Fellow Democrats: The Real Boogeyman Was Us
One week ago today, I was busy canvassing a local neighborhood for Hillary Clinton. It was Election Day, and I was excited that it looked very probable that we would be electing our first woman President of the United States. One of my sons had traveled home from college in Ohio to vote, and we had made a family affair out of the first presidential election in which he could vote.
Things are much different today than I thought they would be last week, as I’m sure is a common story. Not only were all the polls terribly off, but, as it turns out, so were we Democrats. We thought we were facing a big, bad, boogeyman in Donald Trump, but, in reality, we were the boogeyman ourselves.
We Missed the Populist Movement
There was a strong populist movement that took place in Election 2016. Bernie Sanders came out from the fringes and captured the imagination of not only huge crowds of young, idealistic voters, but also many others willing to listen to a different approach to solving the problems of our country. America was fed up with politics-as-usual, and Bernie was the candidate that embodied a different message for Democrats. Many of us though, myself included, worried that Bernie Sanders was too far left, that the term “Socialist” or even “Democratic-Socialist” would be a no-go for the American electorate. So we threw our support behind the candidate who we had been socialized to believe would be the next standard-bearer: Hillary Clinton.
The Republican Party was taken over by populism as well, which explains how Donald Trump, a complete outsider, was able to secure the Republican nomination over such a large field of intelligent, experienced insiders, many of whom had long paid their dues in the Republican Party. Democrats looked on this occurrence with a mixture of horror and disdain. How could this established party be hijacked so completely? But surely a hijacked party running with an outsider, without complete support from those in party establishment, should be much easier to beat, right?
Apparently, not so. Populism ruled. America wanted to shake things up. The Republican Party machine worked, whether the establishment wanted it to or not, to nominate the anti-establishment Donald Trump. And what did the Democratic Party ensure? That we gave them the most establishment candidate we had — Hillary Clinton. We didn’t listen. And because we didn’t listen, we ended up with an uninspiring campaign bringing the lowest voter turnout since 1980.
Right Woman, Wrong Time
Many Democrats argue that Hillary Clinton was the most qualified candidate to run for office in a long time, and, by that measure, she should have been elected. She was certainly significantly more qualified for the office of President than Donald Trump. She has detailed Public Policy experience no other candidate brought to the table. Nobody disputes that she is the smartest person in the room. Probably in most rooms.
However, 2016 was not Her time, and the Democratic Party forced the issue. Through the mechanism of the Superdelegates, comprising some 15% of the total delegates in the party’s nominating process, they were able to virtually ensure that the nomination would go to Hillary Clinton. Because these Superdelegates are members of Congress, local elected officials, and party leaders, they generally favor entrenched interests, which in this election belonged to Hillary Clinton, not Bernie Sanders. The Clinton nomination had been planned for a long time, and, by God, it was going to happen.
Hillary’s best time was likely 2008. Clinton was a highly-visible US Senator from New York. She represented NYC during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and walked the streets with then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani observing the horror and destruction. She had established herself, apart from her husband, as a bona fide leader. But — along came the charismatic, ebullient, and intelligent Barack Obama from Illinois who quickly took much of America by storm.
That Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination in 2008 over Hillary Clinton, who was more experienced than he was, and whom many hoped at that time would be the first woman President, expressed a larger reality. Perhaps, given the nature of racial subjugation and discrimination in our country’s history, it was more important that we have our first black President before we had our first woman President.
That left Hillary Clinton to wait another 8 years. Was it fair? Maybe not, but it was right. The consequence was that she waited until, ironically, she was both the most qualified person to run, while also having largely disqualified herself due to the mistakes she made over the course of a career that extended for so long. At least, it appears that she was disqualified in the eyes of many American voters. Democrats tried to believe that her flaws wouldn’t matter, but we were wrong. We all misread the electorate in this regard.
No Resonating Message to the Working Class
Immediately after the election, the term, “Whitelash” was used to describe the unforeseen surge of turnout for Donald Trump. I don’t really like this term, because, although much of the middle-American working class is white, I believe that class played a more significant role than race in Donald Trump’s victory.
The working class in America have been hit hard over the last several decades. J.D. Vance tells this story poignantly and vividly in his book, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Growing up in the Rust Belt city of Middletown, Ohio, where his family had migrated from Appalachia in search of jobs and a better way of life for their children, Vance outlines what social, regional, and class decline feel like to the millions of working class Americans today.
The establishment in the Democratic Party must not have read this book, although it was published in June 2016 and quickly became a Bestseller, or they decided to ignore its powerful message. The working class in America watched as their jobs disappeared to the inevitable tide of globalization, as the party of the people became the party of the poor and the fringe, and as America itself, at least the one they kept seeing on the news and on TV shows, began to look less and less like them. For some people, the feelings associated with this change also carried racial overtones, but not for all.
Above all, the working class value work. They want to work at a respectable job that will put a roof over their family’s head, dependably put food on the table, and create a life that will provide better opportunities for their children. For the first 3/4 of the 20th century, despite the Great Depression and two World Wars, America emerged as a place where most families needed a plan to fail rather than a plan to succeed. Without the missteps of alcoholism, laziness, arrogance or plain stupidity, working class families could provide for their needs and basic wants on one income if they chose to, and most did, for a variety of economic, social, and cultural reasons.
The signature accomplishment of the Democratic Party in the last 8 years, Obamacare, may have provided the ability for health insurance coverage to millions more people in America, but the poor were the largest beneficiaries of this coverage, not the working class, most of whom still receive their health insurance coverage through their employer. For those on the bottom tier of the working class for whom this was not the case, those who could not afford the “Affordable Care” premiums, many chose to forego health insurance entirely and pay the penalty on their income tax, as the penalty was substantially less than the premiums. This left them with no insurance and less money than when they were uninsured before the program came into place. So Obamacare, a giant government program with laudable intentions, ended up hurting a large group of the American working class who could little afford it. And those who got health insurance through their employer saw it as a large chunk of their tax-dollars going to help poor people who were outside their social and class group at a time when they desperately needed economic help themselves.
Today it is very difficult for working class families to get by on two incomes, much less one. And that is if two parents can find jobs. And paid sick leave or an increase in the minimum wage has very little impact on them. Again, these are programs for the working poor. The people who have been the cornerstone of the Democratic Party since FDR’s New Deal coalition felt that the “party had moved away from them.” This phrase is ironic, in that it is the same sentiment expressed by many long-time Republicans about their party as well.
Donald Trump spoke directly to the problems facing working class Americans in this election and promised that, “he alone could fix them.” Democrats neglected to speak to them at all, and the working class expressed their disaffection with their vote.
But Wasn’t Trump Supposed to be the Boogeyman in this Scenario?
Yes. Absolutely. That’s what we told ourselves. Right from the start of his campaign, after descending down the pretentious escalator at Trump Tower, Donald Trump started in on his clever message of defining America’s problems as being the fault of the “other.” He famously said, about America’s illegal immigration problems, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best… They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with [them]. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” These statements immediately inflamed the liberal sensibilities of virtually everyone within the Democratic ranks, and led us all to believe and brand him as a racist and a xenophobe. Nobody wants someone like that for a President, we thought. Although his announcement remarks were racist, they defined America’s drug and crime problems as being not of our own making. They were the fault of those Mexicans. All we needed to do was, “build a wall.”
Likewise, the domestic terrorism incidents that we saw in San Bernardino, CA and at the nightclub in Orlando, FL were the fault of “Radical Islamic Terrorists.” This phrase took on the significance of almost a magical incantation to Donald Trump, as he dared President Obama and Secretary Clinton to use the phrase. Neglecting the fact that two out of the three perpetrators in these incidents were American-born US citizens, and the other a legal resident, Trump called for a ban on Muslims entering the US. He later modified his stance to one of “extreme vetting” which would still disallow immigrants from countries whose populations were largely Islamic. To bolster his argument that the Muslims were the cause of our terrorism problem, he repeatedly recounted that there were “thousands and thousands of people … cheering” in Jersey City, New Jersey, when the World Trade Center towers fell on September 11, 2001. Fact checking later debunked these claims, but the damage was already done. Trump had further forwarded his appeal that there was an “other” creating problems for Americans.
His entire campaign, in fact, was filled with so many falsehoods that fact-checkers were working overtime. They couldn’t even use the same methodologies for studying and reporting on the validity of candidates’ statements on the campaign trail that were the norm in the field because Trump was making so many blatantly untrue statements at every rally.
And then there were his “2nd Amendment” remarks about Hillary Clinton, the disparagement of the gold-star Khan family, praise for Vladimir Putin, the Veterans For A Strong America event where he raised money but neglected to give it all to Veterans groups, the refusal to release his tax returns, his crazy and unhinged use of Twitter during the campaign, the opposition from so many leaders within the Republican Party, the Trump University scam lawsuit, and the list goes on.
Then, when we thought it couldn’t get any worse, the 2005 Access Hollywood tape surfaced, on which Trump bragged that he could grab women “by the pussy” and get away with it because he was a “star.” All good people were horrified by hearing this tape, and, certainly for Democrats, we thought his campaign was over. More Republicans started dropping their endorsements like flies, citing that they could not justify their support to their wives and their daughters.
To top that off, women came forward accusing him of sexual misconduct, he stated that he was uncertain if he would accept the results of the election, and then he finished off by claiming that the system was “rigged” against him, that there were widespread problems of voter fraud, and that he supported what were ultimately determined to be voter suppression and intimidation tactics at the polls.
So Donald Trump made comments that were racist, xenophobic and misogynist. His pick of Mike Pence as his running-mate sent shudders through the LGBT community. He blamed America’s problems on the Mexicans, the Chinese, and the Muslims. He claimed that “the blacks” didn’t have anything to lose by voting for him. He questioned the very framework of American Democracy. He sure sounded like the boogeyman to me!
The Mainstream Media Tipped Their Hand and People Tuned Out
As it turned out, not everybody even heard and processed this message the same way. Because Donald Trump was such an unconventional candidate, he was initially treated by the mainstream press as an oddity. Like a bug under a jar. Even if it was an ugly sight, they just couldn’t keep from looking at him and from showing him to us. As his obvious flaws, inconsistencies, and disregard for facts became apparent to the mainstream media, they turned on him.
Journalists are supposed to report news, not opinion, unless it is specifically an opinion piece. However, Donald Trump was an affront to the cardinal law of journalism; that the essence of journalism is to provide citizens with reliable information through the discipline of verification. His casual relationship with the truth became too much for most of mainstream media to withstand, and they caved under the pressure — resorting to opinion rather than just reporting verifiable information.
It wasn’t enough to call Donald Trump out on his untrue statements, with truly journalistic reporting like, for example, “Donald Trump was incorrect when he said that Muslims were cheering from Jersey City on 9/11. There is no tape to verify this claim.” Reporters, however, started calling his statements “lies,” and worse, calling him a “liar.” These are value judgements and conclusions that should be left to the consumer of media.
Journalists, in essence, started telling people how to think. Because most of us Democrats were reaching the same conclusions about Donald Trump that the mainstream media was, that he was unhinged, biased, and dangerous, we didn’t notice the subtle change that was taking place right in front of us. We didn’t see it because they were on our side.
But when the mainstream media tipped their hand, and made it obvious that they were in at least tacit support of Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump, many Americans saw this for the bias that it was, found it unfair, didn’t like being told what to think by a bunch of over-educated elitist liberals, and they tuned out. It didn’t matter if there was excellent reporting going on after that, those people had already moved on from mainstream media. The polls that all of us Democrats took such pleasure in following didn’t impact them, because they weren’t looking on FiveThirtyEight.com or TheUpshot. They made up their own minds without the mainstream media, and they elected Donald Trump.
We All Became So Self-Righteous
In the end, the thing that really made us our own boogeyman was that we all became so self-righteous. In the face of a candidate who seemed so completely antithetical to our Democratic values of kindness, inclusion, equality, generosity, humility, empathy and honesty, we came to feel that our side was the side of “right.”
It was an easy trap to fall into. We supported the Khan family, the sexual misconduct accusers, the immigrants, women and girls, and on and on. We began to see what we were fighting for, and by association our candidate Hillary Clinton, as beyond reproach. The Email scandal shouldn’t matter — just look at HIM! The Clinton Foundation worries shouldn’t matter — just look at HIM! Polls showing that over 60% of Americans thought that Clinton was untrustworty shouldn’t matter — Trump was so obviously not trustworthy!
But that’s why the trap was so insidious. The trap was hubris. And Trump set the trap. This self-righteous boogeyman that we created ourselves must be conquered in the same way that the boogeyman in our child’s closet is dispelled — with light. That is my purpose in this essay.
President-Elect Trump May Be An Unknown Quantity, But He’s Still a Boogeyman
Donald Trump won the presidency by the rules as they are this election. He will become our 45th President of the United States. Everyone, President Obama, Hillary Clinton, and even Donald Trump, came out and said all the correct and stabilizing remarks necessary to ensure a smooth transition of power will take place, and that is more than some people feared this time last week.
Trump went on 60 Minutes on Sunday night and expressed a softening of many of his hard-line positions that he rallied on during his campaign. What does this mean for immigrants, for women, for Muslims, for LGBT, for anyone else who felt frightened, hurt, or appalled by the rhetoric he consistently used in his campaign? None of us can know. Through his ascent to the highest office of political power in our nation, he has only proved himself to be more of an enigma today than he was at the announcement of his campaign.
But he is a boogeyman, nonetheless. He is either the racist, hateful, bigoted, sexist, nationalist bully that he appeared to be on the campaign, or perhaps even worse, he is a devious, manipulative, power-hungry individual who discerned the most powerful message that Americans wanted to hear about in this election: jobs, and preyed upon the worst elements of peoples’ nature: fear, group-identity, hatred and bigotry, to sell himself to the nation. I don’t think that the people who voted for Trump were necessarily proponents of these ideas. I’m not even sure that Trump believes in them himself. But even if he does not, he thought it was okay to use these “deplorable” ideas to manipulate almost half the people who voted in America to vote for him, which makes him of unfit character for the office that he now rightfully holds. He is either a liar who completely misrepresented himself to get power, or someone whose values don’t represent most of America.
We Democrats must exorcise our own boogeyman so that we may properly exorcise Donald Trump as soon as possible.
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