What went wrong?
A tidy (if not a bit too tidy) essay on the recent American elections.
Well before Donald Trump declared he was running—to the amusement of the liberal media and Washington establishment, who didn’t stop laughing until Nov. 8—and long before Hillary Clinton dismissed half of Trump’s supporters as “deplorables,” the right had gotten used to being looked down upon by liberals. The general attitude of the left was: Disagree with us? You’re probably racist, xenophobic, sexist, bigoted or all of the above. Indeed, for many liberal Americans, these prejudices have come to be seen as inseparable from identity of the Republican Party itself. And when the GOP went all-out Trump, it only confirmed to many liberals that their ideological opponents were no longer worthy of respect.
The attitude extended way beyond election politics. Over the last few years at universities across America, for example, liberal students effectively banned Republicans from delivering commencement speeches by protesting speakers like Karl Rove, Rand Paul and Condoleezza Rice, forcing them to withdraw.
On Nov. 8, it appears, the right decided it finally had enough of this smugness. Conservative voters—including many former working-class Democrats who made the difference in key states such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—sent the message that they’d had enough not only of losing economically, but also of being sneered at. Trump’s rise in popularity—and ultimately his election to the presidency—should be seen as a long-building reaction to grassroots liberal activism that came to dominate the cultural landscape and claim victory after victory in the social arena, whether the issue was abortion or gay marriage or transgender rights, always accompanied by that same disdain for right-wing views as worthy of the stone age. Trump’s rise to power evolved out of this frustration, as Clinton’s campaign increasingly became an extension of liberal America’s smug-style of debate—an attitude that no longer disputed on grounds of policy or intellectual differences, but on the issue of the integrity of the right altogether.
By writing off right-wing Americans as deleterious to the ethical integrity of the country, left-wing Americans increasingly demonstrated that they hardly saw a place for the Republican Party in 21st century America at all. The ragtag nature of Trump’s campaign—delivering him to the forefront of the Republican Party while simultaneously dismantling it—only validated liberals’ righteousness. Recall that right up to election, the popular meme in the media was the conservative movement was in a state of collapse, and the liberals were dominant.
“The Left has done very well in the cultural wars in the last couple of decades” says Dalton Conley, an American sociologist and professor at Princeton University, “but there's often a backlash.”
Now the reckoning comes. While there is a clear need to rectify the indisputable disadvantages faced by America’s marginalized peoples—from the LGBTQ community, to Muslims, and people of color—Trump’s victory seems to indicate that unmitigated social activism can have unintended consequences.
Conley compares this to “the backlash after the Civil Rights movement in the form of Nixon.”
Nowhere was this tension more apparent than America’s college and university campuses where students’ pursuit of social justice left many people feeling that their free speech was under attack. Expectations for teachers to reshape their lessons around the phenomena of “micro-aggressions” and “triggers” led many faculty members across the country to question their ability to educate students at all, without fear of offending them. Last year, Yale’s Erika Christakis was forced to resign following student backlash to a seemingly innocuous email that attempted to engage students with respectful discourse about cultural appropriation—following which, one student wrote in the Yale Herald "I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain.”
Herein lies the problem with the left’s “by any means necessary” style of social activism: When any challenge to the prevailing liberal doctrine, cast under the wrong light, can forever cast one as a “racist,” those with dissenting opinions are left with only two options: concede, or retaliate.
Trump appealed to the latter by forming the populist right-wing counterpart to the left’s stubborn ethos.
Through this lens, Clinton’s candidacy can be seen as the political counterpart of liberal university students asserting that discussion is now off the table, where anything less than concession is morally suspect.
To many Trump supporters, Clinton—who’s own record is far from spotless—was merely another “PC” liberal griping about “micro-aggressions” and “triggering” language. To many white-working-class Democrats, she had simply failed to address their increasingly pressing concerns.
“Having served in the ’92 Clinton campaign, and having been part of the economic dialogue with the Midwest in the industrial heartland in 1992 when we did very well, it’s hard for me to understand how Hillary’s campaign didn't really see the centrality of her leading with economic issues.” Says Simon Rosenberg, founder of the New Democratic Network and veteran strategist for the Democratic Party.
A Gallup poll assessing what Americans perceived as the “most important problem facing this country today” helps to explain the disillusionment of this once-faithful constituency: “Economic problems” consistently took the number one spot, while issues like “lack of respect for each other” and “unifying the country” appeared at the bottom of the list.
Trump’s campaign rhetoric and slogans were aimed directly at the former, while Clinton (“stronger together”) chose the latter. Rosenberg says Clinton’s misjudgement of voters’ concerns is his greatest criticism of her campaign.
While Clinton travelled the country insisting that “America is great, because America is good,” Trump was busy cultivating a vision of economic prosperity—“make America great again”—with the promise of “beautiful” and “tremendous” and “big-league” change.
Nowhere was the backlash from this act of liberal smugness more deeply felt than the Rust Belt states, in which counties like Kenosha, Wisconsin broke more than 40 years of Democratic support in favor of Trump.
“The Democratic Party abandoned the economic issues that had locked that constituency into the party, so that the political contest became an almost purely ideological and cultural one,” says Dylan John Riley, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley.
And by waging a war against right-wing ethics, the Democratic Party, supported by the elite media, underestimated the true extent of Trump’s support—perhaps because most were too embarrassed to admit their allegiance—while playing right into the hands of Trump’s anti “PC” rhetoric.
For Trump supporters, the media was seen as an extension of the Democratic elite—and they weren’t entirely incorrect. The brazen media bias—not just against Trump, but more pertinently against Sanders—and the Democratic Party’s undermining of Sanders only validated the frustration of the right, and Trump’s narrative of a corrupt, elite Democratic chokehold on American politics.
As Vivek Chibber, a sociologist at New York University, tells me, “The media is responsible not just for hyping Clinton over Sanders, but also for bringing Trump up in a way that only hyped him even more—lampooning and dismissing him instead of taking seriously the way in which he was speaking to disaffected voters.”
Regardless of the thuggish, misguided and inflammatory reaction of Trump supporters to media bias that has encouraged the donning of T-shirts reading “Tree. Rope. Journalist. (Some assembly required),” it’s not hard to empathize with their growing scorn for the media elite.
To many on the right and left, media had become an extension of the Democratic Party’s already stacked effort—through superdelegates and plotting to undermine Sanders—to thwart the political upheaval that promised to follow a Sanders, or Trump, presidency.
While superdelegates were ultimately not the deciding factor—Clinton led in votes, states and pledged delegates—the undemocratic tone of the Democratic Party’s push for Clinton only further exacerbated Americans’ desperation for political reform. White-working-class Democrats who showed significant support for Sanders during the primaries fled the party in droves following Clinton’s nomination, as the arrogance of the Democratic Party promptly bent the political spectrum into a horseshoe.
Ironically, while liberal America flouted the authoritarian undertones of Trump’s campaign, their own Party demonstrated a lack of interest in public opinion, foisting their chosen candidate on Americans as if to say: we will decide what’s best for you. The result was more fuel to the growing fire of frustration among Americans for political elites and the status quo—power structures that a Trump presidency promised to topple.
By the end of the primaries—in which Clinton was often referred to as the “presumptive nominee” before being prematurely declared the nominee—the arrogance of the Democratic Party superseded itself once more by assuming Clinton’s presidency inevitable.
During the Clinton-Trump debates, liberals everywhere rolled their eyes at the embarrassment of a seasoned politician like Clinton needing to debate such an obviously ham-fisted opponent. Vox’s Emily Crockett put her finger on it with an article entitled “Clinton's debate performance spoke to every woman who has had to humor an incompetent man”.
But it wasn’t only women who felt that Trump, and his Republican constituents, were being humoured. Media pundits highlighted a general consensus that a Trump victory would be absurd and virtually impossible.
But then the impossible happened: Trump won, securing both the presidency and Congress for Republicans—so that, in the same year, The Atlantic went from asking, “Will the Republican Party Survive the 2016 Election?” to now “Does the Democratic Party Have a Future?”
Following Trump’s victory, many see the protests staged across the country as an extension of liberal America’s unwillingness—still!—to bend to their Republican counterparts. While the outcome of this election was upsetting for many—Trump’s presidency is not simply terrifying for immigrants and minorities, but could have irreversible environmental consequences—liberals are seemingly yet to grasp why they lost this election.
While of course the Democratic Party has a future, Trump’s presidency will require liberals to reassess a flawed, righteous identity that all but forced Right-wing America’s—so desperate for change—hands to the stove, to elect the only candidate who demonstrated the potential for reform.
Yet that reckoning has yet to happen.
In the years to come, when we look back on Trump’s victory, this is why it will be remembered less as a win for Republicans than as a failure for the Democrats—the result of liberal America’s unwillingness to compromise, or even show magnanimity in face of all its victories on social issues.
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Rob Hoffman is a freelance writer based in Oakland, Ca., covering politics and the environment.
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