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Winners and Losers of 2016

Walter Russell Mead

2016 was all about winning; Donald Trump promised that if the American people put him in the White House, we would win so much we would get tired of winning. Whatever happens next, there is no doubt that the Orange One was the mega-winner of the year. 2016 will always be remembered as the year that Donald Trump, a political novice and reality television show host, cut the legs off America’s two most powerful political dynasties and flabbergasted the establishments of both political parties.

Trump broke all the rules; he had less money than his principal opponents in both the primary and the general election campaigns. He trampled over the normal conventions, survived blunders that would have sunk other candidates, and turning the hatred of the media and the political and cultural establishments into a major asset.

But if Donald Trump dominated the year, he wasn’t the only winner in one of the most eventful and surprising years in recent memory. Here is our take on who else left their mark on 2016.

1. Andrew Jackson

The biggest winner of 2016 has been dead for 171 years. Old Hickory’s legacy of American populism is one of the most powerful forces in national politics. When properly harnessed, it wins wars by facing down America’s enemies with unrelenting ruthlessness. Jacksonian populists are threat-motivated at home too, and in 2016 they carried Donald Trump to victory on the back of anger about immigration, economic competition with Mexico and China, and Islamism. The establishments of both major political parties were caught completely off-guard.

The establishment always has an uncomfortable relationship with Jacksonians, but the most effective politicians are able to earn their support. President Reagan impressed Jacksonians by being tough on the Soviet Union. President Clinton was tough on crime and presided over a substantial decline in murders and robberies.

The last two American presidents have badly mismanaged their Jacksonian messaging. In President Bush’s case, the failure of coalition forces to find the weapons of mass destruction the administration presented as justifying the need for war undercut Bush’s Jacksonian support. Worse was the bait-and-switch rationale the administration offered in place of WMD: building democracy in Iraq. Jacksonians like democracy, but they generally don’t think this can or should be accomplished with US troops.

President Obama never did well with Jacksonians — nor did he show much sign of wanting to. His remark during the 2008 primary about Americans who “cling” to religion and guns betrayed a disgust with Jacksonian America that President Obama has done little to hide while in office. His indifferent response to terrorism and amnesty for illegal immigrants confirmed Jacksonian suspicions. Meanwhile, Democratic pronouncements about how the multicultural Obama political coalition was rendering white America politically impotent sounded to Jacksonians as nothing less than a declaration of war on them and on their values. In 2016, they retaliated by putting the rawest Jacksonian in the White House since Old Hickory himself.

2. Samuel Huntington

More than perhaps any other intellectual, the theories of this titan of political science (and American Interest founding board member) were supported by the electoral upheaval and geopolitical tumult of this extraordinary year. Huntington is most famous for arguing in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order that the post-Cold War world would not be defined by the universalization of liberal values but by ethnic frictions within nations and civilizational clashes between them (the most volatile fault lines, he said, were between the West and Islam and the West and China). Even more prescient, at least as far as the United States is concerned, was Huntington’s 2004 book, Who Are We?, which described “nationalism versus cosmopolitanism” as the central dividing line in American politics, with immigration as its focal point.

Huntington identified two forms of cosmopolitanism—neoconservatism, popular on the right, which promised to bring America’s values to the world, and multiculturalism, popular on the left, which promised to bring the world’s values to America—both of which he attacked as destructive and unsustainable. The 2016 election campaign was one long demonstration of how right Huntington was, and how blind were his liberal and neoconservative critics who had no idea of the forces building in American politics. And though the standard bearer for America’s new right-wing nationalism would surely have alarmed him, Huntington, were he alive today, could legitimately say that he saw something like this coming.

3. Shale

One year ago, American shale firms were reeling from bargain oil prices. Output was down 360,000 barrels per day as companies were forced to close their least productive and most expensive wells, and production would continue to decline through August. But this fall wasn’t anomalous—producers around the world struggled to cope with prices less than half of what they were two years ago—and it wasn’t nearly as steep as many analysts predicted, thanks to the diligent work and clever innovations of shale companies that found a way to keep (most of) the crude flowing in a bearish market. U.S. frackers got a helping hand from OPEC this fall when the cartel agreed to cut output along with other petrostates to inflate prices. With oil back above $50 per barrel, shale production is kicking into a higher gear again, and American output has jumped more than 300,000 barrels per day since that August nadir. Shale producers are now ready to write another chapter of their extraordinary success story in 2017.

4. Benjamin Netanyahu

After winning re-election last year, Israel’s Prime Minister continued his winning streak in 2016 as he marginalized the Palestinian agenda, courted strange bedfellows across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, pushed Barack Obama offstage, and defied his critics. As the Palestinian issue faded from international attention in the face of more pressing crises, Netanyahu continued to create favorable facts on the ground and make shrewd diplomatic overtures that improved Israel’s international standing. Whatever one thinks of Netanyahu’s policies, it is hard to escape the conclusion that he has been remarkably successful in pursuing them.

Consider the extent of Netanyahu’s diplomatic successes this year. With India, Netanyahu helped close a $3 billion weapons deal, another building block in a relationship that has been warming since Narendra Modi took office. In Egypt, Netanyahu proved his usefulness by cooperating in the fight against ISIS in the northern Sinai, as part of the strongest Israeli-Egyptian military cooperation since 1979. Taking advantage of a shared anxiety over Iran, Netanyahu has quietly increased behind-the-scenes cooperation with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni powers that officially have no diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv. He has also deftly courted new allies in sub-Saharan Africa, pursued far-reaching trade talks with China and Japan and improved relations with Turkey.

As Europe has grown ever more hostile to Israel and the U.S. has withdrawn from the Middle East, Netanyahu has smartly diversified Israel’s foreign policy and sought new relationships wherever he may find them. As we wrote in September, Bibi has proven himself a much more capable realist than Barack, quietly forging relationships on the basis of pragmatic interests and a shared understanding of mutual threats while credibly backing up his red lines.

Of course, Netanyahu’s diplomacy has not changed the deep-seated international opposition to his Palestine policy; by abstaining on the recent UN vote on Israel, the United States officially joined the chorus of countries deriding his settlement policy. But that symbolic vote cannot mask the Palestinians’ political weaknesses, any more than it can erase Netanyahu’s remarkable strengthening of Israel’s position. And with Donald Trump entering the White House in January, Netanyahu can look forward to a much less fractious relationship with Washington over the next four years.

Triumphant abroad, Netanyahu still faces challenges at home, notably a criminal investigation based on charges of bribery and fraud. The feisty Prime Minister denies all wrongdoing, but the Psalmist still seems to have the last word: He that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep. (Ps. 121:4)

5. Peter Thiel

The idiosyncratic billionaire Silicon Valley investor got his start in politics as a college undergraduate when he founded the Stanford Review, a right-wing journal dedicated to waging a scorched-earth campaign against campus political correctness and multiculturalism. Almost three decades later—after speaking at the Republican National Convention and taking on an influential role on the Donald Trump transition team—Peter Thiel has won a direct line to a president who made his way into office by placing many of Thiel’s themes at the heart of a national populist campaign.

Thiel’s politics have always made him unpopular in liberal Silicon Valley, and his dogged Trump advocacy certainly did not improve his standing before November 9. Today, he is indispensable as never before—one of the only points of contact with the Trump Administration for an industry that fears and hates the President but is increasingly affected by federal government policy and would prefer not to antagonize him. And all this took place against the backdrop of another high-profile triumph that horrified swathes of the American tech and media elite: Thiel was revealed in the Spring to have been paying for a lawsuit that bankrupted Gawker, the snarky, crusading social justice site that had outed him as a gay man several years ago.

As a cerebral undergraduate dedicated to fighting the identity left, Thiel was able to make a ruckus but scored few tangible victories. These days, titans of industry and important world leaders want to get on his good side.

6. Bashar al-Assad

Five years after President Obama first declared that “Assad must go,” Syria’s dictator shows no signs of heeding that call. The past year gave Assad little reason to reconsider, as he continued to brutally reconsolidate his regime’s hold over rebel-held territory, with the prominent help of Russia and Iran. The recapture of Syria’s largest urban opposition stronghold, Aleppo, was a fitting capstone to a year that saw Assad decisively turn the tide, as Russia emerged as the major power broker in the Middle East and the United States chased futile ceasefire agreements.

Assad enters 2017 with an improved position, not only on the battlefield but in the larger political talks that will ultimately determine his fate. The United States has for now been effectively sidelined in the Syria peace talks, leaving Russia, Turkey, and Iran to hash out a settlement that is likely to provide some leadership role for Assad in an eventual transition. In the meantime, Assad will move to consolidate his control over the remaining rebel-held patches in western Syria. President Obama and Ambassador Power weep crocodile tears over the fate of Aleppo, but 2016 was among other things the year in which Bashar al-Assad continued to prove that, despite the world’s outrage, he could not only get away with murder but emerge all the stronger for it.

2016 wasn’t just about winning. For a lot of people, and not a few ideas, 2016 was a year for losing. As the world settles into the Age of Trump, here is our list of the Biggest Losers of 2016.

1. The Emerging Democratic Majority

Like Francis Fukuyama’s 1991 book The End of History and the Last Man, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira’s The Emerging Democratic Majority, published in 2002, is a careful work that has been misread by critics and partisan triumphalists alike. The crude version of Judis and Teixeira’s thesis is well-known: That demographic change—particularly, the rise of ethnic minorities as a share of the population—could broadly be expected to favor the Democratic Party in the coming years. But since Barack Obama’s 2008 victory, many in the ranks of Democratic leadership interpreted as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, contributing to a kind of right-side-of-history overconfidence that left shell shocked Democrats picking through the rubble of their electoral hopes in 2016. Not only did the GOP sweep Washington, in state governments across the country the GOP is stronger than it has been in generations.

What happened?

The notion of an emerging majority composed of ethnic minorities turned out to be a highly polarizing one. In addition to making the Democrats more comfortable with stretching the limits of progressive policymaking—the country would soon catch up with them, after all—it helped generate a furious rightwing backlash among non-credentialed white voters who (not wholly inaccurately) heard the establishment proclaiming that their views and preferences no longer mattered. It also created the perception that Democratic support for elevated immigration levels wasn’t just an ordinary policy preference, but a strategy to cement their political dominance.

America’s growing diversity will transform our politics in unpredictable ways. Minority voters remain more likely to vote for Democrats, but white voters have moved rightward at the same time, and the ranks of “white” voters could swell as Asian and Hispanic immigrants follow earlier waves of immigrants and assimilate into the American mass. Judis and Teixeira are not necessarily wrong that this process will cause the country to drift left overall, but the “Emerging Democratic Majority” as magic formula that would exempt the party from actually having to do politics was extinguished—at least for the time being—on the eighth of November.

2. Movement Conservatives and Neoconservatives

Republican leaders may have lined up behind him after the election but make no mistake: the Jacksonian surge of 2016 came at the expense of the old-guard Hamiltonian-Wilsonian GOP establishment. Trump brushed aside the party’s Wilsonians by criticizing the democratization effort in Iraq and refusing to recite the Russia talking points which had been standard issue for GOP candidates since World War II. He bucked the party’s Hamiltonians when he said he wouldn’t cut entitlements, would limit business owners’ supply of cheap labor by restricting immigration, and would oppose not only future free trade deals but existing corporation-friendly agreements like NAFTA.

Neoconservatives who formed a sizable percentage of Never Trumpers were particularly set back; Trump may end up having a big military, but he seems conspicuously uninterested in using it to promote American values. Meanwhile, many neoconservatives are strong believers in the notion of America as a nation based on ideas. Trump’s Jacksonian surge serves as a reminder that many Americans do have a more traditional (albeit flexible) blood-and-soil conception of national identity. Neoconservatism in 2016 was revealed as a collection of pundits and intellectuals who don’t have a mass base. In American politics, the only thing worse than not having mass public support is having everyone realize just how weak your base actually is. Recalibration and relaunch look like the neocons’ best bet.

Hamiltonians may ultimately figure out a way to coalesce with Trump’s Jacksonians more effectively than Wilsonians do. Certainly Goldman Sachs is having better luck placing staffers in the Trump administration than is the Weekly Standard. But if Trump’s victory was a shock to Democrats, it was hardly less traumatic to the Republican establishment whose party he stole.

3. Bureaucracies, Institutions and the Rule of Law

Donald Trump’s victory is the latest manifestation of an unmistakeable trend across the globe: Viktor Orban in Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Vladimir Putin in Russia and Xi Jinping in China have all profited from a growing hunger for big personalities to take control in what appears to most to be an increasingly chaotic world.

Post-Mao China played down the kind of focus on a single leader that made the Great Helmsman so powerful, and sought to embed Communist rule in institutions. While keeping democracy at bay, the Party looked to be promoting the rule of law and encouraging the emergence of civil society. Academics who avoided taboos and redlines enjoyed greater freedom. At the highest level, the Party prided itself on developing an orderly system of rule-by-committee, with patterns of succession and limits on power that, many expected, would continue to domesticate the kind of one man power that Mao had enjoyed—and so horribly and tragically abused.

That seems to be changing under Xi Jinping. Xi has not only centralized power in his hands, but he increasingly presents himself as the personification of the party and the ultimate source of power. The corruption purge is less about stamping out corruption and enforcing the rule of impartial law than it is about the reassertion of political power by the central authorities over oppositional factions and local governments. Ideologically, the Party continues to crack down, and attacks on ‘bourgeois’ concepts like the rule of law, the importance of constitutionalism and freedom of speech are under steadily increasing pressure.

In Russia, the Communist Party is but a shade of its former Soviet self, only garnering 13.4 percent of the total vote in last year’s parliamentary elections. It has been supplanted by United Russia, a generically “conservative” but ultimately ideology-free party wholly built around the person of Vladimir Putin. After letting his protégé Dmitry Medvedev run the show (on a short leash) from 2008 to 2012, Putin once again took over the Presidency, and resumed ruling with a firmer hand. His pitch to Russian voters has always been “stability in exchange for liberty”, and the bargain has more or less held through today. And his neo-czarist, personalized regime traffics in a narrative that has served his Imperial predecessors well: “the Czar is good, the boyars are bad.” Since 2001, Putin has consistently outpolled the Russian government, which is seen by voters as the true source of corruption and inefficiency. His grip on power looks solid, as he mulls a fourth term starting in 2018.

In Turkey, President Erdogan has pretty much dispensed with any pretense of constitutional order since last summer’s coup gave him the opportunity to remake the Turkish state in his own image. Journalists, professors and other harmless drudges are rounded up on the flimsiest of pretexts; the news organs belch full throated support for the Great Man; the judiciary has been purged; the army tamed. Xi looks more and more like an emperor; Putin has filled the place of the czars; Erdogan is more like a sultan than the president of a constitutional, modern state.

Even in the EU, personalism is challenging the rule of faceless bureaucracies and boring legal codes. Orban has charted a course for Hungary that both rejects the pieties of cosmopolitan liberalism and fights against key tenets of economic liberalism by, for example, nationalizing parts of the banking sector. He stuck to his guns on migration, defiantly building a fence on his country’s borders while eurocrats in Brussels impotently moaned about human rights. His approach has clearly resonated with the broader European public, with Slovakia’s Robert Fico and Poland’s Andrzej Duda successfully importing many of Orban’s stances to their own countries.

Many across the West are fretting that liberalism is in retreat; that’s not necessarily so. But the dream of bloodless technocratic governance, seen through by legions of well-educated, competent but faceless bureaucrats operating anonymously under the rule of law has taken a beating. It may never recover. Human beings may ultimately prefer being ruled by a person to being ruled by committees.

While some of President Trump’s critics may go too far (or at least go there prematurely) in seeing Trump as an aspiring Putin or Erdogan, there is no doubt that the surge of support that propelled him into the White House was also about the distrust of institutions, bureaucrats and technocrats that we see in other societies around the world. People today seem to prefer rule by personality to rule by system; perhaps this has something to do with the way that the information revolution flattens hierarchies.

In any case, the trend toward more personalistic and charismatic governance is real, and faceless bureaucracies and the rule of law both took a beating in 2016.

4. President Obama’s Legacy

President Obama’s legacy was already looking disappointing before 2016, but geopolitical events and the election saw his legacy shrink even as his polls rose. Not only was the Obama era characterized by heightened polarization—on race, gender, political orientation and by level of educational attainment—but it also will be remembered as the period that witnessed the definitive failure of the 25 year post Cold War effort to build a New World Order. The Obama era was marked by the steady hollowing of what might be termed the neoliberal “Davos” consensus. He came to office as an eloquent cosmopolitan promising to apply intelligent technocratic solutions and collaboration to solve everything from health care and climate change to the Middle East. He leaves behind him frayed alliances and more popular distrust of elites and institutions than at any time in the post-Cold War period.

Meanwhile, President Obama’s signature policy initiatives are withering on the vine. The Iran Deal looks unlikely to survive the next four years. Much of Obamacare will likely be gutted one way or another. The President’s international climate change frameworks aren’t supported by the incoming administration or the incoming Congress. His nuclear non-proliferation efforts failed. Dodd-Frank’s regulations may be repealed. His free trade agenda has stalled. The ‘reconciliation with Islam’ died a miserable death in the killing fields of Aleppo. His immigration reform efforts have led to a backlash that will make life even harder for the people he tried to help. The list goes on…

It’s impossible to predict how history will finally judge Obama, but it’s hard to see any way in which 2016 helped burnish his image.

5. Special Snowflake Ideology

When historians look back at the history of American higher education, they will identify three major periods of tumult and change, each separated by about a generation. The first was marked by the protest movements of the late 1960s and the end of in loco parentis on campus; the second, by the “canon wars” of the late 1980s and early 1990s (“hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go”), and by the first implementation of harassment speech codes; and the third, by the campus unrest starting in 2014, which featured high-profile shout-downs of conservative speakers and demands for “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces”, and more broadly speaking by the rise of something you might call a “special snowflake” ideology—a potent mix of narcissism, identity politics and hypersensitivity.

Donald Trump’s election represents a spectacular smackdown of many ideologies and assumptions, with the campus “snowflake” ethos taking the most lumps of them all. Trump’s victory made all of America an unsafe space overnight. There will be no trigger warnings for his press conferences or tweets or television appearances (some of which are shot through with genuine nastiness and prejudice). And in the realm of concrete policy, the Trump Administration seems quite likely to undo some of the federal Title IX rules that campus activists have been pushing for—the rules that provide the support for the bureaucratic and administrative apparatchiks who seek to turn American campuses into Orwellian Newspeak enclaves.

Despite its thrashing, however, don’t count on special snowflake ideology to disappear from the Ivory Tower. Many in academia interpreted Trump’s victory as a vindication of everything they already believed—that Americans are fundamentally bigoted, and that a growing universe of bureaucratic codes and regulations is necessary to protect students forced to live in such an evil and racist society from trauma. Higher education in the Age of Trump will be an interesting spectacle indeed. Look for Republican majorities in state legislatures across the country to prevent government money being used to turn campuses into safety zones for those snowflakes among us who are too special and delicate to wrestle through the rough and tumble struggles that the rest of us deal with every day.


The petrostate cartel entered 2016 in rough shape, having already committed to a strategy of inaction in the face of collapsing crude prices. When the pain of bargain oil grew too much, OPEC tried to rally together and “freeze” output in April, only to have the Saudis back out at the last minute. Riyadh eventually got on board with the rest of the organization’s oil-soaked regimes, and OPEC agreed in November to cut its collective output by 1.2 million barrels per day in a desperate attempt to jack prices back up again.

Crude has jumped nearly $10 per barrel since then, but it’s still a far cry from the $100+ level it existed in before June 2014, and thanks to American shale producers, it’s looking unlikely to climb to its old heights this year. Looking back, all OPEC managed to do in 2016 was weaken its already shaky credibility, drain the coffers of its already cash-strapped members, and eventually cede market share to its hungriest competitors. Barring major geopolitical upheaval, 2017 looks like more of the same.

7. Palestinians

In 2016, supporters of the Palestinian cause clung to one symbolic victory at year’s end: the passage of a UN resolution (passed with a crucial abstention from the U.S.) condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank as illegal. But the fact that this toothless declaration from a UN echo chamber, passed with the help of a lame duck American presidential administration in its death throes counts as the Palestinians’ main accomplishment in 2016 only underscores how much trouble the Palestinian cause is in.

The problem for the Palestinians is this: organizationally and economically they remain weak compared to their Israeli opponents and rivals, and the gap between the capabilities of the Palestinian movement and the Israeli state widens every year. The Palestinian movement has attempted to counter this growing disparity by building alliances with external actors who, for a variety of reasons, either dislike and fear the Israelis, or, for a mix of religious, ethical, or cultural reasons are disposed support the Palestinian cause.

Over the years, the Palestinians have gradually managed to build significant alliances with the wealthy Gulf Arab states, the European Union, and liberal Democrats in the United States. Those alliances have resulted in significant diplomatic and economic support, to some degree offsetting the underlying weakness of the Palestinian movement considered in itself.

These external alliances do things for the Palestinians that the Palestinians cannot do for themselves. The Palestinian Authority, for example, could not pay its bills, operate educational or health systems, police its territory or provide for its civil servants without recurring annual subsidies from donor governments. The Palestinian Authority has no ability to meet the needs of Palestinian refugees outside the West Bank; such aid as they receive comes from international donors.

Even more fundamentally, what deters the Israelis from further settlements on the West Bank has little or nothing to do with any power of resistance that the Palestinians have of their own. What worries Jerusalem is the reaction of external actors: particularly in the United States or Europe, and to a lesser degree in the rest of the Arab world. The Palestinians remain dependent on the kindness of strangers; their movement is financially and politically beholden to outside forces they can influence but not control.

What happened to the Palestinians was not that their ties with supporters frayed. American liberals, Europeans, and the Gulf Arab states, especially at the level of public opinion, are as sympathetic as ever, perhaps more so. But the friends of the Palestinians are weak and getting weaker; Palestinian friends and supporters have less and less ability to control events in the Middle East, and as their power declines and as they respond to other threats and priorities, they have less and less help to give the Palestinians.

In the United States, liberal Democrats, including many liberal Jews, are angrier at the Netanyahu government than ever, but liberal Democrats have very little power in the United States after the GOP sweep in November. And as Democrats set about rebuilding their fortunes, they will have to concentrate their firepower on the issues most likely to help them return to power; doubling down on sympathy for the Palestinians is not the way to win over swing voters in American politics.

The Europeans have problems of their own. The ability of the EU to influence events in the Middle East continues to diminish even as Europe’s growing difficulties lead European policymakers to focus on issues at home.

As for the Arabs, the double whammy of low oil prices and a rising threat from Iran reduce the ability of the Gulf states to help the Palestinians and reduce their appetite for a confrontation with Israel over Palestinian issues. The Gulf Arabs see the Israelis as a vital regional strategic partner if Iran is to be contained; Egypt welcomes Israeli security assistance against Islamic radicals and movements like Hamas. Jordan needs good relations with Israel to survive, especially as chaos continues to engulf the neighborhood and refugees stream into Jordan.

The Palestinians are weaker than ever compared to the Israelis, and, at least for now, their closest allies have lost the power and the will to help them. 2016 was in some respects the worse year for Palestinians since 1948; their situation at the start of 2017 looks bleak.

8. Tom Steyer

Even to a billionaire, $87 million is not exactly chump change. That’s how much money Tom Steyer—the sugar-daddy of green causes in the United States, with a net worth $1.6 billion—spent on the 2016 election, and he’s walking away from it all with precious little to show for his investment. Donald Trump, a climate skeptic if there ever was one, is President, and he has appointed as head of the EPA a man who has made his reputation by suing the organization he will lead for the next few years.

“If you ask me can I put a limit on how much I value the health, the safety, the employment and the civil liberties of Americans, there’s no limit to what I think that’s worth,” a defiant Steyer said in an interview last week, in what looked to be a solemn promise to stay financially committed to his causes. But without a better strategy, Steyer and his allies may just be throwing good money after bad.

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