In October 2008, I went door-knocking in Wilkes-Barre, PA–for the Barack Obama campaign. (Earlier, I had donated a total of $100 to the Obama campaign, making two contributions of $50 each.) I was assigned a map of a neighborhood, along with names and addresses and an indicator of whether earlier in the election season, the voter at the indicated address had said they would vote for Obama or not. I met a mixed bunch during my travels; some of those who opened their doors to me were friendly, some were brusque. (I did not bother visiting homes which bore a McCain-Palin sign outside.) On one occasion, I ran into a gentleman standing in his driveway, made a few initial queries, and then got down to inquiring into whether Barack Obama could rely on his vote in the upcoming election. He said yes, because he was sick of ‘things not changing around here’–but then almost immediately launched into a loud and vitriolic diatribe. Against Hillary Clinton–who was not a presidential candidate, having been defeated by Barack Obama in the Democratic primaries.
It was all there–the standard elements of the critique of Hillary Clinton that American voters are used to hearing from ‘the right’: she’s untrustworthy, she lies, she’s a crook. As my interlocutor spoke, he grew visibly irate, waving his smoke-emitting lawn-mowing implement in my face. I came away shaken, having been made very aware of the fact that there were voters in this supposed ‘swing district’ in a ‘battleground state’ who were willing to vote for the Democratic Party’s candidate, but not for Hillary Clinton.
In 2012, I did not contribute money to the Obama campaign and neither did I go door-knocking; it did not seem like the campaign needed my help on either front. Like many others who had voted enthusiastically for Obama in 2008, I had felt some of my enthusiasm ebb; not enough hope and change I could believe in. I wondered whether Obama would take Pennsylvania again; he did. In the 2016 election season, I wondered again about that man in the driveway; I could sense there were others like him in that part of Pennsylvania; he was a recognizable member of an identifiable demographic. A working-class white man who had seen better days and was tired of waiting for ‘politicians’ to hear his voice. (My friend was wearing a baseball cap, natch, with a pick-up truck parked at home.)
Throughout this election season, over and above my expressed criticisms of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, I remained uneasy about her deep and abiding unpopularity with large segments of the American electorate and with her visible identification by yet others as ‘part of the problem.’ In 2008, Obama had presented himself as the candidate of change; it had been easy to portray Hillary Clinton as a member of the establishment. Eight years on, Clinton had become ever more entrenched as a member of the establishment; when she ran in 2016, the best she could offer was ‘more of the same.’ To folks like that man in the driveway in Wilkes-Barre, PA.
Donald Trump won the 2016 elections not just because of folks like that; he won because wealthy and upper-class whites voted for him too; he won because racism and sexism and xenophobia and chauvinism have not lost their power to seek out scapegoats and indict them for a host of crimes. He won because millions of voters who voted for Obama in the last two elections, could not bring themselves to, and indeed did not, vote for Hillary Clinton. Some of these voting predilections were visible early in the voting season; they formed the basis of the skepticism about her candidacy, and for some, the greater hope of the Bernie Sanders campaign. (Trump also won because of the vagaries of the American electoral system, which has been broken since time immemorial.)
Sanders’ primary win in Michigan indicated that: a) polls were not working as well as they might have been expected to b) Democratic strongholds and ‘bluewalls’ were not reliably so c) that in areas with economic downturns, job losses, and particular demographics (like Wilkes-Barre, PA) establishment candidates would suffer in comparison to ‘outsiders’ promising to shake up the ‘system.’ Very few seemed to care or listen; the Democratic Party was committed to getting its candidate across the finish line by any means necessary, including, if needed, the systematic denigration of the Sanders candidacy and the coalition that supported him. It was a fatal mistake.
The populist appeal of Sanders was lost, as was the energy and idealism of his campaign; those vital ingredients remained visible on the Trump side. The folks who attended Trump rallies all over the country were not any more racist or chauvinistic than the ones who came to McCain-Palin rallies in 2008, alarmed about the possibility of a black man with a Muslim middle name becoming president; they can be counted on reliably vote for the Republican candidate every four years. They were not the ones spelling trouble for the Democratic Party; the ones that were really the harbingers of electoral doom for the Clinton campaign were those who had thought change was coming in 2008 and 2012, who could not abide the thought of voting for an establishment that is now viewed as only concerned with its personal enrichment. The weight and power of party machinery would bring a candidacy for Hillary Clinton; it wouldn’t bring a presidency. It especially would not bring a presidency because there were some voters Clinton would never be able to persuade to vote for her, the ones who would unify any unease about a Trump candidacy into a solid anti-Clinton electoral bloc. In the last days of the election season, I had come to believe the polls myself and confidently predicted a win for Hillary Clinton; I had forgotten about that man in Wilkes-Barre, PA.
All has become ashes; American has elected a fascist to the presidency. Those who castigated the Sanders campaign for its lack of realism and chose to live with their own particular fantasy will be reconciled to this new state of affairs much more quickly than those who saw this disaster coming, and whose personal fates will be severely implicated in a Trump presidency.