A story so ridiculous that I barely had to make it up.
Coronation night. There he is, the most unlikely president elect in American history, smiling and waving on the dressing room television while the waiting crowd in our arena remains deathly silent. He didn’t win today by a landslide but he still won, and that wasn’t supposed to happen. Dan Crump’s campaign may have been the most destructive assault on America since high fructose corn syrup, and there’s no better person to blame than me.
Two years ago I received a call from Neil Fraser. I didn’t know Fraser, but I knew his reputation as a cutthroat operator who would do whatever it took to ensure victory for his candidate. “Mark, we need you to run some numbers for us,” he said. “Somebody’s taken their hand off the tiller over there. It’s like there’s nobody running the party anymore. We’re hearing that 21 different candidates are declaring candidacy against her.”
“Clifton. Who the hell do you think I’m talking about?”
“A field that big, Neil, most are just angling for cabinet slots, pundit jobs, or air time on the morning shows,” I said.
“We know that. What we need to know is mathematically which of these jug heads is a threat. We need to eliminate some static so that we don’t waste money and time vetting the publicity hounds.”
“Send me the names,” I said. “I’ll see what I can work up.”
One week later I was summoned not to Fraser’s office or even Clifton’s campaign headquarters, but rather party headquarters. Secretary Clifton sat at the head of the conference table, surrounded by party officials, senators, a couple of swing state governors, and a few significant donors. She seemed more interested in her Blackberry than the meeting. “You have five minutes,” her handler said. “Madame Secretary needs to be at a fundraiser by 11.”
“My name is Mark Hanna, and I’m with–“
“We know who you are,” Clifton said. “Get to the numbers.”
“Okay, but first a disclaimer: Our methodology and algorithms are proprietary. I’m bound by a non-disclosure agreement from revealing how we make the sausage, but–“
“Four minutes,” her handler said.
“–we modeled 21 scenarios, wherein Secretary Clifton faced off against each candidate–“
“We know why you’re here. Get to the numbers,” Clifton repeated.
“–and in all 21 scenarios Mrs. Clifton loses the general election,” I said.
The room fell silent. Clifton looked up from her Blackberry. “That’s impossible,” someone said.
“Well, two years is a long time. Anything can happen, but our algorithms have accurately predicted 98% of the races that we’ve been hired to analyze,” I said.
“You mean to tell me that I even lose to that idiot who thinks Satan is literally a horned devil roaming the Earth?”
“Which one?” Fraser asked.
“Jesus Christ, this is a disaster,” party chairperson Egan said.
“What are we going to do?”
“Run the numbers again.”
“What if you account for probable VP choices?”
“Look, you can make numbers tell whatever story you want. Who is this guy, anyway?”
“My name is Mark Hanna. I’m with–“
“No!” Clifton screamed. “No! No! No! I will not lose again, do you people understand me? I have done too much for this party. You will figure this out.”
“One minute, Madame Secretary,” her handler said.
“Oh, shut up, Richie,” Clifton said. She stood and pointed her Blackberry at nobody, everybody. “Fix it,” she said, and she walked out of the room.
For the next hour I sat quietly while insiders from both the campaign and the party strategized ad campaigns, fundraising campaigns, smear campaigns–all of their fresh ideas lifted straight from the same playbook that we used to created our algorithms. “May I interject?” I finally said, and the whole room fell quiet. I think they’d forgotten that I was still there. “Granted, I’m not a political strategist, but it seems to me that you’re overlooking the simplest solution.”
“And what’s that?” Fraser asked.
“Well, it’s just math, really. You asked me to model the outcome against 21 candidates, all of whom your candidate can’t beat.”
“So introduce a 22nd candidate that she can,” I said. “Bring in a ringer.”
Fraser sent me back to the lab to build the ideal opponent. The process was the mathematical equivalent of grave robbing, harvesting parts and stitching them together into a modern political Prometheus. The ringer would need to have broad appeal in order to overcome both his party’s reluctance to back an outsider and the media’s lack of interest in giving air time to an unknown. He would need to somehow overcome the enormous financial burden that comes with running for national office without a patron. The ideal ringer would be ethically pliable, too, a person willing to tank a presidential election in exchange for–something. What, I didn’t know. All signs pointed to recruiting a celebrity, but one with business acumen and the ability to electrify the party’s base. It was an interesting thought exercise, but not practical. I presented the modeling results to Fraser with my apologies that we couldn’t come up with a realistic pseudo-candidate 22.
“I know just the guy,” Fraser said, and he dialed his phone. “Richie, get Secretary Clifton to New York tonight for dinner with Mark and me. Have her call me when she gets off stage and I’ll brief her.”
“I can’t go to New York for dinner,” I said. “I have a teleconference with an overseas client at 11 o’clock.”
“We’ll take the helicopter. You’ll be back in time,” Fraser said.
“Valerie! You look fantastic,” Crump said, and he took both of Clifton’s hands in his. “Just incredible.”
“So do you, Dan,” Clifton said. “It’s wonderful to see you again.”
“I know, it’s always wonderful to see me. Kidding! I love jokes. I have the best jokes. Hello, Neil, and who is this?”
“My name is Mark Hanna, and I’m with–“
“Fantastic,” Crump said. “Everyone, please. Sit. These chairs are real gold, the best. How’s the campaign going, Valerie?”
“Actually, that’s why we’re here,” Fraser said.
“You want another donation? Whatever you need, just call my office. I have more money than I can ever spend, I’m that successful. It’s incredible.”
“You really are, Dan,” Clifton said. “You should run for office.”
“I can’t afford the pay cut. I’m making too much doing The Intern. It’s incredible,” Crump said. “Wait, are you asking me to join your ticket? We’d win huge, the biggest landslide, but VP is second place and second place is the first loser.”
“We had something better in mind,” Fraser said. “Matt?”
“We mathematically modeled the candidate with the highest probability of losing in the general election to Secretary Clifton, and on every single dimension that was you, Mr. Crump.”
“Who the fuck is this guy? You come into my house and call me a loser? Get off my chair.”
“Hold on, Dan. There’s no doubt that you’re the best. I know you’d beat all 21 candidates for the party nomination,” Clifton said, and Crump smirked. “What we’re proposing is that you win the primary and then intentionally lose the general.”
“Why would I do that? I’m a winner, and besides that I’m not even a member of their party.”
“You’re a master negotiator,” Fraser said. “Are you still having permit issues with your proposed Beltway hotel?”
“I’m the best negotiator. You think I need your help with a few permits?”
Clifton leaned forward. “Never mind that one project. This is a deal worth billions to you long term, Dan. Billions.”
Crump tented his hands and leaned his double chin upon his fingertips. “How many billions?” was all he asked.
Primary season went precisely according to plan. One by one Crump took down his 21 opponents with a toxic combination of celebrity, character assassination, and appeal to the lowest common denominator. The latter was key to Fraser’s strategy, as it set up the necessary backlash in the general election. The public was used to candidates who cuddled up to their parties’ bases during the primaries then pivoted to the center for the general election, but the Crump campaign pushed deeper into the heart of darkness than any candidate before him. Racism, fear mongering, conspiracy theories, inciting violence–the farther he went in order to prove himself unfit for office, the more enthusiastic his followers grew.
When the July conventions rolled around, he was the last man standing. Fraser and I watched from a Maryland bar as Crump presided over his party’s convention like Il Duce, jutting his lower lip for the cameras and trotting out his family as character witnesses. A former candidate led the crowd in chants of “Burn Clifton,” while another swore that he personally saw her fornicating (his word) with Satan.
A few protestors inside the arena waved “Dump Crump” signs. They were quickly removed by a security detail wearing matching brown business suits. One protester was punched by a conventioneer as he was ushered toward the exit, and the crowd roared its approval. “Get him out of here,” Crump crowed, and then he turned his Mussolini profile to the cameras.
“Christ, he’s been watching World War II game films,” Fraser muttered. “What have we unleashed?”
For the next four months Crump stomped across the American landscape like a Japanese monster. His assaults on immigrants, minorities, and trade deals gave way to direct attacks on Secretary Clifton. She was a liar, a murderer, a thief, a lesbian, and a devil worshiper. “It’s what I’m hearing,” he’d say. “We need to investigate, but it’s what I’m hearing.” Fraser called repeatedly and asked him to tone it down. “I’m a winner, believe me,” was all that Crump would say. “The best.”
By mid-September the Secret Service had more agents protecting Clifton than any candidate in their history; more, in fact, than even the president’s detail. Seven assassination attempts had been thwarted, including the New York campaign stop that saw two supporters killed by errant gunfire, but no matter what Crump said, his poll numbers climbed. The media started calling him “Stainless Dan” because scandals that ruined normal candidates wiped right off of him. He publicly courted money from foreign governments, bragged about his infidelities, and called beloved talk show host Uma Winstead a “fat disgusting pig.” Crump vowed to relocate all U.S. Muslims to special camps “until we figure this out” and freely admitted that he’d never read the Constitution. “I don’t have to,” he said. “I know it’s fantastic, the best.”
When the polls shifted in favor of Crump, Secretary Clifton went ballistic. “What the fuck is wrong with you people?” she yelled. “You can’t defeat a goddamned ringer? I will win, or none of you will ever work again, do you understand me? Fix it.”
But there was no fixing it. Voters turned out in record numbers today in what will be remembered as the most contentious presidential election in modern American history. Crump’s victory wasn’t huge, but the margin was wide enough that calls for a recount would have been implausible. Secretary Clifton looks like she’s in shock, as do the thousands gathered in the arena, awaiting her concession speech. The entire campaign staff is crowded around the dressing room television, watching the confetti and balloons and the screaming crowd at Crump’s gathering.
He strode to the podium with his chin raised, lower lip stuck out. He stood behind the lectern with his arms crossed and his profile turned to the camera, and then he turned and faced his adoring fans and raised his hands to silence them. The news cameras zoomed in on his puffy face.
“My fellow Americans,” he said. “When I entered this race nearly two years ago, they thought I was a joke. Well who is laughing tonight?” The audience cheered. “Let me tell you who’s laughing: me,” he said, and they cheered even louder. “And let me tell you who I’m laughing at: you.
“Every person in this room, every voter who pulled the lever for Dan Crump today, you all claim to believe in what this party stands for, but for the last two years I’ve made a mockery of everything you’re supposed to hold dear. You’re the family values party, but my affairs don’t bother you. You’re the Christian party, but you pretended to believe me when I said I was a religious man. You want to bring manufacturing back to America, but the Crump clothing and houseware lines are clearly made overseas, and let me tell you something: They’re the best. Fantastic products.
“Throughout this race I have condemned immigrants while my immigrant wife stood by my side, and you believed me. Isn’t she something? Look at her. My ancestors immigrated to this great country, too, and so did yours.
“The victory today wasn’t Dan Crump’s, but the American people’s. I held up a mirror to you, and what you saw reflected back was anger, bitterness, and false allegiance. Washington isn’t broken, you are. You’ve lost your moral compass, and as a result we’ve lost our way. This is your chance to do something, to go home and reevaluate what it means to be a good American, to love your country, to make it better for your children and your children’s children.
“I am a businessman. I do not belong in the White House. My place is on The Intern, Tuesday nights at 8 on CBS. Great show. The ratings are fantastic. So I concede tonight to Secretary Clifton, whose resume is incredible. Fantastic. She’s the right person for the job. Thank you, and don’t forget to watch The Intern.”
The crowd erupted into boos as Crump exited the stage. A couple of minutes later, Clifton’s Blackberry rang. “Dan? You’re on speaker.”
“Hey, gang. Congratulations,” Crump said.
“What the hell just happened?” Fraser said.
“We had a deal, right? I make the best deals.”
“We thought you reneged,” Clifton said. “All that talk about always winning.”
“I do always win, Valerie. Always. We’re going to make billions,” he said, and then he hung up, and president-elect Clifton stood and straightened her blazer and exited the dressing room, on her way to greet her cheering supporters. I couldn’t help smiling: Her victory improved our algorithms’ accuracy to 99 percent.