In the aftermath of the 2016 election, I felt a wide range of (mostly negative) emotions. At first, I was shocked that so many people could lovingly embrace someone who had so little regard for what I believed to be America's principles of tolerance and inclusivity. It's probably no surprise that many of the things Trump seems to embrace are polar opposites to my own beliefs. But after seeing just how resounding the Trump victory has become, I quickly realized the main problem here isn't necessarily Trump supporters (though they certainly aren't completely innocent). Nor is it entirely with the Republican party (though they will eventually have to reckon with a deeply divided base). Indeed, the party that really needs to change this time is, surprisingly, the Democratic party.
So how did this happen? People can blame the polls for being wrong, the DNC for favoring Clinton, the Electoral College system, or the millions of voters enticed by Trump's rhetoric. But what this result really highlights is the failure of American liberalism to acknowledge and address the concerns of rural, white America. People often say that the aspect of race is overblown in elections, but the data just doesn't bear that out. The hard truth is that most Americans include their race as one of the main defining characteristics of their self-identity (whether they realize it or not). Since the Civil Rights era, the Democratic party has prided itself on championing issues of racial equality. Most of the time, things like the minimum wage or regulations against housing discrimination also helped poorer white voters (or at least didn't seem to negatively impact them). Even as recently as 2008, President Obama's coalition focused heavily on its promise to deliver jobs and positive reform (i.e. results) to working class people. But these last couple years (and especially since the rise of Trump), the Democratic party became fixated on proving that it was the party of rejecting racism.
Looking back, Clinton's policy proposals clearly took a backseat to the extreme rejection of perceived racism. In this regard, Trump masterfully (or accidentally) baited the Democrats into lashing out against rural voters who would otherwise have the most to benefit from liberal policies. The primary problem lies in the Left's reaction to Trump's abrasive statements. Trump would say something that many people feel, but it would be said in an outrageous way (like worrying about domestic terror attacks being phrased as a ban on all Muslims). Then, Democrats would respond in kind with harsh and unapologetic attacks on his ideas and all who support them ("deplorables"). Now, the people who were justifiably worried about domestic terrorism are suddenly being called racists by Democrats who appear to be ignoring their seemingly legitimate concerns. It was a textbook exercise in discrimination based on affiliation. The very same liberals (myself included) who despise things like calling all Muslims terrorists were labeling all Trump supporters as racists, sexists, and homophobes. It's important to remember here that most people DO NOT CONSIDER THEMSELVES RACIST. So now we have a party that is spending most of its time priding itself on being super inclusive while writing off entire segments of the population. As Scott Alexander of the Slate Star Codex wrote several years ago, "I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup."
Meanwhile, Trump and his fractured party were able to at least pretend to care about those left behind by the "Look How Not Racist We Are Party." Sure he barely ever offered specifics, and many of his policies are pure fantasy, but at least he wasn't calling them racists. He acknowledged that rural America is really suffering right now. Mainstream culture dumps on them for being rednecks, all while sending any decent job opportunities oversees or to the cities. As I've written before, Trump supporters have very real and legitimate frustrations that must be addressed. The reason All Lives Matter became the response to Black Lives Matter is because rural, white America interpreted BLM as "Your problems aren't really problems, we only care about black people problems." Life in a small, meth-riddled town probably sucks just as much as life in a struggling inner-city, but mainstream culture and the Left only seemed to care about inner-city issues. In their haste to accommodate the needs of minorities, the Democratic party left rural, non-college educated white voters behind. And Trump was there to pick up their message. Sure it was a very divisive and inflammatory message. But if someone is acknowledging your problems and saying they will solve them, why would you care if he said some mean things about other people?
How does the Democratic party get back on track? The first and most important thing that must be done is to reject the idea that all (or even most) of Trump's supporters are racist. Some definitely are, but most are just voting for the candidate that actually seems to care about their problems. In order to bring these voters back into the party, liberals must resist the urge to immediately write off others because of perceived racism. For instance, I have heard many people discuss America's immigration/refugee issue by bringing up the large number of people living in extreme poverty in this country. By stating they want to focus on people at home first, they aren't saying "screw the brown people," they are merely expressing a desire to help our own citizens first (no matter what race they are). Instead of assuming the worst of these beliefs, Democrats must return to a solid policy based approach. One that understands the problems of America's newly marginalized and provides solutions. Things like job retraining for laid off manufacturing workers or more relaxed regulatory standards for blue collar industries could go a long way towards winning people back. In all, Democrats must remember that, although minorities in America have experienced marginalization much more severe and for much longer than rural whites, many of these are feeling it now too.
But for now, America will be led by President Trump. Though many are in despair at this thought, we must remember that our nation still has a system of checks and balances, and that candidates always "normalize" somewhat after an election. There are many things (like his NATO policies) that he cannot do because of opposition from his own party. Other items, like trying to imprison Clinton, are basically irrelevant and Trump is not likely to waste much time on these. It's also likely that the rhetoric will calm down as well. After all, everything we have seen of him so far is his attempts to get elected, he won't be the same person in the presidency (at least not with many 3am tweet storms about sex tapes). There will certainly still be some outrageous statements, but again the Democratic party would do well to simply let those go and focus on offering solutions to America's problems.
So in a way, racism (or in this case the reaction to perceived and real racism) helped defeat the Democratic party this time. And in a way, the system really was kind of rigged. Liberals in Congress can now choose to work with the new administration or pay the Republicans back in kind for eight years of agonizing obstructionism. They may deserve the latter, but striking up a compromise is the only way to begin to heal the divisions in this country and move us forward. To all my liberal friends, I urge you to think about how the rhetoric behind these past eighteen months helped contribute to the alienation of so many rural white voters. To my conservative friends, I don't accept that we should deport millions of people, and I don't accept a Muslim ban. But I accept that mainstream society has in many ways left you behind. If Trump supporters wanted a voice, they got it. Now, at least, I'm listening.