No one was prepared for this. No one outside of Michael Moore and my friend CJ Bergin at The Devil’s Advocate even considered it a serious possibility. Half of our nation—as well as most of the world—watched in shock and disbelief on Tuesday night as Donald J. Trump, the single most unqualified person ever given a major party’s nomination for president, was elected to be our next chief executive.
I had started my evening all but assured of a Clinton victory. As the returns started trickling in, I noticed that the count was considerably closer than I anticipated, but I held firm in my belief that the eventual outcome would be the same. About two hours later, I began to entertain the notion of an upset. And about half an hour after that, it hit me. I had been been spending the entire evening telling myself that there was no way Trump could possibly win, even as his electoral vote count grew ever higher. I was so convinced it wasn’t possible that I was ignoring what was right in front of me, just as every pundit had done since he declared his candidacy last year. After each poll that was published and each primary won, they continued to deny reality because a Trump win just didn’t seem possible. I had prided myself on seeing through their arrogance and predicting a Trump win after South Carolina. But there I was on election night making the exact same mistake. I was experiencing this entire insane election season in microcosm over the course of one night. I should have seen it coming. We all should have seen this coming.
“How on Earth did this happen?” you are all no doubt asking yourselves. Well, the answer is really quite simple. Almost everyone on my Facebook news feed who is asking this question is much like me: middle or upper middle class millennials who grew up with hard working parents, were raised in cities or suburbs, went to good public schools, attended a 4-year college or university, and now have some form of steady employment. Even though we don’t think of ourselves this way, we are part of what is called the “educated elite.” We view and think about the world in a very particular way that is shaped by our background and education. But, as it turns out, not everyone in America sees things the way we do. Not all of us have grown up in a diverse, cosmopolitan environment where service jobs are abundant and college degrees are ubiquitous. Some Americans live in impoverished rural areas where all the good jobs have been shipped overseas, where the most common causes of death are drug overdoses and suicides, and where their cries for help are dismissed by people like you and me as the incoherent ramblings of uncultured hillbillies. David Wong at Cracked.com (of all places) wrote a piece back in October that describes the plight of the Trump voter better than any other piece of journalism I’ve read on the subject. He paints this bleak picture:
“In a city, you can plausibly aspire to start a band, or become an actor, or get a medical degree. You can actually have dreams. In a small town, there may be no venues for performing arts aside from country music bars and churches. There may only be two doctors in town -- aspiring to that job means waiting for one of them to retire or die. You open the classifieds and all of the job listings will be for fast food or convenience stores. The "downtown" is just the corpses of mom and pop stores left shattered in Walmart's blast crater, the "suburbs" are trailer parks. There are parts of these towns that look post-apocalyptic. I'm telling you, the hopelessness eats you alive. And if you dare complain, some liberal elite will pull out their iPad and type up a rant about your racist white privilege.”
These rural, uneducated, white Americans are angry, folks. And on Tuesday, they made their voices heard loud and clear. Let’s take just a moment to look at the numbers (for those of you who aren’t polling junkies like me, feel free to skip the next paragraph or two). Exit polling from 2016 tells us a few key things: Trump trounced Clinton among white men, performed notably better than Mitt Romney did among minorities in 2012, and managed to win in spite of a less white electorate than what we had four years ago. In 2012, the electorate was 72% white. In 2016, that number had dropped to 70%. Overall, Trump’s margin among whites was almost exactly the same as Romney’s was in 2012—Romney won the white vote by 20 points (59%-39%), while Trump won it by 21 (58%-37%). Trump did improve upon Romney’s performance among white men, winning their vote by a stunning 32 points (63%-31%). This was offset, however, by a slightly poorer performance among white women, although the fact that he won that particular cohort by 10 points (53%-43%) is still rather incredible given his past comments and behavior.
But it wasn’t Trump’s margin among white voters that swung the election in his favor. Rather, it was more a matter of which white voters he was able to bring to the polls, combined with his ability to win over a few more minority voters than his Republican predecessors (or, perhaps more likely, Hillary Clinton’s inability to replicate President Obama’s successes among those groups).
Trump won six states that President Obama won four years ago: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, and Florida. With the exception of Florida, all of these states have one thing in common—they are all very white and very blue collar. Sean Trende, perhaps my favorite political analyst, wrote a brilliant piece in the wake of the 2012 election called “The Case of the Missing White Voters.” In it, he hypothesized that a key factor in Mitt Romney’s defeat was the low turnout among white voters in rural areas who felt that an elitist plutocrat like Governor Romney didn’t speak for them. These hypothetical voters were described as blue collar, non-college-educated populists who had more in common with Ross Perot than George W. Bush. These voters are neither ideological nor particularly conservative. They distrust both big business and big government and they fear for their economic well-being. They are the people from David Wong’s article. Trende’s hypothesis was widely mocked four years ago, but I think (as does he) that the 2016 election seems to have vindicated him. Those missing white voters turned out in force this year and flipped every “blue” state in the Rust Belt, breaking the Democrats’ vaunted “Blue Wall” in the process.
Of course, increased rural turnout can’t entirely explain Trump’s margin in these states. I’d be remiss to give him all the credit; we mustn’t forget that Hillary Clinton lost these states just as much as he won them. Although I don’t have data to flesh this out, it certainly seems that there were plenty of white voters in states like Iowa and Wisconsin that were content to pull the lever for our nation’s first black president in 2008 and 2012 but were not similarly inspired by the prospect of electing the first woman. Is this just sexism rearing its ugly head? In some cases, maybe. But I think the real problem for Democrats this year was that they nominated a candidate who lacked President Obama’s charisma and oration as well as his ability to excite, inspire, and relate to everyday Americans. Secretary Clinton’s numbers among minority voters seem to reflect her inability to get out the vote. She won the African American vote 88%-8%, which seems absolutely dominant until you consider that it is actually a 7-point swing away from Obama’s margin of 93%-6% in 2012. That’s significant, especially when you consider that black voter turnout (at 12% of the electorate) was down one point from 2012, when that same figure was 13%. Astoundingly, Trump even performed better among Hispanic voters than Romney, losing them 65%-29% rather than 71%-27%. That’s an 8-point swing, which is—again—significant.
Hillary underperformed Obama among these voters because she was, by any measure, an abysmal candidate. The Democratic National Committee has to be seriously second-guessing themselves about now. They threw all of their weight behind a nominee who was unpopular, distrusted, unappealing, out of touch, and the ultimate Washington insider. I cannot imagine a worse candidate for the times (and before you say what you’re thinking, readers, remember: Trump was perfect for this environment. That’s why he won.) She felt the same populist backlash as the GOP in her own primary race, when Bernie Sanders nearly derailed her decades-long quest for the presidency. Her surprise loss in the Michigan primary, in hindsight, seems like it should have been a stark warning of what was to come.
So what does all of this mean? Where do we go from here? These are good questions that don’t have simple answers. First and foremost, I think this election signals a victory not for the Republican Party, but for Donald Trump. His brand of populism and nationalism seems to have resonated with voters far more effectively than the GOP’s traditional limited-government shtick. As a small-government libertarian, this both frightens and deflates me. But this election is also a stunning rebuke to President Obama’s legacy in particular and to the Democratic Party in general. Just a few short years after boasting of an “Emerging Democratic Majority” and continually mocking Republicans for their continued reliance on white voters, the Blue Wall is shattered, everything President Obama achieved over two terms as president is threatened to be erased, and the Grand Old Party has more power at its fingertips than at any time since Herbert Hoover was in the Oval Office. And I can’t even gloat about it, because it’s all owed to one particularly reprehensible man who got us here by taking all the wrong roads.
And therein lies the central problem. Donald Trump didn’t just sashay his way into the White House by stoking the fires of racial discord and nationalism, although you’d never guess that by looking at my Facebook news feed. As I scroll up and down, I see nothing but rampant accusations of racism, sexism, xenophobia, and misogyny. My liberal friends are ashamed to be white, ashamed to live in an America that hates women and minorities this much, or ashamed to know anyone who voted for Trump. They are angry, livid—people who were preaching and hashtagging about the importance of unity just four days ago are now spewing vitriol and hate like nothing I’ve ever seen from them. “God, I hope Trump dies alone & angry.” Hashtag strongertogether. “America, you disgust me. Every. Single. One. Of. You.” Hashtag lovetrumpshate. Come on, guys, do you really think this is the best way to move forward?
Look, I understand that many of my friends are feeling lost, hopeless, and scared. My heart particularly goes out to my friends who are people of color, members of the LGBT community, who are Muslims, who are immigrants. They can and should be frightened; Trump’s election elevates along with him all of the sordid elements he used and abused on his way to the top. His ascendancy emboldens all of the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who endorsed him. I’m not sure what this all means for our nation’s disadvantaged people, and that frightens me too. I worry for my sister and her partner, who is a woman of color. I know none of you want to hear another white, straight, cis male tell you that everything is going to be okay, but hear me—we can get through this, but only if we do it right. Mourn, grieve, cry, do whatever you have to do but please, please don’t panic. Don’t lash out. Don’t respond to hate with more hate. If we’re going to press forward, we have to do it together.
In closing, I will ironically turn you to the words of Hillary Clinton herself. In a series of comments that were much maligned afterward, Secretary Clinton on September 9th described half of Trump’s supporters as belonging in a “basket of deplorables… the racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic -- you name it.” As is often the case with controversial political statements, she was mostly just telling the truth. As Jamelle Bouie at Slate writes, poll numbers generally back up the idea that about half of Trump supporters are actually racist. But what I want to turn your attention to is the rest of Hillary’s quote, where she hit the nail on the head even more cogently in discussing the “other basket”:
“…but that other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they're just desperate for change. It doesn't really even matter where it comes from. They don't buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won't wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they're in a dead-end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.”
Of course, the media paid no attention to that half of her remarks whatsoever. This makes total sense really, because the media is comfortably part of the coastal elite that wants nothing to do with these people. And these people that Hillary was talking about are real. They’re the ones David Wong was talking about. They are Sean Trende’s missing white voters. They are the hopeless, downtrodden rural Americans who propelled Trump to victory. He couldn’t have done it without them—there aren’t enough neo-Nazis and Klansmen to elect someone president on their own. And if we want to move forward and avoid another disaster like what happened on Tuesday—if we want to prevent these blue collar voters from being swindled by a con man who will satisfy his own ego by promising to hurt one group of people while offering another a hollow promise of hope they’ll never see—we need to do what Hillary said and make an effort to understand and empathize with these people. Because we already know what happens when we just yell at them and call them bigots. We end up with President Trump.