Liberals who barely slept last night, if at all, roused on Wednesday morning wondering what the hell happened in America to create president-elect Donald J. Trump. It would be easy to spit out the words “white people” and be done with it.
You can believe that half the country is racist if you want, and there’s no question that there’s an undercurrent of anger in Trump’s stunning rise. But that anger isn’t directed at any individual ethnic group. It’s more inchoate than that. It’s rage at institutions that people believe have failed them forever. It’s rage at an economy that doesn’t work for ordinary folks. It’s rage at a cultural milieu that perceives too many non-coastal Americans as buffoons. It’s rage at the aftermath of a financial crisis and Great Recession, in which the gap between winners and losers just grew larger, and the two-tiered system of justice paraded on full display. It’s rage at an elite class that people feel is lined up against them.
That rage has no doubt been whipped up—by Trump and his campaign, among others. It may not always be based in reality, but it’s real.
In the final analysis, 2016 wasn’t a fear election. It wasn’t like 2004, when George Bush and Dick Cheney repeatedly raised the threat of terror. (And if we’re honest, Hillary Clinton and the Democrats this year often appealed to fear—of a Trump presidency.) No, this was a rage election: a rage built up over many years, among people who’d decided they were disrespected, abandoned, and voiceless.
Liberals weren’t completely caught unawares. We recognized the rage—how could we not? We saw it in our social-media feeds all year. We read (and wrote) endless articles featuring reporters edging out to Red America, armed with a notebook and a pretense of empathy, to see what Trumpism was all about, why the fever seemed to be running so high among these people.
And what did that produce? The daily filling of a basket of deplorables. I sometimes refer to it as “point-and-laugh” liberalism. Our relentless mockery of Trump and his followers helped fuel the backlash and make it spread.
They say success has a thousand fathers (and vice versa); I don’t want to point to any one thing as the reason for what we saw yesterday. It’s very difficult for a party to keep a third term, no matter what—especially in a media environment determined to not tell anyone the public-policy stakes of full Republican control. The weakening of unions into an impotent force in American life proved more successful than we’d even realized—particularly in the place where labor strained so hard to stop it, Wisconsin. And then there’s voter suppression and the madness of the Electoral College and a culture that de facto assumes businessmen are smarter than the rest of us.
But let’s get real here. Political parties go into a presidential election knowing the landscape. They know the challenges. Their goal is to win. And my feeling is, the lesson for Democrats is ultimately clear enough: You cannot write off half the country, much less spend an election cycle deriding it, and expect success.
The rage in the country isn’t limited to the stereotypical rural white American of the liberal imagination. We know that now. Trump didn’t just win in small towns, though he galvanized communities there. He surged in the aspirational exurbs where conservatives rule culturally. He also surged in Rust Belt communities that voted for Barack Obama twice. Places like Scranton, Pennsylvania; Youngstown, Ohio; Janesville, Wisconsin; Orange County, Florida—places that have trended Democratic in some cases for decades—moved away from the Democratic candidate. Hillary Clinton either lost or battled to a draw in those regions, which had made up margins of victories for past Democratic presidents. Even union households voted in high numbers for Trump.
Liberal Democrats knowingly snickered at Trump’s lack of campaign offices or ground game. Built reams of evidence out of polls. Never missed the stray comment from the craziest conservative or Trump surrogate in the country, and offered it up for mockery. We turned “economic anxiety” into a meme that implicitly belittled anyone who didn’t find their life wonderful. We lapped up every Owen Ellickson Twitter narrative and every Funny or Die video of Trump being as dumb as a bag of hammers. And yes, the Democratic standard-bearer commented that “you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables.”
However correct that quote might have been, it contributed to this anger and stoked it. Americans outside the big cities may not identify with conservatives, but they identified with their neighbors, both physically and culturally. And they heard the popular culture laughing at them.
Not so long ago, Democrats used to have a thing called the 50-state strategy. They walked into red areas and blue areas, states where they thought they could win and states where they thought they couldn’t. In this election, they appeared to write off large swaths of the country, even those that supported Democrats in previous elections. They didn’t give people living in those areas anything tangible to explain their circumstances, and didn’t foreground how they could be improved.
Democrats comforted themselves with the emergence of a new majority of women, Latinos, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, gays and lesbians, immigrants, and Muslims. It was an inspiring reflection of the ideal of the melting pot. And it looks to have been a bit too soon, if not a mirage. Regardless, placing such a big bet on so fragile a coalition looks to have been unwise. It left behind people who voted twice for Obama in the process.
I don’t have wise thoughts about what we’re going to do about this. Set aside for a moment the destruction that could result from total Republican control of government. I know that surrender is not an option. I believe in my country and don’t believe you walk away from it in a time of need. But the way back has to include engaging the entire country, every voter, and giving them something to latch onto.
Sure, you’re going to get the finger, sometimes. It’s going to seem hopeless, sometimes. The financial elites that back Democrats will be made uncomfortable by it, sometimes. But I don’t see another way. Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign had a slogan: “respect, empower, include.” It’s time to live up to that, in all 50 states, in every city, in every county.