Following the revelations of Donald Trump's lewd remarks about women in early October, I was a guest on Seven's Sunrise. Before we went to air, host Samantha Armytage took me aback. She confidently told me the next president would be the billionaire reality-show host who had never held elective office. I nodded as if I understood, but I didn't.
Truth be told, I thought she sounded silly. After all, the polls, the pundits, the forecasting agencies – why, the very scent in the air – pointed to a Hillary Clinton victory. In the wake of Groper-gate, even senior Republicans had succumbed to this sense of inevitability. From left to right, the consensus among us so-called experts was clear: Trump would lose, possibly badly. He would be consigned to the ash heap of history.
But we were all wrong. November 8, 2016, will go down as the most dramatic failure of discernment in the history of punditry.
Never has a political candidate come under as much sustained ridicule and derision as Trump. The aforementioned October week merely saw a fresh feeding frenzy as the sophisticates seized on the latest Trump setback and aimed yet more barbs and insults at the 70-year-old outsider.
It was an unedifying spectacle: the herd mentality at work and hopelessly out of touch with ordinary folks fed up with globalisation, illegal immigration, climate alarmism and political correctness.
As for Armytage, she was not just right: she understood what Richard Nixon called the "great silent majority" that includes her battling farmer father from Wagga Wagga. Trump may have been a buffoon, but she recognised he was tapping into widespread (and legitimate) grievances. Sam was also richer. When Trump was 100-1 in the betting markets, she put her money where her mouth was.
The episode is a reminder of the folly of the conventional wisdom. It's a good thing we experts don't make our living playing the stock market.
Think about 2016: A year ago media elites dismissed Bernie Sanders as just an ageing socialist who honeymooned in the Soviet Union, only to find Democratic primary voters drawn to his anti-Establishment message: he beat the well-heeled Clinton machine in 23 states.
In May Leicester City – 5000-1 outsiders after nearly being relegated last season – won the English Premier League. In June the Brits confounded virtually all the seasoned observers of Westminster politics and voted to leave the European Union.
The prevailing wisdom, repeated daily by Canberra's herd of independent minds, predicted a big Malcolm Turnbull victory at this year's federal election. Some scribes even proclaimed his leadership would amount to a Whitlamesque political realignment. Yet his Coalition government came to a seat of losing power, Hansonism is suddenly resurgent across Middle Australia and the PM is a prisoner of his party now more than ever.
In October the Cronulla Sharks – the NRL wooden spooners just two years ago – did not need Harold Holt to emerge from the rough seas off Portsea to win a premiership, as Jack Gibson famously quipped. Meanwhile, the Chicago Cubs and the Western Bulldogs (whom Armytage, incidentally, backed when they were paying $7.50) shocked the sporting world by winning their first World Series and AFL titles since 1908 and 1954, respectively. Crikey, even Ireland beat the All Blacks for the first time!
If you imagined Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature a year ago, I'm curious what you were smoking.
Writing in the Washington-based New Republic in 2001, Franklin Foer argued the "broad agreement of elite opinion" is "a time-tested means of filtering out the bunk … endorsed by philosophers and confirmed by social science." He concluded: "By definition, conventional wisdom is conventional. But it has the great virtue of being right."
But what we have seen in 2016 should make anyone wary of conventional wisdom. For the experts have proved again that predictions are as reliable as a 12-month weather forecast.
How did we get things so badly wrong?
Part of the answer lies in understanding that media prognostication, always a high-wire act, is becoming riskier in the era of the relentless digital cycle. What was supposed to destroy Trump's candidacy in early October – Groper-gate – was largely forgotten a month later. Punters had moved on.
Another explanation is that many journalists and intellectuals still live in a bubble. We can float through our personal lives and rarely mix with someone who likes a Trump, a Hanson, a Farage or a Le Pen. This myopia is an unhealthy state of affairs; and it was best captured by Pauline Kael's response to Nixon's 49-state landslide re-election: "I don't know how Richard Nixon could have won. I don't know anybody who voted for him."
What was a problem for the famous New York film critic in 1972 was an enormous obstacle for journalists on both left and right in 2016.
So, next time the experts are slavishly wedding to a conventional wisdom, take a deep breath and question those unassailable orthodoxies. Chances are we will turn out to be wrong.
Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald.