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Trump’s inauguration signals the start of America’s real political rebuild

With Donald Trump as president, it will be up to the Democrats to call out his blunders. But, as Stephen Blank writes, this cannot be their entire project.

By: /
19 January, 2017
The U.S. Capitol is seen during a rehearsal for the inauguration ceremony of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump in Washington, U.S., January 15, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
By: Stephen Blank

 Senior fellow, University of Ottawa 

Some folks here in the United States make fun of The Donald (not difficult). Others lose sleep and have become impossible dinner guests. A dear friend scours the Internet, and devours every tidbit that shows Trump to be stupid, misogynistic, racist, an egoist, a madman, demented. One European ambassador describes a particular post-election cocktail party filled with Boston-Washington Corridor liberals who lamented, “People are so dumb.” His host, a well-known journalist, beside herself with rage, pressed him to denounce Trump. Elsewhere, favourite journalists compete to see who can piss most cleverly on Trump’s shoes.

As of Friday, Trump will be president. No last-minute reprieve. “Legitimate?” “Russian interference?” “Millions of illegal voters?” All consigned to the waste bin of history. Despite the criticism thrown at him, he will probably not reveal his taxes or sell his businesses. His polling as President-elect may have hit historic lows, but he’s there.  

The Trumpestian pre-inauguration tumult is basically over. But before the real show begins, let’s take a look at the wider political situation. 

Hillary Clinton might have won — perhaps if she had spent less time attacking Trump, and more time focusing on the issues that motivated so many Americans to vote for him. Her popular vote “victory” reveals the task Democrats face. She ran up large majorities mainly in Northeast and West Coast urban centres but lost in core rust belt states. She won in her key constituencies — Latinos, African-Americans, millennials — but by shares that were less than Obama received in 2012. She took only 45 percent of white college grads. Everyone expected that Democrats — even reasonable Republicans! — would drag themselves to the polls to vote against Trump. Nonetheless, even against Trump, the Democratic share of the national vote fell in 2016 by three percentage points compared to 2012.    

If Clinton had won, she would have almost certainly faced a Republican Congress. Maybe she might have carried a slim majority in the Senate, but it would not have been sufficient to ensure a majority after the 2018 interim elections, when Democratic Senators will be particularly vulnerable. Republican control of the House was unassailable.

 The states tell an even grimmer and longer-term story. Republicans now control more than two-thirds of the 98 state legislatures organized by political party — more than at any time in GOP history. In 2008, at the start of the Obama years, Democrats dominated state governments. From 2009 to 2017, the Democratic share in state senates decreased from 53 percent to 42 percent, in state houses from 57 percent to 43 percent. Twenty-four of the states with Republican-controlled legislatures also have Republican governors. For readers who recall the halcyon days of baseball, over the past decade, Republicans have come to own the U.S. political system’s farm teams. 

The Democratic base has shrunk geographically. The U.S. is made up of 3,100 counties. In 1992 and 1996, Bill Clinton carried nearly half of them. In 2000, Al Gore won the popular vote, but carried only 700 counties. In 2012, Barack Obama won only 700 counties, but ran up large majorities in key urban counties in major swing states to win in the Electoral College. In 2016, Clinton carried fewer than 500 counties — perhaps fewer than any popular vote winner in the past century — and she did not bring out enough voters to win in key swing states, even in her own Blue Wall states.

“To many Trump voters, he was the true conservative.”

Ron Brownstein, in The Atlanticwrites, “In the decisive states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, the electoral map was a sea of Republican red interrupted only by lonely blue islands in big cities and college towns.”  

Clinton won 88 of the nation’s 100 most populous counties. The counties she carried account for almost two-thirds of the nation’s 2015 economic activity. She won in urban, younger, more diverse, “high-output” America. But in the rest of the country, Trump outscored her by 11.5 million votes. These numbers reveal clearly the depth of the red-blue division in the U.S.

Americans who voted for Trump were whiter, older and more religious. At the county level, the picture is more vivid. Of the 250 counties in the U.S. with the most white people, 249 voted for Trump. Of the 250 counties with the most older people, 241 voted for Trump. Trump voters were less educated, less urban, less Internet-connected, even, it seems, less healthy.  

But why did they vote for him? For many people, fear seems to have been a primary driver — fear that they were falling behind, that the American promise of getting ahead had been betrayed, that the economic and political system were “rigged” in favour of the connected, the rich, the powerful. They were angry that “others” seemed to be reaping the benefits that they were paying for. To many Trump voters, I think, he was the true conservative. He promised to restore traditional values, to recreate old jobs, to return America to a better time. Clinton was viewed as the radical, determined to push the Obama program of profound social and cultural change that would leave them and their children even further behind.  

Where do we go from here?

What’s ahead? Both parties are in meltdown. The ownership of the Republican Party is totally up for grabs. It seems unlikely that this increasingly self-aware, newly self-confident and, almost certainly, more aggressive conservative-populist-Trumpist right will be absorbed by what remains of the GOP. Indeed, the future of the GOP will be a critical question over the next few years, and the struggle to define and control these forces will certainly be one of the most important dimensions in U.S. politics in the next years.

On the Democratic side, a lurch to the left may satisfy some. But there’s no majority out there. Indeed, in our deeply polarized polity, there’s no obvious majority anywhere.  

Moreover, the technological revolution that has jettisoned many blue and, as well, white and pink collar jobs is not ending. The animal spirit Trump promises to release by cutting regulations and taxes is not likely to be gentle to American workers. “America First” trade policies to force more domestic production is likely to lead most firms to replace labour with more capital intensive systems to maintain global competitiveness. The political divide between the densest economic centres and the rest of the country is unlikely to narrow.

The 2016 election suggests the crystallization of longer terms trends toward the emergence of ideologically homogenous communities with specific economic characteristics that disconnect from communities with different physical, economic and social profiles. (I suspect that these patterns would be even clearer if we looked at state politics.)

If this is the case, does it mean the creation of more rigid and indissoluble blocs in the U.S. political system? Certainly, the historical process of American political life in which large, inclusive political parties compete for centre voters and are able to absorb fringe groups under their umbrellas has been eroding. Is this the end of that process?

Democrats must call out Trump’s blunders and his misstatements. But this cannot be their entire project.

In his recent book, The Populist Explosion, John Judis observes, “In the United States, in contrast to Europe, these campaigns have burst forth suddenly and unexpectedly. Usually short-lived, nevertheless they have had an outsized impact… As a result of the two-party tilt toward the center.” But there are times, he continues, “when, in the face of dramatic changes in the society and economy or in America’s place in the world, voters have suddenly become responsive to politicians or movements that raise issues that major parties have either downplayed or ignored.” 

Will these new forces pull the political spectrum to the right? Could one imagine, if Trump fails to “Make America Great Again,” that the groups that supported him in 2016 will look to a more radical leader, to someone who will pledge to be the “true” Trump?

Democrats will have to deal with this reality. The wise ambassador says that good diplomats are able to put themselves in others’ minds, to see the world as they do. Starting with the idea that Trump voters are dumb isn’t going to do it. Nor is focusing on Trump’s personal and ethical failings. Many people voted for him despite these failings, because they believed that he would respond to their concerns and interests and that Clinton would not.

Of course, Democrats must call out Trump’s blunders and his misstatements. But this cannot be their entire project. Rebuilding state and local organizations must be at the top of their agenda. For a party that talks about change and modernization, the Democratic leadership is largely old. They need to bring up newer, younger faces. And they will have to create programs that respond meaningfully to the concerns of people who voted for Trump — on jobs, trade, social programs, education. They will have to put themselves in the shoes of people who are fearful of social and economic changes now underway.

Clinton frequently said that she was listening to Americans. It appears that she and her campaign didn’t hear very well. For Democrats, this shouldn’t mean a shift to the right. It should mean building policies for the post-Obama era that create new bridges across the polarized polity.

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