By Joshua Kraushaar
November 8, 2016, is a day that will live in infamy: the day that America handed over the keys to a country to a dangerous demagogue. Not many people anticipated it would happen like this; in the final days of the campaign, even Trump’s camp began to sound cynical about his chances. Despite a year’s worth of missteps and scandals Hillary Clinton seemed primed to take the presidency, galvanised by Trump’s somehow even worse behaviour. Yet when election day finally arrived, the entire country was shocked to find that Trump was winning. The candidate, long considered a joke by the press, was no longer funny. It was a devastating political defeat, snatched from the jaws of victory, that has left liberals wondering ‘what do we do from here’?
But before we can dig ourselves out of this mess, we must first understand what happened. To begin with, we must abolish the myth that Trump’s victory can be solely attributed to racism or sexism. In fact, outside of a vocal minority in the alt-right, the evidence we have suggests support for Trump emerged despite his race baiting. In what can only be described as a series of massive failures on behalf of the Hillary campaign, Trump won a larger portion of the Hispanic vote than Mitt Romney did, as well as 53% of the vote share of white women. It is true that the key to Trump’s victory can be attributed to poor white voters, but it is important to note large swathes of them turned out for Obama in 2008. That these voters chose Trump despite his scandals and shocking rhetoric is disheartening, but they can’t be written off as racist. To do so would be to ignore the Democratic party’s culpability in this stunning loss, and to risk alienating millions of Americans permanently.
At one point these voters were true blue Democrats, many of them union men. Up until this election they were taken for granted by the party, despite the warning signs that they were growing discontent. And they had good reason to be: while the cities grew and prospered, they were left behind. The union jobs, the most prominent path to prosperity for less-educated Americans, started to dry up, and rather than spread the gains from trade, politicians allowed them to be syphoned off by powerful multinationals. In the midst of this the Democratic Party, which has long positioned itself a staunch defender of the working class, grew insular and technocratic, coming to treat their electorate with condescension. Hillary’s leaked emails don’t reveal much in the way of scandals, but they do reveal a corrupt DNC more concerned with peddling influence than speaking up for the working man.
This process has been going on for decades, but I believe the turning point was the 2008 Financial Crisis. Before then the middling out of the American economy, where good jobs for the less-educated steadily disappeared, was masked by the Clinton boom years and the housing bubble under Bush. Most Americans held their wealth, if they had any, in real estate: specifically, their own homes. Once the system collapsed, so did their life savings. Millions of mortgages went underwater, devastating families who were forced to foreclose. Yet while middle America was drowning, trillions were being spent to bail out the financial institutions responsible, a program so deeply unpopular that the Federal Reserve actively worked to hide how much assistance it was really providing. Top economists such as Joe Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate, recommended the government instead spend its money bailing out homeowners, but the Obama administration focused its energy on saving the perpetrators of the crisis rather than the victims.
As a result, what little faith these Americans had left in the system was demolished. They are so distrustful of the current political establishment that many of them don’t even believe official figures on unemployment: 4.9% seems a world away when your own community is struggling to stay afloat. It should have come as no surprise then, that when a politician emerged who actually spoke to them, that they were ready to listen. Trump is an odious figure, a self-obsessed sexist and a conman, but he alone seemed to take their concerns seriously. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton, a political insider with seemingly little concern for them and even less charm, repulsed them. They have been vilified, but they are hurting, and they are likely to remain so under a Trump presidency. If Democrats wish to win them back, and in doing so save both their party and their country, they are going to need to regain these Americans’ trust and to be willing to fight for them again.