Image from The Progressive November 1963
After an exhausting eighteen-month campaign and a vote count that went into the wee hours, we learned that the next President of the United States will be a rightwing authoritarian populist whose explicit racism prompted former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke to tweet, triumphantly:
“This is one of the most exciting nights of my life—make no mistake about it, our people have played a HUGE role in electing Trump!”
It has been terrible to watch as two terms of the nation’s first African American President end like this. Black people, Latinos, Muslims, and immigrants cannot help but feel the blow the hardest. Trump’s explicit misogyny and gleeful boasting about abusing women, which appeared to drive a surge for Hillary Clinton toward the end of the race, ended with a definitive victory for the Grabber-in-Chief.
There will be plenty for progressives to chew on over the next days and months.
We can’t help but ponder what might have been. If Bernie Sanders got the nomination, he might have beaten Trump. Had Sanders lost to Trump (which may have happened), the mainstream pundits would have been unified in smug disdain for his outsider candidacy—as they were from the beginning.
But the establishment candidate lost instead.
Will the Democratic Party look inward and question its own experts? This election was not about “messaging.” It was about connecting with the real pain in people’s lives and understanding their yearning for change. Hillary Clinton was simply the wrong candidate for the times. And the comfortable establishment types who overlooked that were terribly out of touch.
Voter turnout numbers suggest that the optimism and energy that drove Bernie Sanders’s primary campaign were not transferable to his Democratic rival. Little wonder. Sanders captured many of the same frustrations Trump voters expressed toward elite Washington insiders and Wall Street—two groups that are part of Clinton’s core constituency. As Trump put it in his victory speech, “The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.”
The difference, of course, is that while Sanders offered a vision of economic and racial justice, universal health care, free college, and taxes on the obscene wealth of the top 1 percent to pay for a more equal society, Trump offered immigrant-bashing, tax cuts for the wealthy, and a restoration of white, male supremacy.
Democrats and progressives must grapple with the deep sense of alienation that drove both the Sanders and Trump campaigns.
I spent election night on the air with my old friend Ed Schultz. As the results came in, and things began to unwind, I thought back to another bad election night I spent with Ed—when he came to Wisconsin for the attempted recall of Governor Scott Walker.
There are so many parallels, including the sick sense of dread and the frustration of watching the political professionals step in to take over a movement that had been fueled by the enthusiasm of regular citizens—and then failing to turn that citizen movement into an electoral victory.
Like the lackluster Democratic candidates in Wisconsin who tried unsuccessfully, twice, to unseat Walker, the Hillary Clinton campaign came in with experts and institutional support and told the young idealists who loved Bernie to step aside . . . and then they lost.
All over the country, the Republicans turned the map red. They picked up seats in Congress, in statehouses, and governors’ mansions across the land. If that doesn’t cause a day of reckoning for the Democrats, nothing can.
Wisconsin and the rest of the industrial Midwest played a definitive role in Trump’s victory. The state where The Progressive magazine was born, now ruled by the Koch brothers and the government they bought, has eviscerated unions and changed the electoral map.
Massive spending by shadowy groups, unleashed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, clearly played a role. So did redistricting by Republican legislatures in 2010 and a raft of Republican state laws that pretended to solve the nonexistent problem of in-person voter fraud, but really just made it harder for black people, young people, and the poor to cast votes.
In another step backward, Wisconsin rejected progressive champion Russ Feingold and reelected Ayn Rand acolyte Senator Ron Johnson. Feingold, who was running for his old seat, looked like another establishment Democrat to too many voters. His maverick days as the poorest man in the U.S. Senate, where he promoted campaign finance reform, defended civil liberties, and cast a lonely and courageous vote against the USA PATRIOT Act, had receded. He was not around for the uprising against Walker, when a grassroots push to get him to run for governor ended in disappointment after he declined to step up. Unfair as it may seem, Feingold missed the populist moment, too.
Johnson’s campaign benefited from massive outside spending by the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, the Chamber of Commerce, and a single anti-union Wisconsin billionaire, building-supply company owner Diane Hendricks. All that spending totaled about six times what outside groups including environmental organizations and Planned Parenthood spent to try to elect Feingold. Nonetheless, Johnson successfully targeted Feingold with a Swift Boat-style campaign that painted him as a Washington insider who took lots of outside money and had lost touch with his little-guy roots. The result is one more blow to good government, public spiritedness, and sane, serious leadership in our nation’s capitol.
A friend of mine has documented Johnson’s antics on a website called Our Dumb Senator. There are some real doozies there. (Johnson has attributed climate change to sunspots. During a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the Iran nuclear deal, he lectured Energy Secretary and MIT physicist Ernest Moniz on a wingnut conspiracy theory about electromagnetic pulse weapons.) Irony and snark have a certain appeal. God knows we need to laugh.
But I keep thinking back to the White House correspondents’ dinner when President Obama, with his cool, smart, devastating humor, made fun of Trump the reality TV star turned presidential candidate, imagining him redecorating the White House.
It turns out a lot of the country wasn’t laughing along. They were feeling laughed at, too. And they were itching to wipe the smiles off the faces of liberals they saw as too smug and comfortable.
Trump tapped into white racism and misogyny. But he also tapped the real grievances of low-income rural and Rust Belt voters who elected him, and who don’t believe that the Democrats care about the massive economic insecurity of people who’ve seen manufacturing jobs and local economies dry up. What Trump offered was a return to the dignity of their lost station in life, a return to white supremacy and male dominance. With his brazen contempt for Mexicans, immigrants, Muslims, and women, Trump promised to restore the old social hierarchy.
Like Scott Walker, who used a highly effective “divide and conquer” strategy in Wisconsin, Trump showed that for anxious, angry people, tearing down your neighbor is sometimes a good enough substitute for any concrete promise of a better life.
As a candidate, Trump offered no plan for jobs, affordable college, better opportunities, or healthier communities. But the idea of restored “greatness” for white workers, and a swift kick in the pants to the smug elites who scorn them, was enough to bring out an energized base.
On the progressive side, the energy left the room when Bernie Sanders endorsed Hillary Clinton, ending a brief, exciting surge of leftwing populism based on idealism and hope. Clinton’s campaign, while it borrowed language and policy details from Sanders, was the campaign of the status quo. No one doubted that Clinton, like Obama, would protect big business, the banks, and the revolving door between government and Wall Street which she, her husband, and their friends used so freely. The stock market surged when it looked like she was up. Wall Street wanted her. The Washington establishment wanted her.
And let’s be clear: a whole lot of women wanted Hillary, too. We wanted her to “bury Trump,” as Gloria Steinem put it to a cheering crowd of Planned Parenthood supporters in Wisconsin. But, in the end, she was buried—by scandal, by an uninspired base that didn’t turn out, and by an energized populist right that knew how to “turn on the hate,” as Steve Bannon of Breitbart News and Trump’s chief advisor put it. Many progressive and feminist hopes were buried, too.
We have a lot of digging out to do. It will go on for years.
Right now, with our erratic new President, we are in uncharted territory. Perhaps this terrible election will mark the beginning of a better, stronger, more focused progressive movement.
It will be hard times ahead. For a lot of people, it was already hard times. We’ll need to look that in the face, and figure out how to lift each other up.
Republicans now control the entire federal government and have complete control in twenty-five states. They cannot pretend to be outsiders anymore. The harm they can do is daunting.
We progressives must unite in opposition, and figure out how to truly represent the better vision of America that we hold in common. We have no choice. Let’s get going.
Ruth Conniff is the editor-in-chief of The Progressive.