Well, that was unexpected – I’ll admit, I went into last night blithely confident we’d have a President Clinton. And I believe that Donald Trump is unstable and, most importantly, inexperienced enough that we’re in for at best a very chaotic few years, and possibly some real long-term damage to American power and prosperity.
But ultimately, I think it’s important to remember that Trump has connected with voters – real voters, most of whom are neither ignorant nor dupes, most of whom probably held their noses as they pushed the button for him (just as much as many liberals held theirs while voting for Hillary). Both the Trump surge as a whole, and last night’s surprise win, represent not just inarticulate rage, but several clear and subtle ongoing trends.
The Democrats Are No Longer the Party of Workers
Bill Clinton’s legacy is now profoundly tarnished. It was he who strategically shifted the Democrats away from protecting workers and ushered in the era of global neoliberalism. Manufacturing’s decline is a complex thing, and free trade deals are not the devil. But the Dems did little or nothing of substance to care for those harmed by the transition to a globalized world. They were asleep at the switch for a quarter century, with the possible exception of Obamacare.
Now the unions are gutted, service workers have few protections, and many voters are deeply, deeply desperate. They need help yesterday, and Hillary Clinton seemed completely oblivious to that. Of course, it’s unlikely Trump has any real answers, and he was ‘listening’ only out of a deep insecurity that drives him to pander – but at least he seemed like he was listening.
The Polls Are Broken
Between Brexit and Trump, pollsters clearly don’t know what they’re doing. Maybe this is a fixable problem – maybe we just need better outreach to rural voters, or better statistical models. Maybe it’s a one-time thing – both Brexit and Trump were stigmatized enough that people just didn’t want to admit they would vote for him to another human being. Maybe the massive shakeup of party lines he represents means people had a hard time getting a bead on their own feelings.
But there are always strange curveballs out in the world. It should be the job of poll-takers to identify and account for them. I suspect they’ve gotten used to just calling a thousand people, asking them questions, and dumping the numbers into a press release. That’s not enough.
America is America
Which is to say, we live in a deeply racist country. We literally invented apartheid. And for all the economic grievances that Trump effectively catered to, his xenophobia should have still been disqualifying, if we lived in the America that both many liberals and conservatives would like to believe we do. But in fact, we live in the America that rounded up and interned Japanese-Americans just two generations ago, and which is still engaged in a barely-covert war against black people in the guise of drug enforcement.
The danger of Trump is that the endorsements by the KKK and the like make it seem like his supporters are all white-hooded monsters. But racism is quieter, more complex, and more deeply systematic than that. We’ve done almost nothing as a nation to work to change that over the last ten years. Now any progress will stop, and there will be renewed, probably systematized forms of racism against Latinos and Middle Easterners.
(Oh, and the sexism, too).
And again, liberals can thank Bill Clinton for all of it.
The Sort – City States – Elites
On a personal level, I’m not tremendously worried about Trump. There may be economic chaos and social backsliding – but I live in New York. It’s a wildly segregated city with deep educational injustice, but it’s still a fundamentally multicultural place, where Trump is deeply loathed. And economically, New York can coast through even a catastrophic Trump Presidency on the fumes of its 25-year winning streak.
And that’s a big problem.
Cities like New York, Dallas, Austin, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and maybe even Chicago are now drastically different than either rural America or, perhaps more importantly, the hollowed-out cities of the Rust Belt. They are islands of prosperity, good education, and positive energy, where exurbs and small towns and Gary, Indiana are mired in drug addiction and despair. That isolation explains much of the failure of pollsters and journalists in understanding this election.
It also helped fuel Trump – ironically, since he’s a New Yorker. I’m projecting, here, but I think it’s a safe bet that many Trump voters deeply resent urban elites, and equated them with Clinton.
Education is Broken
This is the big one, the underlying dynamic that gave Trump a wide lane. Americans as a whole are poorly educated, because American schools are poorly and haphazardly funded and administered. What’s worse, they know they’re very poorly educated, because they’re constantly being told they need to go to college to get a good job – which, callback, is a reality Democrats didn’t do anything to insulate people from.
I taught until fairly recently at a state school with lots of unprepared and first-generation college students, and saw firsthand the struggles those kids face. Lots of them drop out. Meanwhile, they continue hearing how important education is, and how it’s their responsibility to get it, a message they hear from a very well-educated, privileged ruling class who have done relatively little to improve everyone else’s chances (because why would they, really?). That can’t help but make people deeply bitter.
That’s how you end up with not only resentment of elites, but a dangerously deep-seated anti-intellectualism. When people can’t have something, they are pretty likely to simply reject it and rearrange their values around that rejection. So you get a double whammy – people haven’t been given the tools to identify the flaws and inconsistencies and total absences in Trump’s explanation of his plan for America. And they positively embrace their incomprehension.
Again, we saw this in a milder form with GWB in 2000 – at least in terms of his incoherence, he was a proto-Trump. And Barack Obama wasn’t able to do much to make college more affordable to all the people who needed it to get out of their desperate, dead-end situations. (His AG managed to shut down many for-profit colleges, which is in fact pretty huge, but that’s hard to communicate).
And Hillary had almost nothing to say about education whatsoever.
This educational gap, by the way, isn’t new. But it’s newly relevant because of economic restructuring, and it’s newly impactful on politics because of the internet, which is a perfect home for incoherent and/or hateful memes, and for the self-reinforcement of people able to share their sentiments with each other directly, rather than through the media.
All of this is, obviously, very deep-seated stuff. It’s long-term. It’s a country, at least from one perspective, paying the price for neglecting people who can feel they’re being neglected and ignored and marginalized. I honestly think that’s more fundamental than the xenophobia, which is really just a particular channel/outgrowth of economic anxiety – it’s a lot easier for people to get along, in general, when there’s enough food to go around.
Now the question is how we actually fix all of this. Because while Trump may wind up actually making some good economic policy decisions – he’s not bad on infrastructure and the minimum wage, for example – we can’t have a continuing slide into indiscipline, incoherence, crudity, and anger. Whatever you believe on substance, that’s no way to have a country.