USA: Don’t forget the other half

The Democrats must not neglect the millions who voted for Trump

Donald Trump, and his populist rhetoric, is leaving the White House. President-elect Joe Biden offers fresh hope in confronting Covid-19, racial injustice, and climate change. It would be foolish, however, to forget the 73 million Americans who voted for Trump. 

America has been described as two nations since the neoliberal era began in the 1980s: metropolitan areas lifted by globalisation on one hand; and post-industrial, rural towns left behind by the changing economy on the other. It is ignorant and dangerous to divide an electorate into such simplistic groups, yet it remains important to recognise that many of Trump’s followers feel isolated from Washington and the coastal elites. Demography determined fewer votes in 2020, though Trump maintained his stark lead among white voters who didn’t go to college.

Trump’s win in 2016 embodied a backlash against the economic neglect of neoliberal politics. His followers rejected the establishment; instead they found their voice in a personality and a platform that paid attention to their anguish. Trump provided compelling explanations for their problems, nurturing the resentment for the Clinton, Bush, and Obama eras. He attributed unemployment to Mexican immigrants and lambasted China for America’s increasing trade deficit. Trump even tried to blame Obama for America’s poor response to Covid-19.

Hillary Clinton embodied too much of what America had come to dislike. Leaked speech transcripts showed her affinity with Wall Street and, rightly or wrongly, she could not escape the scandals that plagued her husband’s tenure. Obama had done too little to curb growing inequality. Despite progressive boasts, his economic recovery plan benefited the wealthy and educated far more than middle and working class Americans. Tech titans flourished while 10 million Americans lost their homes. It should be unsurprising, therefore, that in 2016 Trump overturned Michigan and Wisconsin with promises to rebuild manufacturing and resurrect a triumphant America.

Yet Trump achieved few of his campaign promises. He did not put millions of Americans in work by rebuilding infrastructure. Nor did he build a wall along the Mexican border. Trump has, however, built an anti-establishment platform bigger than himself. It might not have won him re-election but it reflects the attitudes of the millions of Americans who feel left behind. The Democrats had been the party that fought for the ordinary person against the economic powers at the top. The Clinton and Obama presidencies forgot this. 

The election was not a landslide for the Democrats. They lost seats in the House, and the Republicans will most likely hold the Senate after Georgia’s runoff elections in January. America has, however, entrusted the Democrats with the White House. Trump has gone, but his platform lives on. Frustration with establishment politics must not be ignored. Ordinary Americans should be a priority for the incoming administration if they are to keep nationalist sentiment at arm’s length. Biden has already vowed to be a “President for all Americans,” but that is just the beginning.  

Photograph above was taken by Sandy Huffaker (Getty Images)

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