At 3 a.m. on November 9, my husband and I turned to each other with a look of relief, an emotion that was shared by some but not the majority of American voters who identify with the democratic left. Until Tuesday night we had been convinced that the oligarchy would have its way, and that the candidate supported by Wall Street would become president of this nation. For us that meant that any notion of democracy was an illusion. Of course, we were aware that one of the most bizarre candidates in history, a demagogue who insulted people of color, immigrants, and women, and even boasted of his sexual prowess and offensive behavior, had actually won the election. But we could not deny the fact that more than sixty million voters had said “No!” to the elites and voted for the candidate that they wanted. What came to mind was a somewhat bitter reminder that this is what democracy looks like.
Our view on the election results created a minefield in human relationships. We could not fully identify with the despair felt by one of our daughters, many members of our Unitarian Universalist congregation, or several Facebook “friends.” I faced a particular challenge at work. After retiring from full-time teaching I had taken a position as an adjunct sociology instructor at a college attended by very bright students, many of whom had voted for Clinton. I tried to approach the election results in my Social Theory class by asking the students to discuss a statement by Marx, paraphrased as “History repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” It was clear that many were not accepting the idea that Trump was not as serious a threat as Hitler. In my Social Inequality class, I distributed an article by Chuck Collins that analyzed the relationship between the election results and economic inequality. Finally, I allocated some time in each of these two classes for an open discussion in which I made the effort to give students a chance to express their views, but later wondered about those who had remained silent. Did my occasional off-the-cuff remarks come off as an imposition of my own view? Did I fail to provide these students with a safe place for expressing theirs?
Beyond the personal issues of how to talk with and listen to people who do not share one’s exact view, there is the broader question of what the election of Donald Trump actually means. 60,834,437 people voted to make him their president. Some people think this means that there are more than sixty million people in this country who are racist, misogynistic, and xenophobic. However, we need to put this in perspective: Millions of people did not identify with either candidate, but put aside their misgivings in order to vote not for one of them but rather against the other. Just as some people overlooked Clinton’s support of policies that may have contributed to institutional racism and sexism, others overlooked Trump’s blatant statements that sounded racist, misogynistic, and xenophobic. This does not mean that Trump’s voters support racism and sexism any more than Clinton’s supporters do. Although there is a lunatic fringe that has been going around attacking people in Trump’s name, the majority of his supporters appear to be ordinary people who are worried about economic survival. While it is true they have selected a president who is not looking out for their best interests, they voted against a candidate who they believed, perhaps correctly, would not do so either.
In order to understand the economic context of this election, we need to think back to the 1950s and 60s, when there was a balance between profits for corporations and living wages for workers. The postwar period was somewhat of an anomaly in its high level of prosperity for the working class. Generally capitalism demands the endless search for ways to increase profits, even when companies are doing well. This often means finding people who will work for lower wages. By the late 1960s improvements in long-distance travel came together with advances in telecommunications, allowing companies to begin moving manufacturing to countries where changes in the rural economy had forced millions of dispossessed small farmers to migrate to cities in search of work at whatever wage they could get. Nixon’s visit to China provided for the opening of its vast army of potential low-wage workers to American business. But that would come later. First the factories would move to the American south, later to Mexico, and still later to Haiti, Africa, the Pacific basin, and Asia.
As American workers lost their factory jobs, those who did not have the means to re-train to obtain good-paying positions outside the manufacturing sector had to settle for jobs at minimum wage or just slightly above it. The loss of the manufacturing sector severely weakened labor unions, which only recently have begun to make inroads into the service sector.
People compensated for their reduced income by working longer hours and taking second jobs. Mothers of young children entered the full-time workforce. As the real income of 80 percent of the population continued to decline, people began taking on credit card debt, and those fortunate enough to own their homes took home equity loans. But none of these measures were enough, and the traditional working class saw all hope of security vanish.
In 2016 three candidates for president attempted to persuade voters that they would solve their problems. Hillary Clinton continued to push her neo-liberal agenda. While affluent upper-middle class liberals, who had not felt the worst pinch from the global economy, supported her, as did many people of color, the white working class did not buy the Democrats’ version of trickle-down economics. Many of them responded to the anti-immigrant rhetoric of Donald Trump, convinced that it was foreign workers in this country, rather than the global corporations, who were taking away their jobs. But many other working class people saw hope in the message of Bernie Sanders, who seemed to be offering a vision of a European-style social democracy.
Between February and July of this year, while Trump continued to gain ground with Republican voters, there emerged a bizarre conflict between the two candidates for the Democratic nomination. Huge rallies, unprecedented numbers of small contributions, and tens of thousands of very enthusiastic campaign volunteers suggested that Sanders had a strong chance of becoming president and setting the country on a new economic course. At the same time there was growing suspicion by some of his volunteers of infiltration and sabotage of the campaign by the opposing Democratic camp, possibly aided by the Democratic National Committee and by an oligarchy that preferred a neo-liberal to someone who might raise taxes on the wealthy to fund a his proposals. There were also allegations of fraud in caucuses and primaries. Finally, there was widespread anger among Sanders supporters at the manner in which Hillary Clinton was nominated at the convention, along with rumors of the bullying of Sanders into giving the speech for her nomination, ranging from physical threats to damage to his political power in the Senate.
In November the voters faced a choice between an offensive demagogue and the more polished candidate of the neo-liberal elite whose main campaign points seemed to be that she was not Trump and she would be the first woman president. The polarization in the nation was highly visible. Not only was it between Democrats and Republicans but the split among Democrats was more severe than anything since 1968. There were millions of people who believed that the primary had been won fairly, but many Sanders supporters were not accepting this notion. They saw lying and cheating that many believed had been the Clinton modus operandi for twenty-five years. They could not in good conscience vote for her. Others had opposed her from the beginning of the campaign because they did not view her as a genuine progressive.
Let’s get back to the nearly one out of four eligible voters who chose Donald Trump. Opponents of that selection have raised the alarm that this demonstrates a wave of fanatical, overt racism, and attacks against black people and Muslims have reinforced that belief. Granted that the lunatic fringe among Trump supporters has been causing serious trouble, what about the rest of those 60+ million people? What did their vote mean? For one thing, it showed a profound mistrust of Hillary Clinton, which should not be confused with sexism. Many people were not opposing a woman president, but only this particular one. There had been too many whiffs of scandal and too much coziness with Wall Street.
The vote also reflected the absence of a desirable alternative within the Democratic Party. During the primaries, the counties in which Sanders won the Democratic vote were also those in which Trump most often won the Republican vote. These tended to be in rural areas and small towns that had experienced deindustrialization. In other words, these were people who were struggling to survive in the global economy. Campaign workers for Sanders were often surprised to discover that working-class voters who were leaning toward their candidate saw Trump, not Clinton, as a possible alternative. What appeared to happen after the convention was that upper-middle-class liberals who had been Sanders supporters switched to Clinton, while millions of working-class voters switched to Trump.
Where do we go from here? How do we salvage what we can from this political mess? In the immediate situation, we need to be concerned about people of color, Muslims, LGBTs, and anyone else who is feeling unsafe under a Trump administration. We need to be vigilant about signs of attacks on people, intervene if it is safe to do so, and demand a rapid response from the police. We also need to protest any policies by the new administration that are regressive—such as more tax breaks for the rich, attacks on Social Security and Medicare, cuts to what is left of safety nets for the poor, and support of pipelines and other measures that threaten the ecosystem.
In the long term we need to address the rapidly increasing economic inequality that is creating increasing hardship for four-fifths of the population. This will not be easy under a Trump presidency. But we need to keep up the pressure for a living wage, universal health care, investment in higher education, job creation through the repair of our crumbling infrastructure, and paid family leave, as well as demanding that the wealthy pay their fair share of income taxes and Social Security—in other words the very proposals that drew enthusiastic crowds to Bernie Sanders rallies. Finally, we must recover from the shock of becoming more aware of the depth of corruption within our political system, work to regain the Senate for progressives in 2018, and try to make inroads into the House as well. People who care about building a just society have suffered a serious setback, but we must continue the struggle for what is right.