The only way to make sense of what happened is to see the vote as an expression of, well, identity politics — some combination of white resentment at what voters see as favoritism toward nonwhites (even though it isn’t) and anger on the part of the less educated at liberal elites whom they imagine look down on them.
To be honest, I don’t fully understand this resentment.
To not understand this resentment is to pretend this never happened:
“You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right?” she said to applause and laughter. “The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up.”
Clinton effectively wrote off nearly half the country at that point. Where was the liberal outrage at this gross generalization? Nowhere – because Clinton’s supporters believed this to be largely true. The white working class had already been written off. Hence the applause and laughter.
In hindsight, I wonder if the election was probably over right then and there.
In particular, I don’t know why imagined liberal disdain inspires so much more anger than the very real disdain of conservatives who see the poverty of places like eastern Kentucky as a sign of the personal and moral inadequacy of their residents.
But they do know the disdain of conservatives. Clinton followed right along the path of former Presidential candidate Mitt Romney:
It was the characterization of “half of Trump’s supporters” on Friday that struck some Republicans as similar to the damning “47 percent” remark made by their own nominee, Mitt Romney, in his 2012 campaign against President Obama. At a private fund-raiser Mr. Romney, who Democrats had already sought to portray as a cold corporate titan, said 47 percent of voters were “dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims” and who “pay no income tax.”
There was, of course, liberal outrage at Romney.
Krugman forgets that Trump was not the choice of mainstream Republicans. Trump’s base overthrew the mainstream – they felt the disdain of mainstream Republicans just as they felt the disdain of the Democrats, and returned the favor.
I doubt very much that these voters are looking for the left’s paternalistic attitude:
One thing is clear, however: Democrats have to figure out why the white working class just voted overwhelmingly against its own economic interests, not pretend that a bit more populism would solve the problem.
That Krugman can wonder at the source of the disdain felt toward the liberal elite while lecturing Trump’s voters on their own self-interest is really quite remarkable.
I don’t know that the white working class voted against their economic interest. I don’t pretend that I can define their preferences with such accuracy. Maybe they did. But the working class may reasonably believe that neither party offers them an economic solution. The Republicans are the party of the rich; the Democrats are the party of the rich and poor. Those in between have no place.
That sense of hopelessness would be justifiably acute in rural areas. Economic development is hard work in the best of circumstances; across the sparsely populated vastness of rural America, it is virtually impossible. The victories are – and will continue to be – few and far between.
The tough reality of economic development is that it will always be easier to move people to jobs than the jobs to people. Which is akin to telling many, many voters the only way possible way they can live an even modest lifestyle is to abandon their roots for the uniformity of urban life. They must sacrifice their identities to survive. You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile. Follow the Brooklyn hipsters to the Promised Land.
This is a bitter pill for many to swallow. To just sit back and accept the collapse of your communities. And I suspect the white working class resents being told to swallow that pill when the Democrats eagerly celebrate the identities of everyone else.
And it is an especially difficult pill given that the decline was forced upon the white working class; it was not a choice of their own making. The tsunami of globalization washed over them with nary a concern on the part of the political class. To be sure, in many ways it was inevitable, just as was the march of technology that had been eating away at manufacturing jobs for decades. But the damage was intensified by trade deals that lacked sufficient redistributive policies. And to add insult to injury, the speed of decline was hastened further by the refusal of the US Treasury to express concern about currency manipulation twenty years ago. Then came the housing crash and the ensuing humiliation of the foreclosure crisis.
The subsequent impact on the white working class – the poverty, the opioid epidemic, the rising death rates – are well documented. An environment that serves as fertile breeding ground for resentment, hatred and racism, a desire to strike back at someone, anyone, simply to feel some control, to be recognized. Hence Trump.
Is there a way forward for Democrats? One strategy is to do nothing and hope that the fast growing Sunbelt shifts the electoral map in their favor. Not entirely unreasonable. Maybe even the white working class turns on Trump when it becomes evident that he has no better plan for the white working class than anyone else (then again maybe he skates by with a few small but high profile wins). But who do they turn to next?
And how long will a “hold the course” strategy take? One more election cycle? Or ten? How much damage to our institutions will occur as a result? Can the Democrats afford the time? Or should they find a new standard bearer that can win the Sunbelt states and bridge the divide with the white working class? I tend to think the latter strategy has the higher likelihood of success. But to pursue such a strategy, the liberal elite might find it necessary to learn some humility. Lecturing the white working class on their own self-interest hasn’t worked in the past, and I don’t see how it will work in the future.