The Case We Should Make to Trump’s Working-Class Voters
I was a criminal prosecutor before getting into politics. I’ve stood in front of juries, guided them through mountains of evidence, thundered my closing argument, felt really good about it.
I’ve sat behind a big courtroom table in quiet confidence as jurors shuffled back from the deliberation room, enjoying the heavy moment before justice prevails.
Then I’ve watched as the foreman stands, hands a folded slip to the deputy, who walks it over to the clerk, who unfolds it, pauses, announces, “Not guilty” — and completely blows me away.
When I had done everything. When the guy was clearly guilty.
In a haze, I’d retreat back to my office, where my feelings toward the jury would cycle from disbelief, to anger, to pity. They want crooks on the street? Fine.
Days would go by. I’d be driving somewhere, or mowing the lawn, and a certain acceptance would finally creep in.
If I was being honest, my star witness really hadn’t done as well as I thought. And the defense attorney, whose skills I had doubted, had done a pretty decent job of pounding home a fair point, and I probably hadn’t responded strongly enough.
Then I would just stop and admit to myself, it was on me. I had failed to make the case.
Once I accepted it, I could learn from it.
At 2:47 a.m. on November 9th, CNN announced that Trump would be the next president. The screen instantly cut to a waving Trump strutting onto stage, his family in tow, rapturous cheering.
Most of us got through our disbelief within a few days. Then we entered anger.
Here, the strong temptation is to blame Trump’s victory on his constant and repulsive pander to bigotry — in large part because, well, he did that. If you check Twitter, you’ll see it’s full of stuff like this:
That anger is going to stick around awhile. And every time Trump talks, he’s going to reset the emotional clock for a lot of people.
But eventually, when we’re mowing the lawn, or walking the dog, we’ll ponder that there were hundreds of precincts in Rust Belt states that voted twice for Obama but went overwhelmingly for Trump.
We’ll also accept — reluctantly, and with some mystification — that we know a lot of good people who were willing to overlook Trump’s deep policy ignorance and demonstrably low character for something that struck them as positive and important. Perhaps not what you or I would do, but certainly not deserving of the same treatment as the overtly racist wing of Trump nation.
Then we’ll start to learn, and we’ll regroup.
It bears emphasizing that it will always be absurd and embarrassing that Trump became an American president. I don’t get why more people couldn’t see him as the obvious conman that he is, but I can’t control that, and neither could Hillary.
So what could she have done? It’s still early, but what have we already learned about how this could have been avoided?
Let’s start by ruling a few things out. Hillary couldn’t follow Trump into the darkness when he talked about Mexicans and Muslims and Chinese. And she couldn’t help the fact that almost half the electorate now gets its “news” from social media, which has been flooded with hoaxes and half-truths. And she couldn’t help that she’s been the target of one of the most prolonged character attacks in American history.
But there’s one big thing she could have done: She could have spoken directly to the pro-Trump working-class.
That’s the case she failed to make. And it wasn’t an accident; it was strategy.
Her campaign manager said those votes were un-getable. So they devised a strategy around that by trying to run up the score with groups that would be naturally repelled by Trump: minorities, women, and highly educated urbanites.
That’s why she never made a strong, clear, economic case to the Rust Belt. She didn’t think she needed to. And that’s why the economic case she did make featured issues like raising the minimum wage, equal pay for women, and paid family leave. All fine issues, but all designed to move the needle with select constituencies, not lift entire post-industrial communities.
If your town is locked in a downward spiral, her economic agenda probably struck you as oblivious. Minimum wage? For life? It’s not a real answer, and it’s not trying to be. It’s a placeholder for the unspoken hope that a rising economic tide would, over time, lift their boats.
And maybe it would have, but that’s a weak case — especially when the other guy is hollering right in their face, every day, about solving all their problems.
So, what could she have said?
It’s been a long time since someone told you the truth. I know that’s not what you’re expecting from me. Well, buckle up.
You’ve been slammed by an economic tidal wave. It’s washed away a lot of good jobs. And for those of you who lost those jobs, you also lost a way of life.
We didn’t do enough to prepare you. We didn’t make the kind of commitment to you that you deserve.
We can fix that, right now — or we can live in a fantasy.
If you want the fantasy, you have that option.
Here’s your other option: We make a commitment to each one of you. If you lose your job — or if you want a better one —you will have the full weight of this government behind you.
I’m not talking about welfare. I don’t want you on welfare. I’m talking about rebuilding all of our programs so they work together to do one thing exceptionally well: Help you get a good job that can support your family.
That’s not how it works right now. If you lose your job, or want help getting a better one, you have to fend for yourself as you bounce between different people and different agencies. Sometimes there’s funding, sometimes there’s not. And you never know what to expect.
That’s a lack of commitment to you, and it’s going to end.
We’re going to build the fastest employment pipeline on Earth. When you walk in the door, the clock is going to start. It will be the stated mission for everyone in that agency to make sure you have a job offer in 60 days, unless you opt for more training.
Every assistance program will be tailored to that goal. Unemployment insurance, disability, retraining, apprenticeships, relocation assistance, drug rehabilitation — all of those programs are going to work together to get you where you need to be.
The truth is, there are more tidal waves coming. Technology is changing so quickly that new industries are rising and old ones are going away every few years. You were the first to get hit, but now we’re all watching the horizon. We all know it’s coming.
We have to fundamentally change our level of commitment to you. The first major economy that gets this right is going to attract a flood of new businesses looking for smart, flexible, mobile labor. That is going to be us.
We need to talk about infrastructure. We need to talk about trade. But you need to hear this first: You deserve a good job. It might not be in your hometown. It might take some real training, maybe more than you want to do. But you deserve a good job and you can get it.
Tomorrow you’re going to hear from the fantasy candidate. He’s the one who thinks you won’t remember when he breaks all his fairy tale promises. He thinks you’re gullible and he doesn’t have the courage to tell you the truth. He’s a game show host who has no real friends because he doesn’t listen to other people and he doesn’t care about other people.
I’m the one who has enough respect for you to tell you what we have to do. I’m going to be real. He can be the song and dance man.
So let’s get real — and let’s get started.
In short, she could have become a change agent for these folks by pitching a revolution in workforce development, which, by the way, is something the broader electorate is probably going to need in about ten years because of the rapidly accelerating rate of automation we’re seeing. That’s the next tidal wave, and it’s a big one.
In making that pitch, she also could have earned some credibility by finally telling some hard truths. Lots of folks are still waiting for someone to level with them, and she could have done that.
That kind of pitch doesn’t flip all—or even most — of pro-Trump working-class. It isn’t delusional in its promise, and some folks are looking for that. But it gets you in the game. And besides, these folks deserve a real answer, whether they’re going to vote for you or not.
Six months from now, it’s probably going to become clear that Trump has no real clue how to address the economic stagnation his working-class supporters are facing. When they see that, a lot of them are going to start looking around to see if anyone can make a better case.
No reason that can’t be us.