Now that 59 and a half million Americans elected Donald J. Trump as the next President of the United States, the quest begins to understand how and why this occurred. As I write these lines, newspaper editorials, analytical articles, and countless social media posts are pointing to factors such as the arcane electoral college system, the less-than-expected turnout by Latino voters, the votes garnered by third party candidates, and James Comey’s October surprise as possible explanations for the election of an openly bigoted misogynist as President.
These explanations – while containing grains of truth – miss two larger points. First, they place the blame everywhere but on the Democratic Party itself, which lost this election when, some thirty years ago it embraced corporate neoliberalism and wrote off working people, rural Americans, and those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder for whom a daily struggle to simply survive has replaced dreams of upward social mobility. In hindsight, there were clear signs that this electoral disaster was coming: Sanders’ victory in the Michigan primary was one such canary in the coal mine. A majority of disaffected Democratic voters, unimpressed by Clinton’s complacent message of “more of the same,” chose a progressive brand of anti-establishment politics, one that identified party elites committed to Wall Street as the problem and offered as a solution structural reform of capitalism guided by social democratic values. On Tuesday night, with Sanders on the sidelines, many of these voters – and men and women like them in outlook and temperament in every swing state – did the logical thing by casting their ballots for the only candidate who critiqued the entire system and promised sweeping change. Donald Trump.
Of course, this is not to suggest that Trump either understands the neoliberal politics of Democratic (and Republican) elites, or that he has workable solutions that will address, let alone reverse, the economic trauma felt by millions of working Americans. He is a huckster who has won over a frightened and susceptible electorate who know in their hearts that Clinton and the DNC have nothing but contempt for them. He is also an unabashed racist, one who has no problem with the endorsements garnered from the Klan, Neo-Nazis, and the entire range of alt-right fringe groups. He has articulated thoughts about African Americans, Mexicans, Muslims, and refugees that a year ago were beyond the pale of acceptable political discourse.
This is the tragedy of the 2016 election. It also holds the second key to Trump’s triumph: when white Americans are frightened and resentful they too easily find comfort in notions of racial superiority. Trump’s brand of white ethnic nationalism lured to its banner those who, in the absence of other explanations and political alternatives, found succor in the notion that their tailspin into the lower depths can be blamed on an Obama-led government that privileges minorities, welcomes brown-skinned refugees, and caters exclusively to multi-racial urban constituencies.
The heartbreak of the election runs deeper than the repulsive individual who is now President Elect. It lies in the fact that Trump’s victory stripped away the comfortable illusion that liberalism and tolerance are enduring values in the US. They are admirable traits, but fragile and fleeting ones. The true constant, the triumph of Trumpism suggests, is racial hatred and antagonism. Writing from a vantage point near the middle of the last century Langston Hughes commented on the way in which white supremacy undermined the promise of democracy in the US from the start. Race, he wrote, is the American heartbreak, “the rock on which freedom stumped its toe. The great mistake that Jamestown made long ago.”