View from New York: With Clinton’s loss, a revolution fails

Hillary Clinton represented a vision of the United States in which women, African-Americans and Latinos would share power. Instead, argues Stephen Blank, American voters reached for a mythical past.

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November 9, 2016
Supporters celebrate as returns come in for Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump during an election night rally in Manhattan, New York, U.S., November 9, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar

What happened? We don’t have in-depth voting data yet. But, in the gloom of this awful morning, let me make a stab at it.

I think the best answer is that America was not prepared for a revolution. To us, here in New York City, Trump was the wild-eyed radical. But to many Americans, he was the true conservative, determined to resist the frightening changes in our country that had trashed our familiar and friendly life as we knew it.

The Trump victory does not represent a new start. Trump’s campaign promises were – like Brexit – an effort to recapture the past. The fact that this past is largely mythical is beside the point. What is central is that many people in both Canada and the U.S. believe that life “then” was better than what now exists and that this life can be restored.  

The anger that boiled up in the campaign was directed at individuals and institutions people believed were responsible for destroying this idealized past and who, as well, had benefitted from that destruction. That this view taps readily into the “paranoid tradition” in American politics — with its historic links to anti-Semitism, hostility to cities, fear of science and such — is no surprise.

Trump’s campaign promises were an effort to recapture the past.

To much of America, Hillary Clinton was the real revolutionary. Many (many, many it turns out) were not prepared to accept a vision of the United States in which women, African-Americans and Latinos would assume more powerful roles, at the expense, they thought, of white men. I think misogyny plays a role here but it is less important than the particular idea of a woman as president. But race is the issue most deeply embedded in America’s DNA, and Clinton’s campaign leaned heavily on the image of new and powerful African-American and Latino forces in our society. Other divisions that played out heavily in the campaign – educated versus non-educated white men, rural versus urban – are reflections of this view.

Add to this the deep distrust of Clinton – deserved or not – and the dislike (can I say hatred?) of Obama (more racial, I think, than policy) among the groups that felt most threatened, and you can see the corner in which the Democrats painted themselves. Clinton tied herself to Barack Obama and portrayed herself as the guardian of his legacy. As the campaign circled down, many around her saw this as a lifesaver. For many Americans, however, it was a safe tied to her foot.

Just thoughts. We’ll learn more when we see the numbers. 

In the post-election piece I imagined I would be writing this week, I was going to argue that the key to what would come next was not Clinton’s policy ideas, but what would happen on the Republican side: Whether the party would adopt a scorched earth policy, opposing her at every step, or whether the party moderate-extremist gap would widen.

The election does not resolve this struggle. Indeed, if Trump really does attempt to implement his campaign rhetoric of building walls, deporting millions and tearing down alliances – and creating what would be an enormously imperial presidency – then those Republicans who opposed him (but often still voted for him) will be forced to take a stand or to slink off forever. The battle over the future of the Republican Party is just entering a new phase.

Also, in defeat, Democratic divisions, papered over during the campaign, will widen. Will the Democrats become the party of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren? What happens to the moderate Obama-Clinton wing? (Indeed, to Obama’s “legacy”?) What will happen to Clinton’s urban educated white men, women, African-American, Latino grand alliance?

All grist for many mills. Stay tuned.