If you believe social media, then the most important thing happening in America is defeating Donald Trump.
But that’s not true. Donald Trump has already lost the election, and that’s why the most important thing in America is bringing his voters back into the political mainstream.
That statement clashes with two popular narratives. The first one is that Donald Trump is an aberration. Unfortunately, it’s more likely that he is the new normal. Why? Because the circumstances that produced his rise and drove a record number of voters to the polls have been decades in the making and aren’t slowing down.
Those circumstances include: global free trade, shifts in national and regional economic competitiveness, our transition into a knowledge economy, runaway illegal immigration and a breakdown in civic culture. These factors have fueled four decades of decline in White Working Class communities, and those are exactly the places where Trump’s support is the strongest.
New research is showing that White Working Class neighborhoods now struggle with joblessness, fatherlessness, and drug abuse at rates comparable to inner city slums in places like South Chicago or East Los Angeles. That statement should not diminish the agony that minorities have felt for generations as they try to escape poverty, but it should give credibility to the frustration that many pro-Trump voters feel towards a system that works against them no matter who is in charge. That’s why it rings true when Trump says the game is “rigged.”
Second, we need to get over the idea that Trump’s supporters are all hateful bigots. A record setting 13 million people voted for Trump in the primary and many more will support him in the general. By comparison, the Southern Poverty Law Center estimates there are at most, 8,000 Ku Klux Klan members in America. Though the comparison is extreme, the point is still made: No matter how scary the fringe of Trump’s campaign is, we are lying to ourselves if we think that his average voter is motivated by racism and xenophobia. The truth is, if you’re an hourly worker and you didn’t go to college, you are now engaged in a fight for survival against cheap immigrant labor and foreign imports. That’s the reality of the global economy and it’s the world that millions of Trumpies live in.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Stand the Trump campaign next to the Bernie Bus and you’ll see evidence of a new disenfranchisement – white disenfranchisement. We’re not used to that concept because whiteness has been synonymous with belonging since 1960, when John F. Kenney broke through the glass ceiling for Catholics. But as the global economy leaves behind Trump supporters whose jobs were sent to China and Bernie voters whose future is hostage to a lack of opportunity and crushing student debt, we are starting to see a social and economic undertow that is connecting races, classes, and ideologies in a shared belief that the America Dream is a fraud.
When Americans believe they have no voice, crisis usually follows. There were the 1960s, when racial prejudice led to riots in inner cities. There was the Gilded Age, when exploited workers brawled in the streets to earn the most basic work protections. And there was the time of George Washington, when frontier farmers formed a Whiskey Rebellion to protest an unfair tax burden placed by the many upon the few. Through this lens, the Trump and Sanders campaigns are more than a morality play – they’re a warning of what’s to come.
But no matter who is President, the government’s hands are tied. No combination of tax cuts and social programs will bring back the low-skill, high-wage jobs that used to make Trump hives prosper. Likewise, no matter what Bernie says, free college tuition is a fantasy, as is European-style socialism.
But government is also about culture, which grows from the respect Americans have for one-another and the institutions that preserve their way life. And that’s the first step towards bringing the disenfranchised back: by honoring our civil institutions, and by inviting outsiders in.
Republicans can help with this by immediately recognizing Hillary Clinton as President. They don’t have to support her agenda but they should ignore calls to “Lock her up” or “Impeach” and consent to her cabinet appointments promptly. This would confer a right-of-center endorsement on American government’s stature. Many conservatives will howl bloody murder, but this is a long-term play to stop Trump’s contagion from infecting GOP chances in the future, or from breaking the Party of Lincoln beyond repair.
Democrats can help by dropping their moral vendetta against anyone who doesn’t tow the progressive line. Their willingness to antagonize conservatives for being “bigots” or “greedy” over reasonable differences of opinion has only multiplied the bitterness that made Trump appealing in the first place. This means remembering that their prized concept of “diversity” includes the intellectual kind too.
Neither side will want to leave what they think is the high ground but below it, there is a war being waged for the soul of America. Right now, radicals like Trump and Sanders are winning it by attacking the legitimacy of Democracy itself. If the response to their assault is more of the same – the snarky takes downs of “bigotry” and “corruption” laced with obsolete talking points from the Reagan ’84 and Obama ’08 campaigns – then they will be proven right.