Suddenly, the world feels more unstable and dangerous. More than 60% of voters believed Donald Trump was both unqualified and temperamentally unsuited to be president. Millions harbored grave doubts yet voted for him anyway. So the election result resembles an unprecedented crapshoot. Political developments such as mass deportations of illegal immigrants, a wall at the Mexican border, repudiation of the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal, potential trade wars with China or Mexico, a very conservative tilt at the Supreme Court, further tax cuts for the wealthy exacerbating income inequality, the denial of climate change and the dismantling of the Affordable Care Act, appear likely. With a Republican majority in both houses of Congress, Trump will be able to roll back or undo many of Barack Obama’s legislative achievements. Suddenly, all bets are off. It is nothing less than astonishing.
There is no one single explanation for the outcome. Some see it as a “white lash” against the Obama presidency and changing national demographics, while others understand it to be an expression of anxiety about electing a very smart and capable woman. Certainly, there is an urgent need to maintain national conversations about racial justice and gender equality in our political and personal lives. Insisting on these dialogues transcends a politically correct attitude or a preoccupation with identity politics. They remain central to any progressive Democratic agenda.
But we cannot ignore the impact of socioeconomic class. While most pundits continue to offer a bland cliché about Trump being a change candidate versus Clinton representing the status quo, Michael Moore, in his recent film about “Trumpland”, argued Trump would win because many construed their vote as an “anger management tool” after being ignored by Republican and Democratic elites. Their support would be like heaving a political Molotov cocktail to blow the system up.
Even though the economy is light years ahead of where it was eight years ago, after the last Republican administration left it in shambles, too many working families believe that nobody represents their economic interests in Washington. Seen this way, the election result reflects a perfect storm of race, gender and class, orchestrated to perfection by a celebrity outsider who ran a maverick populist campaign playing to the pronounced fear and outrage felt by millions.
Plant closings across the industrial heartland, resulting in significant job loss and declining living standards, devastated working and middle class families and their communities over a period of decades. Both Trump and Sanders acknowledged the economic anguish of these families and organized their campaigns around it, while Clinton was perceived, rightly or wrongly, as being insufficiently attuned and responsive to it.
As Michael Moore noted in his movie, Donald Trump told Ford executives that if they closed American plants and relocated production in Mexico, he would levy tariffs on cars produced there for the US market. He threatened to make those cars so expensive, nobody would buy them. To my knowledge, no other presidential candidate has ever talked that way to officers of a major corporation. Whether or not he had the legal authority under NAFTA to make good on his promise, employees and their families waited a long time for someone to issue this kind of ultimatum to their bosses. Trump’s populist message was sweet music to the ears of workers across the rust belt that felt Bill Clinton cost them jobs when he signed NAFTA into law in 1994.
As many Trump supporters believed he was the only candidate who understood their anger and resentment, they cut him a tremendous amount of slack. So comments and incidents that would have quickly ended the political aspirations of any other candidate did not deter Trump’s fortunes. Many voters, including a majority of white women, dismissed or ignored the campaign’s unseemly moments because he stood up for their economic interests and voiced their pent up rage towards an unresponsive political system.
The alarming takeaway from this election is that many working and middle class men and women no longer believe the Democratic Party represents their interests. This time around, many placed their hopes on Trump when he accused China of “raping” the US economy or argued NAFTA was horrible for US workers. But the economic upheaval experienced by working and middle class Trump voters does not stem from a trade deal engineered by government or prevailing tax rates. Accordingly, scrapping NAFTA or rejecting the proposed TPP and lowering corporate tax rates will not recover lost jobs.
The simple inconvenient truth is this: private enterprises seek to lower their production costs and to fatten their bottom lines. Companies relocate to Mexico, China or elsewhere because loyalty to higher profits trumps any loyalty to workers, their families and communities. The global economic system based on the private marketplace has never been warm or fuzzy. It is always cruel and devastating, ruthless and relentless, demanding continual technological change and entrepreneurial risk taking. Since its inception, individuals, private companies and nation states have been among the glittering winners and ruined losers.
In this election, those ruined by a ceaseless global economic battle have spoken. How will progressive Democrats respond? Will they initiate a national conversation about the underlying meaning of “It’s the economy, stupid” to explain and address the root causes of chronic job loss, stagnating wages and worsening income inequality? The central challenge before them will be to elaborate a cogent narrative that responds to the anguish of working families with concrete policy recommendations that distinguish them from the political right. As Republicans repeat their mantra of tax cuts for the wealthy and fiscal austerity, they are clearly aligned with the 1%. Where do Democrats stand? Because so many remain unable to answer this question, we witnessed the most stunning political outcome in recent memory.
Neal Aponte, Ph.D.,
Editor of Delano