The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders



Wow.  Just wow.

So I’m interrupting my regular urbanism commentary and opinion to weigh in on perhaps the most stunning political upset in American history.  Donald Trump has defeated Hillary Clinton to become the 45th President of the United States.

Wow.  Just wow.

Last night I was watching all of the punditry on television trying to explain Trump’s win, and I’m reading Internet and print stories on how he was able to accomplish this amazing feat.  Pundits across the political spectrum are dumbfounded, and are still trying to explain his win in a way that is dismissive and even contemptuous.  Donald Trump did so many things that would’ve invalidated any other presidential candidate, yet he still managed to ride a change wave into the Oval Office.

How this ride goes is something I believe will change on a daily basis for the next four years.

How did we get here?  Honestly I think this is something we’ve been moving toward ever since the new global economy started selecting new economic winners and losers in the 1990s.  Knowledge was the currency, and those with it became the winners.  The cities where they lived won as well, and divides between haves and have-nots became chasms.  This accelerated once Barack Obama was elected in 2008, not so much because he moved this transition forward as much as embodied it.  The 2010 midterm elections that brought out the Tea Party foreshadowed Trump’s election, as did even more GOP gains in 2014.  That’s the short answer.

There will be lots of people who will analyze how Trump pulled off this feat, so I guess I’ll add my two cents as well.  Many observers touch on the four points I bring up below, but I like to think I add another layer of depth to them that they’re missing.   A big reason they’re flabbergasted today?  The pundit class is as disconnected from the voters who propelled Trump into office as the political elites who tried to represent them.  I, for one, never thought Trump could not win.  I always thought it was unlikely, but never impossible.  And now the unlikely has happened.  Here’s why:

A reaction to long-term economic trends.  The political commentariat has pretty much arrived at a consensus that the economic travails of the white working class set in motion the energy necessary for Trump’s win.  To some extent, that’s true.  However, it still sells his victory short.  Trump was also able to capture large numbers of more upscale white voters as well.  Early reports suggest that Trump and Clinton ran even among middle class whites with college degrees.  What is true, though, is that the economic challenges of the white working class aren’t of the “I-lost-my-job-six-months-ago” variety, but of the “I-don’t-recognize-our-economy” variety.  Globalization has indeed reduced the number of low-skilled but well-paying jobs that less-educated people could once count on, and this is particularly crucial as the access to a college education has fallen while costs have risen dramatically.  It’s not about what’s happened over the last year, two years, or five years.  It’s about broader economic trends that aren’t favorable to a large part of our populace.

A reaction to long-term demographic trends.  Similar to the above, pundits correctly identified the public’s frustration with immigration policy as a driving factor in Trump’s success, but vastly underestimated the depth of the frustration.  Like the long-term economic trends, immigration to the U.S., legal and otherwise, has been going on for some time.  And I think much of the working class, white or otherwise, recognized it for what it was: an attempt by businesses big and small to reduce labor costs, pitting Americans against new arrivals.  Throw in a little xenophobia, and the prospect of a destabilized Middle East that brings war and political refugees here, and the Donald has a solid position to work from.

A reaction to poor leadership by elites.  Do you remember the book What’s The Matter With Kansas? by Thomas Frank, published in 2004?  I sure do.  The premise of the book was that conservative elites fired up the masses on cultural issues like abortion and gay marriage with the promise of fighting to defeat those issues.  In return, conservative elites said give us your vote, and respect what we have to say about lowever taxes and smaller government.  That worked, until it didn’t: perhaps the first evidence of that rift came with the nomination of Sarah Palin as the vice presidential nominee for the Republicans in 2008.  Suddenly, plain-speaking Americans had a plain-speaking VP nominee who seemed to understand them.  They began to see that they could bypass elite leadership and get behind someone who channels their anger directly.

With that, the elite-vs.-populist divide became more important than the conservative-vs.-liberal divide.

A really bad candidate.  Set aside Hillary Clinton’s vast political and public policy experience; I agree, there’s probably been no one more qualified to step into office and hold the reins from day one.  But that’s precisely what the electorate was saying it did not want.  Hillary Clinton is about as establishment as establishment gets — a political insider with close ties to Wall Street, and a hint of corruption thrown in.  She was never going to be a change agent, and in retrospect she shouldn’t have been asked to try to be one.  That led to lower energy among traditional Democratic supporters, who couldn’t match the intensity of Trump’s followers.

Put that all together and I find myself subscribing to the “whitelash” theory first noted last night by former Obama aide Van Jones.  Trump turned the election into a referendum on white identity, and won on it.

Consider this.  Think of all the people who said, “I don’t like his comments on women/Latinos/Muslims/the disabled/inner city blacks/etc., but I like that he says what’s on his mind.”  Or, “I don’t think he believes even half the stuff he says, but we need to send an outsider to Washington to shake things up.”  Or, “We’ve been perceived as weak internationally under Obama, and Trump will make us tough again.”  People who made those kinds of comments arguably make up a vast majority of Trump’s support, and none of that sits anywhere on the public policy spectrum.  It’s not conservative or liberal.  It’s all about identity.  Outspoken.  Outsider.  Tough.  Traits that the white working class sees in themselves.  Traits that they’ve been craving from their political leadership.  Donald Trump broke the dog whistle and pulled out the bullhorn, and the people responded.

I won’t go so far as to say that all Trump supporters are racists.  Hardly.  But I’d be willing to bet that virtually all racists are Trump supporters.  And I’ll also say that many white working class and middle class people went to the polls yesterday, and were likely thinking, “in a changing world and changing economy, who’s with me?”  And they selected Donald Trump.

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