When it comes to understanding the 2016 election, we are stumbling around in the fog of peace. The active hostilities are over, the terms of surrender have been signed, but there is still no consensus on what decided the decisive battles.
This was a close election: Donald Trump won the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Michigan* and Wisconsin by a total margin of about 110,000 votes. Swap out those 46 electoral votes and a beaming Hillary Clinton would have been sitting next to Barack Obama in the Oval Office.
What this means is that it is ludicrous to point to a single factor like stagnant blue-collar incomes or cultural elitism to explain the thunderbolt election that produced President-elect Trump. As I grapple to understand my country, I keep coming back to three emblematic conversations that I had this year with Trump voters.
“The insiders haven’t gotten anything done. It’s time to give an outsider a chance.” The speaker was a scruffily dressed man in his mid-thirties, who works in information technology, explaining his vote for Trump in the March 15 Ohio primary.
You can date the current populist uprising back to the misguided 2009 decision by Mitch McConnell and a rotating band of House GOP leaders not to give Barack Obama a single Republican vote in Congress. This willful obstruction was a far cry from George W. Bush’s ability to win Democratic support for his tax cuts and the No Child Left Behind education bill in the first year of his presidency.
Obama contributed to the paralysis by stubbornly insisting on passing the flawed Affordable Care Act with only Democratic support. That seemingly bold Oval Office decision directly led to the Democratic wipeout in the 2010 and 2014 off-year elections. The result: Congressional Democrats were left rattling a tin cup begging for GOP help just to keep the government operating.
The average Trump voter may not have been able to pinpoint the causes of gridlock on Capitol Hill. But it doesn’t take a Shakespearean scholar to sense that something is rotten in Washington.
At a Trump rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in mid-October, I spoke with a short-haul trucker in his fifties, still bitter about losing a job driving cross-county in 2001 when a local metal shelving firm moved to Mexico because of NAFTA. “What I like about Trump is that he’s on his own,” the trucker said. “Everybody’s against him — the media, the Congress.”
For the trucker, the cost of NAFTA was not so much a drop in income as it was a loss of self-esteem. As near as I could tell from our conversation, he felt a sense of prestige in driving to California that he doesn’t receive making short stops around Scranton.
That loss of identity is something that a rigid economic analysis of Trump voters misses. And it has nothing to do with immigration or race or gender roles. But the trucker reflected a resentment of elite figures in Washington in both parties who peddled the argument that only the uneducated fail to appreciate the benefits of global trade.
Part of the appeal of Trump is that it was possible to see him as the lone gunfighter standing tall as bullets fly at his head from all directions, including shots from establishment Republicans. In the eyes of his supporters, Trump had all the right enemies.
On Election Day in a small New Hampshire town, a general contractor who is a conservative Democrat explained his last-minute voting decision: “I didn’t want to vote for Hillary more than I didn’t want to vote for Trump.”
There is an element of truth to the Democratic portrayal of Hillary the Martyr. Never before in history has a presidential candidate been the victim of both Russian espionage and a politicized FBI director.
Even Clinton’s bitter critics of her self-destructive refusal to use the State Department’s email system should be outraged over the Russian hacking of the email account of her campaign chairman. This was political espionage on a level that made the Watergate break-in look like the robbery of a children’s lemonade stand.
One of the hardest things to sort out in this election is how much opposition to Clinton from swing voters was based on her gender and how much represented a legitimate recoil over the sense of entitlement that comes with being a Clinton.
Given the narrowness of Trump’s margin in the industrial Midwest where social class still matters, you could almost make the case that giving three lushly paid speeches to Goldman Sachs cost Clinton the White House.
Okay, that’s a little hyperbolic. But the final tragedy of Hillary Clinton was that a woman so disciplined in so many ways lost the White House over her heedless conduct from the email server to Wall Street speechmaking.
In her 1997 play “An American Daughter” loosely describing Washington during the Clinton years, the late Wendy Wasserstein invented a policy book entitled, “Towards a Lesser Elite.” The Pulitzer Prize-winning feminist playwright (“The Heidi Chronicles”) meant the book title to mock Washington liberal earnestness.
Instead, with the defeat of Hillary Clinton — a contemporary whom Wasserstein admired — Washington got just that. A lesser elite.
* As of press time, Michigan has still not been called for Trump, but he leads Clinton by just under 11,900 votes in the Associated Press count. Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post. His book on his con-man great-uncle was just published: “Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer.” Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.