Obama promised solutions but let the people down. Is it any surprise that they voted for real change?
Donald Trump supporters stand for the national anthem during a ‘Make America Great Again’ concert in Washington last month. Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP
Amid the ongoing protests against President Trump, calls for “resistance” among Democratic politicians and activists, and the overheated rhetoric casting Trump and his supporters as fascists and xenophobes, an outsider might be forgiven for thinking that America has been taken over by a small faction of rightwing nationalists.
America is deeply divided, but it’s not divided between fascists and Democrats. It’s more accurate to say that America is divided between the elites and everybody else, and Trump’s election was a rejection of the elites.
That’s not to say plenty of Democrats and progressives don’t vehemently oppose Trump. But the crowds of demonstrators share something in common with our political and media elites: they still don’t understand how Trump got elected, or why millions of Americans continue to support him. Even now, recent polls show that more Americans support Trump’s executive order on immigration than oppose it, but you wouldn’t know it based on the media coverage.
Support for Trump’s travel ban, indeed his entire agenda for immigration reform, is precisely the sort of thing mainstream media, concentrated in urban enclaves along our coasts, has trouble comprehending. The fact is, many Americans who voted for Trump, especially those in suburban and rural areas across the heartland and the south, have long felt disconnected from the institutions that govern them. On immigration and trade, the issues that propelled Trump to the White House, they want the status quo to change.
During his first two weeks in office, whenever Trump has done something that leaves political and media elites aghast, his supporters cheer. They like that he told Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto he might have to send troops across the border to stop “bad hombres down there”. They like that he threatened to pull out of an Obama-era deal to accept thousands of refugees Australia refuses to admit. They want him to dismantle Dodd-Frank financial regulations for Wall Street and rethink US trade deals. This is why they voted for him.
The failure to understand why these measures are popular with millions of Americans stems from a deep sense of disconnection in American society that didn’t begin with Trump or the 2016 election. For years, millions of voters have felt left behind by an economic recovery that largely excluded them, a culture that scoffed at their beliefs and a government that promised change but failed to deliver.
Nowhere is this disconnection more palpable than in the American midwest, in places such as Akron, a small city in northeast Ohio nestled along a bend in the Little Cuyahoga river. Its downtown boasts clean and pleasant streets, a minor league baseball park, bustling cafes and a lively university. The people are friendly and open, as midwesterners tend to be. In many ways, it’s an idyllic American town.
Except for the heroin. Like many suburban and rural communities across the country, Akron is in the grip of a deadly heroin epidemic. Last summer, a batch of heroin cut with a synthetic painkiller called carfentanil, an elephant tranquilliser, turned up in the city. Twenty-one people overdosed in a single day. Over the ensuing weeks, 300 more would overdose. Dozens would die.
The heroin epidemic is playing out against a backdrop of industrial decline. At one time, Akron was a manufacturing hub, home to four major tyre companies and a rising middle class. Today, most of that is gone. The tyre factories have long since moved overseas and the city’s population has been steadily shrinking since the 1960s. This is what Trump was talking about when he spoke of “American carnage” in his inaugural address.
Akron is not unique. Cities and towns across America’s rust belt, Appalachia and the deep south are in a state of gradual decline. Many of these places have long been Democratic strongholds, undergirded by once-robust unions.
On election day, millions of Democrats who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 cast their votes for Trump. In those earlier elections, these blue-collar Democrats were voting for change, hoping Obama would prioritise the needs of working Americans over the elites and special interests concentrated in Washington DC and Wall Street.
For many Americans, Hillary Clinton personified the corruption and self-dealing of the elites. But Trump’s election wasn’t just a rejection of Clinton, it was a rejection of politics as usual. If the media and political establishment see Trump’s first couple of weeks in office as a whirlwind of chaos and incompetence, his supporters see an outsider taking on a sclerotic system that needs to be dismantled. That’s precisely what many Americans thought they were doing eight years ago, when they put a freshman senator from Illinois in the White House. Obama promised a new way of governing – he would be a “post-partisan” president, he would “fundamentally transform” the country, he would look out for the middle class. In the throes of the great recession, that resonated. Something was clearly wrong with our political system and the American people wanted someone to fix it.
After all, the Tea Party didn’t begin as a reaction against Obama’s presidency but that of George W Bush. As far as most Americans were concerned, the financial crisis was brought on by the excesses of Wall Street bankers and the incompetency of our political leaders. Before the Tea Party coalesced into a political movement, the protesters weren’t just traditional conservatives who cared about limited government and the constitution. They were, for the most part, ordinary Americans who felt the system was rigged against them and they wanted change.
But change didn’t come. What they got was more of the same. Obama offered a series of massive government programmes, from an $830bn financial stimulus, to the Affordable Care Act, to Dodd-Frank, none of which did much to assuage the economic anxieties of the middle class. Americans watched as the federal government bailed out the banks, then the auto industry and then passed healthcare reform that transferred billions of taxpayer dollars to major health insurance companies. Meanwhile, premiums went up, economic recovery remained sluggish and millions dropped out of the workforce and turned to food stamps and welfare programmes just to get by. Americans asked themselves: “Where’s my bailout?”
At the same time, they saw the world becoming more unstable. Part of Obama’s appeal was that he promised to end the unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, restore America’s standing in the international community and pursue multilateral agreements that would bring stability. Instead, Americans watched Isis step into the vacuum created by the US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011. They watched the Syrian civil war trigger a migrant crisis in Europe that many Americans now view as a cautionary tale. At home, Isis-inspired terrorist attacks took their toll, as they did in Europe. And all the while Obama’s White House insisted that everything was going well.
Amid all this, along came Trump. Here was a rough character, a boisterous celebrity billionaire with an axe to grind. He had palpable disdain for both political parties, which he said had failed the American people. He showed contempt for political correctness that was strangling public debate over contentious issues such as terrorism. He struck many of the same populist notes, both in his campaign and in his recent inaugural address, that Senator Bernie Sanders did among his young socialist acolytes, sometimes word for word.
In many ways, Trump’s agenda isn’t partisan in a recognisable way – especially on trade. Almost immediately after taking office, Trump made good on a promise that Sanders also made, pulling the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and proclaiming an end to multilateral trade deals. He also threatened US companies with a “border tax” if they move jobs overseas. These are not traditional Republican positions but they do appeal to American workers who have watched employers pull out of their communities and ship jobs overseas.
Many traditional Republicans have always been uncomfortable with Trump. They fundamentally disagree with his positions on trade and immigration. Even now, congressional Republicans are revolting over Trump’s proposed border wall, promising to block any new expenditures for it. They’re also uncomfortable with Trump personally. For some Republicans, it was only Trump’s promise to nominate a conservative supreme court justice to replace Justice Antonin Scalia that won their votes in the end – a promise Trump honoured last week by nominating Judge Neil Gorsuch, a judge very much in Scalia’s mould.
Once Trump won the nomination at the Republican national convention, most Republican voters got on board, reasoning that whatever uncertainty they had about Trump, the alternative – Clinton – was worse.
In many ways, the 2016 election wasn’t just a referendum on Obama’s eight years in the White House, it was a rejection of the entire political system that gave us Iraq, the financial crisis, a botched healthcare law and shocking income inequality during a slow economic recovery. From Akron to Alaska, millions of Americans had simply lost confidence in their leaders and the institutions that were supposed to serve them. In their desperation, they turned to a man who had no regard for the elites – and no use for them.
In his inaugural address, Trump said: “Today, we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another or from one party to another, but we are transferring power from Washington, DC, and giving it back to you, the people.” To be sure, populism of this kind can be dangerous and unpredictable, But it doesn’t arise from nowhere. Only a corrupt political establishment could have provoked a political revolt of this scale. Instead of blaming Trump’s rise on racism or xenophobia, blame it on those who never saw this coming and still don’t understand why so many Americans would rather have Donald Trump in the White House than suffer the rule of their elites.