What I Got Wrong: How I Misread an American Election | News Feature | Indy Week
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What I Got Wrong: How I Misread an American Election 

I underestimated Donald Trump.

Actually, scratch that. I didn't underestimate the man, who remains every bit the racist narcissist he's shown himself to be over the years. I did, however, underestimate the tidal wave of white resentment that propelled him into the Oval Office, the burning desire to blow up the system, consequences be damned.

I—an urban, educated elite—smugly assumed that there was no way people would actually vote for this buffoon, that everyone could see through his circus act the way I did. I devoured websites and listened to podcasts—all produced by urban, educated elites—that confirmed this assumption. And so as I watched results begin to pour in Tuesday night, celebratory boulevardier in hand, I was supremely confident of the results; doubly so when I saw the first exit polls, which showed a slightly less-white electorate than 2012.

"It's over," I assured a friend. "She'll win by six."

She did not win by six.

If this is a grieving process, I'm stuck in stage 2—anger. There's plenty to be angry about: the petulant progressives who wrote in Jill Stein; FBI director James Comey, whose eleventh-hour intervention almost certainly tipped the election to Trump; cable news, which normalized Trump and hyperventilated over Hillary Clinton's emails; the Clinton campaign itself, which never landed on an inspiring message and was entirely ignorant of its many blind spots; the Republican-led states, including North Carolina and Wisconsin, that tried to suppress the black vote; the 43 percent of registered voters who couldn't be bothered to get off their asses; the millions of voters who, though they might not be bigots themselves, looked bigotry in the eye and shrugged. There's also the Electoral College—an undemocratic anachronism that gives outsize power to rural whites at the expense of urban minorities—which, for the second of five presidential elections in which I've been eligible to vote, awarded the presidency to the second-place finisher.

I'm also angry at my country, which is somehow less than what I imagined it to be—somehow unable to see through the mountain of mendacity that Trump erected around himself, unable to see through his misogyny or scapegoating of Mexicans and Muslims, unable to see his know-nothingness and glaringly empty promises for what they were, unable to recognize that this was a con and they were the marks. I thought we were better than that, smarter than that, more tolerant and beneficent than that. We are not.

I'm angry (or at least embarrassed) at myself, too, because as many years as I've spent studying and writing about politics, I didn't see this coming; I completely misread this election and this electorate. And so did a whole bunch of people who are much smarter than I am. We took Trump's defeat for granted, and now we'll pay the price.

I supported Clinton in the Democratic primary because I thought she'd make a more effective president than Bernie Sanders (still do), because I wanted to see her finally break that glass ceiling after surviving the political meat grinder for decades (still admire her for that), and because I thought she'd be more electable (now, a more dubious proposition). Post-hoc counterfactuals can be overly simplistic; there's no way to know whether Bernie would have withstood an onslaught of negative ads or whether the white working-class Midwestern voters who abandoned Clinton would have rallied to the banner of a Jewish socialist from Vermont. Maybe so, but I remain skeptical.

It's easy, too, to lose perspective: Clinton won the popular vote and lost by 1 percentage point or less in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania; roughly one hundred thousand votes, total, would have put her in the White House. Moreover, political science models that focus on fundamentals always predicted a close race; it's hard for a party to keep the White House for three terms. We're only stunned at the outcome because of how appalling her opponent was.

But appalling though he may be, Trump clearly tapped into something.

Generously, that something was angst about an unevenly growing economy, about urban elites (like me) reaping the benefits of the plodding economic recovery while their exurban and rural neighbors languished. You see this in North Carolina, where the major metros—the places with universities and tech jobs and world-class restaurants and culture—were all a deep blue, and the outlying areas, with their shuttered factories and graying and declining populations, all ruby red. That resentment has manifested in the Republican legislature's repeated attacks on urban areas in recent years: HB 2, sure, but also gerrymandering county commission and school board districts, trying to strip Charlotte of control of its airport and Asheville of its water system, and all the rest.

Less generously, it's an angst directed at those perceived to be others. Just as the urban liberal bubble is a real thing, so too is the flip side. City dwellers, after all, routinely encounter and interact with people of different religions and backgrounds and with different levels of melanin. That's not always the case elsewhere; rural and exurban America tend toward homogeneity.

As Patrick Thornton incisively wrote in Roll Call last week: "My home county in Ohio is 97 percent white. It, like a lot of other very unrepresentative counties, went heavily for Donald Trump. ... In many of these areas, the only Muslims you see are in movies like American Sniper. (I knew zero Muslims before going to college in another state.) You never see gay couples or even interracial ones. Much of rural and exurban American is a time capsule to America's past. And on Tuesday ... they dug it up."

He continued: "To pin this election on the coastal elite is a cop-out. It's intellectually dishonest, and it's beneath us. We, as a culture, have to stop infantilizing and deifying rural and white working-class Americans. Their experience is not more of a real American experience than anyone else's, but when we say that it is, we give people a pass from seeing and understanding more of their country."

For all the talk about economic anxiety, I suspect that this kind of cultural—as opposed to economic or religious—conservatism, a conservatism rooted in a fear of the other, was the real wellspring from which Donald Trump drew his strength. Were there other factors? Of course. Trump voters are not two-dimensional caricatures. But we also kid ourselves if we pretend bigotry didn't play a role. We're just not supposed to say that out loud.

Here in stage 2 of the grieving process, I—the educated, urban elite—find it hard not to be disappointed in and, in darker moments, openly contemptuous of these Trump voters. This is an unproductive emotional response, granted. It does nothing to assuage their concerns that the world is changing and they are being left behind. And yes, it's of a piece with the same liberal smugness that turned so many of them off in the first place.

In my moments of Vulcan rationality—too few and far between this past week—I understand we need to engage with these folks, to try to persuade them, to conceive economic policies that speak to their needs. But I also fear that the Democratic Party is once again going to soften its embrace of civil rights and social justice to appease them, and that is something I cannot stomach. I would rather lose elections than forfeit principles.

So yes, we should reach out to them when we can, persuade them when we can; we should certainly not cordon ourselves off from them and ignore their interests. But we mustn't lose sight of the fact that they are the past and we are the future, that we are on the right side of history and they are not.

I'm not despondent because my team lost. That happens. Pendulums swing. And last week's results can easily be read more as a repudiation of Hillary Clinton than a fondness for Donald Trump. No, I'm despondent—and disillusioned and angry—because my countrymen turned their backs on their better angels and gave in to demagoguery. That makes me ashamed of my country. History will not judge us kindly.

So, for now, and for the foreseeable future, I cling to my anger. I draw motivation from it. Donald Trump, a man who spent years trying to delegitimize the first black president and earlier this week named an anti-Semitic white nationalist to a top White House position, is not worthy of our respect, and certainly not of our accommodation. He is worthy only of our complete and total resistance. And that is what I commit to doing these next four years, with every fiber of my being.

Get pissed. Get organized. Resist. Win.

This article appeared in print with the headline "I Got It Wrong"

  • I thought we were better than this. We are not.

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