The Case for Optimism in the Trump Era

Consider the following fact: with the exception of George W. Bush in 2004, no Republican candidate has won the popular vote for president since 1988.

That year, George H.W. Bush crushed his Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis, by more than 7 million votes and carried 40 states, including what are today considered solidly blue ones like California and Illinois.

The Republican Party hasn’t come close to achieving anything like that at the presidential level since then:

  • Bill Clinton cruised to victory over his opponents in both the 1992 and 1996 elections.
  • In 2000, Al Gore won the popular vote, but lost the Electoral College due to several controversies over the recount in Florida.
  • George W. Bush did manage to win the popular vote in 2004, but by a smaller margin than that of his father’s in 1988: 3 million votes instead of 7 million, and carrying 31 states instead of 40.
  • Barack Obama easily defeated his opponents in 2008 and 2012, winning by nearly 10 million votes and 5 million votes in each election, respectively.
  • In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College when Trump narrowly carried several states behind the “blue wall.”

What does this information tell us?

For one thing, it shows that since 1992, Americans have mostly preferred to have a Democratic president to a Republican one.

Another thing it shows is that the institutional structure of American democracy— such as the Electoral College — favors Republicans.

But most importantly, it is evidence of a worrying trend for the Republican Party: conservatism as an ideology is in decline.

Donald Trump: The Weak President

After Donald Trump was elected, calls to suicide hotlines surged. People were scared. There was speculation that a new fascist era was upon us. With Trump in the White House and Republicans in control of both houses of Congress, nothing would be able to stop them from implementing their agenda.

And, in many ways, people were right to be scared: Donald Trump is a dangerous moron with racist, sexist, and sociopathic attitudes. He is doing substantial damage and has the potential to do vastly more as long as he is in office.

And yet, public support for him and the policies he favors through the Republican Party has been remarkably thin. He has been unable to implement a substantial portion of his agenda. His administration is under federal investigation and is a raging dumpster fire of incompetence, firings, and resignations.

His first major legislative effort — the repeal of Obamacare — was a failure. Although the GOP tax cuts were passed, they did so without a single Democratic vote and did so with little public support. And his wall on the Mexican border has not been built.

No, Donald Trump is not evidence of a new fascist era in American politics. He is a weak president:

  • He became the Republican nominee after winning 45 percent of the popular vote in the Republican primary — the smallest share for a Republican nominee since 1968.
  • He lost the popular vote in the general election by nearly 3 million votes.
  • He entered office as the most disliked president in modern American history.
  • His approval ratings have remained under water since the beginning of his presidency:
Trump’s Approval Rating. Source: 538

Again, none of this means that Trump is not dangerous. Or that he has not and will continue to do damage — some of which will be with us for a long time, such as the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.

But the fact that the Republican Party can be in control of a unified government and fail to get as much done as they want actually proves conservatism is in decline, not ascendancy: If there were broad public support for the Republican agenda, then the Republicans would be getting more stuff done. But they aren’t, because there isn’t broad public support for the Republican agenda.

The Conservative Era

Ronald Reagan’s election victory in 1980 ushered in a new era of conservative ideology, which was partially a backlash to many of the gains made in the 1960s. The conservative movement exploited rising economic insecurity and racial resentment among whites to fuel this movement and, with a steady diet of right-wing talk radio, most whites bought into it.

Though the Democrats won back the White House in 1992, this ideology was extremely influential throughout the 1990s — Clinton governed like a Republican in many ways — and into the 2000s.

But then the economy collapsed in 2008 and the Occupy Wall Street movement erupted a few years later. The basic assumption upon which American politics had been based for several decades —namely, that neoliberal capitalism is an unquestionably good thing — was shifting.

Occupy Wall Street Protest. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Trump’s victory in 2016 will likely be the last gasp of this discredited ideology. Reagan hid his racism behind dog-whistle politics and at least pretended the dismantling of the New Deal and Great Society was a project that would be good for everyone: Trump doesn’t pretend anything.

That someone like him can win the Republican nomination shows conservatives have nowhere else to go: out of ideas and reduced to openly supporting blatant bigotry, ignorance, and stupidity.

(Many media figures like to pretend there is some cadre of “reasonable Republicans” out there, but this is largely a myth: Trump and the vast majority of Republicans in Congress support the same things almost all the time. The Trump agenda and the Republican agenda are one and the same.)

The current cycle of Reaganite conservative ideology characterized by market fundamentalism is coming to an end. And a very different and much better one is afoot.

The Real Story of the 2016 Election

That a famous billionaire could end up winning the Republican nomination and squeak by in a general election while losing the popular vote shouldn’t be that surprising in hindsight.

What is most interesting about the 2016 election is what happened during the Democratic primary, not the Republican one.

In that race, Bernie Sanders won 43 percent of the popular vote, a remarkable achievement when the circumstances are considered.

Before his presidential run, Sanders had little name recognition outside progressive circles and his home state of Vermont. He openly described himself as a democratic socialist and relied almost exclusively on small donations. The Democratic Party apparatus clearly favored Hillary Clinton, while the media was more interested in Trump’s antics than in covering Sanders and the substantive issues he was raising.

Despite these handicaps, he came close to winning the nomination, and perhaps could have if the Democratic Party had not been determined to nominate Hillary Clinton. It’s also very possible he would have defeated Trump in the general election, as all the polls showed him leading Trump by a wider margin than Clinton.

Rally for Bernie Sanders. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Today, Sanders is the most popular politician in the country.

Sanders is the future — if not him personally, then at least his ideas.

Surveys of public opinion bear this out:

  • 59 percent of Americans favor a single-payer, Medicare-for-all health care system.
  • 63 percent support making public colleges and universities tuition-free.
  • 72 percent believe the United States should take “aggressive action to slow global warming.”
  • 52 percent support raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
  • 76 percent agree that the wealthiest Americans should pay higher taxes.

Obviously, any single poll on its own wouldn’t be evidence of much of anything, and each poll’s results depend on how the question is asked, the polling company’s methodology, and so on.

But these and many other polls taken together over the last several years clearly establish a pattern of broad public support for an economically populist agenda.

And the age cohort driving a substantial portion of this support comes from young people — the future.

In the 2016 primary season, Bernie Sanders won more votes from those under 30 than Clinton and Trump combined:

Source: Washington Post

In 2016, Frank Luntz, a prominent Republican pollster, conducted a poll of Americans aged 18–26.

Based on the results, he concluded: “The hostility of young Americans to the underpinnings of the American economy and the American government ought to frighten every business and political leader.”

The poll results found that:

  • 58 percent believe socialism is the most “compassionate” system, while 9 percent believe communism is. Only 33 percent think the same of capitalism.
  • 66 percent of respondents believe that corporate America “embodies everything that is wrong about America.”
  • A mere 15 percent of young Americans identify as Republicans, while 44 percent identify as Democrats and 42 percent identify as independents.
  • When asked to name the political figure they “like and respect the most,” Bernie Sanders was the top choice with 31 percent, while Barack Obama was second with 18 percent and Hillary Clinton third with 11 percent. Trump came in fourth with just 9 percent.

The Future

It’s clear the electorate is shifting leftward, driven by young people that rightly believe the economic system unfairly favors the wealthy. The Sanders campaign brought many of these people together and showed what is possible.

Trump’s election has merely accelerated this leftward shift. He is showing what the Republican Party is really about. Since his election, record numbers of people are becoming involved in the political process by running for office, including record numbers of women.

At the same time, record numbers of Republicans are choosing to not seek reelection, including the Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan. Many of them know they risk losing reelection and, in Paul Ryan’s case, knows he will likely no longer be presiding over a Republican majority come January 2019.

The Democrats have been leading the Republicans in the generic poll for Congress since last year:

Congressional Ballot. Source: 538

It’s possible these numbers actually undercount Democratic support, since most of these polls were conducted among all registered voters and not just among voters likely to participate in the midterm election.

The Democrats face a tougher map in the Senate, where they are playing defense in many states Trump won by big margins, but it is looking increasingly possible they have a shot at winning a majority there, as well. After all, Democrat Doug Jones defeated Roy Moore in Alabama last year, a state Trump won by 28 points.

In fact, Democratic candidates have improved on Hillary Clinton’s performance by an average of 13 percent in special and state elections since November 2016. Keeping to elections held in 2018, they have improved on her performance by an astonishing average of 22 percent.

In addition to winning a Senate seat in Alabama, Democrats also won both governor’s races in New Jersey and Virginia last year, as well as nearly capturing Virginia’s House of Delegates, something that no one predicted and was not thought possible. More recently, Conor Lamb won a special congressional election in Pennsylvania, defeating a Republican in a district Trump carried by 20 points.

In any case, the Democratic Party likely to take power in 2019 will be significantly more left-leaning than in the past thanks to an influx of new progressive candidates and the Sanders campaign. The majority of House Democrats and a third of Senate Democrats now support single-payer, for example. (Just a few years ago, no one in the Senate except Sanders supported single-payer.)

Perhaps more important than these electoral victories, however, is what is happening throughout the country with labor and activist movements, such as the teacher strikes and the Parkland student-led gun control movement. They signify growing trends toward citizen involvement and against prevailing right-wing orthodoxies.

The teacher strikes, for example, are happening in deep red states where Republican state governments have spent years cutting taxes and slashing spending. Now, the teachers are winning — with public support. People have had enough of fiscal austerity and policies meant to benefit the wealthy.

The reaction among conservatives to the Parkland students is particularly instructive. The vitriolic attitude many conservatives have taken toward the teenage activists shows what happens when you know you have lost an argument: you resort to name-calling.

Conservatism has lost the argument. Not just with guns, but with how American society itself should be structured economically.

And they know they have lost the argument. That’s why they have to rely on unfair institutional biases, such as gerrymandering, the Electoral College, and disproportionate representation in the Senate from small, rural states — as well as passing voter ID laws to prevent minorities and poor people from voting — in order to get and keep power.

But their time is almost up. The majority of Americans are opposed to what they stand for, and a huge segment of the population has become involved to the point where there’s no stopping it. They know it.

And there’s nothing they can do about it.