My Reflections on the 2016 Presidential Election

Senator Elena Parent
The Parent Press

Dear Constituents and Friends,

Like many of you, I was completely dumbstruck by Donald Trump's victory on Tuesday night. Never for a moment did I believe that a majority of Americans (or the Electoral College, as it turned out) would look at him and his words and say, "Yes, this is an appropriate person to serve as America's leader at home and on the world stage and as a role model for our children." I thought he had lost the general election from the moment he descended the elevator at Trump Tower and declared that Mexico was sending us "rapists and criminals."

Even if people were Republicans, or even if they hated Hillary, I thought that enough of them would not be able to bring themselves to cast a vote for Trump. I viewed him as a profoundly uncurious, crass and narcissistic faux strongman who was running a dark and divisive campaign preying on people's darkest emotions, all while having no discernible ideological core other than to win the election. To my mind, this is furthest thing from the definition of a leader. The fact that he will now be our President has prompted a lot of reflection, and rightly so.

I know a lot of people who are devastated by the results of this election. Some see it as the triumph of closed-mindedness - indeed racism and xenophobia - over love and open hearts to fellow humans. Some see it as proof that misogynistic attitudes prevailed. For many women and girls, this notion has caused devastation and fear, wondering what that says about their future in America. Others see it as proof that less-educated people really don't get the way the economy and the world work in the modern era. Some see portions of all of the above.

What I have come to realize is that any explanation limited to reasons such as these is incomplete at best and dangerously condescending and closed-minded at worst. In the words of David Brooks in his column in today's New York Times: "Populism of the Trump/Le Pen/Brexit variety has always been a warning sign, a warning sign that there is some deeper dysfunction in our economic, social and cultural systems. If you want to take that warning sign and dismiss it as simple bigotry, you're never going to pause to understand what's going on and you will never know how to constructively respond."

When something this unexpected happens, it deserves a lot of unpacking. Here are the factors that I believe contributed to Trump's victory.

Huge Support from the White Working Class

First and foremost, a consolidation of the white working class behind Trump led to his victory. The working class in the US has been hard hit in the past decades as the manufacturing sector shrunk, and globalization, technology and a knowledge economy took hold. We already knew that the middle class' incomes had not risen in real dollars, especially after the Great Recession, in 30 years or more, while more educated, affluent citizenry have got richer off these changes. As the so-called Elephant Chart demonstrates, globalization has led to less income inequality in Asia and more in the United States and Europe. The Western working classes have been the losers.

Meanwhile, it's been revealed that the only demographic group in America whose life expectancy is actually shortening is the white working class. The causes are suicide and drug addiction/overdoses. Rural white communities have been ravaged by job loss and the opioid epidemic and have seen huge increases in broken families and out-of-wedlock births. In short, things are not good and getting worse for the white working class. This election was both a cry for help and a collective rebuke to all governing elites, whom the white working class believe have done nothing for them and disrespected them. By tailoring his message right to their economic anxieties, Trump won them, even across union members and Democrats.

It's easy to dismiss the white working class, some of whom seemed to be energized by Trump's protectionist and bigoted remarks, as ignorant or racist. That's not fair. If they perceive that they have lost job opportunities and economic power and that their lifestyle has been transformed by trade and immigration, it makes sense that they would seek radical change. Hillary, no matter how hard she tried, could never represent radical change.

Trump is a Political Outsider.

Which brings me to the "Outsider" phenomenon - another reason Trump won. Americans perceive, correctly, that Washington is not working. Of course, we Democrats blame Republicans for being obstructionist and not wanting to solve any problems by working with Obama. But that doesn't change the fact that Washington is not working. Some of the excitement for Obama 8 years ago was that he, too, could be regarded as a sort of outsider, a different type of politician who maybe could get things done and improve everyone's fortunes. The fact that he was unable to consolidate all of America behind him, and faced gridlock in Congress, disappointed a lot of people who saw the same old stuff no matter who was in charge.

This leads to examination of the curious specimen of the "Trump/Obama voter." There were a bunch of people - mostly members of the white working class - who voted for both Obama twice and for Trump. I think they were at least partially motivated by disappointment that Obama either didn't or couldn't radically change their lives they way they hoped and, since Washington is STILL dysfunctional, were going to go for the biggest outsider in the race in 2016. They like that he doesn't need donors' money (something I agree with — I think the U.S. system of campaign finance is almost inherently corrupt and needs changing); they like that he will say whatever he wants and doesn't care who he angers. This, they think, is somebody who is different. And different, I must confess, he is.

In contrast, Hillary represented continued Washington establishment elitism. She's been around for years. There is Clinton fatigue for both her and Bill. And her path after leaving the White House took her farther away from the white working class voters that propelled her and Bill into the White House in 1992, to their detriment in 2016.

Did they go back to Arkansas after leaving the White House? No, they went to New York City, and gave speeches that big banks and rich 1% elite globalists paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for. For the old supporters from Arkansas, that must have been real turn-off.

Trump Took Advantage of the Cult of Celebrity.

In addition to being an outsider, Trump represents the cult of celebrity. I don't think enough has been written about this. If he didn't already have fame, I don't think he could have done what he did in this election. He already had name recognition and, especially since he was rich, could skip the time-consuming tasks of introducing himself to America and raising money. Americans don't hesitate to vote for people they already know and have a positive opinion of. Look at Arnold Schwarzenegger's election as Governor of California. At the time, I viewed that as strange and sort of embarrassing. But you know what, he was a pretty good Governor.

Republicans Ended Up Voting Republican.

Democrats weren't totally blind to the fact that Trump was consolidating non-college-educated white voters. But, as reflected in this Washington Post article, many believed that Trump would lose enough college-educated Republicans, especially women, to make up the difference. He did lose some of them, but in the end, many came home and voted for the Republican ticket. In a partisan era, this isn't wholly surprising, and it's something Democrats should have factored into their analysis. The "outsider" appeal and the fact that Democrats had already held the White House for 8 years, the maximum voters typically give one party, solidified Republican willingness to come home in the end.

Hillary Had Some Pretty Big Flaws.

Hillary's flaws contributed to this. She could not run as an outsider/change candidate. Rightly or wrongly, she has been tagged in multiple investigations and scandals over the years. The newest — Benghazi and the private email server — worsened her trustworthiness ratings. FBI Director Comey's reopening of the investigation with just days to go may have been a factor driving college-educated Republicans back to supporting their ticket.

Further, while I regard Hillary as very intelligent, hard-working and supremely qualified, I do see that she lacks the charisma of Obama, Bill, Biden, and I guess even Trump. (Actually, I don't find him at all charismatic, but I do admit he has what I'll call flair.) Hillary leads with her head first and heart second. She loves policy and facts. I am like her. Most voters don't make their decisions on policies and facts, but on emotion. I l