Donald J. Trump’s victory in the 2016 US election shocked both that country and the rest of the world. It will no doubt become an I-remember-when moment in history not unlike the Kennedy assassination, the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the 9/11 terrorist attack.
In the 24 hours after Trump’s victory, politicians, pundits, scholars, talk-show hosts, and ordinary people struggled to understand his unlikely victory. A stunned Stephen Colbert decided we had overdosed on politics. The New York Times pointed to Trump’s appeal to poorly educated white voters, but also wondered about the influence of Russian officials. Neil J. Young and others noted that exit polls showed that 81 percent of white evangelicals had voted for Trump. In the New Statesman, Maya Goodfellow denounced the Trump victory as a racist “whitelash”, while in The Guardian, various commentators pointed to misogyny as a force in the election. And Charles Camosy of Fordham University, writing in The Washington Post, declared that the Trump win demonstrated that college-educated Americans are out of touch with average voters.
While most of us were shocked by Donald Trump’s election to the American presidency, there were warnings throughout 2016. Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times confessed liberal intolerance in the university world. Mark Danner pondered the magic of Trump in The New York Review of Books. Chris Hedges predicted the revenge of the lower classes for truthdig. And Emmett Rensin exegeted the smugness of American liberalism online at Vox Media. No doubt there were many others of equal perspicacity.
The Richard Rorty Explanation
I want to suggest that the Trump victory is the result of a two-part revolt, clairvoyently outlined eighteen years ago by philosopher Richard Rorty, in his book Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998). In the wake of the election results, my fellow historian Richard Steigmann-Gall posted a reminder about Rorty’s work on social media, which prompted me to take a richly rewarded closer look.
Achieving Our Country is about political philosophy—the way in which political campaigns are competitions “between differing stories about a nation’s self-identity, and between differing symbols of its greatness.” (4) Once upon a time, Rorty suggests, the American Left forged an alliance between intellectuals and the working class by offering a powerful vision of hope and progress in which America was becoming a cooperative commonwealth of equal opportunity and equal liberty for all. In the 1960s, however, this alliance disintegrated, as leftist “cultural politics” replaced “real politics.” (14) The Right followed the same path, joining the Left in placing cultural politics at the centre of public debate.
In particular, Rorty asserts that the Vietnam War ushered in a spirit of disillusionment, a suspicion that the Left’s hopeful vision of America was “unachievable,” that the United States was “a nation conceived in sin, and irredeemable.” (38) He laments that, “in America, at the end of the twentieth century, few inspiring images and stories are being proffered,” and identifies a variety of negative (and competing) conceptions of American identity: 1) “simpleminded militaristic chauvinism,” 2) national shame “written in tones either of self-mockery or self-disgust,” and 3) pessimism linked to “the widespread belief that giant corporations, and a shadowy behind-the-scenes government acting as an agent for the corporations, now make all the important decisions.” (4-5)
Most importantly, as Rorty analyzed the way in which the politics of the American Left abandoned the working class and its “real politics” for the intellectual elite and its cultural politics, he described (we might even say “prophesied”) the kind of two-part revolt that characterized the 2016 US presidential election. Referencing interwar Germany, Rorty wrote:
Many writers on socioeconomic policy have warned that the old industrialized democracies are heading into a Weimar-like period, one in which populist movements are likely to overturn constitutional governments. Edward Luttwak, for example, has suggested that fascism may be the American future. The point of his book The Endangered American Dream is that members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers—themselves desperately afraid of being downsized—are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.
At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. A scenario like that of Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here may then be played out. For once a strongman takes office, nobody can predict what will happen. In 1932, most of the predictions made about what would happen if Hindenburg named Hitler chancellor were wildly overoptimistic.
One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. The words “nigger” and “kike” will once again be heard in the workplace. All the sadism which the academic Left has tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet. (89-90)
Political and Economic Revolt
I would argue that Rorty’s account largely captures the two aspects of a voter revolt that elevated Trump to the presidency. Part one of the voter revolt revolves around economics, in particular the effects of deregulation, free trade, and the export of industrial jobs which took place chiefly in the 1980s and 1990s. In the wake of this deindustrialization of the American heartland, the political and economic elites within the Democratic and Republican parties failed to adequately listen to or represent the interests of the working class (or even, in many respects, the middle class) as the income gap in America exploded. Then, by dabbling irresponsibly in mortgage-backed securities and offering dangerous subprime mortgages, those same political and economic elites triggered the 2008 recession, producing home foreclosures and personal bankruptcies across the nation, as housing prices slumped and many Americans could no longer afford their homes.
These events dominated the first term of Barack Obama’s presidency, fuelling the Occupy Movement on the Left and the Tea Party on the Right. In the run up to the 2016 presidential election, they drove the emotion-laden campaigns of Bernie Sanders on the Left and Donald Trump on the Right. Both were revolts against the political and economic elites who were seen to be operating the American government and economy on behalf of Wall Street investors. On the Left, the Democratic establishment worked hard (and, some would say, unfairly) to defeat Sanders and promote Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee for president. Symbolized by her secret and lucrative Goldman Sachs speeches, she has been judged to have been in bed with that same political and economic elite. This explains in no small measure (along with her gender) the vitriol directed against her—the visceral hatred poured out in chants of “Lock her up!” at Donald Trump’s rallies.
In this context, voters saw in Trump an independent man determined to tear down the political and economic establishment, even though (ironically) he himself embodies this system. The charges of his habitual practice of defrauding investors, contractors, and employees; his ongoing practice of outsourcing manufacturing and employing undocumented foreign workers; his steadfast refusal to declare his foreign business interests; his repeated bankruptcies; his shamelessly extravagant lifestyle; his personal ungenerosity; his pride about evading income taxes on his exorbitant earnings—none of these or other related scandals mattered to the voters who believed his promises to take down the system, launch a criminal investigation against Hillary, and restore lost jobs for working class Americans in communities across the land.
Cultural and Intellectual Revolt
The second aspect of voter revolt captured in Richard Rorty’s account is cultural and intellectual. Here the long-term equivalent to deindustrialization and the subprime crisis would be the abortion debate launched by the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision and the powerful campaign for the recognition of non-heterosexual political rights and cultural recognition. Both pitted traditionally-minded Americans now described chiefly but inaccurately by the political term “Evangelical” against a cultural and intellectual elite centred in the entertainment industry and the universities. In the case of the abortion debate, the controversies around the Planned Parenthood organization are only one illustration among many of the deep divide between an urban, “progressive” vanguard and a rural, backward, and unenlightened “minority.” When it comes to sexual politics, the long-running normalization of non-heterosexuality on television, in film, in fashion, and throughout the media has been coupled with more recent cases in which traditionally-minded Americans feel attacked, whether through the creation of transgender bathrooms, changes to school curricula, or demands to do business in ways that promote an expanded notion of sexual equality but disturb the consciences of business people.
Given the centrality of cultural politics to public debate, à la Rorty, these issues cemented socially conservative Americans to the Republican Party and in particular to the candidacy of Donald Trump. In this context, voters saw in Trump an independent man who refused to bow to political correctness. Rather, he was praised for “speaking his mind.” The charges of sexual harassment or assault against him; his lewd boasts of sexual predation recorded on the “Access Hollywood” bus; his leering presence among teenaged beauty pageant contestants; his encoded masculine swagger about the size of his “hands”; his characterization of Mexicans as rapists; his attacks on the physical appearances of a former Miss Universe, of political rivals or their wives, and of reporters; his crude reference to the menstruation of debate moderator Megyn Kelly; his association with Playboy; his widely-reported extramarital affairs; his divorces; his deluge of insults and name-calling; his habitual lying and fundamental dishonesty; his mocking of a disabled reporter; his pride at never having asked for forgiveness; his ignorance of the Bible; his racism and antisemitism; his attacks against Islam and Muslims, including the parents of a fallen American soldier; his mockery of John McCain’s military record; his encouragement of political violence against protesters attending his rallies; his suggestion that gun-owners could act against Hillary Clinton—none of these or other related moral outrages mattered to voters who believed his promises to stand up for “religious liberty” and traditional gender relations, to oppose abortion, and to appoint conservative Supreme Court justices who will preserve these same positions.
As importantly, perhaps, social conservatives were galvanized around their abhorrence of Hillary Clinton and her politics. Bill Clinton’s moral failings became more important than Donald Trump’s. Hillary’s political experience became a liability rather than a sign of expertise. Her email blunders were taken as evidence of a pattern of secrecy and assumed corruption. And when she called Trump supporters a “basket of deplorables,” they embraced it with pride as an identification of their opposition to the cultural and intellectual elite. One suspects that the diatribes of the late-night talk show crowd had a similar effect.
Whatever else it was, Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 US presidential election was the product of this two-part voter revolt against the American establishment. It is not the decision for a new party. It is the call for a new system.
For more, see “After the Trumpocalypse: What Should We Expect Now?“