The election of Donald Trump wasn’t an anomaly, and those whom it surprised – just about everybody, including me – could have seen it coming.
For some years, the country has been stratifying in a way that cuts across the old left-right divide. “Conservative” and “liberal” continue to dominate the sociopolitical narrative, but those old alignments have become less relevant. We have become instead, and more self-consciously than ever, a nation of “haves” with a sense of entitlement, and “have-nots” who perceive themselves as such.
The roots of this new era reach back at least to Reagan-era trickle-down economics, if not to Jimmy Carter’s “crisis of confidence.” The failure of Reaganomics became obvious to just about everyone except the tiny minority who benefited. Yet when the Democrats took power under Bill Clinton it was by swerving hard toward the center. The New Democrats’ policies continued the process of gutting the old left-right divide and replacing it with a split between what later became identified as the 99% and the 1%. Embodied in Clinton’s welfare reform, the new attitude not only explicitly defined a “have-not” class but pegged it as undeserving of an adequate safety net.
When under George W. Bush public attention shifted to terrorism and war, along with social issues like abortion and fetal-tissue research, the economic divide was temporarily blurred. But it exploded into the sunlight with the ascendance of the Tea Party movement, which was identified more or less with the right wing, and the Occupy movement on the left. The difference between those two phenomena was more cultural than philosophical. Their common grievances crystallized in popular opposition to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, a ruling that brought the wealthy elite’s influence on politics further into the open.
Hillary Clinton lost the election in large part because despite her middle-class beginnings, her strong resume, her progressive views, and her husband’s rapport with the black community, she appeared to stand for the haves. Part of a political family with lots of scandal baggage, she was famous for earning millions from speaking engagements in the eyries of Wall Street’s ultimate haves. The have-nots’ distaste for Clinton’s aura of wealth and entitlement counterbalanced not only her inspirational effect as the first major female presidential candidate, but Trump’s egregious offensiveness.
Even Trump’s paranoid fantasy that the election was rigged against him, though patently untrue (as the result made clear), probably contributed to his appeal among the have-nots. Elections aside, the economic deck is indeed stacked against those with few resources.
Combine that ingrained unfairness with a perception that immigrants are taking jobs and resources away from longtime citizens (in other words, the natural human inclination to scapegoat); with the reality of the threat of terrorist attacks; and with latent xenophobia, racism, and misogyny, and the recipe for Trump’s electoral college victory was complete. As Breitbart’s Steve Bannon wrote with seething cynicism in a now-famous 2014 email: “We should just go buck wild…Let the grassroots turn on the hate because that’s the ONLY thing that will make them do their duty.”
Now that Trump and Bannon are headed for the White House, it’s up to the majority of voters who chose Hillary Clinton to do their duty and fight the wrongdoing that is to come, and hold the Trump Administration accountable for it – but also to recognize the legitimacy of the beef so many of us have with business (read: oligarchy) as usual.