This essay first appeared in the Huffington Post, November 21, 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-j-croce/2016-election-quake-ii-fi_b_13126268.html
The Trump Phenom and Republican sweep have roots that go even deeper than the inaccurate polls. The recent past tells the story of the rising strength of sentiments that would lead to this election quake.
An air of shock and awe still hovers around the election results. Donald J. Trump declared war on the federal government, on big business, on military and foreign policy leaders, on words that work in campaigning, even on his fellow Republicans, and of course on Democrats. Few expected these results, from respected polling professionals to Republicans themselves—even as that party benefitted in Congress and state houses. Recent history shows that these surprises have been building for years.
1-Slim Republican Majorities: Until the late twentieth century, most presidential candidates ran their campaigns toward the political center. By contrast, Trump was not shy about appealing strongly only to one half of a polarized electorate. The Republicans had already honed this strategy in the 1990s, as a response to Democrat Bill Clinton’s effective move to the center; they portrayed him as a radical leftist and grown-up hippie by reminding voters of his anti-war stance and marijuana use in the 1960s. His defense that he did smoke pot, but “didn’t inhale,” only reinforced conservative feelings that liberals were weak and possibly un-American. Republican strategist Karl Rove made plans for gaining 50% +1 of the vote. It worked for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, but Republicans veered away from this approach in the next two presidential campaigns of John McCain and Mitt Romney, as Barack Obama won the White House by appealing not just to Democrats, but also to centrists willing to support his reasonable, thoughtful style. Trump has broken with many mainstream Republicans on issues and in style, but in strategy, he has turned back to Rove’s hope for (slim) Republican majorities. And despite the surprise of her defeat in the only election results with legal impact (in the Electoral College), Clinton won the popular vote nationwide. So with a polarized electoral, and with slim majorities in strategic states, Trump did not even need 50% plus one voter, but only about 47% of the electorate with over a million fewer votes than for Clinton. Trump’s impact may be “huge,” but his electoral win was not.
2-The Power of Diversity Deferred: The 2016 election offers a reminder of 1968, not just for the divisions in a polarized electorate, but also for the approach of the Republican candidate. In 1968 and 1972, Richard Nixon, like Trump, also promised to save the nation from “too much turmoil”; political analysts Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg bluntly advised that he tailor his message to those who voted most, “the unyoung, the unpoor, the unblack.” The Nixon White House worked this strategic way of appealing to mainstream white voters into their Southern Strategy, which has supplied a highly successful playbook for Republicans ever since. Recently, Democrats have held promises of success through reliance on the nation’s increasing cultural diversity to counter the large white majorities for the Republicans. But this election shows that while the white majority may be declining, it will not go quietly into minority status. As already forecast by tabloid newspapers and the popularity of country music, the white working class ain’t dead yet. Stay tuned: this election may be one of the last hurrahs of this white-centric politics articulated by Nixon’s advisors and unspoken for years before that; another indication of this is that those over 45 years of age voted for Trump in large numbers, while young voters gave him little support.
3-Down with Government! (Because Its Programs Have a Weak Brand): Trump joins a long line of Republicans who have presented liberalism itself as part of the establishment. Despite all the work of Democrats over the last century for economic uplift in support of workers’ rights, for racial and social justice especially with the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights Movements, and for environmental protection through regulation of polluters. Republicans present the argument, persuasive for about half the population, that reliance on big government, with its taxes and mandates, makes liberals the true elitists. In focusing on government intrusiveness into free choice, this narrative pays little attention to the importance of achieving these public goods and overlooks the top-down power of corporations in shaping people’s choices. The Trump campaign even blamed government regulations for the oppressive power of job-destroying global corporations. Businesses operate for private profit with much advertising shaping public reputation; government programs operate for public interest with virtually no advertising. In a time when media attention shapes perceptions, it is no wonder that Republicans up to and including Trump can critique government shortcomings with almost no counter-narrative. Government programs from the Head Start that underprivileged children receive to the administration of protections for our intake of food and drugs are unilaterally disarmed in the media landscape, with no advertising for their contributions to the public (and economic) welfare.
4-The System Was Rigged!—in Trump’s Favor: The plurality win of Donald Trump was a product of our federal structure, as a nation of states. James Madison, who was a leading architect of the Constitution before himself serving as President, hoped that the “extended republic” of multiple states, made up of people aligning with diverse “factions” or interests often concentrated in states or regions, would require candidates to appeal to a wide range of those different factions. Clinton was not able to do this despite her high numbers overall. So the structure of the system actually “worked” in this part of its design. She was very attractive to liberals, city residents, African Americans, Hispanics, and young people overall, but decidedly unappealing to many in the white working class, especially in the South, West, and in rust-bowl states, and to many independents and to ideologically ambidextrous populists who associated her with business as usual. There may be unsavory reasons, along with media hype, for her lack of appeal, including prejudice against women in high office, the unleashing of outright antagonism toward minorities, and exaggerated emphasis on her email issues. If Madison could be present to comment on these results, he would likely use his own words when he insisted that the Constitution should operate without relying on “angels … govern[ing] men,” words that he might like to deliver in sly commentary on the election result.
5-Tightening the Circle of Americanness: For all of Trump’s defiance of the establishment, including in his own party, on Election Day, he gained support from the same groups that have supported Republicans historically. In the nineteenth century, when the GOP (the Grand Old Party) was still new, it brought together people who had been identifying with the super-patriots of the American Party; they put a tight circle around what counted as American identity, which included exclusion of immigrants and Catholics. By contrast, Democrats appealed to those very cultural outsiders, in broad coalitions with Southern whites who objected to the mainstream directions shaped by urban, culturally liberal Northern life. The personnel have changed—most dramatically in the South, with Republicans gaining large majorities among whites—but Democrats still appeal to cultural outsiders, especially non-whites, and those who defy conventional norms of gender and sexuality. And Republicans still appeal to those who want to draw the insider circle more tightly. Trump appealed to that same constituency, but with more of them actually voting, since his anti-establishment stance appealed to many who had for years avoided the electoral system completely. First-time and previously infrequent voters cast their ballots for Trump in large numbers. Their disillusionment with the system was part of his campaign appeal.
The late New York Governor Mario Cuomo offered an elegant commentary on our raucous politics: we “campaign in poetry,” but we need to “govern in prose.” This campaign brought more opera than poetry with its melodramatic comments, fierce accusations, and one of the sharpest polarizations of the electorate in US history. These will make governing difficult. Republicans are now in the driver’s seat. Can they find effective prose and still more effective policies to heal the nation’s electoral wounds and solve problems without making them worse? That is their task for the next few years, and the nation’s hope. And the unRepublicans had better learn the populist lessons of this Election Quake.