How New Democrats and Old Republicans Fueled the Rise of Trump

Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Committee (DLC) embodied right-leaning "New Democrats" that Trump ended up eating for lunch.

Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) embodied right-leaning “New Democrats” that Donald Trump ended up eating for lunch.

Note: The following is long-form guest piece by Alex Hamilton.

We are now over three weeks into debating why and how the most powerful nation in human history elected as president a fascist orange man with a childish intellect — previously best known for a reality show — who ran a publicity stunt that went horribly wrong. One seriously wonders if Donald Trump actually wanted to be president.

This marks a seminal and possibly apocalyptic culmination in American politics. The presidency was the last thing the Democrats had left: the GOP will soon control the Presidency, House, Senate, fill a vacant Supreme Court seat, and dominate 33 of 50 statehouses. They are one statehouse away from being able to pass constitutional amendments. The Republicans are at their zenith, while the Democrats are at their absolute historical nadir. Not since since the height of the New Deal Coalition, when the Republicans were in exile, has a party been so weak.

There have been two main narratives of this American tragedy. Many liberals, especially the Clinton campaign surrogates and partisans, insist that the country fell victim to an unstoppable “whitelash,” fueled by racism and sexism, with crucial assists from the FBI, GOP voter suppression of minorities, and a completely useless, “both sides” and ratings-obsessed mainstream media. All of these points are valid on some level, but they carry the implication that the election of the single worst candidate in American political history was somehow unavoidable.

On the other hand, leftists have embraced a widespread consensus: Hillary Clinton was the worst possible candidate who ran the worst possible campaign in the worst possible moment. This is because the doom of neoliberalism is spreading worldwide, represented by resurgent quasi-fascist movements with elements of economic populism, in the absence of any genuine leftist alternatives. Bernie Sanders was the only candidate who could have credibly answered and countered Trump’s economic populist message. He was the only other candidate who mentioned economic populism with credibility, and a sizable portion of the population did not already despise him. It is no coincidence that the Rust Belt — the region of the country most devastated by neoliberalism — decided this election.

Some liberals have responded to this leftist critique in utterly bizarre ways. One popular assertion is that Bernie could never have won because he is a self-proclaimed socialist. Yet this fails to answer how this region voted twice for the first black president, a man long smeared by Trump and others as a Kenyan Muslim usurper. Even more bizarrely, some people are using this “unelectability” logic to argue against Keith Ellison, an actual, elected, young Midwest populist, becoming DNC chair because he happens to be black and a real-life Muslim. No less a figure than President Obama himself is resisting this movement. Apparently, you cannot be an economic populist without being racist, and you cannot be an economic populist if you are the wrong race, religion, or gender.

This is a real screenshot folks. That means it really happened.

This is a real screenshot folks. That means it really happened.

When you look at the devolution of both parties since 1965, this “economics versus culture” political debate is not new. It is, in fact, the foundation myth of Clintonism. Thus, it is no surprise that Clinton partisans continue to use this myth to excuse their failures in 2016. Popular histories have also presented the myth of “economics vs. culture.” But from the start, it has been an oversimplification.

The “backlash” thesis has obscured the far more important, more complex rightward turn in American and world politics: the dawn of neoliberalism in the 1970s. The “backlash” school, which led to Clintonism, emphasizes the Democratic Party’s rightward turn as an inevitable, pragmatic reaction to highly successful Republican demagoguery, which started with the Southern Strategy. This over-emphasizes Republican evolution and overlooks Democratic devolution.

Let us start with 2016 and then go backward. Before I get too far into my historical analysis, let me make one thing clear: I do not hold much sympathy for Trump voters. Whatever their partisan leanings, they are either fascist collaborators or simply utter rubes. More importantly, while it appears Trump did inspire a surge of voters in the Rust Belt, his overall numbers still did not significantly differ from those of Mitt Romney.

My focus here (at least in 2016) is predominantly on non-voters. Trump won the election by energizing the dormant rural Republican base, but, more importantly, the Clinton campaign failed to turn out their base in the Rust Belt, especially in rural areas. The numbers strongly suggest that rural non-voters, located primarily in the Rust Belt, decided the election. As a result, some liberals have decided to treat the latter group with contempt. But low turnout is a symptom of a bad campaign, not a cause.

The evidence is mounting that the Clinton campaign’s patronizing treatment of the Rust Belt was what lost them the election. The incompetence and hubris will go down in history. They decided that they had the Midwest locked up because a computer program named “Ada” told them they did. Throughout October, their advertising budget reflected their belief in an improbable blowout, and they spent more money trying to capture the single at-large electoral vote in Nebraska than the 26 electoral votes in Michigan and Wisconsin combined. This was the political equivalent of spiking the football at the 30-yard line.

The Clinton campaign overlooked that Obama, Trump, Sanders, and even Bill Clinton had won this same bloc by at least pretending to offer these voters something. Bill was perhaps the only one that understood this within the Hillary campaign, only to be ignored, and Obama is one of the only establishment Democrats who have been humbled enough to admit it.

On the other hand, Chuck Schumer, who inexplicably will be the most powerful Democrat come Inauguration Day, explained that, “[f]or every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.” If Trump does not incinerate the world, this catastrophically wrong quote will be in every political history textbook. In fact, more Democrats voted for Trump than Republicans voted for Clinton. Democratic campaigners in the Midwest, seeing the warning signs, begged for financial help for months to no avail.

In an incredibly damning Huffington Post article on the campaign’s appallingly weak Midwestern ground game, a Clinton surrogate in Ohio complained that, “[w]e were dealing with somebody who could say whatever he wanted. It is like being at the Olympics and somebody is on steroids and somebody is not, and then blaming the person not on steroids.”

Trump's razor-thin win in ket Rust Belt states secured his entry into the White House, which will now be a much whiter place.

Trump’s razor-thin win in key Rust Belt states secured his entry into the White House, which will now be a much whiter place. Source: Business Insider.

Who would have thought that over-promising and often outright lying are necessary to win elections? The Clinton campaign’s weaknesses stemmed from the “Clintonism can never fail, only be failed” school of political thought. Clintonism argues that Trump tapped into swing voters’ unstoppable racism, sexism and generic stupidity. It also dismisses any genuine rage and/or apathy towards the neoliberal political order, and/or their political errors. Clintonism feeds into the “backlash” idea that has dogged American politics for decades.

Why the US moved away from the New Deal Coalition to ever-escalating right-wing, neoconservative/neoliberal governments is the critical question in modern American political history. In general, the debate over-emphasizes cultural backlash and neglects profound economic and demographic changes that accelerated in the 1970s. Many have thought that the conservative backlash forced the Democrats into center-right positions. However, many of these wounds have been self-inflicted by a party that abandoned much of the policies that they relied on to dominate American politics for over forty years.

Trump is, of course, the apotheosis of the most overtly disgusting elements of the American right, the people the GOP encouraged starting with the Southern Strategy. Whatever the reasons for his victory, functionally, his presidency is an unprecedented victory for overt white supremacists. He is the unholy mixture of the worst traits of every successful Republican candidate that preceded him. But the reasons Richard Nixon, George Wallace, and Ronald Reagan succeeded were never entirely about culture, either. With his open, unfiltered racism, Wallace is Trump’s closest parallel. It should be noted, however, that Wallace’s Northern appeal also involved the dreaded “economic anxiety.”

Much like Ronald Reagan when he first ran for governor of California, Trump is the simple-minded, B-level celebrity who “tells it like it is” and promises reactionary measures. Much like Barry Goldwater before him, Trump is utterly unfit to lead, and much like Goldwater, Trump was bolstered by a new, intensely ideological grassroots movement financed by dark benefactors that completely overturned a helpless establishment Republican Party. The Koch family funded both the John Birch Society, a key group in the 1960s conservative revolution, and its modern successor, the Tea Party movement, which directly led to Trump. Moreover, many have said that the same “whitelash” that supposedly created Trump had fueled the Goldwater and Wallace movements. Long before all their hopes, dreams, and alleged pathology was contained in the Twitter-friendly acronym “WWC,” the white working class were known as “Hard Hats” in the 1970s, then as the nebulous “Reagan Democrats” in the 1980s.

In 1984, a former Nixon operative named Roger Stone, by then working for Reagan, explained to the New York Times that the working class would re-elect the President because of their “belief in traditional values, strong national defence, the tax cut, the work ethic.” This is a relic from the time Republicans still spoke in code about such things, where “traditional values” could be, and were, interpreted as darker cultural impulses. In 1988, Stone helped a then-C-level celebrity New York developer with his first of four publicity stunt presidential “campaigns.” Stone, a ghoulish, inflated Roger Sterling doppelgänger, would be Trump’s main political adviser for the next twenty-eight years. In 2016, he told Trump voters to regard the election results as illegitimate if Trump lost, then showed off his Nixon back tattoo to Alex Jones, a moment immortalized in the image that Jeb Lund described as “the velvet painting I have to make every day in hell.”

Roger Stone and Alex Jones celebrate Trump’s victory. This is one of the most unnerving images to come out of the Trump victory yet.

Roger Stone and Alex Jones celebrate Trump’s victory. This is one of the most unnerving images to come out of the Trump victory.

Trump is the culmination of the prior Roger Stone-advised Presidents. His “law and order” themed acceptance speech at the RNC was allegedly inspired by Nixon’s in 1968. Ronald Reagan first used the “Make America Great Again” slogan in his 1980 campaign, during which he gave a “states’ rights” speech at the site where the Klan murdered three civil rights workers in 1964. Reagan also popularized the dog-whistle myth of the “welfare queen” (an idea Clinton co-opted in the 1990s), and George H.W. Bush ran his infamous Willie Horton ad in 1988 against Michael Dukakis. But was the sheer size of their landslides entirely about race and culture? It does not seem logical, given that the 1980s were arguably a less tumultuous cultural period than the 1970s. The 2010s resemble the late-1960s and early-1970s in some ways, but culture explains Trump even less so than it does Nixon and Reagan.

Nixon first suggested the electoral power of a “whitelash” via the “Silent Majority” and the white Hard Hats. Nixon was known as a “respected moderate” at the time, but long before Trump, he was not above encouraging reactionary political violence.

I did my honours thesis on the Hard Hat Riot and the way it loomed over political narratives in the 1970s and 1980s. On May 8, 1970, young “longhairs” in Manhattan staged a protest after the Kent State Massacre four days prior. In an attack coordinated by local union leaders (and, it was speculated, higher-up forces), about 200 construction workers attacked the rally, specifically singling out the “longhairs” and beating them with their hard hats. They did so with either the explicit cooperation or the permission of the NYPD. Although The Nation called the riot “Hitlerian,” Nixon invited its leader, Peter J. Brennan, to the White House with several other labour leaders. Nixon later made Brennan his Secretary of Labor, specifically because he led this act of undemocratic, reactionary mob violence.

Historians blamed the Hard Hats’ culturally based rage for labor’s decline in political fortunes in the 1970s and 1980s. It would later be used in histories of the 1970s that attempted to locate the American rightward turning point. Nixon attempted to court the Hard Hats as a key part of his “Silent Majority” coalition, what Republican strategist Kevin Phillips speculated would be an “Emerging Republican Majority” in 1968. The term “Hard Hat” fell out of usage in the 1980s in favor of the term “Reagan Democrats.” The general perception was that the white working class flocked to Reagan because of cultural values that transcended their then-dying unions. It was never that simple.

The unions, for the most part, saw through Nixon’s attempt to win them over. Studies of the brief Hard Hat “movement” in 1970 have generally concluded that it was largely a pro-Vietnam War movement (though it should not be mistaken for a pro-war consensus among workers and union leadership).* Edmund Wehrle, in studying Nixon’s “Failed Blue-Collar Strategy,” noted that Nixon’s union appeal “rose on foreign policy and fell on economics.”

The white working class, however, was not wholly blameless for their decline as a progressive force. It is true, as Jefferson Cowie details, that the unions were one of the forces most hostile to George McGovern’s candidacy. The AFL-CIO also backed the neoconservative Coalition for a New Democratic Majority, the predecessor to the Clintonist Democratic Leadership Council (more on this in a bit.)

In his study of the Hard Hats, Joshua Freeman notes that, “construction workers were notable for their high level of job satisfaction…they repeatedly cited the challenge of the work, its variety, and their independence.” This segment of the white working class was not provoked into reactionary positions by economic anxiety. On the contrary, their economic concerns kept them from falling into Nixon’s trap. In Nixon’s first term, the world-changing economic downturns that helped bring the downfall of Keynes and the rise of Milton Friedman had not yet occurred. Although right-leaning economists, led by Friedman, were pushing Nixon towards embracing neoliberalism, he felt its more radical aspects would be electoral suicide because the unions were still one of the main political powerhouses in America. Friedman, in fact, despised Nixon for this.

The Hard Hat Riot, as pictured on the backlash-themed Stayin’ Alive by Jefferson Cowie. Clintonite Joan Walsh, in 2010, interviewed Cowie about the “self-destruction” of the Democratic working class base on the “identity politics”/class politics binary; Cowie stated “I think the ’70s really are the paradigm for the current age.” Historians blamed the Hard Hats’

The Hard Hat Riot, as pictured on the backlash-themed Stayin’ Alive by Jefferson Cowie. In 2010 Clintonite Joan Walsh interviewed Cowie about the “self-destruction” of the Democratic working class base on the “identity politics”/class politics binary. Cowie stated, “I think the ’70s really are the paradigm for the current age.”

More importantly, if George McGovern’s massive landslide loss represented a cultural repudiation of his values, it was only at the presidential level. Despite Nixon’s attempts to exploit the backlash, Republicans lost twelve seats in the 1970 midterms. Indeed, they would not gain control of the House until Newt Gingrich’s 1994 Republican Revolution. The GOP took the Senate through most of the Reagan years, but otherwise followed the same pattern.

This was despite the fact that the late 1960s and 1970s were a period of inflamed culture wars. 1968, for instance, saw a wave of political violence that has not been matched since. Certainly, it was a much less socially enlightened America than existed on November 7, 2016. Even then, however, the “backlash” had limited effects; it did not immediately form the “Emerging Republican Majority.” That did not stop some from claiming that this period was a turning point in American politics.

The important and prescient error was how the punditry came to think that the white working class was now “voting against their own interests” primarily because of Republican wedge issues. Unions continued to be strong throughout the 1970s, although they were declining in the face of factional infighting and unprecedented economic crises. The Humphrey-Hawkins Act of 1977 was a watershed moment in the downfall of labor. Although its title was “The Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act,” it was a drastically watered down bill. Even in its watered down form, it was violated and ignored.

Humphrey-Hawkins was a by-product of an overlooked fact of the Carter Administration: it was the peanut president’s administration, not Reagan’s, which introduced neoliberal economic policies. As a partial result, it was the economy, more than anything, which led to Carter’s defeat and further neoliberalism under Reagan. Many press pieces on the working class in the 1980s played up their Nixonian “Silent Majority” values, even as much of the campaign coverage also focused on the economy. The “economic anxiety” versus “backlash” debate was present, albeit in a much more muted and subtle way, in the 1980s.

As Judith Stein points out, while some of these workers became Reagan Democrats, many more simply stopped voting. This is precisely what happened to Hillary Clinton in 2016. While Stein is perhaps a little too tilted towards class, particularly before the 1970s, her basic points still ring true. This year, the workers in the Rust Belt did tilt more towards racially tinged populism. More importantly, many of them saw no material benefits to voting for either the “slay queen” and the childish moron who was obviously lying. So they joined the ranks of the non-voting.

However, starting with youth-backed leftist George McGovern’s historically lopsided loss in 1972, the Democrats responded to Republican gains by moving ever further right. The culmination of this process was the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), created in 1985 after Walter Mondale’s equally large loss. Indeed, the DLC was the successor of the Coalition for a Democratic Majority (CDM), formed following McGovern’s loss. It came to the same fundamental conclusion as its late-1980s successor, the Democratic Leadership Council: leftism was dead, and the only way forward was centrism. Both the DLC and the CDM were both based on the idea, later critical for Clintonism, that the United States was inherently reactionary, and thus the only reasonable political positions were centrist or even outright right wing.

The effect of all this was to cement the Democrats as one of two parties of Reagan neoliberalism, a development that also encouraged the GOP to embrace more extreme rhetoric and tactics on the domestic front (such as government shutdowns, which Gingrich innovated and which became standard during Tea Party surge.) The Democrats’ center-right turn began in the 1970s, in conjunction with the suburbanization of both parties.

rump managed to partially replicate Richard Nixon's strategy of courting the HArd Hat vote.

Trump managed to partially replicate Richard Nixon’s strategy of courting the Hard Hat vote.

Rick Perlstein is one of the most popular “backlash” focused writers in tracing America’s rightward turn. He places much emphasis on the 1960s and 1970s zeitgeist, and the political skills of Wallace, Nixon, and Reagan. However, his chapter on the Watergate Babies in his recent The Invisible Bridge is more revealing. The Watergate Babies were the young Democrats elected to Congress in 1974, when trust in government was at a then-unprecedented low. For example, Gary Hart, the Colorado Senator who made two presidential runs in the 1980s, was one of the first major neoliberals. Perlstein makes a very important observation about Hart:

Hart seemed almost angrier at other Democrats than at Republicans. His stock speech, ‘The End of the New Deal,’ argued that his party was hamstrung by the very ideology that was supposed to be its glory — that ‘if there is a problem, create an agency and throw money at the problem.’ It included lines like ‘the ballyhooed War on Poverty succeeded only in raising the expectations, but not the living conditions, of the poor.’ That was false: the poverty rate was 17.3 percent when LBJ’s Economic Opportunity Act was passed in 1964 and 11.2 percent as Gary Hart spoke. But such claims did appeal to the preconceptions of people who Hart claimed must become the new base of the Democratic Party: those in the affluent suburbs, whose political power had been quietly expanding during the 1960s through redistricting and reapportionment.* (Rick Perlstein, The Invisible Bridge, p. 317)

Perlstein sums up these new Democrats — later 1980s presidential contenders — in neoliberal terms. Then and current Governor of California, Jerry Brown, quoted “small-government nostrums he read in…house organs of the ascendant neoconservative movement.” The new Democrats were “said to care more about ‘lifestyle issues’ like conservation, which blue-collar labor types viewed with disdain….Michael Dukakis, the suburban Democrat running for governor against a much more liberal Republican incumbent, was said by the UPI to want to ‘run the state like a bank.” (318).

All this despite the fact that the Republican Party at that point was tied to the most odious criminal who had ever occupied the White House (until the arrival of Trump, of course). Regarding the Watergate Babies, Nate Stoller writes that, “In 1974, young liberals did not perceive financial power as a threat, having grown up in a world where banks and big business were largely kept under control. It was the government — through Vietnam, Nixon, and executive power — that organized the political spectrum.” He portrays the neoliberal takeover of the party as “accidental,” a by-product of an overall distrust of all government, including New Deal liberalism, thanks to the Vietnam War and Watergate. This is its own backlash narrative, one that slightly overlooks where these politicians were coming from and the new socioeconomic base they were representing.

Hart’s views later made him the best-known of the “Atari Democrats“  —  the 1980s American phrase for neoliberal Democrats who promoted the ascendant tech industry, a phrase that sounds very familiar. He nearly defeated Walter Mondale for the 1984 Democratic nomination, criticizing Mondale as too old-fashioned. He ran again in 1988, but a sex scandal destroyed his campaign and career. Four years later, another young, centrist Democrat captured the presidency despite his own sex scandals.

The suburban base of these future presidential nominees was a phenomenon that preceded the culture wars. Historians such as Kevin Kruse and Thomas Sugrue, Matthew Lassiter, Robert Self, and Lily Geismer have done tremendous studies on the impact of the suburbs on American politics. In short, suburbanization helped create a new economic and cultural worldview. The design of the suburbs, and later white flight, helped create a new class of “not racists” whose racism was helped largely by the fact they had limited to no daily contact with people of color. (This appears to be a critical factor in defining Trump’s base of racists, many of whom are not of the working class). Newly prosperous suburban voters withdrew from the cities. They thus became more concerned with maintaining individual prosperity and carefully chosen community. This was a base neoliberalism could appeal to.

Walter Mondale’s 1984 campaign was the last gasp of the New Deal Coalition. When the AFL-CIO endorsed Mondale early in the primary, many saw it as a political liability for Mondale, although the campaign featured anti-neoliberal populism. Mario Cuomo’s DNC keynote was not far off from a 2016 Bernie Sanders speech. At the same time, press coverage saw the Reagan Democrats, occasionally still called Hard Hats, as inherently culturally conservative. Workers’ economic discontent was widely reported from 1980 to 1984, but it was also implied they were now voting Republican mostly on intangibles such as patriotism, foreign policy, and “family values.”

In attempting to explain Reagan’s stranglehold on the Presidency, commentators engaged in the now familiar debates over class and economic anxiety (or lack thereof) versus culture and race. After Mondale’s massive loss, strategist Al From formed the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). Just as neoconservatism influenced the previous Coalition for a Democratic Majority, neoliberalism was the DLC’s core belief. All vestiges of both New Deal liberalism and 1960s-1970s leftism had to be purged, because neoliberalism was the new Washington Consensus, seemingly backed by voters in 49 of 50 states. The DLC, however, was not a sudden revolution in the Democratic platform, but a culmination of a process that began well before Reagan. The culturally based backlash against Mondale was simply the final straw.

Clinton and Al From at a 2000 DLC event.

Clinton and Al From at a 2000 DLC event.

Bill Clinton was the DLC’s chair in 1990 and president two years later. He signed NAFTA over the protests of the unions, which had been the Democratic backbone for forty years. The party welcomed Wall Street’s money with open arms. Clinton signed the repeal of Glass-Steagall in 1999. For Bill Clinton, this process of neoliberalization also included “moving to the center” on race. Although 1988 saw the most successful African-American presidential candidacy to date in Jesse Jackson (his endorsements included a then-obscure mayor of Burlington, Vermont named Bernie Sanders), the Democrats apparently had to get racist again to take back the White House. Clinton’s 1994 Crime Bill was instrumental in creating the carceral state, sometimes called the New Jim Crow. Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform “end[ed] welfare as we know it.” Hillary was deployed to call young black men “superpredators” as part of the crime bill.

Yet, in both the 2008 primaries and the 2016 campaign, the Clintons acted as though Bill was still “the first black President.” Here is another area where the “whitelash” idea runs into problems. The Rust Belt is not a monolithic white mass, as many African Americans reside in these areas. GOP-led voter suppression in several key states undoubtedly depressed the black vote, but that does not explain the significant drop in minority support from Obama to Hillary. It was arguably symptomatic both of the Clintons’ problematic racial and neoliberal baggage and the Clinton campaign’s terrible Rust Belt ground game.

Another backlash narrative, which originated on the Left in 2008, contributed to Hillary Clinton’s Rust Belt mistake. Both parties fell victim to this narrative. When the Democratic Party establishment backed Hillary at an unprecedented level in 2015, they mistook the Obama coalition for a new consensus. It was based on Ruy Teixiera and John Judis’ 2004 thesis of an Emerging Democratic Majority (Judis has since repudiated this idea, but note the title of their book was intentionally meant to echo Kevin Phillips’ Emerging Republican Majority). They saw the changing demographics of America  —  namely, the irreversible decline in older whites  —  and started to believe in grandiose schemes of turning deep-red states like Arizona or even Texas blue in the near future.

To be fair to the DNC/Hillary campaign, their counterparts at the RNC were equally clueless before the arrival of Trump. After Romney’s loss in 2012, the RNC did a study of their two losses at the hands of an African-American President. The “autopsy” reached the conclusion that their next presidential nominee should be the exact opposite of someone like Donald Trump. The GOP did not seem to realize they could keep their racist and sexist demagoguery if they simply ratcheted it up to eleven and combined it with economic populism. They underestimated the strength of their rural base, and overestimated the strength of the Democratic base. And they did not realize that a large number of people despised the fundamental neoliberal policies both they and the Democrats had embraced for over forty years.

In this sense, both parties assumed, like the legendarily wrong Francis Fukuyama, that neoliberalism had created an “end of history.” They assumed that demographics and the arc of history had settled America’s racial and cultural questions. Neither party thought that the world’s reckoning with neoliberalism would come so soon, and that it would outright transcend every assumption about the consensuses that existed in America. Instead, the two parties believed in backlash narratives, because backlash narratives had seemingly told the story of American politics since 1968. They now believed that whenever the Republican nominee said something sexist or racist, it would invariably give the Democratic nominee more votes. For the Republicans, they apparently did not realize the potency of economic populism mixed with racial and sexist demagoguery.

A closer look at the political backlash narratives in history reveals the flaws in the Democrats’ thinking. Richard Nixon was not the “hard hat” darling pundits and some historians make him out to be. The “Reagan Democrats” were a less culturally driven, working-class group than some assumed. In the late 1980s, the DLC assumed Americans were inherently right-wing; in the 2010s, they still thought this, but also thought they had grown more inherently left-wing on non-negotiable social issues.

But it’s all over now. These narratives  about American politics — that minorities will automatically back the Democratic candidate in large numbers, that the suburban, multicultural liberal base had reached a level of power that would transcend American culture wars, that neither economic populism or Wallace-esque racism would ever return to the United States, that the GOP would never win the presidency again on demagoguery — have been thrown into question.

The end result of all this is that an utterly childish man, stupider than Reagan and Bush II combined, now sits in the White House, surrounded by literal neo-Nazis as his advisers. Trump will rip up the Paris climate agreement, dooming the planet beyond recovery to the worst-case climate change scenarios. He is also outright ending NASA climate research. His vice president, who might end up being the de facto president, is the architect of some of the most virulently anti-gay and anti-abortion legislation in the country. Unlike Trump, Mike Pence embraces a far-right Christian ideology. Trump’s Secretary of Education wants to abolish public schools and bring back child labor. Neoliberalism, of course, will not be any less predominant despite Trump’s lies; if anything, its oligarchic looting will be even more blatant.

Nobody really knows just how awful Trump’s foreign policy will be. The least apocalyptic scenario seems to be an invasion of Iran, but the man who has spent much of his time as president-elect getting mad online also has control of the nuclear football.

Donald Trump won because the Silent Majority got very loud.

Donald Trump won because the Silent Majority got very loud.

Trump already has an Enemies List much like Nixon’s, according to surrogate Omarosa, a political spokeswoman who gained her position by becoming a reality star on a show where the new president-elect pretended to fire people. There are reports Trump is “mulling over” a national registry for all Muslims. Trump has also inherited the presidency and the national security state at the height of its power.

This utter catastrophe has unfolded because of a steady rise and fall of the two parties. The Republican Party encouraged cultural demagoguery for fifty years, ratcheting it up in 2008, then pretended to act horrified when a non-establishment celebrity nominee called their bluff on it. Now their party, despite all the Never Trump posturing of the seemingly irrelevant old establishment, will likely now see this as an opportunity to shape the policy of a simple-minded and incapable leader. Perhaps Trump will be so egregiously bad that the Republican Congress has no choice but to grow a spine and impeach the Alt-Right Fuhrer.

The Donald may even be overwhelmed by the responsibilities being president brings every day, and simply resign. But either way, the Republican Party should not be let off the hook for creating this disaster. Controlling every level of government across the country has come at the expense of having the stupidest, laziest, most corrupt, and probably most dangerous president in history. This is the gamble the GOP have played from the moment respected Moderate John McCain thought it would be a good idea to pick Sarah Palin, the proto-Trump, as his 2008 running mate.

The Democratic Party, however, also bears much blame for playing with fire during the same fifty-year period. They allowed themselves to be corrupted from within by a suburban-based, neoliberal, centrist philosophy. As a result, thousands of swing and/or apathetic voters became convinced that the Democrats could not be trusted. By continually blaming seemingly unstoppable cultural backlashes, the Democrats forgot that they could offer things that transcended racism and sexism, and that true coalition building means you simply cannot shut out the actual demographics that exist.

In the final two sentences of my honors thesis, I wrote that, “whether they were aware of it or not, the press, too, has also struggled to reconcile the bread-and-butter economic concerns of everyday Americans with the so-called social wedge issues. With some pundits now speculating that the demographics of the United States now spell the irrelevance of the traditional Nixon/Reagan coalitions, perhaps new narratives will come to dominate.” I had no idea how right I was on the first point, how wrong I was on the second point, and the utter catastrophe that was coming.

About the author: Alex Hamilton has a bizarre obsession with American politics and history despite living in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is not named after the guy in the ahistorical rapping musical. He can be followed on twitter at @SKRollins.

*Studies of the Hard Hats and Nixon’s attempt to win them over include Joshua Freeman’s 1990 article, Penny Lewis’ Hardhats, Hippies and Hawks: The Vietnam Antiwar Movement as Myth and Memory and Edmund Wehrle’s “Partisan for the Hard Hats”: Charles Colson, George Meany, and the Failed Blue-Collar Strategy.”

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