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Then he won. In retrospect, it made sense that a crowded field would offer an advantage to one of the most famous people on Earth. It also seems logical that a recall election—which by nature attracted voters dissatisfied with the state of California politics—would swing toward a political outsider. But at the time Schwarzenegger announced, his candidacy seemed laughable.
Twelve years later, another celebrity would enter a crowded field of more experienced candidates in a way that made everyone laugh. Donald Trump was like Schwarzenegger, only less likable on screen, arguably dumber and certainly more vulnerable to ridicule. As soon as he announced, I predicted in print that he would never be president of the United States. I repeated this prediction to anyone who would listen for the next year and a half, right up until approximately dinnertime on Tuesday, Nov. 8, when I started to look like a real asshole.
Like Gov. Schwarzenegger, President Trump seems inevitable in retrospect. During the nominating process, he was the most recognizable figure in a field of 17 otherwise interchangeable Republicans. The others blended into a miasma of managerial haircuts and pious talk about personal responsibility. Then Trump would appear, with his orange face and evidently deceitful hair, and say that Mexicans are rapists and we need to nuke ISIS. The press, agreeing that such remarks made him unelectable, covered them relentlessly.
In the general, of course, he was doomed. As the first major-party nominee for president with no experience in public service, he was up against the most qualified opponent in history. Hillary Clinton had been a senator and secretary of state. She had also been the favored candidate to win the Democratic nomination in 2008, before she was upset by a charismatic junior senator from Illinois. No one could believe it when she lost to Barack Obama back then, but now, in 2016, it was her turn.
Looking back, that was a big part of the problem. As qualified as Clinton was, her career in politics was founded on her marriage to a former president. She was the consummate insider—a perception reinforced by the leak, in July, of emails suggesting that Democratic National Committee leaders had influenced the nominating process to her benefit. Even her campaign slogan, "I'm with her," implied an arbitrary but coordinated effort on her behalf.
And then there was the way she talked. Clinton was well-informed, articulate and careful in her public remarks, much like that talking plastic cylinder you can buy from Amazon. Trump, on the other hand, seemed never to think about what he said until after it left his mouth. His speeches felt improvised, to the point that it made headlines the first time he used a teleprompter. Where Clinton calculated every sentence for safety, if not necessarily for effect, Trump spoke blithely and without regard for truth or consequences, as though he were saying whatever popped into his head.
This is, of course, the primary talent of the reality television star. Trump's ability to act naturally under artificial circumstances is not useful to a president, who makes most of his important decisions behind closed doors. But it is supremely useful to a candidate. The only area in which his experience as the host of an unscripted television show—on which he pretended to be a shrewd and dynamic leader instead of the heir to a family business that he nearly bankrupted more than once—could be more valuable than Clinton's experience in government was during the campaign. He couldn't possibly be better at running the country. He was just much better at convincing people to vote for him.
A month before the 2016 election, a Gallup poll put Americans' approval of Congress at 18 percent. For point of comparison, Richard Nixon enjoyed an approval rating of 24 percent after the Watergate scandal, in the weeks before he resigned. Congress hasn't cracked 25 percent since 2009. Such a dismal approval rating would have been regarded as a crisis in the 20th century, but in the 21st it has become accepted as a more-or-less permanent feature. The question for strategists is not how to repair the public's hatred of the political class, but rather how to harness it.
Politicians know we don't like them, and the consensus that American voters prefer outsiders has sometimes driven candidates and their surrogates to absurdity. In September of 2015, Clinton described herself as a political outsider, citing her gender. From a narrowly feminist perspective, she had a point. But if the wife of a former president isn't a political insider, who is?
Yet the premise of political outsider-dom is strange. If you were dissatisfied with how your mechanic tuned your engine, you wouldn't go looking for someone who had never worked on cars before. A recent New Yorker cartoon summed up the contradictions in our present mania for candidates who have never worked in government: "These smug pilots have lost touch with ordinary passengers like us," says a man standing in the aisle of a commercial jet. "Who thinks I should fly the plane?"
This cartoon misses the point, though. The premise of the American system is that people don't need specialized training to run their government. The heart of the democratic experiment is the citizen-legislator. That principle is reflected in the Montana Legislature, which meets for 90 days every two years, and in the U.S. House of Representatives, which requires no qualifications of its members except that they be at least 25 years old.