Like many other NYU Shanghai students, I sat in the second floor café on the afternoon of Nov. 9 watching the U.S. election unfold. I would be lying if I said I was not at least a little surprised by the outcome. I figured the election would be closer than many had predicted, but still in Clinton’s favor. Perhaps it was my cynicism that when populist and establishment forces are pitted against each other, the establishment usually wins. I was wrong. The mainstream media was wrong. Most pollsters were also wrong. I guess I should have paid more attention to the word “usually,” and recognized that such sentiment only applies in times when Jeb Bush would have won the Republican primary or when Hillary Clinton would not have been given a run for her money by a 74-year-old socialist from Vermont. These are certainly interesting times we live in, though I’m not so sure it’s the good kind of interesting.
Donald Trump’s victory surprised me but did not shock me like it did many people at our school. The post-election statistics have only made his win even more understandable. To be clear, I get the shock of non-Americans to Trump’s victory. His appeal, much like all nationalist politicians, is unique to his own country, and even then, half the people despise him. It’s the utter disbelief of many American students that concerns me, not because they do not have a right to be shocked that a racist xenophobe made it to the White House, but because the underlying causes of his victory seem to escape them. There is no doubt that racism and sexism played some role in the election, but they were not the primary causes. Donald Trump’s victory can largely be attributed to the economic struggles of the white working class, the disdain of political elites, and a push back against political correctness. These are by no means the only factors at play, but I do believe they played a central role in his victory.
For years President Obama has touted how well the economic recovery has progressed under his administration, but for many white working-class voters, this message rang hollow. Unemployment may be at its lowest level in years, but so is the labor force participation rate. In other words, many people have simply given up looking for work. Manufacturing jobs, which employed millions of white working-class voters, have flocked overseas because of cheaper labor costs. The jobs that have replaced them are largely in the service and retail sectors and pay far less than the old factory jobs. Trump catered his message specifically to those voters who felt left behind because of globalization. He talked about slapping tariffs on American companies who produced their products overseas and railed against free trade deals that many in the working class blame for their plight. For the first time in a long time, many working-class voters felt they had a someone who understood their struggles.
Hearing Trump accurately describe their economic situation accurately only intensified the resentment of political elites by these voters. When you have working-class communities filled with only low-paying jobs, being ravaged by the opioid epidemic, and lacking educational opportunities, going on television and touting the “recovery” did the President, Secretary Clinton, and their party no favors. They were simply painting a picture of America’s economy that did not represent the reality for many voters. As much as Clinton tried to frame her campaign as ‘historic,’ she could not escape the fact that it was anything but. In fact, her gender was the only thing historic about her campaign. She is the epitome of a career politician who holds few concrete positions on hardly any issue. While Trump may have made simplistic, uninformed policy proposals (i.e. the border wall), he at least made them. Clinton spent most of her time attacking Trump rather than articulating specific ideas about the economic or foreign policy. The fact that she released a book of policy proposals is irrelevant. When you are a presidential nominee, it is your job to articulate those ideas to the public and Secretary Clinton failed miserably at that task.
The Democratic Party wrongly assumed that the nation’s demographics were already on their side. They thought that they could win simply by appealing to minorities, east and west coast liberals, and millennials. What they did not consider was that the white working-class still makes up a large swath of the electorate and ignoring their problems, combined with Donald Trump’s appealing message, motivated them to vote in droves. Part of the reason why almost no pollster predicted his victory was because his voters truly were the silent majority. Many of them did not want to admit that they were voting for him. And who could blame them? Secretary Clinton, while she later recanted it, once referred to half of Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables,” destroying any chance she may have had to gain their support. I may not agree with Trump, but I know a lot of people who voted for him. They are not deplorable people. The vast majority voted for him in spite of all his racist, sexist, and xenophobic comments. They voted for him because he represented an opportunity to burn the corrupt political and economic system to the ground, and I think that’s a sentiment a lot of voters have long desired.
In an age when many of those voters felt that the constraints of political correctness prevented them from speaking their mind about their struggles and their political views, going to the ballot box was the silent way of voicing their frustration. I, along with many others, may never fully understand the nostalgia of many Americans for the past and all its injustices. Or why people do not realize that all the manufacturing jobs are never coming back. But that’s missing the point. When it comes to politics, there is very little that is clearly black and white. Most issues are more nuanced. Seldom is there a single cause to a problem. To ascribe what happened on election night solely to racism, sexism, xenophobia, or identity politics would be the easy answer, but not the right answer. As much as we might want it to be, things are not that simple. It was a combination of all those things and much, much more. It would be great if we could all shout our way to progress. If we did not need to waste our time debating with the so-called ‘deplorables.’ If only we could just simply tell all those who think racism is not a problem in America to check their privilege and they would suddenly become ‘woke.’ But things are not that simple. ‘Check your privilege’ is nothing more than a brash insult to those who feel they have none. When issues like the decline in life expectancy for middle-aged whites, wage stagnancy, and lack of good employment, in general, are ignored or brushed off with the “when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression” trope, people are buying into the notion that two wrongs, or many in this case, make a right. That kind of attitude will only set the country backward, not forward.
As much as I despise almost everything Trump stands for, I wish him all the best. To wish him failure, before he even takes office and enacts his agenda, would be to wish for the failure of the country. That I simply cannot do. Going forward, I hope politicians take the Bernie Sanders approach, which is “to the degree that Mr. Trump is serious about pursuing policies that improve the lives of working families in this country, I and other progressives are prepared to work with him. To the degree that he pursues racist, sexist, xenophobic, and anti-environment policies, we will vigorously oppose him.” To echo that sentiment, especially in the wake of all these terrible post-election incidents, never forget to fight for what is right. Never stop fighting for what you believe in. But also remember to talk to the other side. Do not let hate win by refusing to engage with it. The moment you make certain things off limits to discussion, the moment you start limiting how things are said, and the moment outrage replaces rational opposition, is the moment you have lost all interest in having meaningful dialogue about pretty much anything. That is what leads to people considering, even against their own best judgment, brushing off the outrageous statements of a billionaire con-man so that on election day they can cast a vote that lets out a primal scream for recognition. They did it once, and they can do it again. Better we learn the right lessons sooner rather than later.