An immigrant’s unique perspective on how Hillary got trumped by the white middle class
A few years ago a vicious nor'wester hurtled into Sagadahoc Bay here in mid-coast Maine and swept my Boston Whaler off its mooring. For weeks the boat sailed south on its lonesome down the Gulf of Maine, swept along by the Laurentian Current. When it was finally spotted by a Coast Guard plane returning from a dawn sweep over the U.S. fishing grounds, it was a hundred miles out in the Atlantic off Cape Cod, Massachusetts. We thought it was a goner.
But a month later the Coast Guard called again. Hurried home by the Gulf Stream the little Whaler had retraced its path and was now back in Maine waters once more, stalled just off the northern lobster fishing village of Jonesport. We figured out later she had covered close to 500 miles. But how were we to get her back safely to our bay? That’s where young Jack came in. Twenty-eight years old, perennially cheerful, unschooled but smart as a whip, Jack took the job.
He picked me up at 4am in his big white Chevy truck, with the boat trailer hooked up and ready. We had plenty of time to chat — it’s a seven-hour trip down east to Jonesport from here. Along the way Jack happily pointed out each and every town where one girlfriend or another lived.
“Why aren’t you out on your dad’s fishing boat?” I asked. “I’m only paying you a couple of hundred bucks to bring the old Whaler back.”
“I broke my back,” said Jack. “I’m still recovering. Flipped my snowmobile acting stupid. They airlifted me down to Maine Medical for an emergency operation, everyone was worried I’d never walk again. Never been in a helicopter before.” He laughed
“Jeez, Jackson, that’s horrible. Sounds expensive too.”
“It was. Over 87,000 bucks, they told me.”
“How did you pay for that?”
“Didn’t have to. It was free.”
I was incredulous. “What the hell do you mean, it was free?”
“I didn’t have to pay anything. I don’t have health insurance or nothing. So the hospital gave me a break I guess.” This was said with hardly a trace of embarrassment.
“Jesus, nothing’s free Jackson my boy,” I said. Despite years of tough parental training it was still difficult for me to mask the note of grievance in my voice. “The fact is, I paid for it, along with everyone else with insurance. That’s why our premiums are so high, to subsidize bums like you.”
I happened to run into Jack shortly after the election and I asked him who he voted for. “Trump of course,” he said. “He’s a friend of the working man. He’ll get rid of that damn useless Obamacare for a start. Like he says, who needs big government messing with health insurance?”
Soon President Donald Trump will be inaugurated. And I’ll still be pissed. It’s strange, how that sounds. President Trump. Because of my involvement in previous presidential campaigns, many people have asked me how the hell we could have elected a bullshit artist from Queens with an empty head and a bad case of narcissist syndrome. Was it Comey and the ginned-up email mistake? Benghazi? The media, which cynically made his candidacy plausible in the first place? Novel voter suppression efforts like Project Alamo? Russian hackers? Was it Clinton’s original chromosomal sin? Was it fear that debt in proportion to GDP would continue to climb? Or was it simply time for a change?
Well sure, they each played a role in the acid drip that poisoned her candidacy, but there was something else too, something more fundamental.
If you think this is where I start talking about Trump’s seduction of the White Working Class, you’re wrong. This too is not why Clinton lost. Doing better in the lower-income demographic than any other recent Republican candidate certainly helped Trump, but the numbers are still not big enough there to put him over the top. Besides, for many reasons, “White Working Class” is neither a marketing demo nor a voting bloc. It’s a bullshit canard.
Let me point out that I myself happen to be a member of the White Working Class. So are most of my mates. I came here from a little country town in New Zealand via London in 1981 with 37 pounds sterling in my pocket. I didn’t know a soul — or much about anything. I worked 12 hours a day, six days a week, built a fine little company and sold it in a merger for many millions at age 35. At least I thought I had sold it at a hefty premium, but it turned out I was taken to the cleaners in the deal and lost most everything. I was wiped out.
After hibernating to lick my wounds for a few months, I began to put my life back together again. Once more I worked my ass off. I re-engineered my career and I made a little swag all over again. And this time I managed to keep it most of it in my pocket.
Along the way nobody gave me diddly squat. Nobody did me any favors. I didn’t ask for any.
For a decade I did so well the government in various forms and guises happily took more than 48% to 53% of my income, monies that were then adroitly funneled to support a wide range of white working class folks on the take, from Jack and hundreds of his pals to out-of-work coal miners in West Virginia up to their eyeballs in meth and sugary soda. I earned too much to get a break on college tuition, so I had to pay full-freight for my kids to go to the universities of their choice — naturally they picked the best, most expensive ones they could find. That’s more than half a million right there. Any truly dispassionate observer lacking in charity might say that I’ve been well and truly taken, over and over again. Is this what membership in the liberal elite is supposed to feel like? Please. Don’t go whining to me about the white working class and how bad they have it. I’ve paid more than my fair share. I owe them nothing. If anything, the white working class owes me.
The majority of the working class is urban and non-white anyway, which means there’s only one word in the phrase “White Working Class” that applies in the case of Trump — that’s the word “White.” Although disaffected, economically insecure, blue-collar voters certainly helped him win in rustbelt states like Michigan and especially in rural areas across the country, where he absolutely cleaned Clinton’s clock, what made the biggest difference was the turnout for Trump of white voters across the board — of both sexes, almost all ages and education levels — and from middle and higher income levels.
White voters, who make up 69% of the total, voted 58% for Trump and 37% for Clinton. Non-white voters, who make up 31% of the electorate, voted 74% for Clinton and 21% for Trump. White men alone voted 63% for Trump. Thanks to him, white is no longer a passive, default position. It’s a racial category now, an identity. It stands for something distinctive, something exclusionary, something to be aggressively promoted on a broad scale. And here I was thinking all along that the miraculous first election of Obama back in 2008 signaled the dawn of a post-racial age.
So, Trump’s core is the broad swathe of the white middle classes, from lower to upper, earning between $45,000 and $125,000 a year. And that’s what makes this election so dangerous. What the hell is their problem? How could they have walked into a voting booth and filled-in the circle next to the name of a race-baiting demagogue? And how can you piously pronounce that you are not a racist — and then vote for one? This surely is the luxury of whiteness taken to the extreme, when you can vote in such a way without personal consequence. All you have to do, it seems, is look the other way.
A close friend of mine is a U.S. congressman. He was up for re-election this cycle. He’s a Republican and for months the press tried to get him to say whether or not he endorsed the guy at the top of the ticket. He kept on refusing. He never did say. Want to know why? Because the data said that an endorsement of Trump would cost him four points with the Independent voters he needed. In a choice between repudiation and retaining his seat, he took the expedient route, just like most of his colleagues on the same side of the aisle in the House of Representatives, and the Senate, too. Some I know justified it to themselves by imagining they could control the egomaniac if he won. That’ll be fun to watch.
Like I said, white privilege is a wonderful thing. No personal consequences. Of course you still have to look in the mirror every morning.
The United States is the only country in history to be founded upon an idea. It is, as they say, the grand experiment, a work in constant progress. This is not Italy with Berlusconi, or France with LePen, India with Modi, the Phillipines with Duterte, Germany with its fascist lunatic fringe or even Britain with Brexit, the United States has always been a nation of immigrants like me, where all are welcomed irrespective of race, religion, ethnicity or economic status and all are expected to play their role in moving things forward. Most of all, we’re all equal. No royalty, no upper classes, no imagined superiority, no lucky sperm club, rather, a competitive, sometimes brutal marketplace of independent spirits who celebrate their difference and thrive because in their mutual diversity lies the ongoing prospect of a better future… together.
That’s a marvelous, radical idea and you can thank Jefferson and Adams, Hamilton and Madison for it. But when the Cold War ended with the fall of the Communist bloc in 1989, the U.S. lost its sense of restless renewal. After all, it had emerged triumphant. After that, rising levels of immigration combined with the 9/11 attacks moved many Americans in the direction of ethnocentrism and nationalism. Then came the Great Recession and with it the idea that the land of opportunity had lost its mojo. Now the modern, global networked economy is the last straw, particularly for those who cannot relinquish the quaint 1950s notion that a good job means working in the mill in town or for the same company for 30 or 40 years and then retiring with a pension you can take to the bank.
Those stuck in that 1950s time warp suffer from the self-sabotaging delusion that they can no longer get ahead by their own effort. Maybe they should talk to an immigrant sometime.
The ones in the lower tier of the white middle class are of course most prone to Trump’s argument that their salvation will come not through their own agency and a modicum of government support — but only through The Donald. Overflowing with venomous resentment and looking for payback, they were ripe for the plucking. But he made the rest of the white middle class believe his populist sales pitch too, convincing them to look at their life as rather like that of Wile E. Coyote, who, running off the side of the Grand Canyon, continues to spin his legs wildly but without effect until he finally realizes his footing is suspect and plummets to the hard ground below.
This includes white middle class women. Yes, women too! Even in the time of feminism, the alpha male rules. In the key state of Florida, Trump won 47% of women, compared to Romney’s 46%
And so now we get the heart of the matter. Let me ask you something. If Trump’s mantra was “Make America Great Again,” what was Hillary Clinton’s? You don’t have a clue, do you? Like you, nobody had more than a vague idea of what she stood for or where she wanted to take us. Know why you cannot recite the Clinton campaign mantra? She didn’t have one. She had never taken the time to develop an electoral strategy and then drive it to a precise, over-arching, compelling and positive argument for her election.
This was a strange omission, given that in her own husband’s first presidential campaign “it’s the economy, stupid” was the simple, central clarion call. Perhaps she should have borrowed it. But she didn’t have a slogan because she didn’t have a vision. She didn’t see the need. For the Clinton camp, this was less an election and more a march towards an inevitable coronation.
Why, when they were gaming this right at the start, their favored scenario was that Trump would win the Republican primary. “Never happen,” they told each other, “but can you imagine how great it would be for us if he did?” She would be the anti-thesis to his thesis. She would be “not Trump” — and that would be more than enough.
A white nationalist proposition will forever be relegated to the back hills of Mississippi or Alabama unless it is somehow rendered acceptable, even desirable, on a broad scale. The Tea Party, an earlier outlet for angry white nationalism, soon retreated back to the enclaves where it was born. But with sublime salesmanship, Trump pulled it off. Just as FDR figured out radio and exploited it with his fireside chats, just as Kennedy figured out television and used it to fashion an image that still lives today, Trump figured out the power of social media to establish and sustain an emotional connection in a media age where truth is, well, trumped by yellow journalism.
To be sure, he appealed to many voters disgusted by gridlocked Washington elites, unsure of the efficacy of the country’s institutions and suffering directly from economic stagnation. But he extended the relevance and appeal of that disaffection with a masterful amplification of racial and ethnic polarization.
He gained political prominence by denying the citizenship of the nation’s first African American President.
He ignited his campaign by denouncing Mexicans.
Later he viciously went after Muslim immigrants.
Build the Wall.
Some call his secret sauce charisma. It is not. It is opportunism by a man without a center. He ratified conspiracy theories about “them” and invented new ones. He cynically — and brilliantly — stoked tribal grievances, putting down in particular the so-called liberal elites, like a loser who has spent his life seeking affirmation but never quite receiving it, and as a result burns with secret small hatreds.
Against such a reckless populist phenomenon, Clinton and her insular team of sycophants were helpless, hampered and blinkered by their heroine’s great sense of entitlement and naively believing that a great people would not tum to a hollow strongman. It was a perception shared by the Democratic National Committee, who had earlier maneuvered to advance her candidacy over that of Bernie Sanders. That was a colossal mistake. Winning a vote is not a matter of faith — you gotta earn it, you gotta do some persuading. Not once during the campaign did her team have her visit Wisconsin, the state that kept us all up on election night until it finally swung red, for the first time since 1984, by a margin of .3%. Not once! Michigan, considered in the bag with its union voters unanimously appreciative of Obama’s auto industry bailout, was similarly taken for granted. Trump’s margin there? Just 1%.
But hubris, though irritating, is no crime. If it were disqualifying, most politicians I know would be out of work tomorrow.
Yes, it was unfair and often hilariously hypocritical — Gingrich going on and on about Bill Clinton’s affairs has always been my personal favorite — but any good marketer will tell you of the danger of allowing the competition to frame what you are offering in a way that favors them. In politics, the trick is to take your opponent’s strongest asset and turn it against them. So a thrice-wounded Vietnam war vet like John Kerry was swift-boated by surrogates for Bush, who ducked the draft. And Clinton’s vaunted experience was easily turned into a liability. Thirty years in Washington and she has accomplished nothing but gotten herself rich. Drain the Swamp.
Even if she and her team had sniffed out the danger, the task of reframing her with an original messaging strategy would not have been easy. After 30 years of relentless attacks — Whitewater, Vince Foster, her husband’s shenanigans, then Benghazi, emails — she could not easily present herself afresh. The unfortunate fact of the matter is that the Clinton brand was tired. Hell, she was tired. And the inextricable associative adjective for her after all those years had become the word “untrustworthy.” Lock her up.
Two years before the election the liberal documentarian Michael Moore was the one lonely voice in the wilderness. “She is hugely unpopular,” he warned. “Nearly 70% of all voters think she is dishonest.” Nobody listened.
Compounding the ineptness of her campaign and the vulnerability of her brand position was something else, something quite surprising: The inability to inspire. What the vapid Romney was to Obama, she was to Trump. I’ll go one step further. Her “deplorables” was Romney’s “47% of the American electorate think they are entitled to government handouts.” It’s hard to persuade people to vote for you when you’ve really pissed them off.
Strangely, after all those years in politics, her stump speeches were wooden, flat, lacking in both rhythm and vocal range and empty of genuine empathy. As if an amateur, she confused decibel-level with passion. She lectured and hectored, she couldn’t help herself. As a result, audiences were supportive only by rote — they displayed little spontaneous enthusiasm for the prospect of her presidency. The lack of intensity at her rallies was palpable. You could feel it through the screen.
Meanwhile, his rallies pulsed with emotion. Like any good snake-oil hustler, once he saw that a line worked, he went back to it again and again.
As a practical matter, all this really mattered in the end. The simple truth of this election is that turnout in core Democratic areas was slightly down from 2012, while turnout in core Republican areas was slightly up. The expected tides of women and Latinos apparently thrilled at the prospect of voting for Clinton never rolled in. Trump galvanized white turnout, so key, high-value states in the electoral college went for him. A motivated minority beat an apathetic majority. The double whammy of a flawed candidate and an inept campaign proved to be a deadly combination in the face of a smart, intuitive, disruptive salesman who relentlessly, artfully, communicated a message that resonated with the white middle class: Make America Great Again.
But let’s not lose perspective. Irrespective of the vagaries of the electoral college, most Americans do not want Trump to be their president. He did of course win 100% of the presidency, but despite the braggadocio about the size of his victory, he has no mandate. Truth is, the most unpopular nominee in the history of polling squeaked by the second-most-unpopular nominee and lost the national count by about 3% — or 2.8 million votes, a tally which ranks him third from last in the popular count in all presidential elections going back to George Washington. In the end, he won by a margin that is actually less than what Romney lost by in 2012. 42% of the electorate, some 90 million voters, stayed home. You do the math — that means just 27% of eligible voters supported him. On election night he won the three key states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin by a total of just 107,000 votes. That’s it.
So chill just a little. The whole country has not gone bonkers. Only part of it has. A very small part.
But there’s something else, too. And I think it’s the most significant fact of all. If you examine the voting records of 18-to-25-year-olds and overlay that with the electoral college, you will see that the vote was 504 Clinton to 23 Trump. With those numbers one thing is certain: Without fundamental re-orientation the Republican Party is destined to atrophy and fade away. Like print newspapers or old, cold stone churches or empty post offices, it’s a relic from a different time, with a value system out of kilter with the collective beliefs of the coming generation. As a matter of actuarial certainty, the party of old white men is on an inexorable path to extinction.
Paul Ryan, the House Speaker, is a Social Darwinist with something to prove. That means Republicans will now commence to over-reach. And if they do that, the incline of that descending path to extinction will get very steep, fast.
In the meantime, the normalizing of President-elect Donald Trump is picking up speed. Who knows? Maybe he will leave his phone in his pocket and not rise to every imagined slight like somehow he’s a victim. Maybe he will dispense with the incendiary campaign rhetoric about jailing Clinton and rounding up Mexicans and interning Muslims and bear down instead on the prosaic business of job growth and fixing Obamacare and reforming taxes. Maybe he will successfully grow middle class incomes. Maybe the totalitarian arch-dukes who rule Russia and China and Korea and Syria will listen at last because they see him not as a useful idiot but as a fellow-traveler, and someone unafraid to kick over the coffee-table.
Maybe Ivanka will prove to be a moderating influence on social policy.
Maybe Bannon will renounce his elite Harvard, Goldman Sachs, Hollywood background and help his boss advance pragmatic programs that actually help the downtrodden.
It could just happen.
And maybe pigs can fly.
Meanwhile, the familiar bromides about the sacred will of the people feel weird. Those of us who held our nose and went for Clinton are being urged by Democratic leaders to find common ground, to understand the anger that Trump tapped into. Excuse me? This is cant. The world view of Trump’s white middle class base and its current leadership warrants neither my empathy nor support. On the very night of Obama’s first inauguration a group of 10 of the most senior Republican leaders in the country dined together at the Capitol Grille in Washington DC and by the end of the evening resolved to do everything they could to freeze the legislative process and render him a one-term president.
So tell me again why you want me to bend over?
- excerpted from an article written for New Zealand’s North & South magazine. For a copy of the complete article, email the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Peter Winter has served on the communications teams of several electoral campaigns, presidential, senatorial, and gubernatorial. All but one of his candidates lost, one was thrashed. The exception? Barack Obama, in 2008. He is a retired media executive who happens now to be a registered Independent
- Peter’s short stories can be found here on Medium, at Life of Fiction And he blogs about media and management at BlastofWinter. He is represented by The Garamond Agency of Washington D.C.