So how did we get here?
Every election, campaigns and pundits alike drill into Americans’ heads that this particular election is the most important of their lifetimes. Although at the time it always appears to be the truth, we can usually look back and realize that, in the grand scheme of things, some elections are less important than others.
The 2016 election was a seismic shift in U.S. and international politics, and you can tell even as we remain in the fog of the recent election that this one was just more important than most. The 2016 presidential election was a shock to both Americans and the rest of the world, and even in the fog of the recent election, it seems like things are different this time. Almost everyone was wrong about Donald Trump, from political pundits to journalists to Political Science Ph.Ds, and Trump’s election will reverberate in politics for decades.
When a party loses an election in as dramatic a fashion as the Democrats did in November, some infighting is to be expected. Just like the primary season, the two main factions appear to be the party establishment, largely represented by Hillary Clinton primary voters, and Bernie Sanders primary voters, whose chorus of “I-told-you-so’s” are nearly deafening.
This schism was first fought out during the election for the new DNC chair last month. Using Representative Keith Ellison and former Labor Secretary Tom Perez as proxies, the two warring factions again faced off, trying to shape the future of a Democratic party that is clearly in need of a makeover. When Tom Perez won, it represented another defeat for the Sanders Democrats, which doesn’t bode well for party unity during Trump’s first year in office.
The failure of the Democrats isn’t the only thing that should be analyzed about the 2016 election. And to me, it’s not even the most interesting or important thing that happened on November 8th.
What sealed the victory for Donald Trump was the revolt of working class white people in the Midwest, a group that largely went for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 and abandoned the Democrats in 2016.
As Democrats reel in the wake of the election, a question has emerged. Were these voters motivated more by the populist message of the Trump campaign, or by the undeniable racism that he manifested?
This debate has opened yet another schism within the progressive movement—should Democrats return to economic populism to win back the Democratic coalition of old? Or should they abandon that coalition, condemn the racist, nationalist politics that Trump espoused, and denounce those who embraced them?
It creates an interesting dichotomy—many of the most culturally progressive people are at odds with a wing of the party that is usually labeled the “progressives”—the Sanders coalition.
Sanders is stressing that economic populism, not ethnic nationalism, is what lost the Democrats the election. These alienated voters are the ones that resent what many saw as a Clinton campaign gaffe, when she called many Trump voters “deplorable,” and focused her campaign on the horrible things Trump was saying instead of her plan to help those who were still hurting economically.
At a Boston rally last week, standing alongside Senator Elizabeth Warren, Sanders said, “Some people think that the people who voted for Trump are racists and sexists and homophobes and deplorable folks. I don’t agree, because I’ve been there. Let me tell you something else some of you might not agree with, it wasn’t that Donald Trump won the election, it was that the Democratic Party lost the election…We need a Democratic Party that is not a party of the liberal elite but of the working class of this country, we need a party that is a grassroots party, where candidates are talking to working people, not spending their time raising money for the wealthy and the powerful.”
This didn’t sit well with many progressives—forgiving the racist dog whistling of the Trump campaign isn’t something they seem eager to do.
— HawaiiDelilah (@HawaiiDelilah) April 1, 2017
So did Trump win because of the latent racism in these white communities that embodied the hateful rhetoric of the campaign? Or was the massive shift in votes in the Midwest a response to the economic message that Trump gave them and Clinton didn’t?
On first glance, Bernie Sanders’s claim that Trump voters are simply economically frustrated and aren’t “deplorable folks” seems pretty dubious. The economy that President Obama enjoyed in his final year in office was, by most measures, fantastic—especially in comparison to its condition in 2008. It’s also hard to say that the loss is completely the fault of the Democratic message. The Democrats lost with a platform more progressive than the one that Obama had overwhelmingly won twice with, and both Trump and Clinton had very poor favorability numbers.
But a closer look does reveal a deep-seated economic anxiety, especially in the area of the country that gave the election to Donald Trump. It appears to be similar to the underlying political currents that led Sanders to such success during the primaries.
The Populist Revolution of 2016
The excitement behind the Bernie Sanders campaign that nearly toppled Hillary Clinton, at first glance, seems to be similar to the excitement among supporters of Mr. Trump.
Both of these figures were seen as “anti-establishment” (despite Sanders having been in Washington D.C. since 1991), and both seemed to be speaking to those whom the recovery had left behind: the lower-middle class that was suffering while much of America recovered during Barack Obama’s presidency.
Soon, parallels were being drawn to the populist movements of the late 19th century, when the populist People’s Party won numerous governorships and seats in Congress, and changed the political climate in the United States.
A central tenant of the Trump campaign was his promise to bring jobs back—and it was a smart political argument. Since 2000, 5 million manufacturing jobs have been lost, and many of those people were forced into an early retirement or left to live unemployed . When Trump railed about China, Mexico, and NAFTA, those people were listening—and it likely contributed to his performance in the Midwest, the area hit hardest by the manufacturing decline.
There are jobs available, especially in healthcare and the technology sector. But people who have worked in manufacturing positions for their entire lives are unlikely to have the skill set to move to that part of the economy—and they are the ones that suffer the consequences of manufacturing efficiency increases.
An argument against the claim that Trump voters are racist is the fact that many of the voters that Trump won voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012. Obama won Michigan by almost 10 percent, Pennsylvania by about 5 percent, and Ohio by 3 percent. Clinton lost all of those states.
Trump actually received fewer votes than Mitt Romney did in the traditional Republican stronghold states of Mississippi, Kansas, and Idaho—and his vote totals across the South, the location of the most white nationalist groups per capita in the country, did not shift significantly from 2008 and 2012, elections in which the Republicans lost.
Now, there’s a difference between what Trump has said and what he actually has done. Taking his campaign promises at face value has, so far, been the wrong choice.
A key feature of both the Clinton campaign and much of the media was that Trump’s populist rhetoric wasn’t backed by any concrete, published plans or advisors that had populist credential. As if on cue, despite constantly railing against Clinton’s connections to Wall Street, the Trump Administration put Steve Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs banker, in his cabinet as Treasury Secretary, as well as three other former Goldmanites in top roles in the Administration.
His recently-defeated healthcare bill would have cut Medicaid and disproportionately hurt those poor voters that supported him in November. When Tucker Carlson gave him this fact in an interview, he said, “Oh, I know.”
Trump isn’t actually the populist that he claimed to be in his campaign. Had his voters listened to Clinton and most political pundits, they would have known that to be true. So were there other factors at play in his election?
Racist Undertones (And Overtones)
After the election of Barack Obama, some claimed America was in a “post-racial” era. The years following offered ample evidence that the claim is bunk—if anything, the presence of a black man in the Oval Office energized white nationalism in the U.S.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a hate group watch organization, the election of Barack Obama coincided with a spike in the creation of new hate groups, and presumably more white nationalists as well. After 2009, hate groups spiked from 926 to 1018 in 2011, and many attribute the controversies around President Obama’s birth certificate to racial tension.
Police killings of black Americans seemed to be on the rise, and the country watched as the deaths of young people like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner catalyzed the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement. As it rose to significance, the two sides seemed more polarized than ever.
Race relations were, to say the least, still a significant societal issue as the 2016 election season began in mid-2015. And it’s hard not to say that Donald Trump capitalized on that racial tension to get his campaign off the ground.
Trump, who emerged in the national political spotlight because of his questions about Obama’s birth certificate, used his announcement speech to infamously castigate Mexican immigrants. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime,” he said, to cheers. “They’re rapists.”
In a speech in December 2015, Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” capitalizing on the ever-increasing anxiety among Americans of ISIS attacks at home and abroad.
There were countless instances during Trump’s campaign that, at best, were tone deaf and, at worst, were downright racist. “What’s wrong with Chicago?” he repeatedly asked, referring to the city’s high murder rate among black Chicagoans. “What do you have to lose?” he asked black Americans and Hispanics, comparing their neighborhoods to Middle Eastern war-zones.The most damning evidence of all is the way that white nationalists like David Duke responded to Trump’s campaign more fervently than for any other Republican campaign to date. Emboldened “alt-right” figures, like Richard Spencer, rose to national prominence on the back of Trump. “Trump has awakened something in the world,” Spencer said in a speech, “and it’s not going to go back to sleep again.”
So which is it?
It’s impossible to ascribe a motive to the 62 million people that voted for Trump. Obviously, some voted for him because they were racists, some people voted for him because of his populist message, some voted for him for both, and some for neither. The argument is whether or not complicity in the racism of the Trump campaign and ensuing racism of the administration is okay.
Martin Luther King Jr. said, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” If you know something is wrong and don’t try to stop it, then you’re just as guilty as those who are doing the wrong.
Many of Trump’s voters likely didn’t appreciate the racial undertones, but voted for him anyway. I believe our society would be vastly improved if more people were able to empathize with others more readily, and that means holding candidates responsible for the offensive and harmful things they say and do, even if it doesn’t affect you directly.
Bernie Sanders is wrong. To defeat racism, we have to empathize with others. We can’t accept things we know are wrong just because they don’t directly affect us, and we certainly can’t turn a blind eye to the negative forces in our society just to win elections.
But the progressives that are ignoring the economic anxiety of rural, white America are also wrong. The recovery left them behind, and the growing economic inequality in the U.S. is a major problem.
For Democrats to emerge from the Trump era as a stronger party, they have to toe the line and keep both of these things in mind. If they don’t, America can look forward to more elections like 2016.