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The 2016 Election: An Earthquake or a Hurricane?

Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election victory has been compared to an earthquake, a seismic event that toppled fledging dynasties in both major parties, ruptured political alliances, damaged the reputation of pundits, and left millions in shock or depressed. To this day, its after-effects, like tsunamis or landslides that can follow an earthquake, continue to affect domestic politics, not to mention America’s relations with allies and adversaries.

Another natural phenomenon that is getting much attention these days provides another comparison, one that focuses not on what happened on Election Day, but on the months that preceded it, when then-candidate Donald Trump came seemingly out of nowhere to claim the GOP nomination and, against practically every forecast (for exceptions, see here) went on to win the general election. I mean a hurricane.

Most of the severe cyclones that strike the United States, e.g., Irma, start as a small disturbance of the trade winds far away in the inter-tropical convergence zone near the equator. This could be likened to the pre-presidential primary season, a year or more before the election, when Democrats and Republicans begin to scrutinize a field of candidates in preparation to vote for the parties’ presidential nomination contests.

Most tropical waves die out without a trace. But if conditions are favorable, a small disturbance develops first into a low-pressure system which, as it moves west into the warmer waters of the Caribbean, becomes a tropical storm, then a hurricane, and possibly a major hurricane. That for most of the last 16 years under first a Republican and then a Democratic president the public has expressed net dissatisfaction with the condition of the country presented an opportunity for a strong outsider candidate, such as Donald Trump, to disrupt the bipartisan duopoly.

A number of factors affect a cyclone’s development. Vertical wind shear disrupts its heat engine, causing it to weaken or even break down. Think of shakeups in Trump’s campaign staff, like the firing of campaign manager Corey Lewandowski in June and the resignation of campaign chairman Paul Manafort two months later. That Trump’s organization was in “chaos” was a recurrent theme in media campaign reports (see, e.g., here), a theme that has followed him into the White House.

Obstacles encountered along the hurricane’s path also disrupt it. Brushes or head-on collisions with mountains in the Caribbean (Cuba or the Dominican Republic) have this effect. But once it enters the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico or the Florida Straits, the storm regains strength. Analogously, clashes with competitors for the nomination, like the feud between Trump and Cruz, bad debate performances (he lost all three debates against Clinton), and the release by the Washington Post of the Trump-Billy Bush video in October, which prompted Speaker Ryan and other GOP luminaries to distance themselves from the GOP nominee, injured the campaign. Remarkably resilient, Trump survived, and with a renewed favorable environment made possible by the Comey letter, went on to beat Clinton in November.

Finally, after landfall on the continent, the cyclone loses its source of energy and encounters additional sources of friction. Both reduce its power for wreckage, and the storm begins to dissipate. Similarly, the election and the euphoria of victory receding, the attention of Trump’s constituency turned to other things. Then the reality of governing in a separation of powers system set in, disappointing many. In-fighting in the White House, the Mueller investigation, and the on-going “war” with the media have been further sources of friction, diminishing the new president’s power.

Thus, if the November 2016 election itself can be compared to an earthquake, in the long track from candidate to President Donald Trump exhibits many of the same characteristics of a tropical storm. Earthquake or hurricane, the Trump campaign, election, and initial months in the White House constitute a political phenomenon for the ages.

Alfred G. Cuzán is a distinguished university professor of political science at the University of West Florida. He has lived through several hurricanes. In an earlier interpretive essay on then-candidate Donald Trump, he compared him to Machiavelli’s Prince.