’Tis the season of looking back, which brings us inevitably to Election Day 2016.
Donald Trump’s victory places last year as one of the most significant in modern American history. Not only did he change how politics is played, but he probably destroyed the Republican Party as we knew it. Most important, he will go down as one of the most effective politicians of all time, at least beyond the Beltway.
As with other course-altering events—9/11, the moon landing, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and the Kennedys, many will remember where they were when the reality of a Trump presidency hit them.
Plenty of people had already gone to bed on Election Night, believing that Clinton would win. But those who stayed awake were reminded yet again that it’s not over until it’s over. In a word: Pennsylvania.
Trump already had been declared the projected winner in other swing states—Florida, North Carolina and Ohio—and was leading in traditionally Democratic-leaning Michigan and Wisconsin. But when Pennsylvania was called late in the night, countless Americans stared at their screens in disbelief.
Trump had won.
As sleepyheads awoke the next morning to the startling news, a massive thought-cloud settled over the nation. It contained just three letters, the first two of which were WT.
What happened, actually?
Much commentary and several books, including Clinton’s own, have attempted an explanation. Voter intensity for Trump was stronger than for Clinton; his surge was larger than hers; many Democrats stayed home because they didn’t like Clinton; others were bitter at how they felt Bernie Sanders had been treated during the primaries by the Democratic National Committee via the Clintons.
More to the precise point, in Pennsylvania as elsewhere, Trump’s dominance in rural areas overshadowed Clinton’s wins in urban areas.
Specifically, the deplorables were out of the basket and setting the establishment on fire.
Trump’s small- and midsized-town “rural” voters may not have ever jumped on Amazon to order the latest Walter Isaacson tome or posted their gently worn Louboutins for sale on “The Real Real,” but they weren’t stupid, ignorant, racist, misogynist or nativist, not most, anyway. They were regular, God-fearing folks who were sick of Washington, distrustful of liberal policies, and fed up with elites, including many in the media, who couldn’t see them except down their noses.
There’s a wonderful line in Doug Marlette’s 2001 autobiographical novel, “The Bridge,” in which the late editorial cartoonist’s grandmother, “Mama Lucy,” a North Carolina mill worker who was stabbed in the stomach by the National Guard during the General Textile Strike of 1934, is talking to her successful grandson about his new life way up yonder in New York City.
This tiny, fearless woman who chewed tobacco and packed heat, according to Marlette’s many tellings, wrapped up her thoughts nice-and-neat-like: I wouldn’t put a crick in my neck to look up at them tall buildin’s!
It was just one line, but those few words told a long, multi-generational story of resentment by people who had been left out of the American dream. New Yorkers were stand-ins for the mill owners, who acted as if they were better than Mama Lucy and her people; the tall buildings symbolized the big houses of her greedy employers, whose thresholds she and “her sort” would never darken except by the servants’ entrance.
What happened in 2016 could not be summed up any better. Mama Lucy’s attitude and the cultural context from which she spoke could be transposed with little tweaking. Not that members of Trump’s base are all poor or unpolished, but they probably understood Mama Lucy’s remark without my having to explain it.
The irony, obviously, is that Donald Trump is the big building. But rather than make everyday Americans strain to see him high up in his gilded tower, Trump came down to ground level and spoke not at them but to their darkest, most haunted places.
It didn’t pain him at all to say what they needed to hear, whereas Clinton, for all her husband’s “faux bubba”-ness, a term my dear friend Marlette created just for Bill, and her frequent references to her father as a “rock-ribbed, up-by-your-bootstraps, conservative Republican,” didn’t even know the words.
It would be a mistake for future candidates and campaign managers to miss these lessons. The resentments of Mama Lucy and others who feel slighted or looked down upon are as constant as kudzu—and no one yet has understood them better than Donald Trump, the rage-filled city boy from Queens who could never get enough of anything. Especially respect.