Jesse Kudler

A Journey to Trump Take County

ISSUE 70 | SAFE | DEC 2016

We didn’t expect this.

Sam Wang’s respected Princeton Election Commission gave Hillary Clinton a 93% chance of beating Trump. The Huffington Post and Nate Silver were arguing over whether Clinton had a 98% chance of winning or merely a 65% chance. The New York Times split the difference, giving Clinton an 85% chance of winning. Newsweek printed their Hillary victory edition early.

Okay, the keys guy was right. (Maybe he’s also right that Trump will be impeached.)

Nevertheless, as I joked on social media after the result was clear, the main lesson most people are drawing is that their prior beliefs were proven correct. Clinton should have done nothing differently. Clinton should have done the thing I tweeted about a month ago. Russia should have listened to my tweet telling them not to interfere in our election. Sexism in America is worse than racism in America. This is Bernie’s fault.

And yet the utter shock and surprise of Donald Trump’s win did create - if only briefly - some rare displays of genuine confusion and horror in even some of the most normally confident corners of the commentariat.

Clearly we on the left also sensed an important moment in the electoral defeat of Clintonism and a moral duty in the face of Trumpism. Jacobin Magazine was one of the first publications out the gate, with a brief and remarkably clear-eyed assessment of what may have happened and where we must go:

We have no illusions about the impact of Donald Trump’s victory. It is a disaster. The prospect of a unified right-wing government, led by an authoritarian populist, represents a catastrophe for working people.

There are two ways to respond to this situation. One is to blame the people of the United States. The other is to blame the elite of the country.

In the coming days and weeks, many pundits will be doing the former. Frightened liberals have already written explainers on how to move to Canada; last night, the Canadian immigration website went down after a surge of traffic. The people who brought us to this precipice are now planning their escape.

But blaming the American public for Trump’s victory only deepens the elitism that rallied his voters in the first place. It’s unquestionable that racism and sexism played a crucial role in Trump’s rise. And it’s horrifying to contemplate the ways that his triumph will serve to strengthen the cruelest and most bigoted forces in American society.

Still, a response to Trump that begins and ends with horror is not a political response — it is a form of paralysis, a politics of hiding under the bed. And a response to American bigotry that begins and ends with moral denunciation is not a politics at all — it is the opposite of politics. It is surrender.

Also quick to offer useful thoughts was Nathan J. Robinson, in Current Affairs. In one of the absolute best pieces of early election responses, Robinson does something remarkable: he doesn’t just spew venom on the media, the Democratic Party, and failed pollsters; he actually expresses his own humility, regret, and mistaken predictions. It's refreshingly humble and unsure, admitting we don't *really* know exactly what happens next, and we should be skeptical of anyone who says they do. Read it all.

The truth is, those of us on the left were complacent asses. All of us. When I wrote in February that Trump would definitely defeat Clinton, I believed that. But I didn’t act as if I believed it. If I’d really felt like I believed it, I should have been spending my every waking hour working to prevent this hideous outcome. I didn’t, though. And when all of us think of how uselessly we frittered away so much of our time, how much more we could have done, we may be kicking ourselves for years. Especially if the nuclear apocalypse shows up.


Progressives need to understand how people who are different from them think. No more writing them off as racist and deplorable. Even if they are, what good does that do? You need to understand racists not so you can sympathize with them, but so you can figure out what shapes people’s beliefs, and help them reach different beliefs. People on the left must reach out to people on the right. They must make their case. They must go into red states. They must take counter-arguments seriously and respond to them. It is not sufficient to have John Oliver eviscerate Trump on television and call him Drumpf. It is not sufficient to have Lena Dunham dance around in a pantsuit. It is not sufficient to line up a bunch of Hollywood celebrities to tell people how to vote. When someone asks “What kind of world does the left want to build?” we need to have a vision. When someone asks “Why should I vote for you?” the answer cannot be “Because I am not Trump.” After all, people like Trump.

Below are some other articles, essays, and interviews that provided useful perspective and analysis on this incredible upset. Please note, none of the following topics will be covered: the role of fake news, James Comey and the FBI, anything Russia may have done to tilt the election, or the spoiler effect of third parties. These topics are thus far inherently unknowable and mostly speculative, and insofar as they focus on factors completely outside of our control, they serve to argue that neither we nor the Clinton campaign could or should have done anything differently, and are inherently anti-political. Let’s ignore them.

But before we dive in, let me take a moment to note that any analysis of voting behavior must include non-voters. When people complain "why do so many people not vote,” I worry the subtext (and sometimes the text!) is "people are bad and stupid for not voting [for my candidate]." Well, some are - it's a big country and very full of bad and stupid people! But if you really want to understand why people don't vote, there's a decent body of evidence on who non-voters are and why they don't vote. Let’s take a look at some older but still relevant studies on who doesn’t vote and why:

The richer, older and more educated you are, the more likely you are to vote.

[. . .]

Among voters with little education, African-Americans are 1.7 times more likely to vote than whites.

Benjamin Wallace-Wells, in April:

In 2013, the political scientists Jan Leighley, of American University, and Jonathan Nagler, of New York University, published the results of a study that compared, among other things, the political views of voters and non-voters, dating back to 1972. On most social issues (abortion, L.G.B.T. rights), there was no measurable difference between them. Non-voters were more inclined toward isolationism. (Leighley and Nagler thought this might be because non-voters knew more soldiers than voters, and were more reluctant to see them sent into conflict.) The difference on economic matters was much more dramatic. Non-voters, Leighley and Nagler found, favored much more progressive economic policies than voters did. They preferred higher taxes, and more spending on schools and health care, by margins that hovered around fifteen per cent. “The voters may be representative of the electorate on some issues,” Leighley and Nagler wrote, “but they are not representative of the electorate on issues that go to the core of the role of government in modern democracies.” That non-voters had the same partisan preferences as voters only seemed to strengthen the finding—they wanted more redistribution regardless of whether they were Democrats or Republicans.

As unpredictable as this Presidential campaign has been, its two most successful outsider candidates, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, have in this sense followed established patterns: they have run campaigns that seemed perfectly matched to the preferences of people who do not normally vote. Both Sanders and Trump have done little to distinguish themselves from their parties on social issues, but they have moved to their parties’ left on economic matters and suggested that they would be more skeptical of international entanglements. If you were targeting non-voters on the right, you would design a campaign that looked very much like Donald Trump’s. If you were targeting non-voters on the left, you would emphasize almost exactly the same issues as Bernie Sanders.

Sean McElwee, in the Atlantic last year:

There are many reasons why people don’t vote, but research suggests that three factors are particularly crucial: registration, unions, and parties.

Registration is a barrier that exists in the United States but not in any other country in the developed world. Political scientists have shown that the requirement to register dramatically reduces voter turnout. This effect primarily hurts the poor. One study finds that, “states with restrictive voter registration laws are much more likely to be biased toward upper-class turnout.” But if so, America is moving in the wrong direction. In the wake of a recent Supreme Court case restricting the Voting Rights Act, states have begun to pass an increasing number of restrictive voter ID laws, with racially disparate impacts.

There are other barriers to voting as well. Counties with large black populations are less likely to have access to early voting. Felon disenfranchisement disproportionately reduces turnout among potential voters of color and those with low-incomes, and explains some of the decline in voter turnout over the last few decades. (There is a strong correlation between the pervasiveness of racial bias in a state and the ease of access for a state’s voting system.) Conversely, a recent study suggests that easier access to voting does indeed boost turnout.

Unions were once key catalysts for voter turnout, but without them, turnout has slipped. In a recent study, Jasmine Kerrissey and Evan Schofer find that, “union membership is associated with many forms of political activity, including voting, protesting, association membership, and others. Union effects are larger for less educated individuals, a group that otherwise exhibits low levels of participation.” This is important because these activities, like voting, tend to be dominated by the wealthy. However, as unions have declined in power and influence, so has turnout among low- and middle-income people.

It’s not just unions that are no longer moving blue-collar voters to the polls. Parties have systematically failed to mobilize low-income voters. Between the 1960s and the 1980s, political scientists Steven J. Rosenstone and John Mark Hanse argue, half the decrease in turnout can be attributed to less effort by political parties to contact voters. The rate at which the Democratic Party reached out to high-income voters increased nearly four-fold between 1980 and 2004. In 2004, high income Americans were nearly three times more likely to be mobilized by the parties. In tight elections, however, when parties compete and Democrats are forced to mobilize low-income voters, the turnout gap declines.

Back to the election. Asad Haider and Salar Mohandesi also got in early with another analysis focusing on the need to slow down and think about what’s next, coupling its read to a close look at polling data:

This outcome can in part be chalked up to voter suppression, especially in places like North Carolina and Wisconsin, but that does not tell the whole story. We must look instead to the logic of the lesser evil, which has never brought bodies into the street, and is barely more effective for bringing them to the ballot box. This year’s voters wanted to vote for someone, not against someone, and alarmingly this dynamic worked in Trump’s favor. The Not-Trump platform of the Democrats succeeded only in demoralizing people. Nearly half of all eligible voters stayed home.

This lack of positive vision led liberals to a failing identitarian strategy. As a woman, Clinton expected to secure the female vote, which she thought would deliver her the election. In fact, a large part of her campaign was devoted to exposing Trump’s vile misogyny. Yet when the numbers came in, 53% of white women went for Trump. Clinton received only 43% – worse than Obama among white women. The nostalgic second-wave appeal to common womanhood had completely failed.

The identitarian strategy revolved equally around race. Clinton is white, but based her campaign on winning non-white voters, with the assumption that since Trump was so clearly a white racist, non-whites would come to their senses and vote against him. And indeed they did – to an extent. In fact, Clinton did worse among African Americans and Latinos than Obama. More surprisingly, nearly a third of Asians and Latinos voted for Trump. To conclude that Clinton’s numbers were lower than expected hardly does this scenario justice. What happened is that one third of Latino voters cast their ballots for a man who called Mexicans rapists and criminals and promised to build a wall along the border.

There are many reasons for this bizarre outcome, religion and social values among them. But there is a deep, drastic failure in the identitarian strategy to mobilize its very own constituency – one which has its obverse in Trump’s extraordinarily successful white-nationalist identity politics. With the demographic shifts in the United States, Trump’s anti-immigrant racism should have destroyed him from the beginning. Yet the Clinton campaign managed to convince many non-white voters to stay home, and some to vote for the candidate endorsed by the KKK. There is no question that white racism contributed massively to Trump’s success; but to combat racism in this country, we will have to rethink an anti-racist strategy that has served mostly to diversify the professional-managerial class.

At the Verso website, Mike Davis similarly runs down numbers, cautioning leftists not to draw bolder conclusions than are warranted.

Jedidiah Purdy's read is optimistic, actually gestures to the international situation, features a bit of first-person Rust Belt white working class perspective, does some useful income group comparisons with 2012 exit polls, and features a smart but clear read on racism and class.

Speaking of racism, Ezekiel Kweku, writing for MTV News:

In the aftermath of the election, we seem to have been drawn into an argument about whether people who voted for Donald Trump “are racists,” and whether Democrats should reach out to racists or cut them off. I find this argument mystifying because it has no real political application.

Donald Trump won the election, and if the Democrats don’t want him to win the next one, they must either convince some of the people who voted for him not to do so again, or convince some of the people who didn’t vote at all to vote for the Democratic candidate. The question of whether people in either group are racist seems to me to be irrelevant to both of these tasks. The practice of pigeonholing voters into the categories of “racist” and “not racist” is counterproductive. A more useful frame is to decide which voters can be persuaded to vote for Democratic candidates and which can’t. Certainly there’s a swath of people so wedded to white supremacy that they will not vote for a party committed to racial justice no matter what, but Democrats do not need to win those voters to win a presidential election. As Obama’s election demonstrates, some of the voters who land in the “persuadable” category will hold racist views. This time around, there were also black people who chose to stay at home, and Latinos who aren’t engaged in national politics, and white women who carried a grudge against Hillary Clinton for whatever reason (and there’s plenty more to be said about the role misogyny played in this election, too). The Democrats are going to have to reach some of these people in order to win the next election.

This is not to say, as some on both the left and the right have argued, that the Democrats must compromise or sideline their substantive (or even rhetorical) commitment to justice for marginalized people, or stop doing “identity politics.” The Democrats should not, for instance, disavow Black Lives Matter or abandon criminal justice reform. Instead, as Obama did, they must appeal to their traditional base in the working and middle class (not just the white working class) in a way that addresses the self-interest of these groups.

What message will energize the Democratic base and reach persuadable voters is an open question, but the simplest place to find it is probably in economics. The answer could be, as many former Bernie Sanders supporters believe, that the Democratic Party must cut ties with neoliberalism and adopt a more progressive, populist economic platform. In the primaries, at least, this message was successful in some of the same areas where Trump won in the general election. Another idea is for Dems to pay more attention to the importance of places, creating policies that would help struggling communities, both urban and rural, rather than policies that simply help individuals. In any case, white nationalism is not a new normal, it’s the old normal, and if it’s going to be defeated at the polls, the Democratic Party is going to have to use an old tactic, too.

Remember my joke about the election proving everyone right in their prior beliefs? Hold your nose and try to read a bit of this heavy-breathing Andrew Sullivan piece without choking on your food:

And, impossible though it may be, we will have to resist partisanship. The only way back to a free society, to a country where no one need fear the president’s wrath or impulses, is to unwind the factionalism that has helped destroy this country.

Yeah, lol. Also, could you imagine any of this stuff really happening?!?11/?

And then there will be a terror attack — or several, as he defines the global battle against terror as one against an entire religion and breathes new life into Al Qaeda and ISIS. What he does after such an attack is utterly predictable, given his past statements, and will likely decimate what civil liberties we have left. Then there will be a clash between police and largely black protestors after another unarmed black man is shot. And he will relish a show of massive police force that will inflame this country in ways probably not seen since the 1960s. Then he will reinstate Guantánamo and capture prisoners and torture them until the truth he wants is extracted. That truth will be used to further advance the “war against Islam.” He will make every Muslim American feel afraid — and foment suspicion and hatred among their neighbors. Every single thing we have come to know about this man all but predicts each of these things will come about. All of them portend the end of the America that the world has long known and now must fear.

Andrew Sullivan must not even read his own mea culpas.

Despite a bit of a silly title, this interview with scholar Kathy Cramer has a lot of useful insights on the attitudes of rural whites who support Trump.

In a somewhat similar vein, British journalist Gary Younge spent weeks talking to voters in Muncie, Indiana and writing up what he found for a massive 10-part series. His final entry is deeply-reported and suitably complex in its analysis:

But Trump’s victory cannot be explained by racism alone – and the efforts to understand race and class separately result in one misunderstanding them both entirely. Indeed, to get to the bottom of Trump’s appeal we will have to go beyond any monocausal interpretation of these results and adopt a more intersectional approach, one that takes into account the fractious way a constellation of identities collide and align.

And the New York Times did some remarkable reporting from that Carrier plant Trump just “saved”, a surprisingly diverse place. Read it along with a report from unenthusiastic voters in one of Milwaukee’s poor and mostly black neighborhoods.

Collier Meyerson makes the important point that plenty of rich white people voted for Trump too. Evan Osnos talked to some of them (along with a white nationalist).

Kathleen Geier on the weaknesses of Hillary Clinton’s brand of feminist message.

Christian Parenti makes a fairly convincing and somewhat surprising (“lots and lots of ‘love.’”) case for what Trump voters were hearing and liking in his speeches that we simply missed.

Some statistical evidence that not only was the media focused on scandals and emails, but:

Both candidates spent most of their television advertising time attacking the other person’s character. In fact, the losing candidate’s ads did little else. More than three-quarters of the appeals in Mrs. Clinton’s advertisements (and nearly half of Mr. Trump’s) were about traits, characteristics or dispositions. Only 9 percent of Mrs. Clinton’s appeals in her ads were about jobs or the economy. By contrast, 34 percent of Mr. Trump’s appeals focused on the economy, jobs, taxes and trade.

But in happier news, the Onion, after floundering for a bit as scared and sick as the rest of us, shows signs of getting its mojo back.

Also, at least one pollster did some real penance for a bad prediction: Sam Wang ate a bug on live television.