Hillary Clinton Correctly Identifies Donald Trump’s Appeal

One of the biggest challenges on Twitter is that limiting statements to 140 characters doesn’t allow for much depth or nuance. But every now and then someone actually manages to pack a pretty deep punch. That was my reaction when I saw this tweet from Irin Carmon.

Boom! That is perhaps the best distillation of Trump’s appeal that I have ever read. While not as succinct, Hillary Clinton said the same thing in her interview with Ezra Klein. It begins at about the 38:35 mark in this video, when they are talking about how our current polarized political climate means that pretty much any candidate that has been endorsed by one of the two major parties has a shot at winning the presidency.

In the midst of that discussion, Clinton throws out the idea that she might not have lost to what we would call a “regular Republican,” (i.e., Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio). That comes as a surprise to Klein, and so she elaborates by saying that the strength Trump had was rooted in a very cynical assessment of how he could build a Republican majority. She recounts how he started his campaign by talking about Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals and goes on to say that all of his appeals began to coalesce because he was, in a visceral way, feeding into people’s prejudice and paranoia. When Klein heard that as being about white resentment politics, Clinton acknowledged that was part of his appeal, but reminded him that Trump also tapped into things like Islamophobia, homophobia and sexism. She said, “He hit every single area of resentment and grievance that people were feeling.”

I can understand Klein’s surprise when Clinton suggested that all of that actually made Trump a stronger competitor than his rivals in the Republican primary. She upended a lot of conventional wisdom with that assertion. But it is very similar to the argument Jamelle Bouie made a few days after the election in order to explain the phenomenon of Obama-Trump voters.

Donald Trump broke a critical precedent in modern American politics. He abandoned the restraint and decorum that kept explicit racism out of national elections: dog whistles, not loudspeakers. And while race was a part of every conversation and every argument, no one tried to litigate the prevailing racial order of nominal tolerance. We were, on paper, a multiracial democracy, and our elites agreed to keep that issue off the table…

Donald Trump changed that. With his tirades against nonwhites and foreign others, he reopened the argument. In effect, he gave white voters a choice: They could continue down the path of multiracial democracy—which coincided with the end of an order in which white workers were the first priority of national leaders—or they could reject it in favor of someone who offered that presumptive treatment. Who promised to “make America great again,” to make it look like the America of Trump’s youth and their youths, where whites—and white men in particular—were the uncontested masters of the country.

While Bouie focuses mostly on race—thereby laying the groundwork for what Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote about Trump being the first white president—the same holds true when it comes to attempts by previous Republican presidential candidates to limit discussions about gender and religion to the dog whistle variety. For example, “We love and respect women—as a matter of fact, we have binders full of them—but don’t think the government should mandate equal pay.”

We all should have learned a very hard lesson from the election of Donald Trump: the cynical assessment he made about how to build a Republican majority turned out to be accurate in a way that was successful in giving him an Electoral College victory. We still have a long ways to go when it comes to perfecting our union.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .