Liberals struggle to understand Trump victory

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NEW YORK — What does Donald Trump’s victory say about America?

To liberals, it is nothing short of a catastrophe. A man openly despised on the left — and whom many progressives see as a bigot and would-be authoritarian — will soon ascend to the highest office in the land.

{mosads}But conservatives exult in the shock election result. Trump, who unabashedly catered to the GOP base, has succeeded where pro-establishment moderates such as past presidential nominees Mitt Romney and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) failed. They see his win as a rebuke to elites generally, including the Washington wing of their own party.

There seems, at first glance, no common ground between the opposing views.

“I have to tell you, it scares me,” said Karine Jean-Pierre, senior adviser and national spokesperson for progressive group MoveOn. “I am afraid of what a Trump presidency means, and I’m speaking in a very personal way here — a woman of color, a black woman, who has a daughter. … Thankfully I don’t have to explain to her what happened, because she is 2 years old.”

But Greg Mueller, a conservative strategist who cut his political teeth working for another populist firebrand, Pat Buchanan, in the 1990s, was elated by the outcome.

“This was a reaction to the failed policies being forced on the American people out of Washington,” he said. Mueller also saw the outcome as “a cultural reaction [against] the left-wing social elite trying to force issues down people’s throats — and if you oppose it, the other side calls you a racist or a bigot.”

Despite these stark differences, there is near-unanimity that a sense of economic dislocation created the conditions that fueled Trump’s rise. On Wednesday, statements from senior figures in the labor movement — people vigorously opposed to the GOP nominee — acknowledged that he had channeled frustrations that were ignored by swaths of the political establishment. 

“More than anything, this election is an indictment of politics as usual,” AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said. “For too long, the political elites have embraced economic policies that hold down wages, increase inequality, diminish opportunity and ship American jobs overseas. Voters in both the primary and general election have delivered a clear message: enough.”

American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten noted in a similar statement that “both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton understood working families have been left behind by a changing economy, punctuated by the last recession, and that anger is reflected in the results.”

Left-wing activists must also grapple with the fact that these economic anxieties have not made voters any more inclined to support the Democratic Party, which professes to represent the interests of the working class and middle class.

Indeed, Trump’s strength across the Rust Belt attests to his capacity to draw those voters to him and — his supporters believe — force a realignment that will endure beyond Tuesday’s results.

Some independent experts agree, at least to an extent, that Trump’s strength in states like Michigan and Pennsylvania is a repudiation of the economic and trade policies backed by Democrats since the 1990s.

“It’s a critique of some parts of the policies it has adopted over decades,” said Princeton University professor Julian Zelizer, who also argued that blaming Clinton’s perceived weaknesses as a candidate for Trump’s victory would be missing a more important point.

“I don’t think that, if you replace her with a more dynamic candidate, it solves the problem,” he said. “This is a serious moment for Democrats as well as Republicans.”

Even so, Clinton appears to have underperformed President Obama’s showing in 2012 by about 6 million votes. Those people did not go to Trump. He got roughly 1 million fewer votes than Romney, that year’s GOP nominee. For whatever reason, Democratic voters who backed Obama simply didn’t come out for Clinton — and it is cold comfort that she is set to defeat Trump by a small margin in the popular vote.

“Obama was a once-in-a-generation politician who was able to put together this coalition,” said Jean-Pierre. “Democrats have to go back to the drawing board. Democrats needs a new coalition, a new map.”

This year, however, Clinton was seen as part of the establishment and Trump — in part because of his many idiosyncrasies, and in part because he had never sought political office before — as something different.

Tiziana Dearing, a Boston College professor, said this gave Trump a potent appeal to exactly the kind of voters he needed — those who were struggling to make ends meet as manufacturing jobs died out and low-paying jobs, or no jobs, took their place.

In his victory speech, delivered in a midtown Manhattan hotel in the early hours of Wednesday morning, Trump pledged that “the forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.” 

Trump’s voters, Dearing said, were those who felt “marginalized, devalued, and cut off at the knees.” 

For those people, she added, this year’s contest came to be seen as “the change election to fight change … ‘Make America Great Again’ is entirely a backward-looking slogan.” 

The surprise was not that such voters existed. But, up until Tuesday night, most people did not think they were numerous enough to make Donald Trump the 45th president of the United States.

“It suggests that the political establishment is more unstable than we thought,” said Zelizer.

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