A one-term president? Don't count Trump out

This story appears in the Transition to Trump feature series. View the full series.
President-elect Donald Trump addresses the crowd in Hershey, Pa., on Dec. 15, 2016, at a stop on his "USA Thank You Tour." (Wikimedia Commons/Michael Vadon)
President-elect Donald Trump addresses the crowd in Hershey, Pa., on Dec. 15, 2016, at a stop on his "USA Thank You Tour." (Wikimedia Commons/Michael Vadon)

by Thomas Reese

View Author Profile

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts to Letters to the Editor. Learn more

Editor's note: Jesuit Fr. Tom Reese, NCR's senior analyst, wrote an extended essay titled "The Election of Donald Trump" for the Jesuit-operated, Vatican-approved magazine La Civiltà Cattolica. A German version is published in the Jesuit journal Stimmen der Zeit. The full essay is here; following are excerpts.

Why did Trump win?

The first thing that needs to be acknowledged is that [Hillary] Clinton faced a high bar in her quest for the presidency. Political parties in the United States historically get only one or two terms in the White House before the other party wins the presidency. A rare exception was the 1988 election of George H.W. Bush after the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

Clinton had history against her. Without a robust economy supporting her election, it was hard to beat back the tendency of voters to vote for change. Although the economy was in much better shape than eight years ago, improvement had been slow and people were not satisfied. She was seen as more of the same while Trump was the candidate of change.

In the recovering economy, some people had prospered but many had not. Especially left out of the recovery were the less-educated, blue-collar workers and rural areas of the country. Many of these blue-collar workers had voted for Barack Obama, but they felt that their lives had not improved. They remembered the good old days when a factory worker could earn enough to be part of the middle class. They also worried about the future of their children who, they feared, would not do as well economically as they had.

These people felt abandoned and betrayed by both parties. They were open to candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump who expressed their rage at the establishment of investors, bankers and politicians who ignored their concerns.

Both Sanders and Trump attacked globalization and free trade for the decline in factory jobs. Clinton eventually did the same in response to political pressure. The consensus among economists, Washington experts, and politicians in both parties has been in favor of free trade. But little was done for workers who lost their jobs to Mexico and China or to increased mechanization in the workplace, which economists think reduced jobs even more than globalization.

Whatever the cause of job loss, in every election the parties promised to help workers in the so-called Rust Belt of the upper Midwest, but nothing improved. They felt betrayed and disrespected. They were attracted to a candidate like Donald Trump who expressed their anger.

Pundits were surprised that a New York City billionaire could become the voice of rural and blue-collar America. In reality, these folks hate professionals more than they hate rich people. They rarely come into contact with people as rich as Donald Trump, but they regularly meet professional people who are constantly telling them what to do. Doctors tell them what they can and cannot eat. Teachers tell them how to raise their children. Government officials tell them what they can and cannot do. Lawyers are harassing them for one reason or another. Hollywood and the media make fun of their religion and values. All these experts think they know what is best for these people. The people were fed up with these arrogant know-it-alls.

Trump spoke a language they understood. He was blunt, coarse, spoke in hyperbole, and condemned political correctness. He would have easily fit in at any neighborhood bar or gathering place. He first learned this culture from construction workers putting up his father's buildings. And while these were not the people who came to his upscale hotels, they were the people who went to his casinos and the wrestling matches he sponsored as well as the people who watched his TV programs. He instinctively knew how to connect with them.

Pundits underestimated the enthusiasm of the Trump supporters. Mark Gray [from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a Catholic research institute located at Georgetown University] recalls driving through Pennsylvania a couple of months before the election. There were Trump signs everywhere but none for Clinton. "These were rural areas, granted, but I think a lot of people in the media don't get out into those areas and see the energy," he says. "I imagine the same kind of thing was evident in places like Michigan and Wisconsin," he continues. "This rural vote was to some extent something that people didn't necessarily think about. It wasn't necessarily captured accurately in the polls."

Some accused the Trump supporters of racism. There certainly were some racists among his supporters, and his campaign did little to turn them away. Certainly, his anti-immigration rhetoric was aimed at the fear of the "other." But when people are worried about having a job, it should not surprise us when they fear anyone who could be a competitor.

The Democratic Party strategy has been to get out their base by appealing to blacks, Hispanics, LGBTQ persons, and women. When a white working-class person hears this rhetoric, he hears the Democrats saying that they will take his job and give it to one of these minorities. Or he fears that they will get preference over his son in employment or at a university. Who is looking out for him and his family, he asks. If he says this out loud, he is accused of racism by the liberal establishment.

Republicans have been playing on this fear since at least the time of Richard Nixon, but they did little for the working class economically other than promise that jobs would be created by cutting taxes for corporations and the rich. This did not work. Meanwhile, Democrats promised job training, which was never adequately funded, and told people to move from old neighborhoods and communities to look for jobs in parts of the country where they could not afford housing. No wonder the working class kept switching parties every couple of elections.

Not only were Trump supporters enthusiastic, Clinton supporters did not turn out and vote for her in the numbers she needed.

For example, experts were predicting a tsunami of Hispanic voters who would punish Trump and other Republicans for their anti-immigrant rhetoric. Turnout of Hispanic voters appears to have been up slightly, but they did not punish Trump. In fact, they voted for Trump (29 percent) slightly more than they voted for Mitt Romney (27 percent) four years earlier. (Some Hispanic pollsters believe the media exit polls are wrong and that Hispanics voted more strongly for Clinton, but that is a debate I will leave to the statisticians.)

It appears the Hispanic pushback peaked four years ago. People forget that the Hispanic vote is not monolithic. Cuban Americans have tended to vote more Republican. As refugees or the children of refugees, they have a special status and have no fear of being deported. Likewise, Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens and not subject to deportation. Cubans and Puerto Ricans make up a large part of the Hispanic population in Florida. Many other Hispanics have been citizens for generations and do not fear deportation. ...

Most evangelical leaders opposed Trump in the Republican primaries and supported candidates like Sen. Ted Cruz. They doubted the sincerity of his recent conversion to the pro-life movement and were appalled by his divorces and casinos. They saw that religion was not important to Trump. But their people loved Trump. It should be remembered that evangelical leaders were no more successful in 2008 or 2012. They proved to be generals without troops. After he got the nomination, many of them came around to supporting him; politics was more important than theology.

The election even caused most evangelicals to change their views on the importance of personal morality in politics. During the presidency of Bill Clinton, sexual impropriety was considered a disqualifier by evangelicals. They no longer felt that way when Trump was the candidate. They gave little credence to his critics and were ready to forgive him for any indiscretions.

The Trump victory was also a defeat for the Democratic political strategist who said the Democrats could win by getting out their base through the use of data mobilization. This strategy argues that if you put all your potential supporters (blacks, Hispanics, women, LGBTQ and other minorities) in a database and contact them frequently, you can get them out to vote. The strategy seemed to work well for Obama in 2008 and 2012.

Clinton had a huge data mobilization machine for getting out the vote in key states. Trump had nothing comparable, but he won. This led Mark Gray to question whether it was the machine or the candidate that got out the vote for Obama. The machine could not make up for the shortcomings of Clinton as a candidate. Trump did not need a machine. His voters came out on their own.

What does a Trump victory mean for the future of American politics?

On the surface, it looks like a Republican electoral sweep which will allow them to enact their priorities. But Trump the campaigner was not a typical Republican. He ran against the Republican establishment and took positions on trade, Wall Street, infrastructure spending, and Social Security that are opposed by Republican leaders. He did not make gay marriage and abortion central to his campaign. Many Republican leaders opposed him even after he was nominated, although now that he has won, most have come around.

As president, will Trump heal his rift with the Republican establishment and work with the Republican Congress to pass traditional Republican legislation? Probably. They will undoubtedly agree to cut taxes, but how this will sync with their fear of deficits remains to be seen. Their common desire to repeal Obamacare will come up against the popularity of some of its features, such as requiring insurance companies to cover pre-existing illnesses. How they can keep this popular policy while getting rid of the unpopular requirement that everyone buy insurance remains to be seen.

In any case, now that the Republicans control the White House and both houses of Congress, it will be difficult for them to blame the Democrats for the country's problems. The Democrats will hold them responsible for anything that goes wrong. Trump has the additional problem of avoiding the appearance of a conflict of interest with all of his domestic and foreign investments.

Trump faces the common problem of all candidates of figuring out how to fulfill all of his unrealistic campaign promises. Trump is less ideological than your typical Republican libertarian or religious conservative. He may be capable of switching positions or compromising on issues where they could not. He has already begun backing away from some of his more controversial promises, like putting Hillary Clinton in jail and deporting 11 million undocumented immigrants.

But if he does not fulfill his promises, then he becomes just another politician who promised the sky and delivered little. If he loses credibility with his supporters, he could be out of office in four years. On the other hand, everyone has underestimated Trump, so don't count him out.

There is also the question of whether his supporters actually expect him to do everything he said. One political observer noted that his supporters took him seriously but not literally, while his opponents took him literally but not seriously.

If we take him literally, undocumented immigrants are going to be deported, environmental regulations are going to be gutted, global warming is going to be ignored, Muslims will be required to prove they are not terrorists or terrorist sympathizers, NATO countries are going to have to pick up more of the cost of their defense, and trade agreements are going to be challenged to make them more favorable to the U.S.

The U.S. business community is terrified that Trump will get the country into a trade war that could bring down the global economy. The American scientific community fears he will ignore any facts that conflict with his opinions. The American security establishment fears that he will alienate allies and that Putin will run circles around him. They also fear his anti-Muslim rhetoric will feed into the ISIS narrative that there is a war on Islam.

On the other hand, Trump prides himself as a negotiator and dealmaker. Could he and [Vladimir] Putin negotiate a further reduction in nuclear weapons? Remember, it was under Ronald Reagan that the U.S. and Russia concluded two important arms reduction treaties, the INF Treaty (1987) and START 1 (1991). Could they resolve the Syrian crisis? Could they bring about an ease of tension in Europe?

But unless the economy improves significantly, the Republicans' chances of holding on to the White House long term will be low. Demographers point out that the country is becoming more diverse and less white, not only because of immigration but because minorities are having more children than whites. In addition, young people are more inclusive than their parents. Red states like Texas and Georgia, which now vote Republican, will become purple and eventually blue (Democratic). Can the Republicans make up for this loss by holding on to the Trump shrinking constituency of less-educated whites? Can Republicans take more Hispanics away from the Democrats?

Although the Democratic future looks brighter for the White House, for the House of Representatives it is still bleak. The problem is that most Democrats are located on the two coasts and in urban areas where their votes are wasted. Meanwhile in large sections of the country, the rural vote still rules. America will continue to be divided on highly partisan lines. Washington gridlock may continue if the Democrats retake the White House.

What will be the role of the church in the coming years?

The role of the U.S. bishops in the coming years will be interesting to watch. The Catholic church is one of the few national institutions that has an almost equal number of Republicans and Democrats. It also has Hispanics, whites and blacks as well as members of every economic and educational class. It is therefore well-placed to help reconcile and heal the nation of its divides. When he visited the United States, Pope Francis encouraged the bishops to dialogue with society and to avoid harsh and divisive language. But many Democrats believe that the bishops have tilted in favor of the Republicans in recent years.

American Catholic bishops traditionally do not endorse candidates or political parties, although some have indirectly signaled their support for Republicans because of their opposition to abortion and gay marriage. Trump would not have been their preferred candidate any more than he was the preferred candidate of evangelical leaders. They distrusted his recent conversion away from being pro-choice. And they were appalled by his anti-immigrant rhetoric. The bishops recognize that the future of Catholicism in the United States is with Hispanics since 54 percent of millennial Catholics (those born 1982 or later) are Hispanic or Latino.

But once Trump became the nominee, their antipathy toward Clinton's positions on abortion and gay rights led a few bishops to issue statements that it was wrong for a Catholic to vote for someone who is pro-choice. They quoted from Paragraph 34 in their document "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship" that reads:

A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who favors a policy promoting an intrinsically evil act, such as abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, deliberately subjecting workers or the poor to subhuman living conditions, redefining marriage in ways that violate its essential meaning, or racist behavior, if the voter's intent is to support that position.

They denied that such statements were endorsements of Trump, but as often as not, they skipped Paragraph 35, which reads:

There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate's unacceptable position even on policies promoting an intrinsically evil act may reasonably decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons.

Clearly, these bishops did not think there were other morally grave reasons that outweighed Clinton's support for abortion. Just over half (52 percent) of Catholics voted for Trump, according to the media exit poll.

At the annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore after the election, the bishops appeared to be as surprised and unprepared for the Trump victory as other Americans. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston, the newly elected president of the USCCB, thought the bishops would be happy with judicial appointments of the Trump presidency. The bishops thought the Republicans would be more receptive to their opposition to government programs that force Catholic institutions to do things contrary to the conscience, especially in the area of bioethics.

But the bishops also issued a letter calling on the new president "to continue to protect the inherent dignity of refugees and migrants." The bishops also elected Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, a Mexican immigrant, as [the U.S. Catholic bishops' conference] vice president. He will undoubtedly be elected [bishops' conference] president in three years. Since the two [bishops' conference] leaders come from California and Texas, the two states with the most immigrants, immigration will not take a backseat with the U.S. bishops.

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is treesesj@ncronline.org.]

Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Thomas Reese's column, Faith and Justice, is posted. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert sign-up.

Latest News


1x per dayDaily Newsletters
1x per weekWeekly Newsletters
2x WeeklyBiweekly Newsletters