The biggest pet peeve of historians is “presentism,” the assumption, in telling stories about the past, that it was all just leading up to some present state of affairs. Normally we don’t like presentism because it tends to shore up or reflect the idea that history always moves towards “progress.” But in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s victory on Tuesday, a lot of people seem to be in danger of making the opposite error: the assumption after the fact that his triumph was inevitable all along.
Donald Trump is a white supremacist. His election is a victory for white supremacy and for the well-off white supremacists, lurking in white flight suburbs and on alt-right internet message boards, that always comprised the core of his base. The coming years just got a lot tougher for people of color and immigrants, along with women and LGBTQ people, across the country. And when he enacts gargantuan tax cuts on the rich, when wages continue to stagnate and wealth fails to accumulate, his “populist” rhetoric will be unmasked all too late. It is crucial not to lose sight of what his election represents.
But identifying what his election represents is not the same thing as identifying why his election happened. The preferred candidate of well-off racist white people has lost before. If we want to understand why white supremacy won this time, we have to get a lot more specific and a lot more contingent.
My own explanation would begin with legal and institutional change that destroyed the ability of core Democratic constituencies to organize and turn out. The Supreme Court’s dismantling of the Voting Rights Act paved the way for racist voter suppression legislation across the country. Every state that flipped from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016 enacted some policy designed to limit the ability of people of color to get to the polls in the last four years.
Many of those states have also seen the gradual demolition of unions. That effort was spearheaded by Republicans eager to smash the political power of reliably Democratic working class voters, including working class white people. But it was also aided and abetted by Democratic elites, including many long-time Clinton allies like Rahm Emanuel, caught in the throes of privatization-mad neoliberal ideology and mistakenly convinced that centrism and electability are the same thing.
It’s also important to hammer home the failure of the American media during this election cycle. The media spent more time talking about utterly non-scandalous emails found on Anthony Weiner’s computer than about the tape of Trump bragging about sexual assault and the subsequent on-record accusations from a number of different women. They unreflectively perpetuated Trump’s fictitious claims to be a populist, refusing to subject his policy proposals, as few as they were, to a modicum of scrutiny. In their insatiable desire for clicks and for a horserace they failed the nation.
All that being said, it would be irresponsible to let the Clinton campaign off the hook. They made almost every single strategic decision incorrectly during the general election campaign. No one who held a position above field organizer in this campaign should ever be able to work in politics again. Every time a scandal arose, they blamed Russian interference instead of providing an explanation or an apology in terms that would resonate with voters outside of liberal Twitter. They inexplicably welcomed the support of America’s extremely unpopular foreign policy establishment, from Henry Kissinger to Bush administration neoconservatives.
Even after a remarkably close call in the primary campaign against Bernie Sanders, the Clinton campaign, despite their highly touted reliance on data, ignored the empirical evidence and concluded that his message resonated only among far-left, reliably Democratic voters, and therefore failed to emphasize any of his most successful talking points in the general election. With Sanders voters purportedly in the bag no matter what, Clinton neglected the Rust Belt, ignoring Wisconsin entirely after April and, except for a last-minute appearance with LeBron James, largely ignoring Ohio down the stretch as well.
According to exit polling, Trump cleaned up among voters who said that they thought the economy was rigged to benefit elites. This is a man who pledged the largest tax cuts for the wealthy in US history during the campaign. The voters who swung the election to Trump were not the Nazis who had been in his camp since day one. The reason those Nazis are now celebrating across the country is because Clinton couldn’t seal the deal with millions of people who voted for Obama in 2012 and decided for Trump in the last week of this year’s campaign because at the end of the day, it was Clinton who reminded them more of Mitt Romney than Trump.
And yet, despite all of this, she won the popular vote. Most voters actually chose to repudiate Trump. To understand why he nonetheless scraped out a razor-thin margin of victory, we have to abandon our grand narratives, stop treating his win as retrospectively inevitable, and identify the details of the system’s failure. If we want to prevent Trump and his white supremacist base from winning next time, we have to figure out everything that went wrong, from our state legislatures to our newspapers to the Democratic Party, and work to rectify it. Throwing in the towel and resting on our moral superiority is not an option.