The primal scream and what it means

    Supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump cheer as they watch election returns during an election night rally

    Supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump cheer as they watch election returns during an election night rally

    Writing on Monday about the threat of authoritarianism, I concluded: “Yes, it can indeed happen here. That future is down the dark path at the fork in the road. If we take it, we own it.”

    Well, now we own it.

    Of course, I didn’t think it would happen. I was wrong. And if it’s true what they say, that misery loves company, well, I have plenty of it.

    Cue the smartest Republican strategists. Nicole Wallace, who foresaw an easy Hillary Clinton win, said last night, “I was wrong.” Steve Schmidt said, “I was wrong.” Mike Murphy said, “I could not have been more wrong.”

    Cue the historians. Kevin Kruse said, “I just didn’t see this coming.” David Greenberg said, “I am in a state of shock and don’t know where to begin thinking about this …. This makes me sick to my stomach.”

    Cue David Plouffe, the guy who guided Barack Obama to two decisive victories: “Never been as wrong on anything in my life. But sobriety about what happened tonight is essential.”

    Sobriety, huh? OK, I’ll give it a try.

    Clinton had the money, the ads, the turnout game, the Hispanic surge, the long arc of history. But one half of this profoundly divided nation summoned a primal scream for the ages, giving the middle finger to the established political order; to the “elites”; to those who believe and practice racial, sexual, gender, and ethnic diversity; to those in the media whose mission is to separate fact from fiction. On behalf of a con man with no qualifications.

    We’ve truly gone through the looking glass. This is a repugnant milestone in the history of this nation, but that middle finger is real and warrants our full attention.

    History has twisted on its axis. The assumed ascent of the first woman president has been subsumed by a red tide that threatens to sweep away Obamacare (what happens to the people who gained coverage?), the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the prospects of a progressive Supreme Court for another generation … the list is endless. There is much we don’t know — the reality TV star who rode to power on a cult of (damaged) personality, who has never served a day of public service, is notoriously light on policy — but we can say, with sufficient certitude, that tens of millions of citizens, starting with Muslim-Americans, will spend the foreseeable future feeling terrified.

    Much of this week will be devoted to sifting the ashes and trying to fathom how this happened. For starters, what all the polls — and those of us who parsed what we believe to be the most credible, respected polls — clearly missed, in retrospect, was the dark depth of white rage, what commentator Van Jones last night called “the whitelash.”

    If the whitelash had been confined to the rural towns, Trump would’ve lost. But according to the latest national exit polls, he won the suburbs by five percentage points. (He won Pennsylvania, the first GOP victor since 1988, in part because he overperformed in suburban counties like Bucks.) And if the whitelash had been confined to the under-educated voters, Trump would’ve lost. But he won white college graduates by four points.

    Did Clinton lose because she was a woman? To what extent was she doomed by misogyny? I’m being lobbied to buy that argument. But it’s not that simple. Yeah, Trump won male voters – but his share (53 percent) was just one point higher than Mitt Romney’s in 2012. President Obama beat Romney among women voters by a margin of 11 points; last night, Clinton widened that margin by a grand total of one point. Wrap your head around this: Forty-two percent of women nationwide voted for a man who boasts about sexually assaulting women; who was hit with groping/molesting accusations by at least a dozen women; who was known to walk in on underage girls while they dressed; who said at one point that women who get abortions should be punished.

    Did “the media” create Trump and give him oxygen? Again, it’s not that simple. Cable TV in particular beamed his every utterance during the primary season, but if his message hadn’t steadily resonated, cable would’ve pulled the plug. More importantly, the mainsteam media for much of this year performed admirably – digging into Trump’s various cons and frauds – with The Washington Post leading the way. But we live now in a fractured media universe, and Trump’s voters simply don’t heed or read the mainstream outlets.

    What’s clearest — if we can believe the exit stats — is that this election was basically a backlash against Clinton (and, more generally, against the Clintons and the politics-as-usual that they apparently represent). Fifty three percent of Clinton voters said they “strongly favored” their candidate; only 42 percent of Trump voters felt that way about their guy. But 51 percent of Trump voters said their strongest motivation was “dislike” of his opponent. Fairly or not, Clinton had too much baggage. Which makes me wonder what Joe Biden is thinking right now.

    One other thing. When a Democrat loses a state like Wisconsin — for the first time since 1984 — it’s proof anew that the party has lost its ancestral ties to the Rustbelt worker. Several generations ago, the Democrats were known as “the party of the working man.” But Trump was able to exploit the blue-collar anger about stagnant incomes and the exodus of jobs. (Whether Trump can actually bring back those jobs is, of course, a total mystery.) Clinton failed to speak to and for those people. Democrats haven’t spoken for those people in many years, and last night paid the highest price.

    And a cruel irony: Clinton may well wind up winning the popular vote, but if you deem that a nice consolation prize, consult President Gore. What it means, all it means at this moment, is that nearly 60 million Americans feel less connected to their country, less proud of their country, and more fearful than ever before that the democratic values they hold dear are imperiled.

    Elections have consequences. None are more profound than those we’ll soon experience.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Help us get to 100% of our membership goal to support the reporters covering our region, the producers bringing you great local programs and the educators who teach all our children.