Americans famously love litigation. Relitigation? Not so much, especially when it concerns the last presidential election.
“Clinton Confirms That Democrats Will Relitigate the 2016 Primary Until the Sun Swallows the Earth,” Slate sighed in September. “Bernie Sanders Is Sick of Re-litigating the 2016 Election,” Vanity Fair reported around the same time.
“I don’t think that relitigating a primary, which was so contentious but not ultimately close in terms of the vote count, that’s just looking backwards when we need to be looking forward,” former Clinton aide Zerlina Maxwell told CBS in November. She joins other Democrats who are wary of relitigation.
Senator Mark Warner, discussing the need to investigate Russian hacking, felt compelled to offer assurances that “we’re not trying to relitigate the 2016 election.” Indeed, “no one wants to relitigate the 2016 election yet again,” Vogue insists, but that’s not quite true: President Trump seems quite eager to do so, often to the frustration of critics who’d like to see him focus on the issues at hand. “Trump still seems consumed by the 2016 campaign, relitigating its controversies and dwelling on his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton,” the Associated Press reported from South Korea in November, several months after it found him doing the same in Ohio.
The president showed just this tendency again on Thursday, when he tweeted this:
Remember when they were saying, during the campaign, that Donald Trump is giving great speeches and drawing big crowds, but he is spending much less money and not using social media as well as Crooked Hillary’s large and highly sophisticated staff. Well, not saying that anymore!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 22, 2018
The tweet seems to be a response to stories about Cambridge Analytica. The company is accused of misusing personal data, bribing officials, and possibly violating U.S. campaign-finance laws, and Trump’s response is to boast that his campaign’s decision to hire it shows they were not as low-tech as previously accused. Anything to score a point on Clinton, it appears.
Perhaps Nate Silver is closer to the truth when he notes that everyone seems willing to relitigate 2016. And for good reason: The 2016 election deserves to be litigated, over and over and over again. As Conor Friedersdorf has rightly argued, claims that any given election is the most important one in any given time period are often bogus, but 2016 has a reasonable claim to be the most important presidential election since … well, who knows: certainly the most influential one in many cycles. It hasn’t even been two years since the balloting, hardly an extravagant amount of time to reconsider such a pivotal event. Moreover, the issues that any relitigation of 2016 requires considering are the central ones in the political life of this country today and will be for years to come.
Consider the other infamous example of relitigation in recent American history: the Vietnam War. A classic example of Boomer self-absorption, the obsession with Vietnam dragged on for years, producing acrimonious fights over candidates’ service (or lack thereof) in 1992 and 2000 and 2004. By 2008, Barack Obama felt compelled to object to relitigating a war that had ended 33 years prior, when he was 14 years old.
It isn’t that Vietnam didn’t have dire lessons to teach, some of which were too easily forgotten by the start of the Iraq War. In many ways, however, the war was over as a matter of debate as soon as the U.S. left. Whether or not the war was winnable at some point, it was a cataclysm by the time it ended, and its unique circumstances limited the relevance of its example.
By contrast, the issues that were central to the 2016 campaign remain among the most important issues facing the country and its political system. Take the bizarre feud between Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden that broke out this week, with Biden saying that if he’d heard Trump bragging about sexual assault in high school, he’d “take him behind the gym and beat the hell out of him.” This weird, supercharged machismo is obviously gross, and it’s also a direct outgrowth of Trump’s language during the 2016 race, during which Marco Rubio baited Trump on the size of his hands and Trump boasted about the size of his penis during a primary debate. (That doesn’t even touch the old video released several months later in which Trump boasted about sexually assaulting women, the one to which Biden referred.) Also still relevant are questions about acceptance of female candidates, the extent to which that hurt Hillary Clinton’s chances, and what that means for women in politics going forward.
Equally central are the questions of race that the Trump movement raised—or really renewed, and brought back into uncomfortable focus where it had once been possible for many Americans to ignore them, as Adam Serwer has explored. As the white share of the population continues to shrink, the racial anxieties exposed by Trump’s victory will be a central factor in electoral politics for years to come.
Just as the “white working class” descriptor often deployed for Trump’s base shows the continuing relevance of race, any discussion of the 2016 election requires a careful look at class, and the way that increasing inequality and a rapidly transforming economy fueled support for both Trump and for Bernie Sanders, and antipathy toward Clinton’s vision of the Democratic Party and nation.
Or take the question of Russian interference. Set aside Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe (you don’t often hear anyone telling prosecutors they shouldn’t investigate credible allegations of crimes because it would be “relitigating the past”), and focus on the fact that Trump’s top intelligence officials told Congress last month that Russia will continue to meddle in American elections, including in this year’s midterms. And this week’s furor over Cambridge Analytica underscores the remaining questions about the use of social media in campaigns.
Each of these is a strain of argument from the 2016 election, but each of them is also a core question facing the nation. Sniping between supporters of Sanders and Clinton is tedious, and Trump’s nostalgia for the campaign is puerile in the face of his challenges his administration and the country face. That doesn’t mean continuing to relitigate the election isn’t a worthwhile and even necessary task.