WASHINGTON: Historian Douglas Brinkley of Rice University describes the unexpected victory of Donald Trump as a social revolution comparable only to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. “There’s been nothing like this in our lifetime,” said the respected authority on the presidency.
Pollsters and pundits—including myself—were completely wrong-footed. In retrospect there were signals that were missed. In my case two days before the election I drove west from Washington to take in the autumn colors. From DC to the distant suburb of Leesburg 90% of the lawn signs were for Hillary. Past Leesburg they abruptly shifted to the darker blue of Trump and Pence, a trend that continued into Winchester near the borders of Maryland and West Virginia. I dismissed these clues even though the plethora of Trump signs persisted through western Maryland.
Could it be that the nation’s capital where I live is a bubble out of touch with the rest of the country? After all citizens of the District voted 93% for Hillary. In the close in Maryland and Virginia suburbs the Clinton margin exceeded 82%.
Chris Cillizza, political commentator at the Washington Post, calls the Trump victory the biggest upset in presidential history. Historian Brinkley invokes Bob Dylan’s 1965 Ballad of a Thin Man where uptight Mr. Jones couldn’t cope with social change. Trump, he says, repackaged the tricks of the counterculture to funnel populist rage against the establishment.
Hillary Clinton blames her defeat on FBI director James Comey. She claims Comey’s pre-election announcement first reopening and then closing investigations into her private emails broke her upwards momentum. While there must be truth to that assertion, the reality is that Clinton was a deeply unpopular candidate.
Over the past year 70% of Americans persistently told pollsters that they disapproved of the direction the country was moving, Trump—despite his deep negatives—became the candidate of change.
Hillary Clinton failed to mobilize traditional Democratic constituencies. The essential black vote was down substantially from four years ago and the expected surge among Hispanic voters didn’t materialize. Amazingly, Clinton’s message of continuity failed even to resonate with white women, 53% of whom voted for Trump versus 43% for Clinton.
Of course it is also true that Trump resonated in rural areas and among white men without college degrees. But that alone would not have won him a majority in the electoral college.
Issues that contributed heavily to the perception that the country is headed in the wrong direction were hostility to globalization and free trade agreements like NAFTA (North America Free Trade Agreement) and President Obama’s unratified TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership), opposed by Trump, Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
A visit to Springfield, Ohio, a once thriving industrial center near Dayton tells a story that should have been persuasive. Government statistics reveal that median family incomes in Clark County where Springfield is situated declined by 25% to $54,000 from 1999 to 2014. Several small manufacturing plants there closed and shifted operations to Mexico.
Similarly two communities in Indiana, Indianapolis and Huntington, will soon suffer significant losses of high paying jobs when the Carrier Corporation shifts controllers and furnace manufacturing to Mexico. Trump was vocal during the campaign, saying that as president he would either stop the move or make it difficult for Carrier’s parent, United Technologies.
Should we have been surprised that blue-collar workers in the upper Midwest voted for Trump?
Hostility to illegal immigration has triggered similar rejection of the status quo. Immigration is a complex issue and the media deserves blame for not differentiating among different kinds of immigration. Popular anger is aimed mostly at economic migrants, the unskilled, who walk across the southern border and work for lower wages. Their violation of law and general failure to learn English has triggered resentment. President Obama’s executive order halting deportation or granting amnesty is deeply unpopular.
Alone among advanced economies only the US debate fails to make distinctions between legal immigrants– family unification, H-IB work visas, and the like—and illegal border crossers who are economic migrants. Trump’s call for a wall and deportation stood in sharp contrast to Hillary’s embrace of Obama’s stance. As Chris Matthews said on Hardball following the election, inaction on immigration results from the de facto alliance between business that wants cheap labor and Democrats who want votes.
We who are members of the media elite living in bubbles like Washington were aghast at the election result. We shouldn’t have been.
We got half the equation right. We knew the country was divided, but we were wrong on the percentages. Change won, and as hard as it may be to understand,
Trump emerged as the agent of change.