The 2016 election of Donald Trump has truly upset the political order, widened an already contentious political divide, and created a cottage industry of political writers and analysts trying to explain his rise to power. Explaining Trump’s actions, or Trump himself seems beyond their ability; the more interesting writers describe the conditions that led to his rise rather than explain the man Donald Trump.
The Mueller report quelled the Russian conspiracy hoax for many although it vexed Trump’s strongest antagonists. Even if Trump had conspired with the Russians it strains one to imagine that it affected enough votes to influence the election. It may have made a marginal difference in a close race, but the question remains, “why was it even close?”
Hillary had decades of political experience, strong political connections, the clear support of most of the non-Fox media, and more money. Donald Trump had no political experience in elected office, substantial character issues, and was even rejected by the conservative intellectuals such as The National Review which devoted an entire issue in the campaign titled ‘Against Trump.’
The Democrats attributed to conspiracy what was most likely caused by mere incompetence. Hillary had her own character flaws, ethical compromises, and ignored pivotal states that became significant.
The rejection of the elites became a narrative that tied the election of Trump to the rejection of the European Union by the British. The divide was described as the ‘somewheres’ and the ‘anywheres’; those attached by family and social or economic commitments to the town they were in, where moving was a less viable option, and those professionals who could move anywhere and had less ties to any specific location.
These ‘anywheres’ concentrated in urban and coastal areas where community ties weigh less than economic or professional ties. Rural communities that were decaying felt ignored by both parties. Economic growth had left them behind, and decay was mirrored in abandoned factories and opioid addiction. The economics of free trade benefitted others and social changes seemed beyond their control.
They felt contempt and neglect from the two parties, whether being called ‘deplorables’ by Hillary or welfare freeloaders by Mitt Romney. They understood their situation was more complicated than the coastal elites considered. They were not stupid, or racist, anti-immigrant, or clingers to guns and bibles and deeply resented their simplistic demonizations. The ‘deplorables’ label likely damaged Hillary far more than any Russian collusion. Contempt may have been less tolerable than corruption or incompetence.
Selena Zito summarized during the 2016 campaign about Trump, “The left took him literally but not seriously, and the right took him seriously but not literally.” She expanded on the cultural shift in The Great Revolt written with Brad Todd. Zito focused on several Midwest counties that shifted from strong Obama supporters in 2008 and 2012 to strong Trump supporters in 2016. Their analysis dispelled the racist and anti-immigrant motive in these pivotal areas. The Supreme Court weighed heavy, whether for gun rights, or social issues. The irony here is that the Supreme Court had become more central to Democratic policy and this proved a detriment to Democrats in this election. How could Christians support a man with Trump reputation with women? As one Christian voter said, “We share his concerns, not his values.”
Once the Midwest voters identified with Trump, attacks on Trump only solidified their support. They had known bankruptcy and divorce and identified with him.
But beneath these divisions and changes noted by Zito and Todd was a greater difference about their relation to the state. Few voters get into the weeds of political philosophy when they vote, and Trump certainly wasted no time on it, but the voters sensed that constitutional rights were being whittled away by a state that pretended to know what was better for them. The basic civic culture that had survived cycles of progressivism was eroding. Differences of opinion became hate speech; due process was sacrificed to social justice.
Rioting at a Senate hearing, cornering a sitting Senator in the Senate elevator and screaming at him, and attacking Republicans in public restaurants with the approval of Congressional leaders like Maxine Waters made Trump’s boorish gestures seem tame. Illiberal and intolerant violent behavior on college campuses was tolerated for too long and now those graduates are in Congress. What you tolerate you teach.
Second amendment rights were a factor, but so was first amendment rights such as freedom of religion and freedom of speech. Political correctness was just censorship. The treatment of conservative speakers on campuses, and the violence aimed to prevent dissenting opinions bothers many. Identity politics and intersectionalism was more divisive. Middle class voters were tired of being branded racist for such ideas as voter ID or legal immigration.
These voters were not complaining about government programs which many of them enjoyed. The felt their civic culture of constitutional rights and their social culture which used to be tied to local institutions were being usurped by a distant elite that knew nothing about them. These issues were inseparable from the economic pain they were also experiencing.
The Progressive Administrative State nationalized local issues leaving the local voters with no sense of control. A Supreme Court more attuned to constitutional protections and deregulation was the biggest issue in their vote.
Trump did not speak down to them. He spoke in simple terms and his streak of stubbornness was seen as commitment to their concerns. His disdain for political norms that had neglected them was attractive.
Trump is seen as a tragic hero by Victor Davis Hanson; the outcast who stumbles into a place where he is needed but not liked. Without these conditions he would have remained politically irrelevant. If Trump is defeated those forces will likely remain. If they’re not resolved or addressed, they will continue to plague his successor.