In the days and weeks following the 2016 Presidential election, a nagging question plagues the mind of liberals: “How did Donald Trump win?” The answer: he got people to vote for him.
By people, I mean tens of millions of people. Approximately 61,900,000 votes have already been counted for Trump, the second highest quantity of any Republican presidential candidate in American history. And with over seven million votes still to be counted, it is just a matter of time before he earns the number one spot, surpassing George W. Bush’s 2004 record of 62 million.
How did he do it? Simple. By exploiting the American people’s discontent with establishment politics and economics. Believe it or not, Trump said more on the campaign trail than the handful of sound bites our preferred media outlets repeated to us. While we were all caricaturing him on Facebook, he was out preying on the frustrations of financially struggling, politically disenfranchised Americans. Consider this quote, taken from a speech Trump did in Minnesota two days before the election:
“Our failed establishment has brought us nothing but poverty at home, and disaster overseas. We are tired of economic and foreign policies that have BLED THIS COUNTRY DRY. It is time for REAL CHANGE that puts the people back in charge. This election will decide who runs this country: the Corrupt Political Class – or YOU, the American People. That’s the choice. She’s with THEM – I’m with YOU. This is our last chance.”
Trump waving to supporters after speaking at a rally in Dallas, Texas in September.
Say what you will, but that’s a hell of a message. And, as it turns out, it was the right one. On election day, a Reuters/Ipsos exit poll revealed the following:
- 75 percent agree that “America needs a strong leader to take the country back from the rich and powerful.”
- 72 percent agree “the American economy is rigged to advantage the rich and powerful.”
- 68 percent agree that “traditional parties and politicians don’t care about people like me.”
Trump identified this from the very beginning, and ran with it—all the way to the White House. Mrs. Clinton, herself a notorious political insider, Wall Street confidante, and self-proclaimed “far-removed” economic fortunaire, responded to the anti-establishment sentiment in America largely by ignoring it. She, and we, thought that contrasting Trump’s vulgarity and incompetence with composure and the prospect of safe, incremental reform would be enough to secure her the presidency.
We were wrong.
Herein lies the problem of the democratic party in particular, and of elite liberalism in general. A complacency, or even cooperation with the establishment has caused us to neglect to the wants and needs of the very people we’re supposed to be representing—the working class. As a result, we are losing them to reactionary demagogues.
In particular, older, undereducated, middle class white people appear susceptible to the rhetoric of right-wing populism, as evidenced in 2016 by the U.S. Presidential election and the Brexit referendum. What’s causing this demographic to be swept up by bigots in blonde coiffures?
Here’s how it works. Average Americans are hurting from an economy in which income and wealth inequality are at their highest point in the U.S. since just before the Great Depression. The white working class is experiencing high rates of alcoholism, drug use, suicide, and a decreased lifespan from the financial stress and anxiety of working long hours for stagnating wages while the majority of economic gains go to the top. The Democratic Party fails to address the problem by continuing to allow special interests (lobbyists, corporations, wealthy individuals, etc.) to buy the loyalty of government officials and secure for themselves lucrative deals at the expense of most people and our planet. Elite liberals, being unwilling to stand up to the special interests, offer no real explanation for, nor solution to the legitimate political and economic grievances of our aforementioned demographic. Consequently, these older, undereducated, middle class white people fall victim to the racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic myths about their plight and salvation conjured by the Trumps and Borises of the world.
Wealth distribution in America. The share of the top 1% goes ten times higher than what is shown.
The result is brilliant, ironic, and tragic. The corporate Right continues to enrich their cohorts, the ones actually responsible for our discontent—Wall street, the fossil fuel industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the prison-industrial complex, the military-industrial complex, Big Agriculture, big-box retailers, telecommunications companies, insurance companies, and the like—by deflecting blame away from themselves and toward “the other”: people of color, gays, women, immigrants, refugees. This strategy works. The political and economic elites can go about their business uninterrupted so long as they keep the American people pitted against, and blaming one another. This politics of blame is what allows Trump to tell his supporters that he will “drain the swamp” of Washington and then stack his administration with political insiders, corporate lobbyists, and wealthy donors.
But there is a silver lining to this mess. A common thread runs through the American public, regardless of political affiliation: we want more out of our government and our economy than we’re currently getting. Bernie Sanders pulled on this thread during the Democratic primary, and has become the most popular politician in the country for it. The project of progressives in the coming years is to learn from Sanders’ success, and use this thread to stitch America together.
Sanders speaking to a crowd of 27,000 people in Los Angeles last August.
To accomplish this, we must not shy away from, but rather emphasize the flaws of establishment politics and economics. We must recognize the struggles of the working class, and respond to them in meaningful ways. Instead of passing the buck to reactionaries and having a segment of our country succumb to nativism, we must foster a class consciousness that places the blame where it rightfully belongs—on the 1 percent and their lackeys in our government offices. We have the ability to simultaneously combat bigotry in American culture and corruption in American society by reaching out to the working class, and acknowledging that while their anger is legitimate, it is misdirected.
If we do this, it is feasible to imagine a reunification of the American people. In 2008, Barack Obama received 69.5 million votes, the most of any presidential candidate—Democratic or Republican—by a wide margin. In doing so, he proved that our country is open to progressive change, so long as it’s packaged the right way. Obama campaigned on the ideals of hope and change and captured the hearts and minds of people in all sorts of demographics. Eight years and more than a few broken promises later, Hillary campaigned on more of the same and lost them. Moving forward, it is our job to recognize what resonates with the American people as a whole, and what doesn’t. Obama’s 2008 Presidential election and Sanders’ 2016 Democratic primary campaign provide useful blueprints. Hillary’s 2016 Presidential bid offers important lessons. It’s up to us to take what we’ve learned and use it to transform our electorate come 2018, so that America votes not out of fear of “the other” but love for each other, and a desire to have a government truly of, by, and for the people instead of just those at the very top.
The task is now upon us. Let’s see if we can rise to the occasion.
Update: November 22, 2016
The new version of this article reflects the latest vote count as of the above date.