Democrats are rending their garments, bemoaning their failure to connect with rural and small-town America. They are supposed to feel guilty about insufficient empathy for the industrial heartland. Perhaps, but before they don sackcloth and ashes they might want to consider that this election as much as anything else was a candidate failure.
We will say it once more: VP Joe Biden would have won this going away. Hillary Clinton did offer a jobs program, a debt free college tuition plan, a middle-class tax cut, etc. All of these would have helped the Trump voters far more than the urban poor or coastal elites. These voters either didn’t believe her or didn’t like her. The blow-back to dynastic policies that Jeb Bush got in the GOP primary, Clinton got in the general election. (In that sense, the primary was “rigged” to favor a weak but “inevitable” candidate.) Democrats don’t need to beat themselves up; they picked a losing candidate just as the GOP did in 2008 and 2012.
GOP “elites” meanwhile are being harangued for cultural insensitivity and economic callousness. On the latter count, let’s get real: It’s a lie that immigrants and trade caused their problems. No one should apologize for refusing to sell snake oil. (Trump ironically was the one to offer pro-business, supply-side tax cuts, so maybe this is not about economics?) What about the cultural insensitivity claim? Excuse me, but that’s bonkers on multiple counts.
First, the GOP is the older, white male party. It does dominate in the South. When Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.) get reelected, it’s hard to argue that the GOP’s educated leadership has lost touch with its grassroots. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was the quintessential blue-collar Midwesterner. He got knocked out of the primaries early on. The GOP has bent over backward to the point of lunacy (e.g., arguing that states should not implement gay marriage) to cater to the electorate that eventually went with Trump.
Second, George W. Bush didn’t like East Coast elites either, but he was no racist, no misogynist and did not pit one group against another. He won rural whites and got an estimated 44 percent of the Hispanic vote. He did not demean or paw women. No presidential candidate has ever behaved and spoken the way Trump did. The rest of the country was entitled to assume his vulgarity, lies, bias and cruelty would be disqualifying. That they were not, but instead were rationalized, minimized or even lauded does not mean the anti-Trump side of America was dense. It means they thought better of their fellow Americans.
In short, Republican “elites” and Democrats would have disagreed with Trump’s policy prescriptions (which they took seriously — silly them!) but not been shocked or horrified by his win had this been a battle of policy plans. They were shocked and horrified because Trump won these people over by playing to their worst instincts. He dealt out xenophobia, racism, misogyny and contempt for science — and the Trumpkins ate it up. Trump defenders, and defenders of Trump supporters, argue this wasn’t about white nationalism or male resentment. If so, why were these the main tools Trump used to amp up his support?
Trump did what Republicans have long bemoaned. He played on class resentment. He told his voters America’s economy is a fixed pie; if “elites” get more, then they get less. He cultivated excuses for white, rural social decay and economic stagnation on behalf of voters who would surely reject such rationalizations for African American poverty.
Remember, a good deal of the opposition to Trump on the right went to his character and the noxious hatreds he was stirring up in the populace. Objecting to his appeals does not make one culturally insensitive; it makes one a decent person.
The way Trump won the race — with zero respect for the truth, with contempt for nonwhite voters, with assaults on our democracy — the #NeverTrump forces fear will now be the rule, not the exception, in presidential politics. That he won (it worked!) is no cause for recriminations against the #NeverTrump forces. It actually proves their point: Public figures who behave this way tear the fabric of our country and undermine democratic values. And Trump has done just that — because it was the only way he knew to get the approval of the Trumpkins. He was certain they were not above vile tactics; he was right. Congratulations, Trumpkins: You never go wrong underestimating the American people.
Just as his critics predicted, however, Trump’s vague and fantastical promises are already colliding with reality. Obamacare isn’t going to get repealed — at least not all of it, he says. Rounding up 11-12M people does not seem to be on his list of top priorities. His team is coming to the realization the Iran deal will not be ripped up on his first day in office. If Trumpkins discover Trump is just another pol who sold them a bill of goods, how will they react? We will find out in the months ahead.
Some thoughts about ideology are in order. Just as Democrats need a sane Republican Party, Republicans need a responsible Democratic Party. Should the Democratic Party decide Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who marketed many of the same economic fallacies as Trump, was “right,” Democrats may well go off the ideological deep end, giving Americans the choice between right-wing populism and democratic socialism. No thanks.
We in the center-right sincerely hope that doesn’t happen. The best way to constrain Trump would be a viable, appealing center-left alternative with whom he must compete for votes. If, however, the Democratic Party re-visits its pre-Bill Clinton errors, there nevertheless is a backup.
If one party goes far, far left and the other goes nativist-populist, the center-left and center-right would need to join forces and put forth an alternative that fills in a huge ideological gap. They would:
- Refuse to favor one-half of America over the other;
- Advance responsible internationalism;
- Understand the benefits and the downsides of centralized power,
- Take the Constitution seriously;
- Support civil rights and practice civility;
- Defend free markets but also programs that combat poverty and promote upward mobility; and
- Urge we invest in human capital so we can thrive in a globalized economy, not inveigh against modernity.
If neither party is going to support that kind of approach, there likely will be a crisis in governance and a felt need for an alternative. Those who voted for Hillary Clinton and those who voted for Mitt Romney — but saw through the flights of political fancy Sanders and Trump indulged in — will need to find each other, champion these common-sense polices and practice public civility. They might even need to form a new political party.
We need determined champions of moderation, fervent defenders of centrism and an unwavering commitment to decency, kindness and empathy. That’s ultimately the only place from which to govern a complicated, diverse country and to cool tempers and dampen resentments. Eventually, we hope, that’s where this will all wind up.