It Happened Here

January 29th, 2017

Image result for trump inauguration fist

 

Last week, the previously unimaginable happened:  the first black President of the United States and his family were succeeded in the White House by the most high profile proponent of the ridiculous, racist Birther conspiracy theory.

Anyone who watched national TV in the last year knows Trump’s list of indiscretions, but it’s worth remembering that he spent most of his time running for president demonstrating just how unfit he was for the job. This is a man who made fun of a handicapped reporter to entertain a throng of cheering fans, a man who joked about the assassination of his political opponent, who attacked the parents of a decorated soldier for their religion, who said in one memorable Republican debate that he would force US soldiers to commit war crimes and bragged about the size of his penis, who stated in a another debate that he would put his opponent in jail if he won the election, who not only lost the three debates he participated in by a large margin, but publicly melted down during and after those debates… and to top it all off, was revealed on tape bragging about how he sexually assaults women in a tape that was released a month before the election.

Democrats have a lot of theories about how this could have happened and many of them have merit. Despite Trump’s desire to make it go away, it’s clear that Putin and Wikileaks were effectively acting as some combination of a Pro Trump Super PAC and Nixon’s Plumbers. There’s even more evidence that James Comey’s unprecedented last minute interference (not to mention a cabal of FBI agents colluding with Rudy Giuliani who may have forced his hand) was the coup de grace for Hillary, with late deciders breaking hard for Trump. And it’s also true that if black turnout was higher and more Bernie Sanders voters weren’t actively working against her, then she still could have won. But much of this misses the point. Donald Trump is an awful human being, totally unfit for the job and the race never should have been close. Hillary lost because she got trounced among white working class voters and she got trounced because she failed to articulate a credible case that she would ease the economic problems that have ravaged their communities since the 1970′s.

Hillary’s loss is made all the more dire by what George Packer calls the “hollowing out” of the Democratic party during the presidency of Barack Obama.

The Democratic Party claims half the country, but it’s hollowed out at the core. Hillary Clinton became the sixth Democratic Presidential candidate in the past seven elections to win the popular vote; yet during Barack Obama’s Presidency the Party lost both houses of Congress, fourteen governorships, and thirty state legislatures, comprising more than nine hundred seats. The Party’s leaders are all past the official retirement age, other than Obama, who has governed as the charismatic and enlightened head of an atrophying body. Did Democrats even notice? More than Republicans, they tend to turn out only when they’re inspired. The Party has allowed personality and demography to take the place of political organizing.

There’s a lot of technical analysis that I could go into to try to explain what has happened in the past 8 years, but I think that the inescapable conclusion is that what was good for President Obama’s electoral fortunes was a disaster for the national Democratic party. The historic nature of his candidacy and his electoral success hid (and even accelerated) the shift of the Democratic Party from a party built on a working class base, to a party increasingly made up mostly of women, minorities and  professional whites clustered in urban areas and on the coasts. These voters can continue to be a base for the Democrats, but the election of Trump (not to mention the elections of 2010 and 2014) shows what happens when working class whites abandon the Democratic party in droves.

For anyone hoping to understand the election of Trump, George Packer is required reading. Packer talks about the disconnection that many working class whites have felt over the decades as jobs left their communities and they felt increasingly disconnected from politics in America.

(They) have no foundation to stand on; they’re unorganized, unheard, unspoken for. They sink alone. The institutions of a healthy democracy—government, corporation, school, bank, union, church, civic group, media organization—feel remote and false, geared for the benefit of those who run them. And no institution is guiltier of this abandonment than the political parties… So it shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise when millions of Americans were suddenly drawn to a crass strongman who tossed out fraudulent promises and gave institutions and élites the middle finger.

Trump focused his campaign on the two issues where both parties had ignored the will of the white working class: trade and immigration. For decades, their views on immigration and trade were ignored by a consensus among “elites” in both parties. Republicans had traditionally supported free trade, but in the 1990′s, Bill Clinton’s Democratic Leadership Council made it a core part of the national Democratic party’s agenda. Politicians gave protectionism lip service, but always supported the trade deals when they came up.

On immigration, Business “elites” supported open borders because they want the cheap labor and liberal “elites” supported it for humanitarian reasons. The result is very little border security and a de-facto amnesty for those already here. As the working class saw their communities decimated by the decades long de-industrialization of America, they watched as both parties ignored the forces they felt were fueling it.

Trump’s campaign team took advantage of this rift masterfully, making the white working class “a self-conscious identity group” and setting them in opposition to the “globalist” ethos that the Democratic party increasingly personified.

Packer recounts a conversation with Charles Murray:

The energy coming out of the new lower class really only needed a voice, because they are so pissed off at people like you and me…We so obviously despise them, we so obviously condescend to them—‘flyover country.’ The only slur you can use at a dinner party and get away with is to call somebody a redneck—that won’t give you any problems in Manhattan. And you can also talk about evangelical Christians in the most disparaging terms—you will get no pushback from that. They’re aware of this kind of condescension. And they also haven’t been doing real well.

Trump spoke directly to these voters with a clear message: The Washington poiltical establishment has ignored your concerns and allowed your jobs to disappear. I’m not going to let that happen anymore. Hillary Clinton responded with a message that was almost devoid of economic messaging, basically ceding this ground to him and choosing to repeat the same messages about how unsuited he was for the job and preaching the message of tolerance and national unity. This strategy was taken right out of Obama’s playbook, but Obama was always very careful to keep the economic pitch at the forefront of in his campaign messaging.  Hillary failed to keep that focus, esentially forgetting her husband’s 1992 maxim: “it’s the economy, stupid.”

The election of Trump is a primal scream from Middle America. We are right to ask ourselves how our fellow Americans could have voted for a man that epitomized the worst tendencies in American society. But if we want to make sure it doesn’t happen again, we need to understand how we got here in the first place. If you listen through the noise, you can hear it: the recovery hasn’t spread to us, we’re hurting out here and we need your help. Quit condescending and start explaining how your policies are going to address our problems.

Until Democrats start making a better case that they have the answers to these problems, expect the beatings to continue.

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