This election was unlike any other in modern history. It upended our understanding of the roles of money and endorsements in politics. It revealed deep fractures within both of the major parties. It highlighted the far-reaching influence of social media. It legitimated and then emboldened hatreds and resentments long simmering in America.
This presidential election also left profound damage in its wake. Millions of people now feel raw, vulnerable, angry, and afraid. You see it in the palpable fear coming from marginalized communities. Some, such as Muslims and undocumented residents, have been singled out in this noxious campaign; others, such as gays, lesbians, and transgender people, worry about what this election might mean for rights and recognition only recently won. And you see it in the triumphalism of hate groups who view this election as a turning point in their long and sordid fight for white supremacy.
Those who opposed Trump—and those who underestimated his appeal to the American electorate—are now struggling to make sense of it all. Much of the post-election commentary has focused on the white working class—whether their anxiety and anger is legitimate, the ways in which the Democratic Party has forsaken them, and the reconciliation that now is so desperately needed. By a margin of nearly two to one, white men without a college degree voted for Trump over Clinton. As states continue to count ballots, voter turnout in this election may be down slightly from four years ago. But turnout held steady or increased in the key swing states of Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, where the white working class made its discontent with the status quo known. In the election’s aftermath, Bernie Sanders proclaimed, “It is an embarrassment, I think, to the entire Democratic Party that millions of white working class people decided to vote for Mr. Trump, which suggests that the Democratic message of standing up for working people no longer holds much sway among workers in this country.”
The focus on white working class voters does more to confuse than clarify what happened on Election Day.
Liberals now are snatching up recently published books that claim to document and explain the pain and disillusionment of poor whites—among them Hillbilly Elegy, White Trash, Strangers in their Own Land, The Politics of Resentment, and The New Minority. They are excoriating the Clinton campaign for having taken this important constituency for granted. And they are wondering what the decline of unions, a reshuffling of identity politics, and changes in the nation’s demographic profile mean for the party’s future.
And they are wondering why Trump came to be a hero to working-class whites. Part of the answer is to be found in Trump’s promise to bring lost industries back to American shores and to forbid any more from leaving. He lambasted every major free trade agreement in the last quarter century. He called out some foreign states, China in particular, for currency manipulation, and others—notably members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—for taking advantage of America’s good will. He promised, at long last, to put America first. And so it is not difficult to see why his message reached Tiffany Chesser from southeastern Ohio, who saw in Trump the clearest chance to save her boyfriend’s job. “If he loses that job we’re screwed,” she reported to ProPublica. “I’ll lose my house.”
This, though, is only part of the story. Trump’s messages spoke for, and helped soothe, deep economic and racial anxieties felt by white Americans. Summoning presidential powers that currently do not exist, Trump insisted that he would restore an age before the political classes sold out the people, before globalization and automation took root in communities, and before people of color demanded rights. Trump would transport us back to an era when a high school education delivered a decent job with a living wage, when whites were not made to feel guilty for slavery or Jim Crow, when waiters spoke English, when immigrants demurred, when women did not outnumber men in colleges, when sexual predation was the subject of locker-room talk, and when brown and queer people knew their place.
Trump’s singular promise to build a “great wall” along the U.S. border with Mexico operated at the same emotional register. Critics who pointed out that the policy was at once unworkable and unnecessary, as the net flow of immigration into the United States already had fallen, missed the point. Trump’s signature policy was powerful not because it effectively solved an actual problem. It was powerful because the wall, as metaphor, assuaged people’s basest anxieties about foreign threats and local loss.
Or take Trump’s call for a complete ban on Muslim’s entering the country, and the consideration now of a Muslim registry. These are not attacks on religion, Trump insists, for Islam is not purely a religion. It is a political ideology infused with anti-American sentiment. A ban and registry, then, are but common-sense responses to a clear external threat. Once again, the cause of our troubles lies beyond our borders.
Trump received just 2 percent less of the Republican vote share in 2016 than Mitt Romney did in 2012. If all you saw were the polls, you would be forgiven for thinking that 2016 was just another ordinary presidential election.
Trump offers white working class Americans a message of hope steeped in racism and xenophobia. He promises the restoration of a racial and sexual order in which straight white men are accommodated and everyone else requires explanation. And so if we who oppose Trump are going to reach a détente with white working class Americans, if we who worry about the future of our Republic are to make things right with those who supposedly handed this man the presidency, then we must come to terms with the message that appeals to them so greatly.
Did Clinton lose because she failed to rally the support of working-class whites? Maybe. But media outlets that featured all things Trump, 24/7, also did their part. Mistaken polls predicting a clear Clinton victory may have convinced some Democrats that they could afford to stay home. Clinton herself argued that FBI Director James Comey’s late-October letter to Congress about her leaky email server cost her the election, and she may be right. But her persistently high disapproval ratings are also to blame, as is her failure to articulate a clear and compelling message, her decision not to make a campaign stop in Wisconsin during the general election, and the distractions caused by a steady stream of stolen emails from John Podesta. With just tens of thousands of votes separating the winner and loser in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, all sorts of factors could have made the difference. And without any clear counterfactuals, we are unlikely to be able to gauge the relative importance of each.
The focus on white working class Americans also misconstrues some basic facts about voting behavior. It is true that income remained a powerful predictor of vote choice in this election. But like nearly all elections, poorer people tended to vote Democrat and richer people voted Republican. Education, by contrast, cut the other way. The more formal education individuals received in their lifetime, the more likely they were to vote Democrat; and the less they received, the more likely they were to vote Republican. To the extent that the moniker of “white working class” conflates these two socioeconomic indicators, it does more to confuse than to clarify what happened on Election Day.
Finally, this preoccupation with working-class whites degrades the larger lessons that we should take away from this disastrous election.
If all you saw were the polls, you would be forgiven for thinking that 2016 was just another ordinary presidential election. Trump did not win because he figured out the special code that put him in communion with poorer, less educated whites. He won because millions upon millions of everyday Republicans looked past his misogyny, racism, impulsiveness, inexperience, and egotism. Everyday Republicans conjured various reasons for doing so: the fabricated corruption of the Clinton Foundation, the troves of emails that the FBI twice decided did not warrant criminal prosecution, a Supreme Court that hung in the balance, the chance to overturn Obamacare. Then they went ahead and voted for him.
Republicans had their misgivings about Trump, but when it finally counted, nearly all of them came around his way. On Election Day, 90 percent of registered Republicans came out in support of Trump. (Comparable percentages of Democrats voted for Clinton.) Though the overall population of voters showed a clear gender gap, Republican men and women were equally likely to back their party’s nominee. Trump received just 2 percent less of the Republican vote share in 2016 than Mitt Romney did in 2012. If all you saw were the partisan breakdown of exit polls, you would be forgiven for thinking that 2016 was just another ordinary presidential election.
Republicans had their misgivings about Trump, but when it finally counted, nearly all of them came around his way. On Election Day, 90 percent of registered Republicans came out in support of Trump.
But this was not an ordinary election. For tens of millions of Republicans, the fact that Trump refused to release his taxes, encouraged attendees at his rallies to assault protesters, bragged about his ability to sexually assault women and get away with it, called for the reinstatement of waterboarding, mocked John McCain for having been “caught” by the North Vietnamese, cordoned off the press corps in pens at his rallies and then bated the crowd to jeer them, insisted that a U.S. federal judge could not be counted on to treat him fairly because of his Mexican heritage, threatened to withdraw from NATO, mocked a physically disabled journalist, encouraged Russian hackers to break into his opponent’s email server, propagated the birther conspiracy against our nation’s first African American president, and insisted that he could not promise to abide the election’s results unless he was declared the victor did not constitute sufficient reason to vote against him.
Political scientists are accustomed to arguing that campaigns matter only at the margins. Fundamentals like the state of the economy and the popularity of the incumbent president are said to predominate. But the fundamentals had this race as a dead heat, and if ever a campaign ought to have played to one candidate’s advantage, this one should have benefitted Clinton. She outspent Trump by a two-to-one margin, and she aired three times as many ads as he did. Not a single one of the nation’s fifty largest newspapers endorsed Trump in the general election. His advisors consisted of a band of fringe journalists and has-been politicians. Titans of his own party disavowed him. The military brass warned about the foreign catastrophes that would accompany his ascension to power. Nobel laureates proclaimed his economic plans ruinous.
And still Republicans voted for him. In these incredible times, the American electorate continued to march in formation. Without any history of public service, without any voting record to scrutinize, without any clear principles except nativism to guide him, and without any consistent involvement in the Republican Party itself, Trump still won the vote of nearly every Republican who showed up on Election Day.
That is the real story behind this election, and that is the reckoning that awaits. After a season of upheaval, bigotry, and blame, the American electorate behaved the way it always has: Democrats voted Democratic and Republicans voted Republican. This time, though, the most obscene qualities of the nation’s least experienced candidate ever to seek the presidency did not convince conservatives that maybe they ought to look elsewhere for leadership. For that, we are all diminished.