The political analysts on television and elsewhere stretching their vocabularies to explain Donald Trump’s victory in terms of the kinds of people who voted for him, and why, are missing the point.
The election was not about Donald Trump. If it had been, he would have lost. The election was about Hillary Clinton.
Trump tapped into the worst of America, appealing to attitudes and resentments, fears and hatreds – racist, sexist, xenophobic, even anti-Semitic – that no presidential candidate since George Wallace has dared to openly encourage. Thus he brought out a very ugly segment of the electorate.
But that is a small minority of American voters. I’m guessing that a much larger number of people voted for Trump while holding their noses.
Hillary Clinton was perhaps more qualified by experience than any presidential candidate since the early years of the republic, but she was also one of the most polarizing and widely disliked, for a number of reasons. The most prominent reasons in the recent campaign were the fact that she lied and the belief, therefore, that she could not be trusted, and the suspicion that she had committed criminal offenses.
Trump was a much more prolific liar, but his lies were, by comparison, benign: boastful exaggerations, hyperbole about issues, times when he simply didn’t know what he was talking about.
Clinton’s lies were about serious matters – about classified materials on emails, about Benghazi, and the things she had said in speeches on Wall Street that were different from things she said to voters. People didn’t trust her, and she kept giving them reasons not to trust her.
Maybe she said some things that she thought were true but turned out to be false. But on several occasions I believe she lied because she felt threatened by the truth.
Also, she had been intensely scrutinized for years by people dedicated to the political destruction of the Clintons and, raising suspicions with innuendos and allegations, nothing was ever proven. Why do some people hate Bill and Hillary? I don’t know. Maybe something with roots back in Arkansas politics, material for a mystery novel.
The FBI director’s unfortunate and inappropriate decision to inject an apparently inconsequential discovery into the late stages of the campaign was also a factor, coincidentally linking her name and face with the name and face of Anthony Weiner. In the immortal words of Charlie Brown: Good Grief!
But whatever the reasons, it is important to understand that the election was about Hillary Clinton and not a consequence of enthusiasm for Donald Trump.
Late on that endless Tuesday night, one of the panelists on one of the networks, an African American man whose name I was too sleepy to memorize, analyzed Trump’s appeal by dredging up some painful history. He pointed out that after the Reconstruction period following the Civil War, white Southerners reasserted white supremacy, using Klan terrorism and passing laws that suppressed black votes.
Trump’s success, the analyst said, demonstrated that white America is now pushing back against what has been called the Second Reconstruction – the judicial, legislative and political gains of theCivil Rights movement.
That is a truly troubling assertion, suggesting that half a century of slow but sure, significant progress has been wiped out by a single aberrant election.
Racism persists, of course, in various forms. But the country that made Barack Obama president twice, and that gives him a strong approval rating today, did not embrace Donald Trump this year. It was never about him. It was about her. And it was a dead heat. So let’s stop trying to redefine who we are as Americans – our values, our passions and hopes and fears – to explain Donald Trump’s marginal victory. That would be seriously unfair and inaccurate – as we shall see in the months and years just ahead.
Jerry Shinn is a former Observer editorial page editor and associate editor.