Trump Grasped What Others Missed

From his gilded perch in Manhattan, he peered into the American psyche and saw the rising resentment of working-class whites.

AP Photo/John Locher
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
Nov. 14, 2016, 8 p.m.

Be­fore as­sign­ing blame for why Hil­lary Clin­ton lost a race that she was sup­posed to win, it seems ap­pro­pri­ate to first give cred­it to the vic­tor. Wheth­er you like or agree with Pres­id­ent-elect Don­ald Trump, you have to give him cred­it for see­ing and tap­ping in­to something that few oth­ers saw. From his gil­ded 58th floor, three-story apart­ment in Trump Tower over­look­ing Cent­ral Park, the real es­tate de­veloper and tele­vi­sion per­son­al­ity some­how peered in­to the Amer­ic­an psyche and de­tec­ted a grow­ing an­ger and re­sent­ment among work­ing- and lower- middle-class whites, par­tic­u­larly those in small towns, far sub­urbs, and rur­al areas, who feel left be­hind in the 21st-cen­tury glob­al eco­nomy.

Trump has lived in New York City for most of his 70 years, ex­cept­ing a stint at a mil­it­ary prep school and an Ivy League in­ter­lude at Penn in Phil­adelphia, and his life was cata­logued in glossy Man­hat­tan style and so­ci­ety magazines. Yet alone among the pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates, this moneyed, citi­fied man sensed the griev­ances of coun­try people to­ward the rich and power­ful in New York, Wash­ing­ton, and Los Angeles. He was able to con­nect with these voters by skill­fully ma­nip­u­lat­ing the news me­dia in­to lav­ish­ing on him as much as $2 bil­lion in free air­time. All the while, he pro­fessed dis­dain and if not down­right hatred for this very same me­dia, fur­ther de­light­ing his sup­port­ers.

The es­trange­ment of these white voters cre­ated a back­lash—in­art­fully called a “whitelash” by some com­ment­at­ors—based on the con­vic­tion that the coun­try they re­membered grow­ing up, made idyll­ic by the pas­sage of time, had been swept away. They at once de­plored the change that took this coun­try away from them, and de­man­ded change to give it back.

So what killed Clin­ton’s can­did­acy? A good place to start is the Af­ford­able Care Act. Be­fore Pres­id­ent Obama took of­fice, Demo­crats had ma­jor­it­ies in the Sen­ate and House. They con­trolled more state le­gis­latures than Re­pub­lic­ans. With­in six years, all of those Demo­crat­ic ma­jor­it­ies were gone. Head­ing in­to the 2016 elec­tions, Demo­crats were weak­er at the grass­roots than at any time since 1928. The coup de grace was de­livered when Obama­care in­sur­ance premi­ums shot up by an av­er­age of 25 per­cent less than two weeks be­fore the elec­tion.

Clin­ton blamed her troubles on FBI Dir­ect­or James Comey, but that was a polit­ic­al cop-out. The ori­gin­al sin was the dumb and dan­ger­ous de­cision to set up and use a per­son­al email serv­er. I’d still like to know wheth­er her staffers ad­vised her against it and wheth­er she ig­nored their coun­sel, or wheth­er they stayed mum for fear of an­ger­ing her.

There cer­tainly seemed to be a bit of hubris in the Clin­ton cam­paign, which tried to ex­pand its foot­print in­to long-shot states while not de­vot­ing suf­fi­cient re­sources and at­ten­tion to states that leaned her way and would have provided the ne­ces­sary 270 Elect­or­al Col­lege votes to win the pres­id­ency. That the Clin­ton team spent more money on ads dur­ing the last month in Omaha than in Michigan and Wis­con­sin com­bined was polit­ic­al mal­prac­tice. Flirt­ing with Ari­zona while Pennsylvania was start­ing to drift away was just as bad.

Even be­fore this cam­paign, Demo­crats were over­es­tim­at­ing their strength. In 2006, when the un­pop­ular­ity of the Ir­aq War had reached tox­ic levels and Pres­id­ent Bush’s ap­prov­al num­bers were be­low 30 per­cent, they won an im­port­ant midterm elec­tion and swiftly pivoted to the 2008 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign. After a hard-fought in­terne­cine fight between Obama and Clin­ton for the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­a­tion, Obama was ef­fect­ively elec­ted pres­id­ent as Leh­man Broth­ers fell and the stock mar­ket crashed. No Re­pub­lic­an un­der those cir­cum­stances could have won, in­clud­ing the sainted Ron­ald Re­agan. While Obama’s cha­ris­mat­ic can­did­acy did at­tract im­press­ive num­bers of minor­ity and young­er voters, it also masked the fact that any Demo­crat would have won that gen­er­al elec­tion.

In 2012, the eco­nomy was in tep­id shape and Obama’s num­bers were not suf­fi­ciently strong to be an as­set but not quite prob­lem­at­ic enough to pre­vent his reelec­tion. The caliber of the Obama cam­paign was first-rate, while Mitt Rom­ney’s ad­visers failed to tell their can­did­ate’s story, ap­par­ently afraid of ex­acer­bat­ing con­cerns about his Mor­mon faith, his private-equity work at Bain Cap­it­al, his term as gov­ernor Mas­sachu­setts, and his up­bring­ing as the son of a one­time gov­ernor and auto­mobile com­pany CEO. One side ran a great cam­paign, the oth­er an OK cam­paign.

The pat­terns of sup­port in Obama’s vic­tor­ies con­vinced Demo­crats that the world had changed, that their new co­ali­tion of up­scale white pro­gress­ives, young and so­cially lib­er­al col­lege gradu­ates, and minor­ity voters was an un­beat­able com­bin­a­tion. The only prob­lem was that while the coun­try had changed and con­tin­ues to change, it hadn’t changed as much as Demo­crats thought. The crush­ing irony was that Demo­crats failed to hold onto the down­scale whites who had grav­it­ated to the party at the be­gin­ning of the 20th cen­tury and be­came the corner­stone of FDR’s New Deal co­ali­tion—and a corner­stone of the party’s suc­cess ever since.

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