Keith Sonia

Naked Politics Blogger 

It has been estimated that as many as 500,000 white men in the ‘Rust Belt’ of America should have had the opportunity to vote in last night’s election, but did not. It’s been estimated that as many 500,000 white men in the ‘Rust Belt’ of America should be gainfully employed and contributing to the United States economy, but are not. It’s been estimated that 500,000 white men in the ‘Rust Belt’ of America should be raising families and contributing to the social fabric of their communities: opening small businesses, teaching, building, coaching, but they are not.

They aren’t because they’re dead. They’re dead when they should be alive.

When industry after industry was shuttered across the industry, and as hundreds of thousands of jobs were lost to overseas firms, as many as 500,000 white men in the ‘Rust Belt’ of America fell into destructive patterns of drinking and drug abuse and other behaviour that lead directly to their premature deaths. Instead of working and providing and contributing, they were laid off and vulnerable to vice.

Knowing this makes it easier to understand the anger, the despair, the hopelessness of the region that felt the best thing they could do for their families was to cast their vote for a Manhattan billionaire who employs low-wage workers in China and Mexico to churn out his suits and ties and pocket squares. Knowing this might explain why Hillary Clinton, arguably the most qualified candidate for the presidency in the last century, was cast aside in favour of a man who has more in common with the cosmopolitan elites of Manhattan and Palm Beach than with the white working-class voters of Akron and Allentown. Knowing this might help to explain the fact that Donald John Trump, inheritor of wealth, real estate mogul turned reality-star turned politician, will be the 45th President of the United States of America.

The race to succeed Barack Obama as President was taxing on the psyche of many Americans. Trump’s campaign was marked by an unparalleled ability to alienate different segments of the population through the use of slurs and insults – it was a spectacle that was awarded an unprecedented level of free media from networks and newspapers hungry for eyeballs. Women, Latinos, Muslims: all were frequent targets of Trump and his boorish, populist, nativist approach to politics.

Clinton, for her part, was never able to sustain any degree of popularity of her own. The issue of her private e-mail server, employed during her time as Secretary of State and contrary to U.S. legal decorum, was an issue that refused to go away, and it helped cement the perception that she was an untrustworthy technocrat, out of touch with the day to day lives of struggling Americans in struggling industries in struggling towns. Despite a career in public service extending three decades, detractors pointed to her acceptance of large sums of money on the speaking circuit from entities such as Goldman Sachs as proof that she did not have the interests of middle and lower class Americans in mind.

Trump was successful in exploiting the perception of Clinton with voters in places like Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, the ‘Rust Belt’ with towns that are missing those half a million men. Her husband signed the North American Free Trade Agreement, “the worst deal of all time,” according to Trump, which sent good paying jobs from the ‘Rust Belt’ and to far-flung places. Clinton, according to Trump, was in favour of further deals like TPP that would add to the misery. She wanted to accept refugees and immigrants and grant amnesty to those already in the country but undocumented; wouldn’t these people inevitably come for the few jobs the people of the ‘Rust Belt’ had left? The economic insecurity of blue collar workers in places that have been ravaged by anti-union, pro-corporate policies allowed them to elect a President who will more than likely adopt the GOP line on schemes like ‘Right to Work’ legislation. The feeling that African Americans, Hispanics, urban and suburban women, the LGBTQ community and other minority groups were getting ahead while they were either stagnant or falling behind produced the anger that allowed these voters to pull the proverbial lever for Trump.

To be sure, liberals have perhaps earned this result. The vast centre of the Democratic Party, the traditional home of the worker and of trade unions, abandoned many of these workers long ago in favour of policies of globalisation. The principles of globalisation are sound and worth fighting for, but as many centrist politicians around the western world are finding, the benefits of globalisation are not being felt in places like Au Clair in Wisconsin or Grimsby in Yorkshire. Though Hillary Clinton would have surely been a competent, perhaps even accomplished, president, the ever-expanding nature of polarisation in the United States made it so that her centre-left (or centre-right, as some of her left-wing critics would argue) policies were not inspiring a country that elected and re-elected Barack Obama.

The autopsy of this result will surely include a search for the explanation of why so many prognosticators, pundits, data scientists and political scientists, yours truly included, were so spectacularly wrong. Though some, including Nate Silver of 538, saw Trump with a shot to win, Clinton went into Election Day a clear favourite. Now, bookies all around the world are paying out to those who liked Trump’s odds. How the results impact noted polling firms, as well as entities like the Princeton Election Consortium (which rated Clinton’s percentage chance of victory as >99%) has yet to be determined, but it, for better or worse, allows Trump a certain measure of justification in decrying the polls and the process as rigged.

Other elements of the race, like the last minute insertion of the FBI into the mix, thanks to a letter sent by Director James Comey to Congress in regards to the investigation of Clinton’s e-mail server, or the sizeable chunks of votes won by third-party candidates Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, will surely get some play. As will the fact that for the second time in the last five presidential elections, the candidate with the most overall votes will not be inaugurated president. How these dimensions help measure what kind of mandate Trump is afforded as president is yet to be determined, but it seems each played a role.

For Republicans, it’s easy to immediately say this was a terrific evening for the party. They snatched victory from the jaws of defeat not only in regards to the presidency, but even more improbably, in retaining their slim lead in the United States Senate. However, Trump is not a traditional Republican, and how he gets along with, say, House Speaker Paul Ryan, will determine how deep and destructive the fissures that are very apparent within the GOP are. Indeed, Election Night may have been just a brief reprieve in the ongoing Republican civil war.

And for the Democratic Party, introspection is required. How do they win back voters in Wisconsin and Ohio that twice voted for Obama, in some areas overwhelmingly, but abandoned Clinton? How do they continue to exploit their demographic advantages among Latino and African American voters, expanding the map in places like Georgia, Arizona and perhaps even Texas? How do they confront their left flank, populated by supporters of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren? The battle for the soul of the Democratic Party may just be beginning.

In the end, it was an election about fear. Not the fear that helped George W. Bush win in 2004, but an economic anxiety that somehow served as a blind spot for many Democrats. It was a fear of the other, whether that be Hispanic and Latino immigrants or Muslim refugees. It was a fear of being forgotten and left behind when others were moving ahead. It was a fear that the jobs that were once keeping their towns humming were never coming back. It was a fear that more and more of their sons, and very probably daughters, would fall into the destructive cycle that has likely claimed so many already. And it is those conditions that allow a strongman, a promiser of all things, a confidence man like Donald Trump to improbably defeat a seasoned public servant like Hillary Clinton. How America rectifies these results will determine who wins in the long term.

Now, though, we await the 20th of January with a trepidation we have rarely known. And the voters that made it happen wait with futility for their lost jobs and their lost fathers and sons.

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Last Update: April 28, 2018