Donald Trump’s election was made possible, in part, because some people who voted for Obama voted for Trump. Yes, some of the people who voted for the first black president also voted for a candidate cheered on by white supremacists and neo-Nazis. The difficulty of fitting this fact into the layperson’s understanding of how racism works has contorted some analysts into strange positions — arguing that racism had been an incidental part of Trump’s appeal, or that the country is much more racist now than it was eight years ago, or that Obama was a magical unicorn immune from political realities.
I have good news and bad news: America is pretty much the same country it was in 2008 when it elected Barack Hussein Obama as president of the United States. Electing the first black president did not signal that we had entered a post-racial era, it did not expunge our long record of racism, and it did not uncouple our future from white racial resentment. American politics has always revolved around the concerns and interests of white people, and most white people are not heavily invested in the safety and humanity of black and brown people. Some of them, in fact, see maintaining white domination of the political, cultural, and economic spheres as being very much in their self-interest. Donald Trump won the election by playing on this fact; Obama was able to win two elections in spite of it. Crucially, Obama didn’t pull this off by convincing white people not to be racist, he did it by convincing them to vote for him anyway, by crafting a message that appealed to their self-interest.
Hillary Clinton lost because she was unable to synthesize her many plans and policy positions into a message that was more convincing to white people than Donald Trump’s desiccated nostalgia. She chose to instead advance the argument that a vote for Donald Trump was a vote for racism and misogyny, and voters were alternately unconvinced and unmoved. Fresh from arguing that Trump was too racist to be able to win, some Clinton partisans are now arguing that Trump was too racist to lose, casting his campaign as an unbeatable juggernaut because he mobilized white fear and resentment, not in spite of that fact.
It’s true that racism is a powerful and durable force in our politics. But it is also true that Donald Trump is an incompetent clown who ran an amateurish campaign rife with mistakes. The Democrats should have won this election in a landslide. They did not, and there is no nobility or reassurance for them in a narrow loss in the electoral college or a win in the popular vote. And continuing to insist that a Donald Trump win was either some kind of strange fluke or completely inevitable is a recipe for repeated defeat.
Another complicating factor for the simplistic story that Trump was too racist to lose is how non-whites received Clinton's message. Although we will not have the final picture until all the votes are counted, we can draw some preliminary conclusions. Black turnout was lower than in 2012. While some may pin this on Republican voter suppression, the drop also occurred in places that did not have new voter ID laws or restrict early voting. Clinton also won those black voters who did show up at the polls by a smaller margin than Obama did. While Hispanic turnout was around the same as at its 2008 peak, Clinton won a smaller share of these voters as well, despite Trump's anti-immigration rhetoric. Certainly one can tell stories about internalized racism and self-hatred, but it seems to me that the simpler explanation is that Clinton’s candidacy and message did not resonate with non-whites either.
The lesson we should draw from Clinton’s loss is not that white supremacy is unbeatable at the polls, but that it’s not going to beat itself. White people are not going to instinctively recoil from racist appeals, and neither are people of color going to flock to the polls to defeat them. If the Democratic Party would like to keep more Donald Trumps from winning in the future, they are going to have to take the extraordinary step of doing politics.
Let me explain.
In the aftermath of the election, we seem to have been drawn into an argument about whether people who voted for Donald Trump “are racists,” and whether Democrats should reach out to racists or cut them off. I find this argument mystifying because it has no real political application.
Donald Trump won the election, and if the Democrats don’t want him to win the next one, they must either convince some of the people who voted for him not to do so again, or convince some of the people who didn’t vote at all to vote for the Democratic candidate. The question of whether people in either group are racist seems to me to be irrelevant to both of these tasks. The practice of pigeonholing voters into the categories of “racist” and “not racist” is counterproductive. A more useful frame is to decide which voters can be persuaded to vote for Democratic candidates and which can’t. Certainly there’s a swath of people so wedded to white supremacy that they will not vote for a party committed to racial justice no matter what, but Democrats do not need to win those voters to win a presidential election. As Obama’s election demonstrates, some of the voters who land in the “persuadable” category will hold racist views. This time around, there were also black people who chose to stay at home, and Latinos who aren’t engaged in national politics, and white women who carried a grudge against Hillary Clinton for whatever reason (and there’s plenty more to be said about the role misogyny played in this election, too). The Democrats are going to have to reach some of these people in order to win the next election.
This is not to say, as some on both the left and the right have argued, that the Democrats must compromise or sideline their substantive (or even rhetorical) commitment to justice for marginalized people, or stop doing “identity politics.” The Democrats should not, for instance, disavow Black Lives Matter or abandon criminal justice reform. Instead, as Obama did, they must appeal to their traditional base in the working and middle class (not just the white working class) in a way that addresses the self-interest of these groups.
What message will energize the Democratic base and reach persuadable voters is an open question, but the simplest place to find it is probably in economics. The answer could be, as many former Bernie Sanders supporters believe, that the Democratic Party must cut ties with neoliberalism and adopt a more progressive, populist economic platform. In the primaries, at least, this message was successful in some of the same areas where Trump won in the general election. Another idea is for Dems to pay more attention to the importance of places, creating policies that would help struggling communities, both urban and rural, rather than policies that simply help individuals. In any case, white nationalism is not a new normal, it’s the old normal, and if it’s going to be defeated at the polls, the Democratic Party is going to have to use an old tactic, too.