Politics and the illusion of control

There is no predestined path to American political power. Things happen that create opportunities and random people take advantage of them.

This is hard for people to grasp. We all like a narrative, and the illusion of control.

Accepting chaos is frightening. If we end up with a knucklehead like Donald Trump as president, it’s way easier to imagine it to be the result of an evil bad guy cabal than a random occurrence. We can find and defeat a cabal, but we have no defense from random negative occurrences.

But, really, it’s random.

A stack of “Fire and Fury” books by writer Michael Wolff sit on a shelf in a bookstore in Richmond, Virginia, on Friday. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Trump became president despite losing the U.S. election by millions of votes. According to “Fire and Fury,” the recently-released flamethrower expose of the Trump administration by Michael Wolff, even Trump and his team were shocked at the result.

According to Wolff, “Not only would Trump not be president, almost everyone in the campaign agreed, he should probably not be.”

Trump lost the popular vote. But the random disbursement of his minority of votes gave him an Electoral College win. This was not political genius. This was luck.
That the Republican Party nominated Trump in the first place is a tough thing to swallow, but look at the profiles of previous nominees: a bishop of the Mormon Church, a Navy fighter pilot and prisoner of war, the owner of a Major League Baseball team, a Midwest lawyer, a Texas oil magnate turned CIA director¬†and a famous Hollywood actor. “Reality show buffoon” does not seem that out of place in this list of random backgrounds.

Moneyed interests try their damnedest to influence the course of events, but their efforts merely impact the edges: The Koch empire couldn’t stop Barack Obama from being president, and the Soros empire couldn’t stop Trump.

In Maine, there is a popularly held delusion that Paul LePage and his team brilliantly positioned him at the crest of a rising right-wing populist wave that swept him into two terms as governor. This is nonsense.

LePage was a terrible candidate in a primary that featured a half-dozen better candidates who split the normal GOP voter base six ways. LePage was left alone to court the conspiracy-theory right flank of the party, which happened to generate more votes than one-sixth of the rest of the electorate. He didn’t win by creative genius; his campaign barely functioned. He won the primary because of pure luck.

LePage also lucked out in the general election, when Maine Democrats decided to essentially run two candidates against him, Democrat Libby Mitchell and independent Eliot Cutler. Despite having his opponents splitting the non-GOP vote, LePage still barely won. The same thing happened in 2014.

In other words, random luck.

Politics is filled with these accidental success stories that are then repackaged to seem like works of genius. LePage’s political team has been claiming for years that oversized lawn signs left on people’s front porches were the reason he won. I guarantee other Republican candidates have purchased similar signs in hopes the magic would rub off on them.

And when someone else wins, the political industry will scamper around to try and replicate their random success by using some idiosyncrasy of the victor. If Janet Mills becomes Maine’s next governor, there will be an industry of Democratic consultants claiming her placid canoe photos on Facebook made the difference. If Shawn Moody wins, you’ll see GOP consultants recommending eyebrow augmentation. If Terry Hayes wins, you’ll see independents hanging around the Buckfield Mall, hoping to bottle that lightning.

Understanding the random nature of politics is important for a few reasons. First, if we thought our current state of political affairs was a deliberate effort, we’d have to conclude that the North Pond Hermit was far more rational than he’s given credit for. We’ve drawn some crappy political cards as a nation lately, and our American culture would suffer a brutal hit to its self-respect if we thought this was reflective of the actual will of our society.

Second, we’re far more likely to be manipulated if we believe the charlatans that sell a predictable outcome. Whether it’s talk radio or cable punditry, the folks that profit from our increasing partisan tribalization sell the false notion of ultimate victory to both sides. It’s this delusion that corrodes our political dialog and weakens our national identity.

There is no ultimate victory in American politics. Power caroms randomly between factions. How we conduct ourselves within this unpredictability is as important as the political ends we’re trying to achieve.

We want our nation, and our institutions, to survive, and that means we all need to develop a tolerance that allows the pendulum to swing against us without losing our collective minds.

The goal is not control. It’s a workable equilibrium within the chaos. The way our founders designed it.

Lance Dutson

About Lance Dutson

Lance Dutson, a principal of Red Hill Strategies, is a Republican communications consultant. He has served on the campaign teams of U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Kelly Ayotte, as well as the Maine Republican Party.