SENIOR STAFF WRITER
How did Trump become President? The answer is simple: privileged liberal elites, both Democrat and Republican, misunderstood and underestimated rural and Western people. They also failed to counter his politics with any meaningful response of their own.
“Despite what you hear, we don’t need to make America great again. America has never stopped being great,” Hillary Clinton told a crowd after a victory in a coastal state earlier this year over her primary opponent, Bernie Sanders.
The quote, of course, was in response to the widely-disseminated Trump slogan: Make America Great Again. The problem for Hillary was that people in the Midwest, especially rural areas, knew that this wasn’t true.
Everyone out there has been affected by the economic changes that have gutted industry, weakened organized labor and crippled small towns. Even for the relatively well-off, or for those who have jobs at all, there’s always somebody down the road who isn’t or doesn’t.
Everybody knows that somewhere along the line, America stopped being great, if it ever was. Hillary’s words rang false, and, for better or for worse, Trump’s acknowledgment of their economic and social reality rang true.
Hillary repeatedly criticized her primary opponent, Bernie Sanders, for being a “single-issue” candidate for his stubborn focus on economic injustice: income inequality, Wall Street abuse and damaging trade agreements.
In Midwestern states like Michigan, rocked by the vagaries of the auto industry, Sanders pulled off upset victories over Clinton based on, among other things, the “single-issue” of economic justice. Clinton would go on to lose Michigan to Trump.
In Wisconsin, Sanders beat Clinton by an even bigger margin, again winning much of his success due to his firm stance on economic issues. Clinton would go on to lose Wisconsin as well, the first Democratic candidate in 30 years to do so.
The election was lost for Clinton in the Midwest, particularly Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan. Perhaps she should’ve listened more and belittled less when her primary opponent took the Midwest by storm with his “single-issue” politics. In eleven of the Midwestern/Western states Sanders beat Clinton in during the primaries, she also lost to Trump in the general.
There’s certainly more at play than her campaign’s inability to relate to the economic problems of the rural Midwest. Trump has released a steady stream of racist, xenophobic and sexist invective since he announced his candidacy. That invective has found an audience in white supremacist groups across the country, who openly celebrate their champion’s victory.
There is certainly more to the election results than racism. Clinton lost 5 states last week that her Democratic predecessor Obama won two elections in a row. According to exit polls, more Democrats voted for Trump than Republicans voted for Clinton. The only Nebraskan county to vote consistently Democratic in recent memory, Thurston County, whose population is mostly Native American, broke the streak and went for Trump this year.
The conclusion seems unavoidable that states, communities and individual voters who had no problem voting for Obama in 2008 and 2012, voted for Trump in 2016. The reductive reasoning that many liberals are clinging to in the wake of the election, that the result is simply due to racist hicks, is false.
Trump’s win has opened the door to more racism and other types of hate, however. His public demagoguery has set a certain type of precedent. Like the wave in hate crimes after Britain’s Brexit vote, which seemed to be motivated mostly by xenophobia, we are seeing a similar wave of hate already in America, leading up to Trump’s victory and now in the immediate aftermath. Most troublingly, it seems to be affecting children in schools, with many incidents being reported of schoolkids mimicking the racist or sexist words or behavior of Trump.
We need to fight back against the precedent of hate Trump’s victory sets. However, a political response to Trump can’t forget the lessons learned in Hillary’s defeat. A politics that condescends and ignores the economic realities of rural Midwestern Americans is a politics that will be defeated.