The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States is about division. He ran as a divisive candidate, quickly dispatching his GOP rivals with demeaning nicknames, WWF verbal wrestling smack-talk, and unbridled bigotry toward a number of groups in our country. His candidacy is a testament to how deeply angry, resentful, and prejudiced sections of our country are. His base of support shows that his voters don’t care about a whole host of things that would have sunk other candidates during the primary season. He is a deeply polarizing figure whose pugilistic manner of slagging anyone (usually on Twitter) who crosses him, suing them, or even avoiding paying taxes (while reaping monetary rewards) is something that we’ve never seen before in a presidential candidate. Add to it, the Access Hollywood video recording of him bragging about sexual assault, and you have to wonder how and why did this guy win the presidency?
How did he overcome all these negatives and still win the electoral college vote (but lose the popular vote)? The short answer is that his supporters didn’t care about his past, his crimes, or the contradiction between his personal life and their lived experiences. Sure they were in awe of his celebrity and wealth, but what they cared about was change and a perceived loss of status in society while the barbarians are at the gates. And as deeply flawed, volatile, and offensive as this SOB is, he’s their SOB who’s going to use all those horrible techniques honed in business, TV, and on the political trail to get rid of immigrants, kill terrorists, and give working class whites good paying jobs (so much for the Republican talking point that the government doesn’t create jobs). His charisma, tough talk, and vague plans about greatness were key elements in his campaign. He rarely wavered from his core message — even though he often hedged his bets when it came to more controversial claims. The use of the words like “maybe,” “I don’t know” “Maybe I’m wrong” were often peppered into the use of “believe me” as punctuation marks. So when he called some Mexicans rapists, it was followed by “And some, I assume, are good people.” As marketing messages go, Trump’s was aimed squarely at desperation and anger — and it worked really well. Why is that? You simply have to look at the 2008 election of Barack Obama.
The Great Recession was one of the most life-changing moments in recent history — 9/11 and the aftermath of endless wars were the others. But prior to that, we have to go back to the end of the Cold War in the ‘90s for the roots of the current resentment. You may recall a little thing called The New World Order that George H.W. Bush spoke about in the ‘90s. Defeating communism in the Cold War meant a new world for capitalism. A world where goods, people and, yes, capital (i.e., money) would flow across borders with greater ease. Free trade agreements aided that process — followed by Wall Street investing in companies who used those porous economic borders to benefit their bottom line. Cheap labor and little regulation created conditions where jobs started to get sucked out of many areas of the country. Some, as you may know, were union jobs (benefiting mostly whites) that paid pretty well and required very little education to perform. Nowadays, many call this type of economic system neoliberalism or global capitalism. It’s a world that were very familiar with — because we’ve been living under it since the late ‘80s/early ‘90s. This is the free trade Republican party of the Bushes and the Blue Dog Democrats of the Clintons — and also Obama. It’s “the giant sucking sound” that Ross Perot mentioned in a debate with Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush — a sound that decimated large swaths of the country. This economic system not only wrecked parts of the Midwest, but through an offshoot of neoliberalism, the world the tech economy wrought as well. Post-recession, we see the hustle of the gig economy of Uber and Airbnb — whose harshness gets softened by the “feel good” world of Likes, thumbs up, and favorites of social media. It’s also the world where computers will probably phase out your job — but those rewarded for doing so are the ones writing the codes of your planned obsolescence. The middle class is squeezed, the poor and the homeless get marginalized, and the “winners” are those who dwell in the high-priced urban spaces where globalism and technology intersect. The picture I paint sounds like a zero-sum game of winners and losers. It’s not, entirely. In any economy, there are people who occupy all sorts to jobs that are intertwined with the dominant economy of the region. However, when it comes to places where tech is dominant, the working class and middle class occupy a fragile place in the economic order — often getting pushed out to the outer rings away from the central core. In the Midwest, the south, and even parts of the mountain west, it’s just as fragile for many (but not all).
Meanwhile, collective memories of being a manufacturing center in the Midwest from the ‘50s to the ‘70s linger, and with service industry work (that pays much less) as the norm now, the effects of the recession didn’t entirely go away for a good number of people. Yes, unemployment is low now, wages are inching up, and all other indicators are generally moving in a positive direction, but people still feel like they are getting screwed and falling behind. So when Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and even Donald Trump talked about the economic and political system being rigged, it felt right. It felt like when you voted for Obama in ‘08 and maybe ‘12, you were hopeful things were going to change. You were hopeful that a fundamental transformation of politics and economics would occur making the country less divided and more economically prosperous. You were hopeful that a new era of cooperation and consensus would lead to better days for America. But when Republicans vowed to deny Obama any kind of victory as a bulwark against progressive change, it led to stagnation, incrementalism, and cynicism about how dysfunctional Washington D.C. is. When the Affordable Care Act became law, Republicans made it a centerpiece of their work to repeal it — or make it such a lousy system that people would complain and eventually vote to get rid of it. The attacks never ceased, and it caused a lack of faith in our institutions to function properly. Add to that, the circus surrounding Obama’s birth certificate that Trump milked for five years. Yeah, five years he was chasing the fiction that Obama wasn’t born in the United States, and therefore should be disqualified as president. When you hear the phrase “bread and circuses,” Trump was The Ringmaster at the Greatest Faux On Earth — and he had a angry and gullible audience in the front row.
A fed up public also meant the opportunity was there for Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders to speak to economic and political frustrations. Sander spoke in terms of economic inequalities and how (mostly) Wall Street was the culprit for the current state of affairs, and how no one, no one in that sector ever paid for their crimes they got away with. Tempered with more than a bit of democratic socialism, Sanders’ plan for America centered on: getting rid of the Trans-Pacific Partnership that Obama was spearheading, invest in infrastructure projects like green technology, and put working-class Americans back to work. Moreover, he wanted to reform the Affordable Care Act into Medicare for All, provide tuition-free college, raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and get the never-ending fundraising machine out of politics by publicly financing elections. Now that’s a vision that’s very different from neoliberal Democrats and Republicans in D.C.
And for his part, Trump has kind of co-opted some of Sanders’ prescriptions for our economic ills. At his victory speech on election night, he mentioned he wanted to invest in rebuilding roads, bridges, and airports. On the campaign trail he’s mentioned the TPP and NAFTA and how he’d rip up those agreements, impose huge tariffs on companies who manufacture products outside the U.S., said some vague things about repealing the ACA and replacing it with a “no state lines” policy that allows insurance companies to compete for customers with no borders. Oh, and he’s going to cut taxes more than Reagan or Bush jr. ever did — but mostly for the very rich. Supply-side economics, like New Coke, is coming back!
But it’s not just economics that many Trump supporters fret about. Guns, white male power, and anger over demographic changes in the country are seen as a government-sanctioned threat to their way of life. Having a president who is half black for 8 years (but because many people tend to subscribe to the “one drop” rule, he’s just black), and the possibility that a woman could be president was too much for the “Trump That Bitch” crowd. Clinton, to them, posed a real threat to patriarchy — which struck fear and anger in the hearts of the men and women who voted to make sure “Crooked Hillary” didn’t become Madame President.
But you know what else really degraded the chances of Clinton winning? Fewer people showing up to the polls — at least that’s what the preliminary numbers indicate. As Bernie Sanders would say on the stump, “When Democrats are energized, show up and vote, we win.” Clearly that didn’t happen in key states where turnout lagged among key groups of the Obama Coalition due to Voter ID laws, fewer polling places (leading to long lines), and disinterest in the democratic candidate. It didn’t help matters that Clinton didn’t visit any of these northern Midwestern states since winning the nomination. To their peril, Clinton’s campaign took the support of these states as a given.
Trump supporters had a charismatic candidate who barked out anger, venom, and bombast. His rallies were safe zones for white working class folks where they could unleash their bigotry all in the name of giving the middle finger to “political correctness.” Democrats had Hillary who spoke and acted like an establishment politician, who had plans (on her website), but didn’t give a good enough reason to vote for her, lost in part because the attacks on her “30 years in political office” painted her as a liar, lawbreaker, and a person whose M.O. was always suspect because, well, she’s a Clinton. Working class rural whites may be hurting economically, but they’ve had decades of conspiracies about the Clintons embedded in their heads, and 8 years of mental illness with a persistent strain of Obama Derangement Syndrome.
There’s more to this post-election story to be sure, but now that the GOP has control over all three branches of the federal government (a part of government they are hostile to in their rhetoric, but addicted to its power in practice), it’s their responsibility to deliver on promises made specifically to help the white working class get good paying jobs. Maybe it’s highway projects, working to build Trump’s wall, or even rounding up 11 million undocumented people to deport. We just don’t know at this point. And the Democrats? They will either roll over like they did when George W. Bush was installed as president, or give Republicans a taste of their own medicine by using their minority status to deny Trump any kind of victory and constantly thwart his agenda. Although, the Trump University fraud trial coming up after Thanksgiving (and more lawsuits into next year) — which may lead to Trump thwarting his white nationalist agenda on his own by obsessing over his favorite person: Donald Trump.