Let’s assume that the pundits and the polls are right. Hillary Clinton is on track to win the presidency. The Democrats may narrowly take back the Senate.
Can we exhale? No.
The fragility of American democracy and the pathology of our economy revealed by Trump (and by the appeal of Bernie Sanders) will still be with us. And it will take an extraordinary shift by President Hillary Clinton to move these deep tectonic plates.
In the short term, the forces of real hate have been loosed. They are not going away. Trump will have goons as poll watchers. He will find ways to insist that the election was stolen. He will continue to make more mischief, impeaching the legitimacy of our institutions.
After November, Trump may create a third party. He may create a media empire — or both. It is hard to imagine a pop culture political force more malign than, say, Limbaugh or Fox, but Trump will be it.
Medium term, all of the economic and cultural grievances brought to the surface by Trump and Sanders will still be there. Likewise the sluggish economy that doesn’t create enough good jobs. Likewise the prospect of a lost economic generation. And the risk of more terrorist attacks.
All of this is soil for more Trumpism.
What defies conventional analysis is the clash of grievances. The groups that have played second fiddle to white men for so long are justifiably demanding a rightful place in our democracy and our economy. The multiple complaints of African-Americans, of women, of sexual minorities, of immigrants, are just.
But, paradoxically, so are the grievances of non-elite white men. And these multiple grievances rub each other raw.
Appalachia is the epicenter of declining life spans and living standards for poor and middle class whites. The legitimate demands of the out-groups add to the sense of wounded displacement.
Not surprisingly, this is Trump country. In the Republican primaries, of the 420 counties in the greater Appalachian region, stretching from the southern tier of upstate New York to the Mississippi valley, all but 17 voted for Trump.
The sense of disaffection is so basic that even programs that make a constructive difference, like the positive impact of ObamaCare on Kentucky, are resented rather than welcomed.
In this clash of grievances, one demographic is sitting pretty — very pretty: the economic elite. The grievances of everyone else should be directed against the top.
But Trump’s message is mixed. And Hillary is far from an ideal messenger. And Bernie’s army has fragmented. So the class coalition against the top doesn’t come together.
As a number of commentators, from Alec McGillis to Tom Frank to Arlie Hochschild and J.D. Vance, have observed, the working class sense of displacement is only partly economic. It’s partly cultural.
Not only has the modern Democratic presidential party failed to deliver good jobs to working people displaced by the old industrial economy, but it has embraced a blend of cultural liberalism, technocratic boosterism, and education as a silver bullet — a formula that does little for those left behind other than to deepen resentments. To poor whites, the well-heeled elite — Democrat as well as Republican — is living on another planet.
A Clinton Administration, to defeat Trumpism, will have to deliver massive help in the form of good jobs, better prospects for younger Americans, a drastically different trade agenda, a leashing of the one percent and somehow combine that with cultural respect. The more Hillary hopes to do for women, blacks, immigrants and cultural minorities, the more she will need to balance those worthy goals with a politics of class uplift.
Bill Clinton more or less got that complex mix with his 1992 slogan that “people who work hard and play by the rules shouldn’t be poor.” That line combined an economic message with a cultural one.
But in the 24 years since them, following an abbreviated boom of the late 1990s, economic prospects worsened for many. And the Democratic Party’s alliance with Wall Street, producing deregulation and economic collapse, wiped out a lot of the progress that had been made as well as signaling more cultural distance.
Meanwhile, a post-Trump Republican Party will continue its strategy of blockage, leaving grievances to fester and democracy to continue to lose legitimacy. It may detest Trump, but will be doing his work.
And despite recent setbacks, a post-Bernie progressive movement will need to muster all of its strategic smarts, resist the usual circular firing squad, and keep the pressure on for fundamental reform.
If the Democrats do win big on November 8, it’s worth about a day of rest and celebration. And then, there is a lot of heavy lifting to do.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School. In his spare time, he writes musicals. His latest book is Debtors’ Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility.
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