Peggy Noonan recalls being at CBS News on election night last fall, as the presidential election returns began to come in from around the country.
“Up until about 8:45 or 9 p.m., everybody – the pollsters, the political professionals, the people who are paid to have real, numeric, granular knowledge of America – they all saw Mrs. Clinton winning,” said Noonan, a Wall Street Journal columnist, author and acclaimed speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan and President George H.W. Bush. “The only argument was, ‘Is she going to win by two and a half or four points?’”
Donald Trump’s upset win did more than surprise the political establishment, Noonan contends. In a speech to the World Affairs Council of Jacksonville held Monday at the Ponte Vedra Inn and Club, Noonan said Trump’s electoral victory has caused a seismic shift in Washington, shaking the city’s power brokers to their very core.
“We are in the midst of something epochal,” Noonan said. “We have never had a political moment like this, a president like this – a Washington, particularly – like this. I just feel each day, we are in uncharted waters.”
Mr. Trump goes to Washington
Since Trump’s inauguration, Noonan said, Washington itself has taken on a different feel.
“Everybody’s a little unsteady on their feet,” she said. “There’s a sense with the most confident people in the world…that each day, they don’t know what they’re going to see.”
While part of that uncertainty may be residual aftershocks from Trump’s surprise victory, Noonan contended that the 2016 election results signified a more transformative moment in American politics.
“We were witnessing a certain uprising of the regular people of America against the elites,” Noonan told World Affairs Council members. “It was a kind of rebellion of ‘flyover country’ against the cities and the coastal elites…. So, it was a great sort of comeuppance and a great education, I think, for those who think themselves quite clever.”
Despite this comeuppance – or perhaps because of it – the Trump administration is facing unprecedented resistance on a number of fronts – from the mainstream media and a mobilized Democratic Party to liberal academia.
“To my mind,” Noonan said, “when I look at the Trump White House, there is nobody for them but themselves and the people who voted for them.”
Observing that the media tends to tag new Republican presidents as either evil or an idiot, Noonan noted, “One of the things unusual this year is that so many members of the mainstream media look at the president and they’ve gone, ‘This is a two-fer. This is an evil idiot.’ They think he is bad for the country.”
That personal animus, she said, has become more obvious, at times seeping through the media’s veneer of professional objectivity.
“I think so much of the anti-Trump feeling in the media is not a good thing,” she said. “I’m a very big fan of the idea that you can just give people the facts and they will make the right decision.”
Noonan also lamented the current climate on Capitol Hill. Pointing to the looming confirmation battle over Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, Noonan said that in years past a candidate with Gorsuch’s record and qualifications would have been easily confirmed.
“That’s not going to happen this time – it’s an awful thing,” she said. “Two months ago, (Sen.) Chuck Schumer would have said, ‘Of course we’re going to vote for him.’ Now, Chuck Schumer will lead the filibuster, because he’s afraid of the leftist base of his party.”
Adding to the new Trump administration’s challenges, Noonan said, is the challenge of Donald Trump himself. A political novice, Trump’s impulsive comments and rapid-fire tweets rattle rather than reassure a nation still reeling from his upset victory, Noonan observed.
“Trump is always willing to give his opinion,” she said. “What he doesn’t seem willing to do is persuade anybody to a line of action. American presidents show up in part to persuade…. I just don’t understand his inability to stand at the podium and give a serious speech.... Make the case, make the case, make the case. It’s what presidents do.”