the “deplorables” rejoice.
When Harry Truman won the Presidency in a surprising upset in 1948, H. L. Mencken referred to what we now call the “deplorables” as a host of “circumambient morons” who had been lured away from their support of the favored and sensible candidate, Thomas Dewey, into the Democratic camp by Truman’s “clowning.”
To judge by the outcome of the 2016 Presidential election, apparently this mercurial group of common folks from the American heartlands has recently abandoned their usual place in the political spectrum of our time and shown up on Election Day to vote for a Republican clown, Donald Trump. Back in 1948, as David McCullough reported in such thorough detail in his remarkable biography Truman,
Efforts to explain why the impossible had happened began at once, as did, understandably, a great deal of soul searching among reporters, editors, and broadcasters who had fallen down on the job so very conspicuously.
To H. L. Mencken, who delighted in the outcome exactly because it “shook the bones of all…[the] smarties,” the answer was simply in the contrast of the two contestants as they presented themselves to the voters… “While Dewey was intoning essays sounding like the worst bombast of university professors, Truman was down on the ground, clowning with the circumambient morons. He made votes every time he gave a show, but Dewey lost them.”
The country was flabbergasted.
It was called a “startling victory,” “astonishing,” “a major miracle.” Truman, said Newsweek on its cover, was the Miracle Man.
He had won against the greatest odds in the annals of presidential politics. Not one polling organization had been correct in its forecast. Not a single radio commentator or newspaper columnist, or any of the hundreds of reporters who covered the campaign, had called it right. Every expert had been proven wrong, and as was said, “a great roar of laughter arose from the land.” The people had made fools of those supposedly in the know. Of all amazing things, Harry Truman had turned out to be the only one who knew what he was talking about.
To Dewey himself, it had all turned on the farm vote. “The farm vote switched in the last ten days,” he claimed in a letter to Henry Luce [editor-in-chief of Time and Life], “and you can analyze figures from now to kingdom come and all they will show is that we lost the farm vote….”
To Luce the main cause for Dewey’s defeat was Dewey. “His personality was against him.” But to the managing editor of Life, Joseph J. Thorndike, Jr., the problem centered on bias. “Of course, we did not intentionally mislead our readers,” he wrote.
“But I do think that we ourselves were misled by our bias. Because of that bias we did not exert ourselves enough to report the side we didn’t believe in. We were too ready to accept the evidence of pictures like the empty auditorium at Omaha and to ignore the later crowds. We were too eager to report the Truman ‘bobbles’ and to pass over the things that were wrong about the Republican campaign: empty Dewey speeches, the bad Republican candidates, the dangers of Republican commitments to big business. I myself had many misgivings about these things but thought that what the hell, the election was already decided, we could get after the Republicans later….”
Truman’s victory, said Thorndike, was “primarily a personal triumph.” And this, as it turned out, was the conclusion of Time in its first issue after the election. “He did it all himself,” said the magazine in tribute to Truman the politician. He was the “new champion” in American politics, “the absolute boss of a resurgent Democratic party.”
“TRUMAN WORKS A POLITICAL MIRACLE,” ran the headline on the lead story in Life. Truman was now “the durable hero in shining spectacles,” “one of the fightin’est men” who ever went through a campaign.
Click here to read David McCullough’s whole chapter about Truman’s victory.