Many Rust Belt workers are registered Democrats. But Trump spoke to their disaffection
I first knew Donald Trump could be president of the United States when, poking his finger at the air for emphasis, he said in the most confident tone possible: “I will build a great, great wall along our Southern border, and I will have Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”
That was June 16 2015, the day Trump announced his candidacy. Trump descended the escalator at Trump Tower like a shepherd summoned to protect the flock. The country was hurting, and here, his supporters thought, was the tycoon ready to roll up his sleeves for the average American. Everything about that press conference screamed, “Don’t worry. I’m here now and I’m taking control.”
Before a raucous crowd, he spoke in a way the American public hadn’t heard in quite some time: assertive, forthright, unencumbered by the contemporary speech codes of political correctness, concerned only with national prosperity, not airy abstractions. At that moment, it didn’t matter whether he’d ever build the wall. That he was even saying it was good enough.
I won’t pretend I always thought Trump would win. He appeared to be finished a month ago, when a video of his crude sexual comments surfaced. Many of his party backers defected, leaving him alone with Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee. I didn’t think he’d recover.
What Trump accomplished on Tuesday is a political miracle. In one fell swoop he defeated the Democratic Party, the Bush dynasty, the Clinton political machine, the neoconservative movement, the establishment wing of the Republican Party, and the media. He did so in an unconventional campaign run solely on his own personality. He defeated sixteen qualified candidates in the primaries. He openly warred with top-ranking Republicans. He continually said things that would have ended any previous candidate.
Trump entered Election Day with pollsters predicting an almost certain win for Clinton. Critics said his campaign lacked “ground game,” local drives to increase voter turnout. His victory appeared inevitably blocked by the Democrats’ “blue wall”, a bloc of states that have handed that party certain electoral votes for decades.
Trump walked away with 279 electoral votes (at the time of writing: it could be even more), giving the Republican Party its strongest electoral college victory since 1988, when George HW Bush destroyed Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis. he lost the popular vote, but come January, he and his party will have control of the presidency and both houses of Congress. With the exception of the period from 2005 to 2007, the last time the Republicans had such dominance was in 1928. Republicans will also control an overwhelming number of state governorships and state legislatures and be in a position to appoint at least one Supreme Court justice to a lifetime tenure.
He destroyed the so-called blue wall. He won Pennsylvania and Michigan for Republicans for the first time since 1988; he won Wisconsin for the first time since 1984. He has humiliated the Democratic Party. Worse – or perhaps better – he has humiliated the American media, which deployed every weapon against him. The entire industry of polling, punditry, and “political consulting” is discredited. He enjoys a movement of dedicated, sometimes even fanatical, followers – among them a phalanx of university-age men and women who add a “cool” factor to the backlash against political correctness. Trump has laid waste to the entire edifice of “the Establishment” in the United States, to every assumption and to every received opinion, clearing the path of his own dominance for at least the next four years.
How and why did this happen?
There is no single answer. But the biggest factor is surely the white middle-class voters of the Rust Belt, especially those without a college education, of whom Trump won 67 per cent. These are the “forgotten men” of the former industrial powerhouse region, gone to seed after years of offshoring and outsourcing. Their angst stretches back decades, as the midwestern manufacturing industry began its decline – slow at first, then accelerating to the spotty landscape of oxidized foundries it is today.
Many are of these voters are registered Democrats. They tend to be moderate – usually left of centre on economics but often socially and culturally conservative. There’s no room for them in the modish party of 2016. Journalists and politicians acquire no social status by writing about their troubles. These men and women are openly mocked and ridiculed by the centres of cultural power in America: the media, the universities, and the entertainment industry. They’re milked for votes and tax dollars and then told they’re too “privileged” to have any legitimate grievances.
In the past, they rallied around Ronald Reagan – the famous “Reagan Democrats.” Later many coalesced around insurgent candidates like Ross Perot or Pat Buchanan. Now many simply stay home and don’t vote. But many also voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 – one of the perplexing details for journalists who believe racial animus explains everything. (In another twist, Trump won more black and Hispanic voters than did Mitt Romney in 2012. Trump did especially well with Latino men, winning 33 per cent despite the signature issue of immigration. And he won a majority of white women, 53 per cent, despite his misogynist image among women as a whole.)
Why hasn’t the Republican Party been able to win these Rust Belt voters in the past? Again, there’s no perfect answer. Part of it is the GOP’s refusal to believe its free trade deals are anything short of perfect. Another part might be that, at least until the mid-2000s, there was a big enough moderate wing in the Democratic Party to prevent a defection to the Republicans. Trump’s victory was, ultimately, due to his performance in those midwestern states: A Brexit-style coalition of white conservatives, independents, and disaffected Democrats gave him the presidency.
After Clinton’s defeat, a writer at Slate wondered about the future of the Democratic Party. Would they, he asked, have to find a way to appeal to more white voters? You could almost feel the revulsion the question induced. Still, they have to answer it eventually.