I’m reading and hearing so much shock and recrimination in the media about why Trump did so well, despite being manifestly terrible as a President and human being. The main theme seems to be that half of America is racist, stupid, knuckle-dragging, brain-washed, contemptible, and deserving only of our disdain, hatred and public shunning.
I, too, briefly felt shocked and betrayed that so many Americans could continue to vote for Trump. I was tempted to buy into the narrative that half of America needed to be written off as human garbage. For some fraction of the Trump base, it is true – they are racist, braindead idiots – but for a greater number, that narrative is utter bullshit.
More importantly, believing that all Trump supporters are lost to us could not be less productive and self-defeating as a political strategy.
What the Democratic Party needs to do moving forward is to figure out how to talk to and motivate the white working- and middle-class men and women who supported Trump because of the populist economic nationalism and patriotism that Trump used so effectively, even as he lied through his teeth about actually having policies that would materially improve their lives.
Trump’s blantant lies about how he would protect and promote the economic welfare of working- and middle-class Americans were the source of his popularity for many, not his blatant racism. Sure, there was some racism in the mix, and there was some cultural resentment, too, but for many folks, it was his economic populism, not his white supremacism that excited them and gained their support. He was full of shit, but at least he was speaking their language by attacking the elites that average Americans feel have been giving them the shaft for far too long.
The Democratic Party has failed to put forward economically nationalist and populist policies that put protecting the jobs and small businesses of average working- and middle-class Americans first, regardless of race. Such policies were much of Bernie’s appeal and support: Bernie got that Democrats need an economically populist platform focused on class anxiety. Might he have done better against Trump and helped more down-ballot? Maybe, maybe not. We’ll never know. There’s no way to run that experiment. But I assert that it is Trump’s nationalist and populist economic message that resonated with many of his voters and that we can and should steal those voters from the GOP. Given that their support for Trump and Republicans is based on lies, that shouldn’t be too hard to do.
Instead, we Democrats have implicitly advocated a return to the neo-liberal deal of Clinton and Obama in our rhetoric. Restore normality? To many Americans that just means freer international free trade (i.e. working-class Americans must compete with Chinese, Indians, Vietnamese, Mexicans, and everyone else, for good manufacturing and service jobs), unchecked domination of our economy by financialization and monopoly power (crushing small business and farmers, and sending more jobs overseas), prioritizing Wall Street over Main Street in our Administrations’ cabinet appointments and policies (when the vast majority of new jobs are built by small American businesses, not multi-nats and big business). This old Democratic deal just doesn’t sound like a great deal to many average Americans.
What Trump tapped into was massive class anxiety among average Americans who have moved from the working and middle classes into the precariat due in some part to Democratic policies: millions are one illness or accident away from ruin, and they know it. Wages and incomes are stagnant. Small business formation is difficult and not a national priority. Rural area development is largely neglected in favor of urban policy. Class mobility is at medieval level. These concerns lie at the heart of the mysterious appeal of Trumpism to many Americans, not his racist, authoritarian terribleness – that’s just something they hold their nose over. Admirable? Hell no. Understandable? Sure. And we had better understand it if we are going to win elections.
What have Democrats offered? Admittedly, some good things that are very popular across all Amerian demographics: universal healthcare (though Biden foolishly has taken that off the table); free public colleges and universities (though that hardly helps with the white working-class, working-age men and women we need to reach, they are not headed back to school in any significant numbers); a Green New Deal to create good new energy economy jobs (which Biden has also foolishly distanced himself from); enhanced funding for pre-K and child care programs (Biden has proposed something, where Trump and the GOP are silent, but much more could be done); an expanded public housing program (again, mainly an urban problem and program); rebuilding America’s aging and outdated public infrastructure (it’s always infrastructure week!), and much else. But these policies were NOT the driving message of this election. The main message was – as in 2016 – how uniquely terrible Trump is. No wonder we didn’t get a blue wave so much as a creeping high tide. We failed to fight economic populist bullshit with economical populist truth and real policies.
But Democrats have not been talking about protecting American jobs and businesses from unfair and economically ruinous international competition. Trump did so, however disingenuously. By trash-talking our free trade treaties (though he ended up with much the same outcomes under new names). With his absurd lies about bringing back natural resource extraction and manufacturing jobs (which he never intended to honor, and didn’t). With his empty slogans and jingoistic “America First” rhetoric (which seems suspect and distasteful to many Dems). He was at least saying things that Americans know to be true: our working- and middle-class average families are in deep economic trouble and need to be at the center of economic policy.
We Democrats need to steal Trump’s nationalist and populist economic messaging and put real policy behind it if we want to win back those he bullshitted into supporting him. We need to frame our current policies, and create new ones, with populist and nationalist messaging if we ever want to win back some of those white working- and middle-class voters. And we need to purge our platform of the failed policies of the past that helped make the rich richer and given them more power over our economy.
Average Americans, especially the white ones, want to put Americans first. They don’t want to hear more talk of minority equity and political correctness (though they are not going to complain about the effect of raising all the boats, as long as they are in the water), they want American equity and political aggression against their oppressors.
They want American governments, some of the largest consumers in the economy, to source goods and services from American workers and companies first — trade agreements be damned. They want stronger and more widespread unions and workers’ health, safety, and labor practice protections — big business be damned. They want to dismantle monopoly and multinational corporate power over our economy and our political system and reclaim the commanding heights of our economy to work in their interests — Wall Street be damned. They want to pull down the billionaire class by taxing them out of existence and using those revenues to make average Americans economically sound and secure again — Soros, Bezos, Zuckerberg, and Gates be damned.
For many of Trump’s supporters “Make America Great Again” was not about the restoration of a white supremacist past (though for some it emphatically was!), it was, and continues to be, about restoring a secure American working and middle class that is financially and socially secure and confident, regardless of race. They want to put Americans’ financial well-being at the center of American policy. That is what they perceived that Trump was promising. That is why they continued to support him. Because we Democrats did not give them a better deal, and talk to them in the nationalist economic mode that they want to hear, they gave their votes to Trump and the Republicans who at least fed them appealing lies.
So, we can write off much of the white working- and middle-class as a pack of racists and brain-dead Trump cultists who have lost all sense of reality and decency, or we can wake up to the fact that this election indicated that the fault lay not in our electorate, but in ourselves.
The latter is the path to a greater, more powerful Democratic coalition that can recapture commanding majorities and govern effectively; the former is self-defeating and offensive nonsense.
This is also why we need new leadership in our party. I doubt a Congressional leadership challenge can succeed, but we need to move away from Pelosi and Schummer and get new leadership in Congress that can speak to those voters we need to reach out to, not just to the ones we already have. How about Katie Porter or Ben Ray Lujan for Speaker and John Tester or Sherrod Brown for minority leader? We need folks like them who can speak to middle America about economic issues with compassion and genuine authority.