Maybe too much has been made of the “angry white man” and “urban-rural” story lines in this election. Now that the dust has begun to clear, with Clinton probably winning the popular vote, there are risks to doubling down on racial and geographic explanations as drivers of the electoral college outcome. It remains important that people learn the best lessons from this outcome and that truth prevail over myth (even data-driven myth).
Here’s an alternative perspective, that may better account for the nonlinear dynamics of the presidential election. One need not throw out the uneducated white male and the rural backlash story lines. Let’s call them the Bubba narratives. But these story lines have been a long time in the making, and they did not prevent Barack Obama (educated, black urbanite) from decisively winning presidential elections in 2008 and 2012. Given favorable demographic trends for Hillary Clinton in 2016, we must think more deeply about the election’s political implications.
An important fact. If a total of only 50,000 votes had flipped toward Clinton instead of Trump in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin (states ostensibly quite safe heading into Tuesday), she would have commanded sufficient electoral votes to defeat Trump. The flipping matters (versus turnout) because we do know that many people in these states who voted for Obama in 2012 voted for Trump this year.
The most important variables in explaining the election, then, may be Clinton’s own weaknesses and mistakes and misfortunes as a candidate. It is not that the tectonic demographic and cultural shifts and catastrophic political and social outcomes unleashed by these shifts don’t matter enormously. But the circumstances bringing us to the world in which we now live all very much fall in the “for want of a nail” category.
We are left, then, with a profound irony, which is that a somewhat ordinary election outcome may now liberate true outliers like Donald Trump and the Breitbart Crew to transact untold damage upon the nation and the planet. We find ourselves in a bizarre situation not unlike one in which a rabid dog (Trump) chases and bites its spiked and flailing tail (the Breitbart, Alt-Right vanguard), leaving the midsection of the dog (the northern industrial working class) to gamely, but perhaps uncertainly, follow along (with Republican party stalwarts scrambling to lick Trump’s balls). The point being that this outcome was not inevitable, was very much avoidable, and that consequently Democrats need to own their responsibility for allowing this pretty catastrophic result to materialize.
So what the hell happened to Hillary Clinton? Let’s focus on proximate, not ultimate, causes. The first thing we can probably say is that James Comey happened. In our new facts-free dispensation, his bungled, incoherent 11th-hour announcement mixing up Clinton’s emails with the nauseating Anthony Weiner teenager-sexting investigation accelerated the already visible polling turn back toward Trump. Had Comey the sense to observe protocol regarding actions that could influence election outcomes, it seems almost certain that Clinton, whose numbers were at that time still rock-solid, would have not experienced the degree of flippage back toward Trump in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania that cost her the election. Time only will tell, but there may be few precedents in the annals of elections, anywhere, for the random idiocy of a single person costing a nation, and a world, so much grief.
But this is obviously too easy an explanation. The larger story is that the Billary Clintons (who for political purposes are essentially the same person), inhabiting their own globalized, jet set, financially engineered Bub(ble), lost their formerly secure Bub(ba) base. One can only cut Hillary so much slack for her decision to eschew public campaigning with super-ordinary schlemps in bub overalls for private fundraising with super-rich assholes in yoga pants. Her weakness and her failure in recent years has always been her deafness to the overlap between the Sanders and Trump outsider insurgencies.
We forget (always forget, and always to our peril) that ideology and political engagement are not linear along a right-left continuum. The directional analogy is, in fact, so anachronistic and meaningless at this point as to be positively destructive as a political heuristic. Clinton didn’t even need significantly more of the common touch – after all she has almost certainly won the popular vote. But technocratic, robotic impulses to which she (and her entire campaign team) instinctively hewed prevented her from connecting the dots between the emotional and economic dynamics of the election. By assuming Trump was cause, and not effect, and in effect coasting on the belief that he would eventually self-destruct, Clinton could offer nothing meaningful to her most vulnerable constituencies in the industrial heartland. She ultimately allowed emotion to trump reason.
What does this mean? There is a deep structure and infinitely complex (often beautiful, often terrible) web of connections between actions and outcomes in the world. We cannot know the ultimate effect of our actions, but we do need to know they matter. No one is “above it all.” Clinton was not a victim. She could have done better. All of us could have done better. And what we now experience is ground giving way beneath our feet, with power ceded to the vanguard of a movement which truly is deplorable. Our task just got a lot harder. And it needn’t have.
One final point. Clearly, many bizarre (and in retrospect, ominous) portents prefigured this outcome. The thinness of the Democratic bench of younger candidates, the age of Clinton, Sanders, and Trump, the odd reversion to a generation we were grateful, with the election of Obama, to have left behind. The Clinton collapse requires this awareness of political weakness in the Democratic Party, driven to some degree by demographics, but to perhaps a greater degree by the Machiavellian success of super-wealthy business elites from the extractive industries – experts in explosives – in dynamiting the local and state foundations of politics and governance in the broad, thinly inhabited stretches of flyover land. We need to explore more fully the extent to which these “under the radar” organizational achievements choked off the organic growth of the Democratic political base throughout much of the nation.
Of course, we also cannot ignore the emergence, in tandem with the Alt-Right, of Alt-Media. A development members of the Democratic Party, despite their experiences with talk radio and Fox News, never fully understood or appreciated. Throughout the campaign (and indeed throughout most of the Obama years), Democrats have operated as if interests were all that mattered, as if some obviously rational and logical calculation on the part of the electorate would inevitably sweep Clinton into office. They entirely failed to comprehend, and had no plan to address, the possibility that the new media, in concert with well-known demographic shifts, activated and unleashed popular emotions that now, like a fevered, feral beast, sprint abreast and ahead of the calculating, analog gears of the rational mind. With the election of Donald Trump, we witness the extrusion of the American psyche.