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Ignoring the Lessons of Donald Trump

As Donald Trump continues to make a mess domestically and internationally, have his opponents learned anything? Nope.

Editor’s Note (January 8, 2019): I wrote this six months ago before the current debate about Tucker Carlson’s monologue. I think some of the Never Trump Right and most of the Left still ignore how the economy hasn’t lifted all boats. Most of the debate on the right has been about the White Working Class, my essay opened it up to African Americans as well and how it affected places like my hometown of Flint, Michigan. Genesee County voted for Hilary Clinton, but it was a narrow victory and Clinton underperformed in a county she should have won by a country mile. African Americans didn’t vote for Trump, but like whites, they will not vote enthusiastically for someone who doesn’t take their economic issues seriously.

I believe capitalism is the best way to lift people out of poverty, but if the center-right doesn’t pay attention to how the market doesn’t always work the way we think it should, as someone on Twitter said, then it’s bye-bye capitalism.

I hope to write more about this in the coming days.

As Donald Trump and his administration continue to stumble and destroy the American experiment, I sometimes wonder if we have learned why we have someone who is woefully unfit for the office is President of the United States.

My concern is that we haven’t learned a damn thing.

Donald Trump is like watching a traffic accident — you just can’t look away. His antics stir people up. The left and the portion of the right that is against Trump is basically in permanent outrage mode. And let’s admit it, it is not that hard to be outraged. Just look at what happened at the mess that was the summit in Helsinki with Soviet Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But Trump is President for a reason. (No, the answer is not Russia.) He is the Commander-in-Chief because both political parties had nothing to offer to an electorate that was upset and looking for someone, anyone to listen to them.

Yes, he’s a crook and a liar and a jerk. But he was able to say the right words to get people to vote for him. The problems that elected Donald Trump are still problems. As long as his opponents (and I include myself) don’t attend to those problems with solutions, Trump will continue to be a problem.

But it’s hard to ignore all the drama of Trumpworld. We obsess over his latest tweet, or what he said at a press conference or how he doesn’t seem to understand how American government works and he doesn’t seem to care.

The problem is economic and social, but at the end of the day the problem is not a what, but a who: Trump voters.

When people start talking about Trump voters, they are discussed as if they are some invaders from another planet, mostly planet KKK. The media and what our President calls the elite, can at times look at them as if they are nothing more than racist rubes that want to go back to the 1950s. Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in the fall of 2017 about Trump as the first “white president,” meaning he is a President that embodies white supremacy, which means that his voters people who are dealing with racial animus and saw Trump as their vehicle of expression:

The triumph of Trump’s campaign of bigotry presented the problematic spectacle of an American president succeeding at best in spite of his racism and possibly because of it. Trump moved racism from the euphemistic and plausibly deniable to the overt and freely claimed. This presented the country’s thinking class with a dilemma. Hillary Clinton simply could not be correct when she asserted that a large group of Americans was endorsing a candidate because of bigotry. The implications — that systemic bigotry is still central to our politics; that the country is susceptible to such bigotry; that the salt-of-the-earth Americans whom we lionize in our culture and politics are not so different from those same Americans who grin back at us in lynching photos; that Calhoun’s aim of a pan-Caucasian embrace between workers and capitalists still endures — were just too dark. Leftists would have to cope with the failure, yet again, of class unity in the face of racism. Incorporating all of this into an analysis of America and the path forward proved too much to ask. Instead, the response has largely been an argument aimed at emotion — the summoning of the white working class, emblem of America’s hardscrabble roots, inheritor of its pioneer spirit, as a shield against the horrific and empirical evidence of trenchant bigotry.

I don’t doubt that a number of Trump supporters are racists and xenophobes. Anyone who can’t see that is blind. I don’t doubt that race and xenophobia were factors. But that can’t be the whole story. A nation doesn’t go from electing its first black President twice to Trump simply because of race. There has to be something more, something that would make people who voted for Obama go and pull the lever for someone who called Mexicans rapists. Why they might be attracted to Trump? Were they in some way pushed to choose a reality TV show star?

Trump exposed something that we Americans are loathe to talk about — class. As hard as it is to talk about race in America, we like to pretend class doesn’t exist. But the fact is,it does and it shows itself in how middle and upper income Americans look at low income Americans, especially those who are poor and white. The well educated in American society tend to view the working class, especially the white working class with contempt. British writer Clive Crook has noticed that coming from class-conscious Britain didn’t prepare him for the way the working class is treated in America:

I’m a British immigrant, and grew up in a northern English working-class town. Taking my regional accent to Oxford University and then the British civil service, I learned a certain amount about my own class consciousness and other people’s snobbery. But in London or Oxford from the 1970s onwards I never witnessed the naked disdain for the working class that much of America’s metropolitan elite finds permissible in 2016.

When my wife and I bought some land in West Virginia and built a house there, many friends in Washington asked why we would ever do that. Jokes about guns, banjo music, in-breeding, people without teeth and so forth often followed. These Washington friends, in case you were wondering, are good people. They’d be offended by crass, cruel jokes about any other group. They deplore prejudice and keep an eye out for unconscious bias. More than a few object to the term, “illegal immigrant.” Yet somehow they feel the white working class has it coming.

The Democrats, which were once known as the party of the working class, slowly but surely shed that title. The party became bifurcated party; a coalition of upscale whites and persons of color.

Where did the white working class go? You probably already know: the GOP. These were the folk that made up the Trump voters. Macomb County, Michigan has always been a trending county. A suburban county of Detroit, the county is made up of working class white voters. This county is where the term “Reagan Democrat” became famous. In 2008 and 2012, Macomb voted for Obama. In 2016, the county went for Trump. As Macomb went, so did the state of Michigan. Macomb went for Obama in ’08 and ’12, which meant Michigan went for Obama. In 2016, when Trump won Macomb, he won Michigan. Hilary Clinton did not spend as much time with the white working class and the result was she lost three states : Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

Now, in normal times, the Democrats would try to woo the white working class sort of how Bill Clinton tried to move the party to the center, by winning working class voters. But these aren’t normal times. The Democrats are angry at Trump voters that used to vote for them. Instead of trying to get them back in addition to going after people of color, they seem content in writing off a huge portion of the electorate.

But why did the Democrats lose the working class? Why did Hilary Clinton, who was far more qualified (in spite of her faults) than Donald Trump lose? What are they doing to get themselves back on track?

I think answer is that the Democrats walked away from their working class roots and doubled down on social issues. If Democrats were following writers like Chris Arnade, they would have realized the pain that the working class was facing. When the water crisis struck my hometown of Flint, Michigan, Democrats saw its cause in racial and ideological views. Flint is majority African American and the sitting governor at the time was a Republican. But very few focused on the fact that the reason city came under state control, was partially because Flint lost bled auto industry jobs which meant a loss of population and tax base. Flint lost these jobs because of changes in the auto industry as well as changes in trade rules. This is not a plea for protectionism, but it is and pointing out that a changing economy wrought havoc in places like Flint or Youngstown or Pittsburgh. The Democrats of all parties should have had not just answer, but a way to help a dislocated working class find new jobs and also provide them with governmental assistance in the interim. But the party virtually ignored places like the Rust Belt. On top of that, Hillary Clinton’s comments on coal that came across as uncaring to struggling miners and the Democrats’ growing hesitance to see any downside to immigration made it hard for many to see the Democrats as caring about them. After the stunning loss to Trump, this should have been a time to really reassess what went wrong and how to do better. But it by the time of the Inauguration, the Resistance was up and running and there was no time anymore to learn how to beat Trump in 2020 and win back some of the lost votes.

But if the Dems want to win in 2020, they have to learn why they lost against such a poor candidate or it could happen again.

If the Democrats were not paying attention to the working class, then the Republicans were pretending it was 1981 all over again.

In 2016, the GOP had a large number of people running for President. Most people were thinking the winner was going to be former Florida governor Jeb Bush (Jeb!). None of us thought that Donald Trump was going to win it all, but maybe then maybe no one was paying attention to what was going on. David Frum recounted the mood among many of the candidates that in the end didn’t line up to what GOP voters were thinking:

Republican politicians since the 1980s had spoken a language of “hope” and “opportunity.” They repeated the performance in 2015. “We will lift our sights again, make opportunity common again, get events in the world moving our way again,” declared Jeb Bush in his presidential announcement address. “I want to talk to you this morning about reigniting the promise of America,” saidTed Cruz in his, and Marco Rubio likewise hailed “our nation’s identity as a land of opportunity.”

In short, Republicans were peddling zombie Reaganism. If it worked in the 1980s, it had to work today. Their vision was the same as Reagan’s was nearly 40 years ago: small government and low taxes. But as Frum notes, the voters weren’t buying that message anymore:

“Believe in America!” “A new American century!” What are they talking about?wondered voters battered and bruised by the previous American century. Donald Trump, the oldest candidate on the Republican stage, was also the first to discern that the political language of the 1980s had lost its power. The most common age for white Americans in 2015 was 55. These older white voters were more eager to protect what they had than to hustle for more. They wanted less change, not more. They cared about security, not opportunity. Protection of the status quo was what candidate Trump offered.

Like the Democrats, the Republicans had not paid attention to the pain that working class Americans were facing.

Republicans thought they could present the same economic agenda with better outreach to communities of color and be more tolerant of immigrants. Why the leadership and funders believed in small government and low taxes, the rank and file had a vision of a more active government. Donald Trump could sense that people wanted more government in their lives, not less. Trump sold them that vision by telling the rank and file their Social Security and Medicare would be left alone, that there would be an infrastructure program and the raising of taxes on the rich. If he could mix in a little resentment and tell people to pin the blame on the other, be it black men, Puerto Ricans or immigrants, well, then you got gold.

This is the thing that Never Trumpers on the right and the #Resistance on the left fail to notice. Yes, Trump is a vile racist. Yes, he foments racial and ethnic division much like his European counterparts. But he is able to blend racial animus with the economic and social anxieties of the working class to tell them that he hears them.

If Trump’s message were just racial, I don’t know if he would have got far. But blend that with the shortcomings of trade deals, the opioid crisis, anxieties over immigration and job security, then you have a winning message.

Trump won because he had a vision for the nation. It is a dystopian vision in reality, but it was a vision nonetheless. The problem is that the president’s opponents don’t have a vision for the country. We don’t have an idea of what can give people hope. People who whose jobs may not be around tomorrow, people who see loved ones overdose on heroin, people who wonder if their children will do better than they do. All of these people would look at Clinton and all of the GOP candidates and they didn’t see anyone speaking to them. Trump is not very smart, but he does know how to make emotional pleas, sort of like a dark version of Ronald Reagan. But instead of preaching a message of hope Trump preached a message of resentment taking what might be in the back of people’s minds and blowing it up to be the main cause of people’s pain.

But the problem is that both the Democrats and the #NeverTrump Republicans are so fixated on Trump’s antics and how he is destroying well, everything, we aren’t paying attention what we did wrong in ’16 and how to correct it for ’20. It wouldn’t surprise me that come late in the evening of November 3, 2020 Trump could win a second term because no one learned the mistakes of 2016.

Donald Trump’s win in 2016 wasn’t a fluke. Certain trends brought him to office. To make sure he isn’t granted a second term, you have to learn what went wrong and adjust the political parties to meet those needs.

But I’m not positive that this will happen two years hence. So, expect a disappointing night 2 years and three months from now.

Originally published at obsidiantory.wordpress.com on July 29, 2018.

Written by

A middle-aged pastor living in Minneapolis. I write about politics, religion, sexuality, and autism. https://www.dennislsanders.net/

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