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Trump's secret weapon: The marginalized American worker

On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Trump's secret weapon: The marginalized American worker

Stephen H. Provost

Hillary Clinton’s mistake was not taking to heart the phrase that defined her husband's success in 1992: “It’s the economy, stupid.” That was a long time ago, but it’s not as though she hadn’t been reminded of that reality since then – by her opponent in the primaries, Bernie Sanders.

She didn’t listen to the fears and frustrations that working-class Americans were expressing through Sanders, so voters in the general election made her listen. By voting for Donald Trump.

Much has been made about James Comey's email letter, about questions concerning Clinton’s honesty and trustworthiness, about the “baggage” she brought to the race. She was, without question, a deeply flawed candidate with very low approval ratings. But to blame any of these factors for her defeat would be to miss the real message sent by voters who elected Trump.

Don’t forget: Trump’s approval ratings were even lower, and a majority of voters considered him poorly qualified to be president. It wasn’t as though they were ignorant of this and wanted to vote for arrogant narcissist who bragged about groping women and insulted veterans, disabled people and religious and ethnic minorities. Some of them, no doubt, did, and yes, that’s scary. These are the same people who are defacing property with Nazi and anti-immigrant graffiti in the election’s aftermath.

But I’m willing to bet the vast majority of Trump voters didn’t support him because of these views, but in spite of them. Sure, some closet racists have been emboldened by his victory. But I simply won’t believe that half the people in this country are a bunch of bigots with a secret desire to perpetrate violence on anyone who’s different.

A marginalized working class

It isn’t as though the Republican Party machine wanted Trump. They wanted someone who would continue to ignore the working class and kowtow to corporate interests (their initial choice, you’ll recall, was Jeb Bush).  Whether Trump’s campaign rhetoric about improving the lives of the working class was sincere or merely lip-service to America’s blue-collar workers remains to be seen. The proof will be in the pudding. Like most critical thinkers, I’ll believe it when I see it.

But the point is, whether it was sincere or a bunch of B.S., it worked. The Democratic Party apparatus threw its working-class base under the bus by ignoring Sanders’ critiques in the primaries and skewing the nominating process against him, in favor of Clinton. Sanders did such a good job of highlighting their concerns – based on decades of consistently doing so – that by the time Clinton agreed to adopt some of his ideas as her platform, it came across as a halfhearted, politically motivated case of “me too.”

That’s where the trust issues hurt her most. A lot of people simply didn’t believe she was sincere about helping the working class and ignored her ideas to do so – many of them lifted from Sanders’ campaign – because they seemed like just another case of political expediency. Clinton’s (and the Democrats’) credibility on this issue was so low that vast numbers of voters preferred a man from the billionaire class who has exploited his own workers in the past and run a series of apparent con games, such as Trump University.

That’s how low Clinton’s credibility was, because again, it isn’t as though voters didn’t know these things about Trump. It isn’t as though they approved of them. It’s just that they mattered a lot less than the hope, even a faint one, that Trump might actually improve their situation. Clinton failed to inspire such hope and represented the status quo – in part because of her status as the “anointed” establishment candidate and in part because of her record.

Sanders’ endorsement of her held little weight, because it was perceived as “what was expected” politically and more an attempt to stop Trump than a full-throated advocacy for Clinton. The damage had already been done in the primaries and long before that.

Trump makes the sale

The worst thing the Democratic Party leadership did in its nominating process was to actively promote Clinton as its candidate before she got the nomination. Not only did this seem to dismiss Sanders’ concerns about the working class – which Trump later appropriated – it also lent credence to Trump’s later claims that the system was “rigged.” Never mind that a general election is far different (and infinitely harder to control) than a primary election. The impression was there, and Trump exploited it.

He saw an opportunity and seized it.

It’s true that some working-class people are redneck racists. But most of them are just hard-working folks who got tired of going unrepresented by a Republican Party that long ago sold out to corporate greed and a Democratic Party that first stopped listening, then had the temerity to shush their spokesman within the party, Sanders.

Had either party listened to working Americans, we wouldn’t have Trump. Both parties were, and probably still are, tone-deaf to the concerns of the working class. They’re caught up in elitism, ideologies and feeling entitled to the support of people they’ve abandoned. This is what the voters told them by repudiating every establishment candidate in this election cycle.

If you’ve read my earlier entries, you know my opinions of Donald Trump; there’s no need to rehash them here, because they’re not the point. The point is that millions of Americans felt ignored, dismissed and taken for granted by the two political parties. They’re not just a “basket of deplorables,” as Clinton called them, or Mitt Romney’s 47 percent who don’t matter. They’re people with real concerns that the two major parties have failed to address.

This kind of thing has happened before. There have been populist movements under the likes of Huey Long, William Jennings Bryan, Ross Perot and even Teddy Roosevelt – but none of them (not even Roosevelt) won the presidency as populist candidates.

Trump did. That’s not an endorsement on Trump’s character or moral fiber, it’s an indication that Americans today are more fed up with the political establishment than ever before. They got mad as hell, and they weren’t going to take it anymore. That’s why Trump won.

That’s where we’re sitting where we are today: because it really is the economy, stupid.