Back in October 2016, in a somewhat prescient piece of journalism, James Hohmann, a national political editor at The Washington Post, wrote about how Trump was winning the hearts and minds of working and middle-class Americans.
He paints a vivid portrait of Middletown, Ohio – a small all-American, middle-class town situated firmly within the “rust belt” in the country’s Midwest.
While most of Washington’s elite found a Trump presidency a disquieting yet unlikely prospect, the residents of the steadily declining manufacturing heartland had already made their minds up. Most of the country, backed by reams of polling data, accepted that Clinton would likely win the White House, albeit by a modest margin.
In Middletown, Ohio, a different view of reality prevailed.
Cecil Graham, a machine operator at a box factory in Middletown explains to Hohmann the resentment he felt for the Obama administration and his level of aversion towards a potential Clinton Presidency. “Everybody is worried about what their future is going to hold. I have no idea, but I do know Obama’s made it worse. And Hillary will make it worser.”
What Hohmann describes is a town in decay: Boarded up store fronts, a defunct paper mill and a population of disgruntled machinists, welders and low-skilled workers, all of whom feel that the narrative thrust upon them by the media and the rest of America – of a modern, multicultural, globalised society – is at best of no value to them, and at worse a threat to their very existence.
Photo: Abandoned factory in the rust belt / wiki commons
On the 8th of November, the United States went to the polls and elected the person they wanted to see running the country for the next four years. In the days leading up to and on Election Day, Hillary Clinton stood quietly confident, along with the mainstream media and practically every political pundit in the world, ready to become the first female president of the United States of America. But in what will go down as one of the biggest political upsets in recent history, the crown that she had worked so hard to wear was snatched, just as it was almost within her reach, by a small, orange hand.
Donald Trump ascending to the highest political office in America to become arguably the most powerful man in the world is only as shocking as the failure of the pundits, the media and the political and social elite to see it coming. The biggest question after it became clear that the Donald had secured victory was not, “What are we going to do?” but, “How did we get this so wrong?”
The day the election results were finalised, when it became clear that Trump not only won, but had handily defeated his opponent, political commentators were scrambling to explain to themselves and anyone who would listen how it was possible they had so gravely misread the political will of the American people.
Hillary supporters took to the streets in protest of their new president-elect, proclaiming along with large portions of the media that racism, bigotry and misogyny are not only alive and well in America but are the primary forces behind Donald Trump’s election.
Vox wrote the day after the election that “The message his [Trump’s] victory sent to nonwhites, Muslim Americans, immigrants, and their families is clear: Never underestimate the power of racism and bigotry.” The argument that Trump tapped into racial anxiety in America and “outright hate” fuelled his success was a common thread throughout much of the mainstream media's analysis.
The conviction that hatred was a key element of Trump’s victory echoed across social media, as celebrities on Twitter along with notable “Twitterati” vented their frustration at an election result that confirmed their worst fears about American culture. Trump’s divisive rhetoric had successfully ignited the latent racism simmering just below the surface of their society.
American singer, songwriter and vocal Hillary Clinton supporter, Katy Perry tweeted, “Do not sit still. Do not weep. MOVE. We are not a nation that will let HATE lead us.”
Photo: Donald J Trump / iStock
Other Twitter users directly accused white racists for Trump's victory. Among a litany of online voices claiming that white hatred of coloured people was the sole perpetrator of the Trump Travesty, one user claimed, “If the majority of white people weren’t racist, Trump wouldn’t have been elected. Period.”
There's element of truth in this, no doubt. But claiming that the majority of white people are racist, and that this was the reason behind Trump's victory misses a broader theme behind the Donald's striking victory. A minority of voters were likely motivated by racism and bigotry, excited by Trump's promise to deport 11 million illegal Mexican migrants and put a ban on Muslim immigration. But the notion that all Trump voters are racists or that bigotry is the primary cause of his sweeping victory of the electorate is incorrect as it fails to recognise something more fundamental about Trump’s appeal.
And the answer lies in middle and working class America, in the rust belt, in poor communities of white voters, many of whom obviously feel abandoned by the Democratic Party that no longer represents the interests of the working class.
Particularly, Hillary Clinton’s failure to hold onto Michigan and Wisconsin (she failed to campaign in either state, as she mistakenly believed they were a lock), both which contain large populations of white, working class Democrats reveals a change in faith for poor white voters.
Michigan has voted Democrat since 1992 and Wisconsin since 1988. Barack Obama won both of those states in 2012 with a commanding lead over his opponent, Mitt Romney. This year, however, both have slipped from Democratic control, playing an instrumental role in Donald Trump’s victory.
In the early hours of the morning after the election, a group of political analysts from The New York Times, including Jim Rutenberg, Maggie Haberman and Nicholas Confessore joined Michael Barbaro to discuss why, despite the extensive polling, data collection, sophisticated modelling and modern technology, the media and political establishment not only missed the mark on election night, but completely missed the cultural climate developing around the country.
Photo: Hillary R Clinton / Wikicommons
“What we now know is that a huge part of this country is far more upset about the ills he was pointing to and promising to fix than any of the flaws we were pointing out about him as a candidate,” said Rutenberg of the discontent in poor white communities of America’s Midwest.
One of the only experts to get it right and pick up on what was happening across America was Michael Moore, documentarian and Flint, Michigan native. Months prior to the election, he called it. He predicted a large turnout of angry white voters from manufacturing towns, drawn in by Trump’s promise to bring jobs back to the region by ripping up trade deals with China, Mexico and the rest of the world.
Moore wrote “5 Reasons Why Trump Will Win” in which he said, “Angry, embittered working (and nonworking) people who were lied to by the trickle-down of Reagan and abandoned by Democrats” were excited by the prospect of throwing a grenade into the Washington establishment.
He accused Hillary Clinton of failing to ignite voters’ passions – that her unpopularity, untrustworthiness and message of incremental, modest change failed to bring people to the polling booths. “The enthusiasm just isn’t there. And because this election is going to come down to just one thing — who drags the most people out of the house and gets them to the polls — Trump right now is in the catbird seat.”
And shit, was he right.
Racism is not the reason Trump won, neither is misogyny, bigotry or any of the other “–isms” being thrown around in a desperate attempt to understand how a vast proportion of Americans could vote for somebody as arrogant, foolish and dangerous as Donald Trump. People are crying out for palpable change, and Donald Trump – as inexperienced, ridiculous or just down right stupid as he may seem – offered that. The Democrats would have known this had they paid attention to their own primaries, in which a 74-year-old Jewish senator, self-proclaimed socialist and party outsider won 22 states and 47 per cent of the vote. Instead, they rejected Sanders as an irregularity, and pushed their own candidate. Hillary Clinton, who had the support of the mainstream media, millions in campaign financing, the forceful backing of a highly popular sitting president, the endorsement of every high-profile Democrat and even a few notable supporters from the Republican Party. The colossal forces of political machinery, shuddered and cranked frantically, desperately trying to push her over the line. But she still couldn’t beat the orange moron from the apprentice. Why? Because nearly 70 per cent of voters think she’s dishonest and untrustworthy. Because she represents the old way of politics. Because she offered no discernable change.
It means that Clinton and the Democratic Party failed to see what was going on, even as it unfolded in front of their very eyes.
The numbers back this up – Donald Trump didn’t win the election – Hillary lost. The Democratic Party expected Hillary to mobilise women and minorities who were supposed to flock to the polling booths to elect the first female president.
While overall, women supported Clinton over Trump by 54 per cent to 42 per cent, this is not dramatically different to what we saw in previous years. Furthermore, Hispanic and Black voters failed to support Hillary as they did Obama. While Hispanic voters favoured Clinton to Trump by 65 per cent to 29 per cent, she fell well below Obama’s 71 cent in 2012. To make matters worse for Clinton, Trump managed to increase his support of Hispanic voters compared to Romney in 2012 by a modest 2 per cent. A similar story is evident among black voters, with Hillary losing about 8 per cent of the black voters that supported Obama in 2012 and Trump picking up a small 2 per cent from Romney’s 2012 numbers. Compare this with Trump’s commanding win with white voters – particularly those without college education – and it’s easy to see how she lost.
What does all this equate to?
It means that Clinton and the Democratic Party failed to see what was going on, even as it unfolded in front of their very eyes. They failed to take notice that people were fed up with policies that provided wealth to select pockets of the country while allowing many others to suffer. That while economic indicators were up, median family income in the U.S. is lower now than it was 16 years ago when adjusted for inflation. That globalisation had provided opportunities and prosperity for many, but these rewards were unevenly distributed. That amidst soaring CEO pay and bailouts for large financial intuitions, the average worker had been left behind.
Whether Trump delivers on his promise and brings manufacturing jobs back to America remains to be seen. One thing is for certain, the Democrats, just as with left wing parties in other parts of the world, will need to win back the faith of the working class. Or else suffer the grim reality that the Trump phenomenon becomes more common.