How Trump Won

The Democratic Party's abandonment of the working class cleared the space for Trump.

A Trump rally in Newton, PA on October 21, 2016. Michael Candelori / Flickr

In an election this close — which, it should be noted, was actually a win for the Democrats under an honest popular-vote system rather than the anachronistic and indefensible Electoral College — many things made the difference. Voter suppression in Wisconsin might have been enough. FBI director James Comey’s eleventh-hour letter almost certainly was.

But something big seems to have happened, if exit polls are reliable (which is, you can’t say too many times, a big “if”): The parties swapped a chunk of their class constituencies.

More poor and lower-middle-class people voted Republican in this election than the last. More upper-middle-class and rich people voted Democrat. And union voters abandoned the Democrats dramatically.

Exit polls are frequently unreliable, and we need to be cautious in drawing on them. But they also aren’t useless. Comparing CNN 2016 exit poll data with Roper Center data from 2012, we see some very important changes.

Obama won only voters with household incomes under $50,000, but he did it overwhelmingly, 60–38, and lost all higher-income groups — a class warrior after all! Clinton won those lower-income voters by only 52–41. So yes, she won, but with an eleven-point decline in the Democrats’ advantage.

For voters with household incomes between $50,000 and $100,000, the numbers change very little: 46–50 for Obama, 46–52 for Clinton. But go over $100,000, and things get interesting again. Romney won those well-off voters handily, 54–44, as Republicans generally do. Trump barely hung on at about 48–47. That’s a nine-point gain for the Democrats.

Clinton was much weaker than Obama with union-household voters: he won them 58–40, she only 51–43. That’s a ten-point loss.

None of the other big demographic numbers are nearly as dramatic. Some are questionable — results showing Trump doing better among Latinos than Romney, for instance, are hard to square with Clinton’s outperforming Obama in counties with heavy Latino populations. And a Spanish-language exit poll shows stronger Latino support for Clinton than the CNN numbers.

But the interesting number is the finding that Trump did about the same as Romney among white voters: 58–37 for Trump versus 59–39 for Romney. Trump didn’t attract more of them than Romney, but based on the income results, he does seem to have attracted different ones — specifically voters the Democrats have relied on in the past.

What about gender? According to the exit polls, Romney beat Obama 52–45 among men, while Trump beat Clinton 53–41. Obama beat Romney 55–44 among women, and Clinton got 54–42 among them — about the same as Obama. Clinton seems to have lost some non-Republican male voters to Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, but not much else changed.

So it’s true that white people and men — especially white men — elected Trump. But they did not support him in meaningfully greater numbers than they did Romney. That wasn’t what was distinctive in Trump’s victory.

What does this all mean? The numbers are compatible with at least three explanations, each with some plausibility and anecdotal support and with very different valence.

1. Race, but this is complicated

This scenario turns on a class-differentiated response to Trump’s racial and nationalist identity politics. It’s awkward at the very best to claim that voters who supported Trump after supporting Obama were motivated by simple, dug-in racism.

But Trump’s campaign made race salient in a distinctive way, which neither Romney nor McCain ever did, and may have sounded a bell of white identity politics that simply no one had rung before him. It may both have driven away richer voters and attracted poorer whites.

2. Economics

The scenario rests on lower-income and union voters developing a post-2008 sense of economic abandonment by the Democrats based on how the party has actually governed in recent years, including both the trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and NAFTA and a finance industry that it strongly embraces.

It was activated by Trump’s disingenuous but effective economic populism, the highlighting of Clinton’s relations to Wall Street, and the Obama-Clinton administrations’ trade deals. As with race, Trump made these issues salient in ways that no one did in 2008 or 2012.

3. Credibility and media

This one is less about the class-or-race dyad and instead about a more personal and contingent sense of the candidates’ respective credibility. Clinton’s numbers went down hard after FBI director James Comey’s letter announcing sort-of new emails connected with her private server. Maybe this mattered a lot more to the voters who peeled off to Trump.

For people in the Fox/Breitbart right-wing information ecosystems, Trump exaggerates sometimes, but Clinton is a liar and crook. A chunk of those voters are working people who, fifty years ago, might have been getting their basic political information from a union, and are now getting it from a conspiracy-minded far right that convinced them they had a civic duty to vote against the corrupt liar in the race.

These scenarios aren’t mutually exclusive. The thing is to understand how they might relate. A focus on the economic numbers doesn’t imply a crude “class > race” argument. No serious person could pretend that Trump’s appeal was racially innocent. After the campaign he ran, a vote for him had objective racist meaning in a way that was different from a Romney vote in 2012.

Moreover, racial innocence is impossible in American politics, except as a pernicious delusion. In this country, class and race have always been inseparable, in various combinations that almost always hurt nonwhite people and usually hurt white working-class people, too.

Here is one story. Trump peeled off white working-class voters who had supported Obama. He did it in the classic style of the twenty-first-century right-wing nationalist, which he shares with France’s National Front and other Western European nationalist movements: offering a mix of white identity politics and economic populism to people who feel the traditional center-left party is offering them nothing.

Here is Richard Rorty, a philosopher and social democrat, writing in 1998 with uncanny prescience:

Members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else. At that point, something will crack.

The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots . . . One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion . . . All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.

Donald Trump achieved this with help from moneyed right-wing media, voter suppression, and the Democrats’ complacency about getting out the vote in the Upper Midwest, where overall turnout was down, most of all among Democrats. But the sea change was turning a legacy constituency of the center-left into a new base for the nationalist right.

In other words, welcome to the Europe of Marine Le Pen and the UKIP.

If we’re in our own American Europe, Democrats should observe that the center-left parties that have stayed more or less neoliberal have cratered. Labour is in deep electoral trouble in the United Kingdom. The French Socialists are expecting to come in third after the center-right and the nationalists in the first round of the next presidential election. The energy on the Left is in the new, young, multiracial radicalism of the Corbyn-style movements, though they haven’t really been tested nationally.

Ironically, although the United States comes to this situation a little later than Europe, our left response may be ahead of theirs. The Sanders movement — which is youthful, diverse in its young supporters (if less so in its older generations), and also appealed to some of the primary constituencies who abandoned Clinton in the general — looks like the best formula to fight the new nationalisms. Extending it, deepening it, and mobilizing with allies such as Black Lives Matter and Fight for 15 (and so many others), is what we need now.

It’s dangerous and unproductive to make a fetish of the white working class. But every time I see Trump’s numbers and think about his campaign, I recall guys I grew up around in West Virginia, that I worked with on construction crews or just knew through my dad, who was a carpenter.

The ones I liked were anti-authoritarian, egalitarian, and basically open people. They looked down on crew members who were bigoted, who liked cops, and who liked bosses. Those guys, they knew, were assholes. Trump ran the ultimate asshole campaign. If you have known a different working-class politics personally, that is heartbreaking.

Again, no fetishes, especially nostalgic and racially exclusive ones. Sanders’s campaign and the new black freedom movement and other radicalisms that connect with it have their strongest bases elsewhere, and they would be the future of the Left even if Rust Belt workers hadn’t abandoned Clinton and cost her the election (which is the most plausible bottom line from these numbers).

But it just so happens that the bottom line of this election chimes with the reasons for the new radicalism: a politics of economic justice and power is what we need. Fundamentally because social democracy and ideally democratic socialism is right, but also because, strategically, abandoning those commitments cleared precisely the space that Trump’s political barbarism moved in to occupy. We have to fight for that space, everywhere it exists, and for everyone who lives in it.