From the moment Donald Trump first entered the presidential race, barely a day went by when there wasn’t a new outrage, a new indignation, a new soundbite slur that would be endlessly repeated on cable TV.
As Trump emerged as the frontrunner and Hillary Clinton continued to use behind-the-scenes Democratic Party machinations to stop the populist usurper in her party, a new type of partisan divide began to bellow forth, signaling the placement of the final brick in the wall that separates what is now two very different Americas.
Some say this stark division, at least in this particular shape and form, has been with us since the rise of right-wing radio and the presidency of Bill Clinton. But the 2016 campaign was different. It wasn’t simply a battle between red states and blue states, flyover country and massive metropolitan areas. This was a Tolkienesque fight between good and evil, and the stakes were as dire as they were during the War of the Ring.
There was one hitch, though. Neither side could agree who fought for Mordor and who was trying to destroy the One Ring in the fiery abyss of Mt. Doom.
This is where we find ourselves today. But it doesn’t have to be where we are tomorrow.
I can’t speak to what Trump may do, and I have no desire to rehash all of the brutish characteristics that make him odious to both Democrats and many Republicans. In fact, thanks to our system of checks and balances, there is very little he will actually be able to accomplish, even with both Congressional houses on his side. Few presidents are able to make more than a few sweeping policy changes, if any of significance.
And I see no reason to catalog the 25 years of scandal, deceit and legal obfuscation by Hillary and Bill Clinton. As capable as Hillary is, she has never been a natural grip-and-grin politician — although she’s excelled at the requisite flip-flopping. More importantly, her natural inclination has always been to use her skills as an attorney to dodge and evade. After all, few admit that the primary reason Hillary used her own private email server was to avoid Freedom of Information Act requests.
Many of her harshest critics in Congress benefit from laws that prevent their emails from being FOIA’d, and she surely desired the same ability to communicate freely and without repercussion via email as her one-time colleagues enjoyed. Why the press didn’t pillory her for this is perplexing.
As for exactly why Trump defeated Hillary, the time has come to dispense with the imagined impact of easy scapegoats, whether it’s third-party spoilers, an uninspired black population, racists and bigots, Facebook-addicted millennials, misogynist men and self-loathing women or our increasingly entertainment-centric cable news channels.
The truth of the matter is Trump defeated Hillary because he recognized one important thing, and it was the very same thing that Clinton’s Democratic primary challenger Bernie Sanders recognized: working-class whites in industrial towns and rural areas across the Northeast and Midwest have suffered for years as plants have closed and job opportunities have dried up. To paraphrase the vocal Hillary supporter Bruce Springsteen, these jobs are gone, boys, and they ain’t coming back to your hometown.
In fact, one of the major reasons that the unemployment rate is currently so low is because many of these individuals have abandoned all hope of finding a job. After all, any job they’re qualified to do is being done by workers in another country or robots. The days of the blue-collar middle-class family are over with. Instead, today’s American workforce is dominated by service industry workers, freelancers and college-educated professionals. To make matters worse, the white-collar world is getting to the point where the need to have a graduate degree is beginning to overtake the need for a bachelor’s.
While it’s easy to brush off the president-elect’s most enthusiastic supporters as racists, xenophobes and misogynists — the freak show many of us laughed or leered at throughout the campaign — the root cause of so much of their anger comes not from a hatred of perceived others. Rather, it comes from the utter realization that they have been abandoned by the Washington, the banks and big business.
This is particularly troubling for the Democrats because this Rust Belt, pro-union voting block has traditionally been one their most loyal. And it speaks volumes that Hillary’s support among union families was significantly lower than previous Democratic candidates, a problem her campaign was well aware of but chose to ignore rather than correct.
All of this was disastrous for Hillary. Coupled with the Solid South, where college-educated voters are intensely loyal Republican voters and where the GOP locked up the Rust Belt’s southern counterparts long ago, Trump’s numbers in these key battleground were too much for Clinton to overcome. Even the blue-collar, pro-union champion Michael Moore saw that Trump had tapped into something that would lead him to certain victory.
Like Trump, Sanders realized blue-collar voters were tired of being beaten down and furious at a system that seemingly benefits only the well-off and the well-educated. He sought to reconnect with these voters and he often did so with just as much, if not more, fire and brimstone than Trump.
If there is one lesson that we can all learn from the 2016 campaign and the unlikely — scratch that, inevitable — victory of Donald J. Trump, it would behoove all of us in the white-collar, middle and upper-middle classes to think about these disenfranchised white-working class Americans. As a whole, they aren’t driven by racism, misogyny and hate. They are our neighbors, our friends and our family members, and most simply want a better life, something that stagnant wages, lost jobs, free trade and an unfair system that rewards bankers who nearly bankrupt the nation but not them for busting their butts day after day has denied them.
And if we can’t acknowledge their pain for the right reasons, then we should do it for one other: The ballot box doesn’t care how much you make a year. It doesn’t care where you went to college. Every vote counts the same. Trump knows this — Bernie too. And it’s time for us to be reminded of that.