Trump Won a Lot of White Working-Class Voters Who Backed Obama

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Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

So, it turns out it’s the apocalypse, at least in blue America. The polls were wrong, as were the pundits, as were the intuitions that optimistic progressives had about their country, as was I.

Tuesday’s result is as stunning as it is horrifying. The forecasts did not prepare liberals (and anti-Trumpers of other stripes) to face this storm. Few put their full imaginative energy into picturing what a world deformed by such winds would look like. Now, we’re suddenly forced to reconcile our understanding of the place we live with what we see out our window — the democratic endorsement of the vilest presidential campaign in modern American history.

The simplest way for progressives to complete that task is to remember what we’ve always loathed about this place: That its wealth, power, and formal embrace of egalitarian values — its “greatness,” so to speak — was built on the backs of enslaved African-Americans and subjugated women of all ancestries.

Which is to say: The answer to how Trump won is racism and sexism. His victory was propelled by the sense of loss that dominant social groups feel when they see the lower castes climbing toward equality.

There is more than a little truth to this narrative. But it is not the whole story. Trump won too many votes for that to be the whole story.

Of all the stunning statistics that Democrats now have to grapple with, this may be the most befuddling: Barack Obama has a 56 percent approval rating.

Hillary Clinton may win the popular vote. Third-party candidates — whom Obama had the fortune of avoiding — probably contributed to her defeat in the Electoral College. And the electorate and the broader public are not identical.

But even allowing for these facts, there have to be a significant number of people in this country who approve of the first African-American president — and just voted for the man who rose to political prominence by questioning his birth certificate.

As the Upshot’s Nate Cohn warned early in this race, the Obama coalition was always more dependent on support from white working-class voters than liberals popularly understood. This was owing in part to the demographic’s underrepresentation in exit polls — white voters are disproportionately older, and older people are less likely to participate in such surveys. So while exit polls suggested 25 percent of Obama’s supporters were white working-class, Cohn’s estimate based on census and survey data put the figure at 34 percent.

But part of the reason these voters were overlooked was ideological. After all, one fourth of the coalition is still a big part of a coalition. While the polls underestimated the strength of Trump’s support across-the-board, there were early indications that he was making inroads with white, non-college-educated voters, including those who backed Obama.

The idea that this was an important development — one that Clinton should adjust her message to account for — was often met with fierce resistance by progressive commentators.

There were justifiable complaints about a predominately white media’s idealization of the light-skinned proletarian, with his hardhat and lunchbox — and the way this image erased the multiethnic, “pink collar” character of the rest of working-class America. There were justifiable fears that a political strategy composed to appeal to such voters would lead Democrats to compromise on racial justice — to sacrifice more Ricky Ray Rectors and welfare programs on the arc of “real America.”

Above all, there was a sense that any voter who would cast their lot with a soft-core white nationalist wasn’t one worth trying to keep in a liberal coalition.

The thing is: Trying to win over such voters doesn’t feel as optional right now as it did a few hours ago.

To be sure, progressives must strive to organize African-Americans, Latinos, single women, and millennials. And wherever Democrats have power over election laws, they much try to reform the voting process to increase these demographics’ presence in the electorate.

But there are a lot of older white people in this country. And if highly educated whites weren’t willing to vote against their (narrow) economic interest in large enough numbers to produce an electoral-college majority — when Donald Trump was the GOP standard-bearer — Democrats can’t rely on them to compensate for any extended erosion in the party’s share of downscale whites.

Which means it’s important for liberals to grapple with the question: Why did a significant number of white, non-college-educated voters in the Midwest pull the lever for Obama in 2012, and then for Trump in 2016?

I will not pretend to know the answer to that question. (I’m done pretending to know anything with any certainty for a while).

But I don’t think racism or sexism are sufficient answers, even if they’re necessary ones.

Certainly, one of the most obvious things that Obama and Trump have in common — along with every other person that America has named its president — is their genitalia. And there is no question: When a self-professed enthusiast of sexual assault defeats a woman in an election, sexism played a role.

Still, when white, non-college-educated women vote for Trump in the numbers they did, it seems doubtful that the entire margin can be ascribed to false consciousness.

Likewise, it’s possible that Trump gave such fulsome voice to white identity politics that even voters who were once sympathetic to a black president yielded to their most racist instincts.

But Trump and Obama had other things in common. Both ran as outsiders at a time of widespread distrust in America’s institutions; both claimed the mantle of populism, albeit in different ways: While Obama is instinctually technocratic, in his race against Mitt Romney, he attacked his opponent as an out-of-touch elitist who turned his back on the working people of the auto industry. Trump’s actual policy platform is a plan for massively redistributing wealth upwards. But his entire campaign was founded on a repudiation of elites who betrayed the interests of the American people on trade, economic, and immigration policy.

Hillary Clinton ran on a progressive economic platform that offered more to the white working class than Obama’s did four years ago. But she did not center her campaign on that agenda. Instead, she centered her narrative on Trump’s personal incapacity for office and on the need to embrace our nation’s diversity.

This was a reasonable decision. The contrast between the Republican convention and the Democratic convention was profound. It painted a choice between a vision of national community defined in opposition to evil others, and one defined by the common humanity that transcends color or creed. Watching Obama articulate that vision of community at the Wells Fargo Center, the choice felt as obvious and fundamental as that between fear and love. I remember thinking about how devastating it would be if the country made the other choice. But the notion felt less scary than absurd. America is better than that.

But it wasn’t.

Which is to say: Framing the argument in these moralistic terms didn’t allow it to be better. Or at least, that frame didn’t allow enough voters in Rust Belt states to be better, for one day in November.

Granted, it’s possible this outcome had more to do with the messenger than with the message. If the electorate is predisposed toward outsiders, Clinton was always going to have an uphill climb. What’s more, unlike Obama, Clinton did not reach her perch in American politics on her strength as an orator (or, in Trump’s case, an entertainer). It’s possible that in our media era, her relative weakness at projecting a compelling persona crippled her ability to sell her vision.

Still, it remains the case that Obama pitched his argument in more materialist, populist terms and won, even as he lost college-educated whites. Clinton put more emphasis on expertise and non-economic values — often in a self-conscious bid to win highly educated whites — and lost.

My ideological priors tell me that the former is always going to be a more promising strategy for a party that isn’t offering massive tax cuts to the wealthy. I recognize this could be wrong.

Maybe the party does just need a better candidate. Or maybe base mobilization and favorable demographic trends will erase the GOP majority in short order. After all, Clinton appears to have won a majority of all ballots.

But it seems to me that an all-of-the-above strategy is in order. Because we cannot let this happen again.