“This election proves the Americans really, really hate the establishment.”
There’s clearly something to this, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. America is becoming a more divided nation. The ideological gap between liberals and conservatives is growing. People are sorting themselves geographically to live close to people of similar backgrounds, educational attainments, and income levels. Inequality has grown, as has the cultural distance between city slickers and country folk. Rural and working class Americans increasingly feel like they’re locked out of the American opportunity structure and that their way of life is no longer respected. Their resentment of the political establishment, East Coast intelligentsia, and mainstream media is palpable.
Despite these anti-establishment feelings, President Obama boasted an impressive 56 percent approval rating on election day. Furthermore, Hillary Clinton seems to be the only candidate who suffered at the hands of populist rage; incumbents in Congress continued to perform extremely well at the polls. Those facts are difficult to square with the common portrayal of Trump supporters and their political attitudes, but any theory of an anti-establishment wave must reckon with those inconvenient figures to have meaningful explanatory power in this election cycle.
“The Democratic Party as we know it is dead.”
The Democratic Party has certainly hit a low point. Their political opponents now control the White House, both houses of Congress, and will control the Supreme Court after nominating a conservative justice to the vacant ninth seat. Worse still, 34 state governors are Republicans compared to just 15 Democrats and Republicans control 32 state legislatures to 13 on the Democratic side. Prospects for a Democratic resurgence in the 2018 midterms appear bleak, as most senators up for re-election are Democrats (forcing them to defend their existing seats and giving them little opportunity to flip Republican seats). Democrats must end the Republican dominance in state-level politics because if Republicans control 3/4ths of states and both houses of Congress, they can pass constitutional amendments essentially at will. In effect, this could give the Republican Party the power to radically alter the structure of American government to grease the wheels of their ideological project.
If the Democrats can manage to avoid that nightmarish fate at the state level, their chances of rebounding at the federal level are quite favorable. The Democratic Party has won the popular vote in 6 of the past 7 presidential elections, something that had never been accomplished in American history. Despite its flawed nominees, the Democratic platform has sustained impressively stable public support over a long period of time. Its ideas are resilient and can win elections. Finally, demographics will continue to shift in the Democrats’ favor. Minorities will make up a larger and larger share of the electorate and progressive young people will continue to replace elderly conservatives.
“Racism was not the central force driving Trump’s support.”
Donald Trump is the President of the United States because he inflamed the prejudices of white people. Full stop. During the primaries, Trump distinguished himself from other Republicans by demonizing Mexican immigrants and advocating for a religious test to bar Muslims from entering the country. Those were the defining positions of his candidacy and they are the reason he surged to an insurmountable lead in the polls. His boldly explicit prejudice was the central and most easily recognizable feature of his campaign, as his platform was based on symbolism and not policy. Trump’s rhetoric sent a message that he would prioritize the interests of white men at the expense of all other Americans. Minorities heard that message as clearly as did the Ku Klux Klan.
Trump carefully cultivated an adversarial, in-group versus out-group dynamic around his campaign. His slogan signaled that Trump intends to reconstruct the social order of an older America, a culture of impunity for white men and one of inferiority for others. He incited violence against minorities at his rallies, raised suspicions against a Latino judge, and appealed to his supporters’ stereotypes of black criminality with his law and order rhetoric and portrayals of African-American neighborhoods.
The historical context of Trump’s campaign is crucial to understanding the full meaning of his message. On election night, Trump surrogate Rudy Giuliani compared his candidate favorably to Andrew Jackson, an anti-establishment candidate who perpetrated genocide on Native Americans to clear more land for working class whites. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan celebrated Trump’s victory, adding that “this needs to be a time of redemption.” He refers to the Redemption period that ended Reconstruction, the post-Civil War period that saw freed slaves make tremendous political and economic advances in a single decade. In the age of Redemption, white citizens’ councils, the Ku Klux Klan, and other terrorist groups coordinated campaigns of violence against black Americans and “carpetbaggers” who were in positions of political power, staging coup d’etats, armed rebellions, and massacres in places like New Orleans, LA, Wilmington, NC, and Colfax, LA. Trump’s victory is analogous to the Redemption period because he diametrically opposes and promises to vigorously undo the legacy of our nation’s first black president and the racial progress he represents. The imagery of President Obama turning over his administration to the very man who challenged the legitimacy of his citizenship is a stinging connection to the ugly racism of the 1870s, when white Americans rejected their black countrymen’s 15th amendment rights.
“All Trump supporters are racists.”
One of the great failures of our civil discourse on racism is our use of the word “racist” as an noun rather than an adjective used to label people rather than to identify injustice. Race is perhaps the central organizing feature of American society, and all Americans experience race in powerful ways. Everyone who operates within a racially separate and unequal society will absorb and reflect prejudice in different ways. The impulse to sort people into the “racist” or “non-racist” binary betrays a profound misunderstanding of the way race and racism operate in America and fails to move our society towards racial awareness and justice in any constructive way. Trump supporters absolutely harbor racial prejudices, but so do Clinton voters. In this instance, Trump supporters were less reluctant to act on them in selfish, harmful, and malicious ways. It is unfar, though, to assign Trump voters all-encompassing “racist” labels that define the totality of their character while absolving Clinton voters of any associations or attachments to prejudice.
“Rural voters are disadvantaged and disempowered by our political system.”
Entrenched economic inequality leads rural voters to feel left behind and voiceless in a political system that does not often deliver them tangible benefits. They often conclude, then, that structural factors within the American political system conspire to deflate their wages and silence their voices. However, the design of the American government privileges their interests and amplifies their demands because it is a system that represents space as much as people. In the Senate, less populous states have far more per capita representation than more populous states. In the House, the concentration of liberal Americans in dense urban areas leads to a natural gerrymandering effect, packing Democrats into overwhelming majorities in relatively few districts while spreading them too thin to compete with Republicans in more rural areas. Rural Americans guaranteed themselves outsized political influence from the nation’s founding, when small colonies insisted on disproportionate representation as a condition of their membership in the Union and when property ownership was a suffrage requirement. The electoral college system of representation, derived from a combination of both the House and Senate systems, reproduces that outsized influence in presidential politics. This explains how Trump managed to win the electoral vote so decisively despite the fact that Clinton will win the popular vote by a margin of several million.
“Trump’s support can mostly be attributed to growing economic anxiety.”
The kernel of truth here is that Trump outperformed Mitt Romney among working class white voters. Commentators tend to conflate relative performance with absolute support, though. Hillary Clinton won every income bracket below the $50,000 threshold while Donald Trump won every bracket above that cutoff. Trump does not owe his victory to some kind of peasant revolt. Though his supporters are stereotyped as toothless, Confederate-flag wearing, Mountain-Dew drinking high school dropouts, the reality is that his median voter is solidly middle class. The white poor and working class, then, are not exclusively prone to racial intolerance or tendencies towards conspiracy theories and authoritarian leaders.
A second point is that nonwhite voters who experience economic anxiety did not embrace Trump as a candidate. At a minimum, then, economic anxiety must only be driving Trump’s support in conjunction with other factors that repel minorities from the his coalition.
Finally, if the suffering of rural white America was so great, voters would very likely prioritize their own material interests above all else. They would vote for a candidate who pledges to protect Social Security, make college more affordable for their children, raise the minimum wage, reduce income inequality, subsidize health insurance, guarantee paid leave, and propose concrete policies to raise the standard of living in struggling communities. However, rural Trump voters did not make their decision based on policy but on symbolism. They chose to treat their ballot as a way to send a message to Washington, D.C. and the coastal elites, to cast a protest vote at the risk of subordinating their own economic interests. They chose feelings over finances, culture wars over class wars. The data on their income, the general direction of the American economy, and the total lack of pragmatism from Trump voters all strongly suggest that they are faring better than we imagine.
“Bernie Sanders would have beaten Trump.”
Parts of the populist wing of the Democratic Party are saying “I told you so.” They believe that many blue collar Democrats defected to Trump’s camp because Hillary is a symbol of the corporate, internationalist elitism in the Party. Democrats would have fared much better among those voters had they embraced the left-populism of Bernie Sanders, they maintain, and they blame Clinton for writing off working class whites entirely.
To the extent that Clinton and other Democratic candidates did abandon the white working class, they did so symbolically and strategically, not substantively. Clinton’s policy platform is objectively far more friendly to the working class than Trump’s. Debt-free college, minimum wage hikes, expanded access to health insurance, labor organizing rights, infrastructure investment, and a more progressive tax code are all pro-working class policies that Clinton touted. Yet, only nonwhite members of the working class were drawn to them.
In light of that reality, the criticism from left-populists seems self-serving. They conveniently argue that their personal policy preferences are the most popular in the nation as a whole, in ignorance of the key realization that policy does not appear to have been an important motivating factor for white working class voters. Instead, they responded to a demagogic campaign of xenophobia that stoked their fears of Islamic terrorism and immigrant competition and legitimized their resentment of trends towards racial justice, like Black Lives Matter protests and Barack Obama’s presidency.
It is worth noting that Bernie Sanders dominated rural and white working class voters during the Democratic primaries, but it is not at all clear that his appeal resonated more strongly than Trump’s. In fact, throughout American history, low-income whites have cast far more ballots for regressive racial hierarchy than radical democratic socialism. The domination of the Republican Party – one of the most right-wing, free market fundamentalist political organizations on Earth – on Tuesday night undermines the claim that the 2016 election was a repudiation of neoliberalism and not a repudiation of diversity.
“Trump’s victory is the media’s fault.”
The media has been arguably the most popular scapegoat in the post-election blame game. To be sure, cable news – to its great discredit – did not insist on hosting any substantive policy discussion. Too often, media outlets drew false equivalencies between the scandals of Hillary Clinton and the sins of Donald Trump. Their emphasis on Trump’s racism often came at the expense of reporting on his ignorance and incompetence. Yet, mainstream media is a derivative of what its consumers want. Cable news channels are competing firms that sell entertainment, not civics curricula. They had little choice but to cover the interests of their audiences.
Outside of the world of cable news, plenty of fantastic, in-depth reporting was available for free on the Internet. Important policy discussions and critiques were published but bypassed by the public. If America’s support of Donald Trump reveals anything about their character, it is their desperate need for the comfort of the simple answer. They are not interested in nuance, let alone long-form journalism. Given the media’s constraints of the American attention span and aversion to complexity, it is no wonder that it failed to engage the public in rich and reasoned discourse. And yet, despite this failure, it cannot be said that the media did not accurately convey the essence of who Donald Trump is.
“Trump’s victory is third party voters’ fault.”
This is not true. The third party vote share was significantly lower than pre-election polls suggested, and was insignificant in most states. While it is true that if overwhelming majorities of third party voters chose Clinton over Trump their support could have boosted her to victory, there is no evidence that suggests that third party voters preferred Clinton to Trump. Most third party voters despised both major candidates, and evidence suggests that voters who strongly disliked both candidates usually preferred Trump to Clinton. That information suggests that Clinton may have actually benefited from higher third party support, as many of those voters would have defected from Trump.
“We need to understand Trump voters better.”
This election has certainly laid bare America’s growing cultural, geographic, racial, ideological, economic, and political polarization. That polarization breeds resentment and ignorance, and is turning our elections more vitriolic and vindictive than ever before. Gaining a better understanding of why Trump supporters are so predisposed to fascism and so eager to redistribute our society’s wealth to the ultra-rich is crucial to reinstating a politics guided by respect and reason.
However, understanding the motivations of Trump voters is not constructive if in the end, it is a means of sugarcoating the ugly ones. Explaining the phenomenon of Trump does not require us to sympathize with his supporters worldview, to justify their logic, or validate their prejudice. A complete and nuanced understanding of Trump voters will acknowledge their legitimate grievances without minimizing, rationalizing, or excusing their illegitimate hatred.
“The sun will rise in the morning.”
President Obama assured anxious Americans before the election that, “No matter what happens, the sun will rise in the morning.” Ironically, from where I write in dreary Philadelphia, the sun never did show its face Wednesday morning. The rainy weather was fitting, as Americans – regardless of whom they voted for – should prepare for a dark four years ahead. Donald Trump clearly has not given any meaningful thought to the most pressing issues that face the nation. Given his rejection of not only the political establishment, but the intellectual community, foreign policy experts, and climate science, he will rely on a cabal of ideological extremists and vindictive advisers to formulate and implement a sweeping, regressive platform that will undo decades of positive change. Contrary to his campaign rhetoric, he will be no friend of the working American, as more than 50 percent of his proposed tax cuts will go to the highest one percent of earners. Irreversible environmental harm will befall the planet, millions of Americans will lose health insurance, income inequality will widen, vulnerable populations will live in a state of constant fear, and the alliance between profit and human misery will become even stronger in America’s prison and military-industrial complexes.