Democracy & Government

Rage, Heard and Unheard

How did we get here? What’s clear is that, in a 50-50 election, little things mean a lot.

Rage, Heard and Unheard
Hillary Clinton supporters weep while listening to her concession speech

Staffers and supporters react as Hillary Clinton concedes the presidential election on Wednesday in New York City. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Karl Rove, who on Oct. 23 told Fox News that Trump’s poll numbers were so bad he was very likely to lose, during the pitch-dark night of Nov. 8 said in passing (again to Fox News, who else?) that Trump had been given a big boost by the news media. About that he was right, of course. Fox played no small part in talking up Donald Trump, ignoramus, bully and business fraud, as a plausible president. As Rove didn’t say, the mainstream media never ceased beating up on Hillary Clinton, creating and inflaming the impression that she was a criminal awaiting indictment. This tissue of smears they were already waving around in the ‘90s. I defy anyone to remember the ostensible crimes committed by the Clintons in a development project called Whitewater, which for years was made to appear the Ozarks equivalent of Watergate and subjected to investigation after headline after investigation, none of which — none of which — ever resulted in any charges that stuck.

Trump played the entertainment world like a cheap fiddle.

Never mind. Hillary = Whitewater. Hillary = Travelgate. (Anyone remember that one?) Hillary murdered Vince Foster. These were the lunatic troughs at which Republicans fed. Pressed onward by Republican politicians thinking that if they held enough investigations they could eventually dredge up a crime; by Fox itself, and by the right’s radio and internet shouters from Rush Limbaugh on down into the gutter of Matt Drudge, Sean Hannity and eventually Breitbart & Co., the mainstream media promoted a Hillary story. Eventually, they were able to saddle her with the scarlet A as well: adultery, expediter of.

As for Trump, he made his way through a bright career as media darling. During his decades playing at glitz and bravado, Trump played the entertainment world like a cheap fiddle. First came his rebranded hotels and gaudy Manhattan tower, then the tabloids’ front pages and gossip columns, then his best-selling ghostwritten books. Once he was a Name, everything he did was newsworthy because, well, he was a Name. His brand so established, he fastened it onto the gargantuan casinos that soon enough he drove into the ground, but never mind. Then there was Howard Stern and a national audience, then reality television and a much bigger national audience. He was a magnate of leisure, a brander of golf courses and hotels that he neither built nor owned; and so eventually he could arrive as a superstar, a one-man spectacle, a sure deliveryman of eyeballs and eardrums, not only holding the corporate fun world enthralled but shoving his way into the precincts of the spellbound, fact-unencumbered news. By promoting the falsehood that Barack Obama was Kenya-born, he could muscle his way to the front of the Republican line.

 
The bass music of the campaign

By 2015, in a crowd of far less entertaining rivals, he could be counted on to put up “beautiful walls” of insults. It was exciting, the way he swatted away pesky journalists like so many buzzing flies. He turned the primary season into an extreme sport. Shouting at enemies enlivened him as it enlivened the ranks of his followers, looking for plausible targets to hate. So did the compiling of enemies lists. What Trump said did not have to be true to win applause; his anger was true. Crowds lapped up his viciousness. They didn’t have to agree with him exactly about NAFTA or dangerous immigrants or crime statistics, but they knew that they were mad. You did not have to understand the words, but his anger was the bass music of his campaign. Even listeners who hadn’t started out in such a dark place were tempted to plunge into the inky waters where conspiracies lurked and Donald Trump was their spokesman to insinuate who was thwarting them.

Out on the road, Trump was good for more than bombast. He channeled the dark arts of scapegoating. Some of his followers were already vulnerable to rages of spoiled nationalism. Some were displaced workers seeing Rust Belt dispossession around them. Some, more prosperous and better educated, were also flooded with resentment that they were willing to direct against dark-skinned invaders. Some were professional haters — white supremacists, nativists, anti-Semites, the scum of the earth. They could all agree that Washington was enemy territory and that snotty Eastern elites ran the media and frowned on authentic American ways. Trump encouraged them to funnel their fury against China and Mexico (occasionally, in a back-to-the-‘80s mood, Japan) and their putative enablers in Washington. If they didn’t already feel cheated, Trump knew how to inflame them against enemies.

 
Misogyny’s conundrum

Hillary Clinton did not. People will forever debate whether Bernie Sanders might have been able to stoke and channel the rage of the white working class. Possibly Joe Biden might have been able to do it. But what is clear is that Clinton did not approach the white dispossessed with a desire to stoke and channel their furies. A fire to change the world and torch the culprits did not burn in the mind of Hillary Clinton. Passionate morals she had aplenty — the fruit of her Methodist youth — but in the course of three decades in Washington politics she grew easy with the Goldman Sachs and Henry Kissingers of the world. I have no doubt that, in the White House, she would have tacked between Sanders-Warren progressives and Wall Street suits. Under Bernie Sanders’ unwelcome tutelage, she learned to sound more populist. But she could never get the music right. She wasn’t a natural.

Nor could Clinton find it in herself to promote the one social institution that might actually tamp down racial animosity and make a big difference in the lives of the white (and not only white) working class: trade unions. Labor was not her cause. Since the ‘70s, when labor found itself squeezed into submission by rejuvenated capital, the Democrats have enjoyed two two-term presidencies. But neither Bill Clinton nor Barack Obama, for all their virtues, lit fires for labor. Neither ever urged workers to join unions, or walked picket lines with them, or declared that they were the salt of the earth. Both tried, at times, to do right by identity politics without being swallowed by it. Both improved the National Labor Relations Board. Neither thought they should promote unions. Trump didn’t especially like unions either, but at least he was mad as hell.

Hillary was not mad as hell.

This was the largely unnoticed story beneath her campaign’s failure.

Yet even had she been able, somehow, to impersonate class anger, to offer herself up as a righteous Joan of Arc — had she rattled the arenas with sharp accusations against the financial overlords who melted down the global economy and left hordes of people literally dispossessed — she would have been reviled. Because she is female. She would have been declared shrill and overbearing. She would have earlier become the “nasty woman” that Trump eventually labeled her. So while she could identify with suffering people of color, and promote diversity, and invoke American becoming “stronger together,” there was no theme in her pudding. She said she would fight for the common people but she didn’t sound like the fighter they were waiting for. She could not rail against the bankers who had made out like bandits. She was too comfortable with them. They had become too much of her world. Not least, she coveted their money to run her kind of campaign. But Donald Trump, the rogue oligarch, could rail — and did. Reporters might sneer and pooh-pooh, but Trump’s people thought he was their kind of strongman.

Hillary Clinton won the popular vote.

But that wasn’t all that happened. At this writing, with 99 percent of the precincts reporting, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by a margin of 202,430 out of about 126 million cast. But neither Clinton, who won the popular election, nor Trump, who won the presidency thanks to the Electoral College, appear to have racked up as many votes as Mitt Romney did in 2012, when he lost. Clinton did not light fires where she needed to — in Rust Belt Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan, or in Wisconsin. Trump had his anger buttons to push on — they would turn out his people. In those states, Clinton needed an electorate of her own that was “fired up and ready to go.”

 
The intruders

And here is where, for all Trump’s unforced errors, three major intrusions played a part in undermining Clinton campaign:

  • First, she had to contend with a relentless campaign in Republican states to suppress her vote by rolling back the Voting Rights Act. With 30 of the 50 states Republican-controlled, the insults these states could offer to Democratic-minded constituents were legion. Once again crazed charges of “voter fraud” were the stuff of everyday news and Twitter blasts. Once again routine, legal voter suppression was a ho-hum.
  • Second, she was besieged by the Putin-Assange campaign to damage the Democrats by pirating the emails of the Democratic National Committee and spilling them out day after day, steadily piling up headlines. Surely these releases of information demoralized unreconciled Bernie Sanders supporters. Surely they inflamed her reputation as a Goldman Sachs stooge. Surely Russian President Vladimir Putin and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange wanted to see her destroyed. Surely they helped.
  • Third, and probably not least, she had to contend with the outrage of James Comey’s Oct. 28 letter, released a week and a half before Election Day, saying that he needed to investigate some documents whose contents he had not even looked at — had not even been granted a warrant to look at. When Comey intruded into American politics and brought joy to the hearts of anti-Clinton crusaders in the FBI and their Republican allies in Congress, he resurrected J. Edgar Hoover, the master manipulator who held American politics in a vise for decades by blackmailing presidents, suppressing and surveilling dissidents.

Just how important were these intrusions? We don’t know. We’ll never know. Polls suggested that Comey’s intrusion in particular didn’t change votes, but those polls are now understood to have been fatally tainted. The rate of non-responses has become so high that pollsters now regularly resort to tinkering with their results in order to compensate. To get what they consider to be a more defensible result, they use their idiosyncratic judgments to weight the empirical numbers differently. This is not a sinister development, but it is a feckless one. Another word for it is guesswork. So don’t look for numbers to tell you how much difference Comey made state by state.

Doubts will remain. What’s clear is that, in a 50-50 election, little things mean a lot. Any one of a number of factors could move the statewide numbers. These intrusions were not so little. They compounded the weaknesses in Hillary Clinton’s campaign and helped leave us shellshocked.

 
Now what?

But the overriding signal that breaks through — at least deserves to break through — from the clouds of campaign noise: 48 percent of the voters opted for Donald Trump. These people insist on being taken seriously. Among them are millions of people who feel — not altogether as unregenerate racists, not altogether as lunatics — unrepresented. They were so exasperated, they threw themselves into the fantasy world of the strutting demagogue over the consummate insider, however smart she was. They loathe every institution that they feel takes them for granted, deplores and humiliates them. Their feelings are their feelings. They can be — they often are — rancid. They’re not always justifiable. But sometimes they are.

They dug around in the rubble of an America that hasn’t worked out so nicely for them and unearthed a zombie: the white identity politics that they thought, or prayed, or gambled might work out for them. In a nihilistic, ill-informed and frequently vicious spirit, they cast their protest votes and gave Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and the presidency to Trump.

Damn-it-all protest votes are the seeds of appalling futures. Merely protesting against them is a losing response. They have to be contained. They have to be intelligently won over. The deplorables are for real and they can’t be shouted away. There is no alternative to out-organizing them.

The rest is details.

Todd Gitlin

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in communications at Columbia University. He is the author of 16 books, including several on journalism and politics. His next book is a novel, The Opposition. Follow him on Twitter: @toddgitlin.