There have certainly been enough theories and post-mortem articles surrounding Hillary Clinton’s failed 2016 presidential election bid to keep scholars busy for the next two decades. Some have claimed her loss was attributed to economic fears, others claimed it was due to blowback to perceived Democratic social policies (gay marriage, abortion, etc.), while others have bemoaned the breakdown of the American political process and political decorum.
Instead, I’d like to posit something potentially more radical: all of it is to blame. And that the blame lies squarely at the feet of Democratic leadership unwilling or unable to confront the political, economic, and social realities that are staring us down from behind the barrel of an AR-style rifle.
I saw this post by Arthur C. Brooks in my news feed this morning and couldn’t help but scream at the top of my lungs. What made this all the more galling was that it took someone from the American Enterprise Institute (a Libertarian/Conservative think tank) to say it.
Here’s the rub: anyone could have told you this.
Any of the hundreds of thousands (possibly millions) of rural farmers, laborers, machinists, engineers, construction workers, truck drivers, and more could have told you this straight to your face if you’d have asked.
Imagine a rural farmer in the pre-Trump era: they own some land, they live on that land, they barely scratch-by with the money they make from the harvest of their crops (if they aren’t already under-water on their debts), and in many cases they’ve lived and farmed on that land for generations.
But the forces they’re contending with, they have absolutely no control over and no hope of winning against:
- Seed costs (see GMO-seed companies’ legal and political wrangling to keep farmers buying expensive GMO seeds and unable to re-use seeds between seasons, a.k.a. “terminator seeds”)
- Equipment costs (see John Deere’s political and legal campaigns to prevent equipment owners from repairing their own equipment without the company’s expensive parts or labor)
- Land costs
- Taxes (property, income, etc.)
- State and Federal land-use legislation and regulations
Democrats by-and-large have ignored these problems or at the very least have been ineffective at providing relief over the last three decades. This has prevented a significant number of farmers and others from reinvesting in the businesses that support their families and help to bring income to the hardest-hit rural areas that feed our country and are arguably the heart of America (hence the phrase “The Heartland”).
Because of the above points, the continued focus of political and economic investment in urbanization, and the inability for politicians of any affiliation to disinvest themselves of their corporate backing (or at the very least being transparent about it), most of rural America is in a state of decline that can’t be solved by stimulus.
Enter Trump, stage far-right.
At the risk of sounding like a shill for the Grifter-In-Chief, in entering the 2016 presidential race, Trump knew exactly what he was doing. If anything, Trump is a savvy media personality: he knows how to work a crowd, knows he has both personality and presence, and very clearly does not care how he’s seen or interpreted. He executed on a vision that exploited a long-simmering fatal flaw in how American politics and economics have operated for at least the previous four administrations. That fatal flaw being the failure of both Democrats and “mainstream” Republicans to address the decline and ever-dwindling prospects of rural America.
Trump has used this flaw to devastating and depressing effect, using populist rhetoric and dog-whistle signals to disaffected and disenfranchised groups of Americans increasingly left behind by corporate America, Wall Street, and educated metropolitan/urban populations.
To tie this back to Hillary Clinton’s (and ostensibly the Democrats’ losses) in the 2016 election cycle, here’s the gist: Hillary is exactly the extreme opposite of all of this. She’s never farmed, never owned land, never really suffered or toiled in the same ways that rural electorates have. I’d put money on the idea that when these voters considered Hillary, they only saw a female, Wellesley- and Yale-educated, carpet-bagging East Coast elite politician. They probably made the assumption that they had no connection to her and that she wouldn’t care at all about their situations or their concerns — to which the Democratic party made no rebuttals or attempts to argue to the contrary.
And wouldn’t you know it, she came out and said it herself. “Deplorables”, she said. To which anyone with an ounce of empathy, or any sense, for the rest of the country collectively facepalmed and braced for the worst election for Democrats and Democratic ideals in recent memory. It wasn’t just the fact that Republicans absorbed and welcomed the so-called “Dixie-crats” and began moving further to the right on the left-right political axis, or the fact that Citizens United brought the back-room dealing and financing that was already happening out into the open, or that politicians have been paying lip-service to populist positions.
It’s the fact that the disaffected and disenfranchised have been pushed to the margins and to the breaking-point. They have to stand-by and watch their friends, their families, their communities, and their own lives crumble away right before their eyes.
After all of this, you might be asking yourself: “Who are these disaffected and disenfranchised groups? Why do they matter?”
They matter because these groups are giving voice to a frustrated and desperate segment of the population. Entire regions of America awash in poverty, misery, and attempts at chemical- and pseudo-political-escapism through drugs, identity politics, violence. I’m talking about new and resurgent hate groups like Atomwaffen Division, Traditionalist Worker Party, Qanon, and Hammerskins (sometimes referred to as “The Hammerskin Nation”).
I’m talking about far-right extremism.
A recent book by Vegas Tenold titled Everything You Love Will Burn: Inside the Rebirth of White Nationalism in America gave me a stark wake-up call to the bleak and soul-crushing reality that faces a lot of Americans. In towns all across America, as banks close, as homes are foreclosed upon, and as state and federal politics disinvest in these troubled areas, other things are rushing in to fill the gaps. When you have no hope and no prospects, where your choices are between anger and violence or depression and inexorable death, those who haven’t thrown in the towel are choosing rage.
To the rest of the country, it makes no sense: why would any self-respecting American align themselves with ideologies that were supposedly defeated at the end of World War II or abuse themselves with prescription painkillers or illicit substances?
To anyone that’s ever suffered from depression, anxiety, PTSD, or substance abuse, it makes perfect sense: you either numb yourself to reality or you find a way to make the pain you’re feeling align with a skewed vision of the world. When you’re “in the thick of it”, what seems reprehensible or otherwise wrong to an onlooker makes complete sense internally. Suffering becomes the lens through which everything becomes clarified. Every injustice, every failure, every setback becomes just another tale added to an epic struggle of survival. A grand evil has to be responsible or the universe must be impersonal and random. Inescapable nihilism versus the immortal Romantic struggle of life — or so it seems to the long-suffering soul.
When you’re left behind in the economic, social, and political rush toward urbanism and modernity, when the systems you took for granted as having been built by your kin-and-kith for your kin-and-kith, when your morals and worldview are so fundamentally abandoned or challenged, it becomes the fault of minorities, immigrants, the LGBTQIA community, liberals, secularism, college-educated elites, and multiculturalism.
When you feel as though the rest of the country thinks that you’re worthless and without redemption, you’re liable to go looking for any place of solace and empathy. Some turn deeper into religion, others to drugs; others still turn to identity politics, fetishization of a past that never existed, nationalism, and violent right-wing extremist ideologies.
Here’s what I’m getting at: desperate economic, political, and social situations have created a socio-political nightmare that America has been trying to wake-up from since the country’s founding in 1776. Politicians have largely ignored the deepening and worsening situations of Americans, both urban and rural, for at least the last hundred years. It’s only recently with the advent of the Internet, access to increasingly-deadly firearms, a sensationalist twenty-four hour news cycle, and digital organizing tools that are harder to detect and surveil that things have gotten so much worse.
What America has isn’t just a “loneliness epidemic”, we have an epidemic of intolerance and greed. We don’t have a Union, we have an Entanglement. We’re collectively paying the price of not rebuilding the South after the Civil War, of not delivering on the promise of equality-under-the-law, and of not empathizing and caring for our own above the desires of a selected, monied, and landed capitalist gentry.
We live in a state of disarray and discontent, where the rich ostensibly get richer, the poor get poorer, the environment gets shafted, and the sick and indigent die for reasons that have nothing to do with lack of resources — merely a lack of willpower to do what’s ostensibly right.
What’s more right than admitting mistakes? That admitting the Democratic party has historically failed to resolve the underlying problems of poverty and substance abuse in the American South and beyond? That admitting that courting corporate and elite donors and “winning” matter more than substantive policy and visible campaigning at the local, state, and federal level (even in places where they know they don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell)?
Actually doing something about it. Something the existing Democratic party establishment has zero interest in pursuing. This is something we should all be angry and concerned about.