Under President Barack Obama, the national unemployment rate has dropped to 4.9 percent from a high of 10 percent in the fall of 2009. Under Obama, tens of millions of people have gained health insurance, new regulations have been enacted to protect consumers from the predations of the financial industry, and substantial progress has been made to roll back the cataclysmic effects of climate change. His approval rating stands at 55 percent, a near miracle in our age of hyper-polarization.
But we now know the numbers mean nothing. Approval ratings, election forecasts, aggregates of polls—all have been obliterated in the wake of Donald J. Trump’s astonishing victory in the presidential election. Whatever we thought we knew about the American electorate has changed overnight. In electing Trump, voters have rejected everything Obama has done in the past eight years, ushering into office a man who has promised to undo all these accomplishments. Most of all, they have rejected what Obama and his election stood for: progress—real progress—on the issue of race.
Trump’s election is also a rejection, most directly, of Hillary Clinton and everything she stands for, including progress for women. That the first female presidential candidate would lose to Trump, an unrepentant sexist accused of serial sexual assault and harassment, is an embarrassment and a source of everlasting shame on this country. Surely other factors—Clinton’s perceived flaws as a candidate, the failures of the elite technocratic class, the disruptions to community and identity caused by globalization—led some to vote for an ethno-nationalist populist. But what’s striking is the racial component of Trump’s election.
We know that race was the deciding factor because Trump launched his political career with racist attacks on Obama, questioning whether he was an American citizen. He then launched his presidential campaign with a racist attack on Mexican immigrants, describing them as rapists and thieves. He expanded his platform of white revanchism by calling for a ban on Muslims entering the United States. All of this is known, and has been repeated ad nauseum throughout this election. Even if Trump voters had other, more sympathetic reasons to vote for Trump, it doesn’t change the fact that they elected a man who was openly running on a platform of white supremacy—whose political raison d’être was to be a megaphone for whites raging at their diminishing influence. That alone stands as a rebuke to Obama.
Obama is fond of quoting Martin Luther King Jr.’s line, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Clearly nothing could be further from the truth. From our vantage point on election night, we cannot possibly know the extent of the setback that has just occurred, but it is safe to say that it will be immense. Any notion of a permanent liberal majority composed of minorities, women, and millennial voters—the so-called Obama coalition—has been utterly shattered. The Republican Party, now an unapologetic whites-only party, is on track to control all three branches of government, to the detriment of everything liberals have achieved in the past eight years, toiling under the long shadow of the last Republican administration.
Some are already noting that Trump may have picked off white supporters who previously supported Obama. This is evidence that it isn’t all about race, they say. But it’s also apparent that Trump has unearthed new white voters in rural areas who sat out previous elections and have been activated like sleeper cells. And again, it doesn’t change the fact that, even if some of these voters were Obama Democrats, they had no problem with voting for the most openly racist presidential candidate since the Civil Rights Act was passed.
This brings us to the problem of how the Democratic Party—and America as a whole—can recover from this calamity. There is sure to be a civil war among Democrats, with leftists arguing that a purer, less compromised version of liberalism will have a better chance of appealing to those very voters who put Trump over the top. There will be a push to expand the Democratic message beyond the identity politics that has increasingly defined the party in recent years—to welcome with open arms those blue-collar and middle-class whites who have been culturally alienated by newly assertive blue-collar and middle-class workers of brown skin. And there will be a backlash to this, an argument that the Democratic Party’s function is to redress the wrongs that have been done to minorities and make white America atone for its sins—“to force our brothers to see themselves as they are,” as James Baldwin put it, “to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.”
It is not clear that the Democratic Party is capable of making a tent that large without it collapsing under its own contradictions. In terms of policy, Barack Obama’s administration has done far more for this country—for whites, blacks, Latinos, and Asians—than the previous administration ever did. Hillary Clinton offered Americans of all stripes more than what Trump and his Republican enablers did on issues ranging from child care to paid leave to the minimum wage. And it was not enough.