WASHINGTON – What happens when the factories and the steel mills don’t come back? When the coal mines fail to reopen? When both a tightfisted Congress and the government of Mexico refuse to pay for his boondoggle of a border wall?
When the president-elect, Donald Trump, takes office and has to confront inconvenient reality, how will he react? “We owe him an open mind and a chance to lead,” Hillary Clinton said Wednesday, and of course she is right. But I wouldn’t be honest if I pretended, at this point, to be hopeful. My fear is that the man we saw on the campaign trail is the same man we will see in the White House.
He proved to be a tremendously effective demagogue. He stunned the world by energizing and mobilizing legions of “forgotten men and women” – white, working-class Americans living in small towns and rural areas across the nation – who bought into his pledge to “make America great again.” Instead of serious policy proposals, he gave them scapegoats: immigrants, Muslims, people of color living in “inner cities” that he imagined as circles of Dante’s hell.
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His promises were of the non-serious variety, in that they cannot be fulfilled. Surely Trump knows full well that globalization and technological change cannot be reversed. The millions of manufacturing jobs that have been shipped overseas or eliminated by automation will not magically reappear; many assembly lines are “manned” by robots these days. The coal industry is dying not because of government policy but because oil and natural gas are so cheap and plentiful. The huge infrastructure projects Trump says he will build, including the border wall, have essentially no chance of being funded by a Republican-controlled Congress determined to cut spending, not boost it.
How, then, will Trump keep his “forgotten” supporters from becoming disillusioned and disaffected? One way would be to continue to stoke their anger and resentment. To be black, Hispanic, Asian-American, Muslim or an immigrant today is to feel oneself potentially a target of white grievance and rage.
For my adult life, following the triumph of the civil rights movement, overt bigotry and racism have been socially unacceptable. Trump released these demons from the back room of the American psyche where they had been stuffed. During the past year, I have seen and heard a kind of raw ugliness that I hadn’t witnessed since the dying days of Jim Crow in the segregated South.
Trump was the candidate not of working-class America but of working-class white America. It is hard not to see his victory as partly, or perhaps mostly, a reaction to the eight-year presidency of Barack Obama, the first black man to occupy the White House. Some people might disregard the fact that Trump branded himself as a political figure by becoming a leader of the “birther” movement that challenged Obama’s legitimacy as holder of the nation’s highest office. I can’t forget it, or forgive it.
It is impolite to say such things so soon, I realize. Trump sounded gracious and inclusive in his victory speech, but of course he had to. Clinton urged the nation to come together behind its new leader, but of course she had no choice. The ritual of kind words and best wishes that follows an election is a great tradition, and I am glad it was observed.
We have no choice but to hope and pray for the best. But I would be dishonest if I claimed to see, in Trump’s election, anything positive except the fact that it ends a campaign so long and painful that the phrase “Bataan Death March” often came to mind.
There will be plenty of time for postmortems about the failures of the Clinton campaign. Might Bernie Sanders, who also connected with working-class voters, have succeeded where Clinton failed? I have difficulty convincing myself of that proposition, but at the moment I can’t claim to be the best judge of “electability.”
There will also be time for an extensive autopsy of the Democratic Party, which is at a modern-era low. Republicans will control the White House, both chambers of Congress, most governorships and most state legislatures. The Democrats need new blood and new ideas – and they need to figure out how the GOP somehow became the party of the working class, which used to be the Democratic Party’s core identity.
The old political order lies in rubble. Donald Trump is going to be president. The strength and resilience of the American experiment are about to be tested.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.