17 Republicans had thrown their hats into the ring in hopes of becoming the GOP’s 2016 presidential nominee.
The latest entrant in the race was an outsider to the party and to politics in general. Billionaire real estate mogul and television personality Donald Trump had never held public office. He had made his fortune developing major building projects in New York City. As a master self-promoter, he became a media celebrity in the world’s largest media market. When the real estate boom went bust, he filed for bankruptcy, only to come back stronger than ever, including starring in his own hit reality TV show, The Apprentice.
Trump was not wed to mainstream Republican positions. He had supported Democrats in the past. He didn’t have detailed policies. He was arrogant, bombastic, and politically incorrect—and reveled in it. He also had bad hair. Despite these things, however—or perhaps because of them—Trump appealed to legions of disenfranchised Republicans. People dissatisfied with the state of the country or the state of their lives railed against those in authority, and Trump railed with them. The people running things are stupid, and, according to Trump, he and he alone had the smarts and balls to fix it, whatever “it” was.