As election 2016 winds to an end, it’s hard not to begin looking beyond Nov. 8. With Donald Trump behind in the polls and lashing out at the media, there is rampant speculation that Trump is laying the groundwork to launch his own media empire in the wake of his likely defeat. Yet, if he loses, Trump’s next move may well be less important than what’s in store for his supporters, whose long-simmering pain and rage have exploded into plain view.
It would be easy to dismiss Trump’s supporters as “deplorables” and simply move on. But while Trump has undeniably incited racism, misogyny and ugly behavior among his base, it’s critical to understand the context in which their fury has come to the fore.
The U.S. and global economies are in the midst of a tectonic shift. This election — along with Brexit and the spread of nationalism across Europe — has made it impossible to deny that millions of people are desperate for solutions and demanding to be heard. They are tired of being ignored by the elites who have failed them. For Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party, the lesson of 2016 should not be that Trump voters are irredeemable. It should be that by paying more attention to the plight of blue-collar workers, and offering inclusive solutions to the great challenges roiling our country and the world, they have a real opportunity to expand the Obama coalition of minorities and young people who make up the Democratic base today.
Trump supporters disproportionately live in places where economic mobility is low and opportunities for young people in particular are scarce. Over the past two decades, the incomes of white men without a college degree — the one group Trump is winning by strong margins — have fallen dramatically in comparison to the incomes of their more educated counterparts. Meanwhile, as new trade deals increase foreign competition and technology continues to advance, the good-paying jobs that traditionally sustained the middle class in many parts of the country are disappearing forever. Disruption may be sexy in Silicon Valley, but it doesn’t look nearly as attractive from the factory floor.
As surreal as it may seem to some, Trump has convinced many working-class voters that he feels their pain. He has offered simple, albeit hollow, solutions (“we’ll build a wall!”) to their problems despite his own history of employing undocumented workers, manufacturing products overseas and importing Chinese steel. And of course, he has shamefully stoked racial fears and resentment in the process.
A serious progressive agenda should grapple with the grave challenges that many Trump supporters face. To that end, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — who won strong support from working-class whites in the primaries — offered a useful blueprint. To start, we need a more progressive trade policy that gives priority to working people over corporate lobbyists and profits. As Roosevelt Institute fellow Mike Konczal argues, a truly progressive vision for trade would not embrace Trump’s retrograde protectionism but would strengthen workers’ rights and preserve the ability of countries to regulate multinational corporations. We also need debt-free college to increase opportunities for the next generation. And we need “Medicare for all” to create more security and flexibility as the traditional nature of work evolves.
While these ideas are represented in the Democratic platform, progressives should fight to ensure that Clinton and the party act on these ideas moving forward. Moreover, they will have to speak directly to communities that have been ravaged, with a message that truly recognizes and respects their anger and pain.
As University of California at Berkeley law professor Ian Haney-López recently wrote in the Nation, “Remaking our politics and economy depends on a broad coalition that must include substantial numbers of racially anxious whites. Ignoring their fears, or worse, pandering to them, further impoverishes all of us. Instead, we must have a unified message for whites as well as people of color: Fearful of one another, we too easily hand over power to moneyed interests, but working together, we can rebuild the American Dream.”
Whatever happens when the votes are counted in two weeks, it will be a political and moral imperative for Democrats to start paying attention to many of Trump’s supporters and working to advance an inclusive populism that gives them hope for their future. If they fail, it’s only a matter of time before a more polished, less toxic Trump emerges and threatens to drag us all back into the past.