Donald Trump’s election was the landfall of a perfect storm: the wind and waves of a generation of discontent came ashore on election day to sink the ship of establishment politics as we knew it. President-elect Trump chose an excellent time to enter politics. He threw his hat in the ring at a time of anger, decay, and distrust. The severe alienation of White, working-class Americans from the elites that run our country became the wind behind Trump’s sails. This long-simmering alienation erupted to the surface in a big way this election cycle; Donald Trump won because elites failed white Americans, seemingly pushing many into a pit of poverty and despair. These elites have simultaneously grown culturally distant from those white Americans, adopting new progressive values with such speed that the economic distance ended up undergirding a very real cultural gap. The electoral implications of this gap could have been avoided had the Democratic party not elevated as their candidate a woman whose name is synonymous with the status-quo establishment of the new millennium.
“It’s the Economy, Stupid”
So goes the oft-quoted one-liner from President Clinton. Economic factors are the key lines along which most political activity is conducted. For the past forty or so years, uneducated white Americans found themselves slipping into poverty as automation, neoliberal economic policies, and free trade led to the disappearance of employment opportunities for those without an education. While these macroeconomic shifts created an immense glut of wealth and opportunity for those with the education and means to find gainful employment in urban areas, those without these found themselves in hollowed-out shells of their formerly vibrant communities. Trump’s victory ultimately came from the states of the rust belt, those hit hardest by the forces of deindustrialization. At the core of the Trump coalition were white men without a college education – those hardest hit by economic change – of whom Trump won an overwhelming majority. As the jobs and the skilled individuals gravitated towards metropolitan centers, a rot began to settle into America’s former industrial neighborhoods; drug addiction became commonplace and suicide rates skyrocketed. For some, the status-quo was less of an American dream and more of a nightmare.
When Trump promised to make America great again, it spoke to people who saw their once-thriving communities fall apart. His promise to restore jobs through renegotiating “bad” trade deals spoke to those who saw their jobs cut in favor of cheaper labor overseas. His harsh rhetoric on illegal immigration comforted those who felt at risk of being displaced by immigrant workers. It was in the states blasted by a generation of the elites’ failed macroeconomic policies that “Making America Great Again” was at its most appealing. Thus, it should come as no surprise that he, the candidate who called for doing just that, carried the day there.
Maybe telling them to check their privilege wasn’t such a good idea
Since the end of the Cold War, American culture has undergone change at a dizzying pace. As the United States embraced a leadership role in a globalizing economy, it also had to accept the consequences of more global diversity. A push for increased tolerance was accompanied by a perceived need to be “politically correct,” or “PC,” a need some find stifling, if not oppressive.
In recent years, the study of intersectionality has become a core tenant of the intellectual elite. Intersectionality considers the overlapping or intersecting social identities people may hold and relates them to systems of oppression and discrimination, often by means of understanding the inherent privileges of others. While noble in its intention, its practice has led to the creation of a moral hierarchy based on victimization. The most avid evangels of this new ideology have become known as Social Justice Warriors (SJWs). Emerging from internet blogs and college campuses, SJWs are infamous for their haranguing language-policing, imploring people to “check their privilege” while using their hierarchy of victimhood to discredit and disregard the opinions of those on its lower rungs. While the instinct to help the dispossessed cannot be called a bad thing, many social justice activists have lost the script, choosing to rail against the immorality of those they see as being the most privileged rather than for those in need of help. The indiscretions and unpleasantness of these SJWs was overlooked by elites, who saw a more tolerant society as a laudable goal.
However, at the bottom of the privilege totem-pole sits white middle-class America. While the core of Trump’s support came from the white working-class, his support did not end there. Trump carried the white vote handily across gender, income, and geographic lines. While the voters who actually won him the election were from economically depressed areas, the average Trump voter was a middle-class, professional, white person living in the suburbs. For many of Trump’s supporters, particularly those outside of his white working-class core, it was not economics, but socio-cultural issues, that drove them into Trump’s camp. And the extreme “PC” culture was not overlooked by Middle America, the residents of which saw social justice progressivism as a direct criticism of their way of life. One of the most overwhelming themes amongst Trump voters is that they supported him because he would not bow down to the regime of political correctness. He said what they thought, but were otherwise afraid to say lest they be tarred as a bigot. In its eagerness for social progress, the left ended up producing the forces which elected a president nigh-certain to intensely chill socially progressive goals for at least the next four years.
Another factor that should not be overlooked is military families’ disgust with (what they perceive as) a bipartisan foreign policy consensus, the brunt of which they are expected to bear. Trump’s isolationism won him points from working-class White men and women whose children make up the bulk of our military. They have seen their family members killed and maimed during the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, and for what? For ISIS and Iran to take control of the steaming rubble that was once Iraq? They feel their blood and treasure spent in the Middle East was squandered.
No post-election analysis is complete without an understanding of how Hillary Clinton contributed directly to Donald Trump’s stunning, unexpected victory. On almost all levels, she was not the correct candidate for the political climate of the 2016 election. To many people, especially those far-removed from Washington politics, she lacks the charisma and personality needed to energize the American people. While Trump did not win in a landslide (indeed, losing the popular vote by a growing margin), he won where it mattered. Meanwhile, Clinton failed to retain the “Obama coalition” that sent him to the White House twice. Her flaws as a public figure, however, go beyond her inability to energize the Democrats’ base.
Hillary Clinton’s long tenure in the public eye, coupled with her secretiveness and defensiveness, has earned her a dangerous reputation as untrustworthy, a reputation which the email scandal kept in the voters’ minds as they went to the polls. Her decades in politics have also earned her a reputation for being out of touch, a reputation her communications team did its absolute best to reinforce with off-key tweets and botched photo-ops. Most dangerously, she has, on both the left and right, acquired a horrible reputation for corruption. It would be fair to say that the most potent arrow in Donald Trump’s quiver was the nickname, “Crooked Hillary.” To those on the right, a failure to punish Clinton for (perceived) wrongdoings was seen as evidence of her immunity from the law. On the left, her closed-door ties with Wall Street were anathema to any progressive appeal.
Beyond the realm of the personal, Clinton was emblematic of the establishment’s failure. She embraced neoliberal economic policies, the perceived death knell of the American working class, was an early supporter of sending troops to Iraq and a vocal cheerleader for Libyan interventions, and is irreversibly associated with an era that has left the Middle East in shambles. While Trump spent much of his time attacking Hillary personally, her failures as a leader did play a prominent role in his attacks. On the trail itself, Clinton’s campaign was extremely complacent and poorly run. Hillary assumed that she had the states of the rust belt safely in the bag. As a result, her campaign’s strategy can be described as one of overreach, as exemplified by her attempt to win red states like Arizona or Georgia even though they were statistical longshots. Meanwhile, she never stepped foot in Wisconsin after the primary, while Trump aggressively campaigned there and elsewhere, proclaiming “build the wall” in his effort to undermine her own (perceived) “blue wall.” Even the message of her campaign was off. Minimal effort was made to appeal to white men, as the embrace of “demographics as destiny” had convinced Democratic strategists that their votes could be eschewed without severe consequence as white women would certainly make up for their loss (an assumption proven to be dead wrong). The nail in the coffin was perhaps her comment that half of Trump’s supporters could be categorized as “a basket of deplorables,” reinforcing an image that she held little regard for those outside of her interest.
Rather than writing off Trump’s victory as a freak accident, it should be interpreted as the result of an alignment of a variety of factors that helped put him over the top. Clinton was a flawed candidate from the get-go. Scandal-ridden and untrustworthy to many, she was perceived as the indifferent creature of an establishment that simply wanted your vote, and the Democrats, by nominating her, launched a leaky ship of a candidate into a sea in the storm of the century.