Bernie Sanders
Credit: Michael Vadon/Flickr

It pains me to write this because it forces me to admit that my own countrymen let me down. But, looking back, I can see that Trump was able to basically follow the blueprint I created for Bernie Sanders to win the nomination and the presidency. Yes, of course, I would have tweaked the plan a bit if I had been writing it for someone seeking the Republican nomination, but it’s close enough that you’ll be able to recognize it in action.

Writing about Sanders, I noted that he needed to pull from three groups in addition to his natural constituency in places like Madison, Wisconsin. He needed some moderates, some conservatives, and some people who are usually disengaged from politics entirely. Try changing the names Sanders and Hillary to Trump and Jeb, and flipping other words like “Republican” to “Democrat,” “conservative” to “liberal,” and “socialist from Vermont” to “vulgarian from Manhattan.”

If Sanders has a mission, it isn’t to convince the natural constituents of the Democratic Party that they ought to vote for a Democrat. So, if you’re projecting how he’s going to do, you need to evaluate what his prospects for success will be among people who are more conservative or moderate, or who are normally disengaged from the process…To win the overall contest, including the presidency, however, he is going to have to achieve a substantial crossover appeal. If he beats Hillary, he’s going to lose a portion of the Democratic coalition in the process, and he’ll have to make up for it with folks who we don’t normally think of as socialists or liberals.

Some of this deficit can be made up for simply by bringing people into the process who would otherwise have stayed home, but that alone will never be enough. If you think the electorate is so polarized that Bernie can’t change the voting behaviors of very many people, then there’s really not even a conceptual way that he could win. If, on the other hand, you’re willing to wait and see if he can appeal to a broader swath of the electorate like he has consistently done in his home state, then the “white liberal” vote isn’t quite as decisive.

Honestly, a lot of these potential Bernie voters are probably toying with Rand Paul right now. Most of them probably can’t imagine themselves voting for a socialist from Vermont. But substantial parts of his message are really almost tailor-made for these folks. They hate big money in politics, for example, and feel like everyone else has a lobbyist in Washington but them. They hate outsourcing and are suspicious of free trade agreements. They’ve lost faith in both parties and their leaders. They can’t pay their rent or afford college. Their kids are all screwed up on painkillers and are seemingly never going to move out of the house. They’re sick of investing in Afghanistan while American needs get ignored. And they want the blood of some Wall Street bankers.

Bernie Sanders is going to make a lot of sense to these folks, even if they think Hillary Clinton is the devil and are trained to despise liberals.

It hurts to have to acknowledge that Trump succeeded in convincing folks, particularly Obama voters in the rural Midwest, that he would get big money out of politics and do something about the opiate scourge and keep us out of pointless wars and do something about their stagnating economies. But he convinced just enough of them to break through the traditional red/blue polarization, mainly by making red counties much, much redder.

It’s true that his approach, which was nakedly racist, cost him voters in the suburbs. But he won that tradeoff in the places he needed to win it, and he lost it in states where it turned out not to matter.

There are a couple of very important things to draw from this, and I think they’re mostly being forgotten or ignored.

The first is a little better appreciated, which is that it was an antiestablishment year. What’s getting lost is that this was a bipartisan and even an independent revolt against the establishment. It didn’t have a clear left-wing angle to it. In and of themselves, being hostile to war in the Middle East or lusting for the blood of Wall Street bankers are not left-wing attitudes. Disliking government surveillance and distrusting the media are not necessarily left-wing attitudes. These things can be and were melded with racial resentments and religious insecurities. And, in the end, the voters who flipped parties were more conservative in their racial and religious worldview.

If I’d been a little more pessimistic about the American people, I would have recognized the potential for this when I was writing about how Bernie Sanders could go after the George Wallace vote. Looking back, that piece sounds a lot like what you’re seeing Sanders supporters argue today, which is that he could have won over the rural Obama voters and the disengaged voters that Trump grabbed on his road to victory.

We’ll never know the answer to that for sure, but Sanders didn’t perfectly follow my advice in the primaries and never got the chance to follow it in the general. So, it remains little more than a theory, although one that was at least partially proven true by Trump’s success. The part that was verified was that the country isn’t as rigidly red/blue polarized as a lot of people thought.

What I and a lot of other people missed is that the election wouldn’t be won by flipping counties from blue to red, but by making red counties redder than the blue counties turned blue. This was almost like a magic trick in that people didn’t see it coming. Trump would prove the elasticity of the electorate by making it more geographically polarized. The result wasn’t just a surprise result in states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin; it actually hid the secret from those who first started trying to analyze what happened.

Trump won mainly in the same places that McCain and Romney had won, and he mainly lost the places that they had lost. Overall, there was no big differential in turnout. Clinton typically netted close to or even more votes out of the cities, and most often outperformed Obama in the suburbs. In some of the richer better educated counties (see, e.g., the NYC suburbs in Connecticut), Republican support actually collapsed. What Trump succeeded in doing was converting northern rural America into a virtual one-party area much like we’ve seen for years in the Deep South.

As a result, I’m no longer comfortable arguing that these voters were equally available to either Trump or Sanders. It’s true that it was a revolt against the establishment of both parties, but it was also a white riot fueled by opposition to secularism, #BlackLivesMatter, the educated elite, and the browning of America. Conservative communities that had voted 65-35 for Romney (indicating a still-healthy level of two-partyism) suddenly voted 80-20 for Trump (indicating much more cultural consensus). And that cultural consensus was very one-sided in which establishment it chose to more strongly reject.

The second thing that’s being forgotten, though, is that Trump still won by spending nearly a year trashing every Republican in sight. So, even if the general election turned on a wholesale rural rejection of the mainstream and cultural left, the primaries turned on a wholesale rejection of contemporary Republicanism.

This is becoming a very important thing to understand as the Trump administration and Ryan and McConnell’s Congress start trying to hash out a budget. The voters may have given the Republicans the trifecta of power in D.C., but they spent most of the election cycle raging against the status quo in the GOP. It’s been much noted that Trump lost the popular vote, but less observed that even the right wasn’t ratifying Bushism or Boehnerism or the fruition of all Paul Ryan’s best laid plans. The New York Times reports:

Mr. Trump’s budget blueprint — which is expected to be central to his address to Congress on Tuesday night — sets up a striking clash with the House speaker, Paul D. Ryan, who has made a career out of pressing difficult truths on federal spending. For years, Mr. Ryan has maintained that to tame the budget deficit without tax increases and prevent draconian cuts to federal programs, Congress must be willing to change, and cut, the programs that spend the most money — Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

But Mr. Trump, in a dogged effort to fulfill his campaign promises, has turned that logic on its head in the budget outline he is expected to present to Congress this week.

The Sanders folks will readily recognize the problem. The voters made Trump the president but Trump didn’t run on austerity or slashing people’s retirement security. That Trump offered people everything (tax cuts, more defense and infrastructure spending, deficit reduction) and asked them for nothing is now an unsolvable problem for him as he attempts to keep all his campaign promises. It turns out that taking away health care from millions is actually asking people for something. And it turns out that you can’t pay for all the things he’s promised without going after entitlements.

Trump’s problem is that his agenda makes no internal sense and simply doesn’t “add up.” Paul Ryan’s problem is that the president basically promised not to enact his agenda. In fact, Trump destroyed eleventy billion Republican rivals who were all running on some version of Ryan’s agenda.

Because Trump’s victory was basically a rejection of status quo conservative economic or budgetary ideology, it leaves the Republicans without anything approaching majority support for a sweeping reform agenda. The people didn’t vote for what Ryan wants to do, and they never reckoned on the impossibility of what Trump was promising he could do.

This is important because it makes it likely that the GOP can be beaten in Congress even though they theoretically have the power to ram home very radical and catastrophic changes.

At the same time, because the election turned on a kind of furious rejection of the cultural left in very specific localities, the Democrats have never been a worse position to take advantage of the Republicans’ failures. The Republicans’ strength is the unlikelihood that more than a small handful of their members will be held accountable for their failures by losing their jobs. However inept and pathetic they are, at least they’re not trying to give the wrong people free stuff or criticizing the police or teaching their kids to doubt their religion.

Overall, the increased geographical polarization that occurred in the election doesn’t just hand most of our states’ legislatures into seemingly perpetual Republican control; it makes it very hard to win control of the U.S. House of Representatives or the U.S. Senate, and it inoculates most Republican lawmakers from any challenges from their left.

Massive failure on a large scale will have an impact, obviously, but not one close to being commensurate with the will of the people.

What I’m arguing here is more frustration than defeatism. As I’ve spelled out, the Republicans’ problems are nearly as great as the Democrats’, and they have the disadvantage of being responsible for what happens. I’m frustrated that a minority of Americans have created this mess and that it will be so hard to fix it. I’m frustrated that the Republicans remain more scared of their right flank than their left. The implications of what I’m saying bother me because I have no desire to make accommodations or concessions to anyone on the other side of the culture war, and I really want to believe that this will never be necessary.

But I’m also frustrated with the left in this country, much of which seems to believe that the election can be explained and rectified simply by offering to do more redistribution or by taking Democratic Socialism to the sticks. There’s no question that the Democrats need to go into rural America with a program that can at least win back 30 or 40 percent of the vote there, but it’s not clear to me that anyone has come up with the economic program or messaging that would achieve that.

I wish I had easy, pat answers, but I don’t. And I am growing weary of people who pretend that they do. The model that might have worked for Sanders wound up working for Trump, instead. That’s a hard lesson.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at