This is No Populist Revolt
Some people seem to think the rise of Trump is a populist surge, a response by an underclass that has felt battered and unappreciated by American politics for far too long.
This narrative is pushed by pundits all across the political spectrum, and on the liberal side, a commonly appended idea is that if Bernie Sanders had been the Democratic nominee instead of Clinton, he would have had the election in the bag. After all, his was the true populist revolt.
The only problem is that there’s little evidence to suggest that either of these statements are true. And both arguments ignore several major factors at play in the election, to the detriment of not only the truth, but to the very people who would have been most helped by a true populist revolt in the first place.
Voter Turnout Sucked
The most important component of populism is the populace.
When the 2016 election produced America’s lowest voter turnout in 20 years, we can’t call that a “huge surge” in the underclass.
As has been true for a while now, the less people who vote, the more likely a Republican victory.
(That fact should scare the pants off anyone who hears it, by the way).
Even ignoring the fact that Trump didn’t even receive the most votes, it’s foolish to say he was an electrifying figure who spoke to the unheard concerns of millions of Americans.
Apathy drove Trump to the White House. He was not an exciting, electrifying figure.
So what was his appeal?
Racism and Voter Suppression
We can’t say this was all about economic inequality and a poorly-represented middle America without trying desperately to avoid the racist elephant in the room.
In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down key elements of the Voting Rights Act, which protected the rights of tens of millions of Americans to vote.
There are widespread reports, many of which are substantiated, about voters being turned away from voting because of these new, restrictive laws.
In many cases, voters were turned away at the booths even when they did fulfill the requirements. One girl was turned away because her driver’s license was a “state-issued ID” and this was a “federal election.” An observer objected, pointing out that his driver license was state-issued as well, as required by the law. He then demanded the people running the poll to show their own IDs—which they refused to do, presumably because their IDs, too, were driver licenses, which are state-issued.
The girl was allowed to vote.
As mentioned above, turnout this year was low. Turnout among people of color was lower than it was under Obama. We can say that this is due to apathy—but we can’t fail to acknowledge that Republicans worked very, very hard to make sure that millions of Americans were no longer able to vote in this election.
And as an aside—we’ll never know for sure, but it’s hard to imagine Trump’s white supremacist base would have been less active and less aggressive when faced with the Jewish Bernie Sanders.
Poor People Voted Democrat
The theory of populist revolt assumes that the maligned underclass latched on to Trump’s message of increased prosperity and bringing jobs back to this country.
Why, then, didn’t they vote that way?
According to the New York Times exit polls, ALL voters earning less than $50,000 annually favored Clinton.
Trump did make gains in these demographics, which voted Democrat in greater percentages during the last election. But he by no means won the majority.
He was elected by middle-and-upper-class Americans instead—those who had the least to lose under his proposed policies.
Comey and the FBI
You already know what happened here. The Clinton camp had an October surprise for Trump—the pussy-grabbing tape.
It turns out Trump had a bigger October surprise—Comey’s email that the FBI had resumed investigations into Clinton based on “new emails.” These emails then turned out to be entirely useless, mostly duplicates and none containing any incriminating information.
But the damage was done. The so-called scandal had reared its ugly head again and was on the forefront of America’s mind when it went to the polls.
Rudy Guliani admitted that someone in the FBI told him about the emails before they went public—a clear violation of the Hatch act. It was no less than criminal interference on the behalf of the Republican candidate by members of the FBI—who at the base level earn 50% more than the median American income.
Hardly a populist revolt.
This was no upswell of the masses, no collective statement of a middle America that felt forgotten by the federal government.
Of course those sentiments exist. Of course they were a factor. But to claim that they are the sole reason for Trump’s victory ignores and downplays the other, very real factors that swung the election red.
If we seize upon populism as the only cause, we silence the voices of people who have always been hurt by America’s deeper problems, and who would have suffered no matter who became our next President.