Year in review: Americans wanted change and, with Trump, they got it

  • A campaign rally for Donald Trump in Mechanicsburg, Pa., on Aug. 1, 2016 (Dreamstime/Georgesheldon)

Part 1 of a three-part series looking back on the events of 2016

The dominant fact of our nation's political life this year was the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States. Still, I find myself walking down the street, reading the newspaper or scrolling through websites, and it hits me like a ton of bricks: This really happened. He really is going to be president. Other friends report similar experiences.

Much ink has been spilled on analysis of Trump the man and the candidate. And it is true that his unconventional campaign warrants serious analysis, not least because time and time again, it seemed he had overstepped the bounds not only of campaign etiquette but of human decency in ways that would have disqualified any other candidate.

Pollsters and pundits alike predicted he would be soundly defeated. No candidate with such high unfavorable ratings, and with such a dearth of relevant experience, had ever won the presidency. The emergence of a tape recording on which he bragged about sexually assaulting women seemed to confirm the prognosticators. There was simply no way this could happen. Yet, it did.

Elections are binary: You choose between two candidates and two messages. Trump won for a reason, a singular reason. While we in the media were focused on him, he was focused on his core message: He would bring change. Government was not only broken, but was fast breaking the country in its dysfunction, politicians didn't care about the people they were supposed to represent, indeed those politicians had betrayed America, and he alone could change it.

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When he violated a norm, it confirmed his willingness to not play by the rules, and the rules, he assured us, were rigged. Whenever he did something unpredictable, even when it was appalling, he reinforced the fact that he was a different kind of candidate and that he really was the one to bring about real change. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton touted her qualifications, which only reinforced the fact that she was the candidate of the establishment and the status quo.

Trump's core message of change affected two key groups of voters who proved decisive. To be sure, the vast majority of people who voted for Trump were Republicans and independents who lean Republican in every election. Both parties claim the allegiance of about 45-48 percent of the electorate. Democrats had hoped that enough highly educated, suburban Republicans, especially women, would be so revolted by Trump's misogyny and his affinity for alt-right racism that they would not support him. In the end, enough of them did support him that Clinton was unable to run up the large margins she needed in the suburbs.

This group of highly educated Republicans are plugged into the global economy in one way or another. The status quo has been reasonably good to them. But they may be conservative on social issues and worried about four more years of liberal court appointments and a Democratic attorney general making a federal case out of which bathroom transgender children use in local schools.

Some are small-business people who have borne the brunt of government regulations that President Barack Obama never even tried to rein in as Bill Clinton had done in the 1990s. Many of them likely formed a negative opinion about Hillary Clinton when they were voting for Bob Dole in 1996 or George H.W. Bush in 1992.

They expressed concerns about Trump but, in the end, they voted for him, no doubt hoping that Republicans in Congress would serve as a mitigating force to keep him from doing anything too crazy.

I am sympathetic with people who hold different political calculations from my own, or who estimate values differently from the way I do. But I still have a hard time forgiving this group of educated Republicans who should have known better. They have vested a narcissist with enormous discretionary power.

Indeed, they have risked the values they claim to hold dear by placing Trump in a custodial role over the party that has championed those values: Limited government, family values, free trade and a strong national defense are all threatened by this man's erratic and idiosyncratic behaviors. More Republicans should have followed the lead of Michael Gerson and other principled conservatives into the "Never Trump" movement, which turned out not to be a movement at all.

The second group of voters who delivered the White House to Trump has received a great deal of attention since the election: white, blue-collar workers. The neoliberal order has not been kind to them and they saw Clinton as a representative of that order, not without reason. (By the end of his term, Obama, too, was seen as more inclined to accept the premises of neoliberalism than to contest them.)

These voters wondered why Clinton always talked about her plan to make college affordable but never said much about those kids who would not be going to college, their kids. They wondered why Obama lit up the White House in the colors of the rainbow flag when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, and were hard-pressed to think of anything the president had done, even symbolically, to highlight their lives.

Democrats had grown detached from large swaths of rural America. In one of the best analyses of the Democrats' trouncing in rural parts, Dan Balz quoted Katherine Cramer of the University of Wisconsin: "I would say it's not speaking to people," Cramer explained. "There's so much respect that has to be conveyed to people before they start listening to the message."

"From the causal point of view, symbolism appears as a sort of short-circuit of thought," wrote the great Dutch historian Johan Huizinga. "Instead of looking for the relation between two things by following the hidden detours of their causal connections, thought makes a leap and discovers their relation not in a connection of cause and effects, but in a connection of signification." Clinton and Obama both spoke about the circumstances of the Rust Belt, when they spoke about it at all, in antiseptic, clinical terms: globalization, demographics, the free flow of capital. Trump said he would make America great again, evoking memories of good jobs at the mill, and these people remember when their America was certainly greater than it is now. And there were a lot of them.

The most stunning statistic about the 2016 election is this: Of the 676 counties that voted for Obama twice, 209 flipped and voted for Trump. I called attention to polling in Luzerne County, Pa., the area around Wilkes-Barre, back in the spring. Obama won the county by five points four years ago. Trump beat Clinton by 19 points this year.

Many commentators on the left disparage these blue-collar workers, noting that they are "low-information voters." In one sense, this is true. Sarah Kliff, at Vox, went to Kentucky after the election, a state that has benefited hugely from Obamacare yet voted overwhelmingly for Trump. "I guess I thought that, you know, he would not do this, he would not take health care away knowing that it would affect so many people's lives," Debbie Mills, an Obamacare enrollee who voted for Trump, told Kliff. "I mean, what are you to do then if you cannot pay for insurance?"

It is impossible to calculate the degree to which Trump's emergence onto the national stage first as a reality TV star affected people's inclination to take him at his word, but surely the bipartisan admixture of politics and celebrity has blurred important lines in our culture.

And if Trump's lack of concern for facticity was a product of his background in reality television, Democrats' inability to communicate effectively has been hobbled by their conflation of politics and marketing.

Hillary Clinton, especially, seemed to have absorbed the norms of "media training" a little too much. Media training teaches you to stay on message, refuse to answer questions you do not want to answer, to keep from making a major blunder on tape. Over time, the dodging slides into an obvious lack of candor. Voters noticed and became far more willing to forgive Trump his frequent verbal missteps and deepen their distrust of Clinton.

The collapse of the neoliberal order is not a bad thing, but that does not mean it will be replaced by something better. The internal contradictions of neoliberalism, like those of communism, were bound to collapse upon themselves. But while neoliberalism betrayed the humane ideals it touted, at least it aspired to a humane vision. The danger is that its replacement will play instead to the darker sentiments of the human soul, and that Trump will pull off just enough news stories, like his negotiating with Caterpillar to save jobs in Indiana, to keep people convinced that his success warrants tolerating his flaws. The fact that Caterpillar still sent as many jobs to Mexico as Trump "saved" for Indiana will be lost in footnotes, and low-information voters don't read footnotes.

As the year comes to a close, it is foolish to think Trump will not find a way to be "successful," but it is equally foolish not to worry that his version of success will be morally vicious.

Our democracy is not as healthy as many of us thought. It is prone to the same right-wing populism that has been gaining ground in Europe.

Citizens identify as consumers first and foremost and, as Obama famously observed, they like "that new car smell." There is no provision for a test drive in our constitutional order. The American people wanted change and they got it, but they got a lot more, much of it ugly, much of it dangerous. How Trump will manage the whirlwind he has ridden into office remains to be seen.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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