Only two days have passed since the election, but I think the story has been largely clarified.
Donald Trump first adopted his somewhat outrageous persona as part of his TV/celebrity hook; he offered himself as a billionaire businessman who was also one of the guys—direct, unfiltered, somewhat crude, but authentic. His ratings were strong. From this it was a rather straightforward segue into “reality politics”, with almost no change in behavior. He remained a loudmouth, a fount of bluster, casually making things up as he went along. He cultivated an air of scandal.
Yes, there was a strong element of racism, misogyny and xenophobia in his routine, and his normalization of bigotry was horrible, but I don’t think the point of his strategy was so much the content of his crudeness as the crudeness itself. By being over the top and acting like the billionaire on the next barstool, Trump conveyed a message that was almost universally picked up: The man is a rebel! He’s fighting the establishment! He’s saying things that the elites say should never be said and getting away with it! Voting for him will really shake things up!
For what it’s worth, on the morning after the election my students wondered how the election of such an “anti-establishment” candidate would pan out.
But media persona is one thing and actual politics another. Practically the moment he was elected, Trump’s demeanor changed. Suddenly he was just another Republican, preparing himself to govern with the support of a Republican house and senate, a soon-to-be Republican supreme court, and Republican control of a majority of state governments. Rather than shaking things up, the American people had just elected the mainstream hard right to full-court political dominance. I don’t know how many miles of wall will be built on the southern border, but I expect Paul Ryan’s agenda to fly straightway to signing ceremonies before daylight savings time rolls around again.
To put it as clearly as I can, following the election the mask came off—but instead of revealing a monster it was exactly the other way around. The monster mask was dropped and behind it we saw the normal, unremarkable class politics of modern Republicanism.
It’s important to emphasize that, while the pre-election show put on by Trump was despicable, its appeal was based on the message it conveyed that Trump was outside the system, a loose cannon who just might turn things around where others had failed. Bigotry mattered not because the agenda was to push bigotry, but because talking like a bigot seemed to show that the standard constraints on politics were being upended. It’s like the role the confederate flag has played for much of the white working class, north and south. Yes, the flag is reprehensible because it represents the cause of unrepentant slavery, but for many people that only adds to its luster as a symbol of the “rebel cause”. It’s a middle finger shoved defiantly in front of anyone who wants to tell you how to speak, think or act. Trump was a living rebel flag, right down to his courting of the alt-right, which, needless to say, ended the moment the last vote was cast.
So it’s like this: Trump as candidate was guaranteed most of the Republican vote through sheer partisanship. His strategy was a bet that, while he would alienate some support through his calculated acts of outrageousness, he would attract even more from working class voters desperate for a champion, even only a maybe champion. It was intentional, and it worked.
If this analysis is correct, Clinton’s strategy was the exact opposite of what it should have been. Her campaign was based on the argument that Trump was a monster, not a normal, respectable Republican. He had the wrong temperament. He wasn’t serious. Voting for him would be a lark, whereas she represented predictability and competence. The more successful she was at painting him as “special”, the better his ruse worked. Win or lose, her best chance was to say something like, “Yes, Trump has quite a mouth, but behind it he’s a regular Republican like all the rest, with the same agenda too. He’ll cut taxes for the rich and gut social support for the poor. He’ll do all he can to crush labor. He wants low wages and high profits. He’s like a used car salesman, acting like a lunatic, but it’s all about getting you to buy the car.”
Of course, Clinton was the worst possible messenger for attacking faux populism.
So now what? Just as Trump has pivoted, so should we. Yes, there are plenty of jerks who will interpret this election as a permission slip to insult or even attack women and minorities on a random basis. That behavior is as ugly today as it was before Tuesday, and of course we should not put up with it. From a political point of view, however, that’s secondary. We can’t re-educate all the jerks among us, at least in the short term. Moreover, I do not expect Trump to encourage crude displays of bigotry going forward. The necessary political pivot is to be as clear as possible, as quickly as possible that this was a bait-and-switch election, and the immediate task is to stop the relatively well-behaved Republican leadership in Washington from gutting what remains of the few inhibitions on the rich and powerful. Try to take the side of the Trump voters who were deceived. Point out that Trump was not elected, at least not by many who voted for him, to simply set the table for Paul Ryan. Scream about duplicity and betrayal. This means not monolithically demonizing Trump voters.
If Trump returns to rude and crude, he’ll prove me wrong. We will see.