OPINION

Recovering from a body blow

Setting aside political prejudice and engaging with the ‘enemy’ will strengthen the Democrats

America has been convulsed by a nervous energy since property billionaire Donald Trump’s stunning victory in last week’s presidential election, an outcome that has variously been labelled a “whitelash” and the “last stand of the Angry White Man.”

Three broad reactions have emerged since Mr. Trump became President-elect and they underscore how bitterly polarised the country has become since 51.1 per cent of voters came together to put President Barack Obama in the White House for a second term in 2012.

Three reactions to Trump’s win

The first reaction has been bewilderment and dismay at the realisation of how mortifyingly wrong the media and pollsters were in their projections of the outcome. This raised the question of why they missed the anger of white, blue-collar voters as a factor that rocked the Rust Belt states and served up the nation on a platter to Mr. Trump.

The second reaction is an outpouring of physical, verbal and written attacks against minorities, likely driven by the forces of bigotry emboldened by Mr. Trump’s win. In most cases, the assailants have used misogynist, racist, homophobic, and Islamophobic abuses, and the swastika symbol has appeared in graffiti in a multitude of locations.

The third reaction has been one of vocal defiance of the election outcome, with hopes pinned squarely on restoring a Democrat to the White House in 2020. In this vein, along with largely peaceful protests across the cities and suburbs of the nation, many vented their agony plainly all over social media, animated as they were by the war cry, “Not my President!”

Among them, filmmaker Michael Moore has urged that the liberal “take over the Democratic Party and return it to the people”, whatever that means; refuse to heed any calls to “heal the divide”; and harp on the fact that Ms. Clinton won the popular vote.

Mr. Moore and his friends deserve empathy, for their pain is palpable, the depth of their horror at the victory of a candidate such as Mr. Trump discernible, and their frustration that he won despite Ms. Clinton securing the larger share of the popular understandable.

But they are making a mistake, and it will not be their first.

The first mistake that the Democratic apparatus and its mass support base of liberals made was to not realise that they were losing a large chunk of those who had supported Mr. Obama in previous elections to a sense of disenchantment over the failure of Washington politics to give them more economic and social opportunities.

According to Associated Press data, Mr. Trump won in 209 out of 676 counties that had put Mr. Obama in the White House twice. Many of these are in the Rust Belt states of Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Similarly, 194 of the 207 counties that backed Mr. Obama once in his two election victories threw themselves behind Mr. Trump this time. In all of these counties, somewhere between 81 and 86 per cent of voters were white.

Thus the theory that these voters were innate racists rather than genuinely angry denizens of a neglected Middle America is not supported by data.

Yes, racists of various persuasions, from the run-of-the-mill Trump rally attendee who sucker-punched a ‘Black Lives Matter’ supporter in the face, to David Duke, a former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, joined the Trump bandwagon. To the extent that Mr. Trump’s utterances or silences permitted this, he must be interrogated.

Similarly, all shades of misogynists and Islamophobes and a variegated assortment of bigots clambered aboard SS Trump as it coasted to Pennsylvania Avenue. The man who would be the U.S.’ s 45th president should be held to account for letting them join.

Further, liberal Americans were perfectly justified in their critique of Mr. Trump himself, for his penchant for denigrating women, Muslims, Hispanics, African-Americans, members of the LGBT community and the differently abled — and for what such behaviour said about the kind of person he is.

Yet, in their rightful condemnation of Mr. Trump and the rude Trumpistas, the Democratic movement overlooked the decent folk who were running into the open arms of the Trump campaign, even when that campaign made them embarrassingly vague and bizarrely unattainable promises.

Fight, but also listen

The second mistake that Democrats and liberals are in danger of making is to focus solely on digging in their heels on the status quo position and preparing for the arrival of their own Messiah, perhaps Michelle Obama, if the Internet were to have its way.

Yes, of course, to rally the faithful and to again score strong victories in the dark blue coastal states in 2020, it would be incumbent upon liberal America to work towards a “rainbowlash” effect, including state-by-state campaign planning.

But this was already tried during Ms. Clinton’s run and it ended in tears. What they need to realise is that the relatively worse-off Americans of the Rust Belt swing states now have a hat-trick record in voting for an Outsider to beltway politics — twice for Chicago-risen Mr. Obama and once for non-politician Mr. Trump.

Unless liberals take the additional step of engaging in dialogue with this cohort in the run-up to 2020, specifically to understand their frustration with Washington politics and offer creative solutions, the pendulum will only swing back to where it is now even if that election puts a Democrat in the White House.

To thus set ego and political prejudice aside and engage with the “enemy” is to strengthen the very core of the Democratic Party base. They would emerge stronger in this scenario.

Contrarily it is the Republicans who must find themselves in a deeper quagmire. Mr. Trump’s rise has shredded their very soul by driving a wedge between those subscribing to the Party’s core ideals and masses of Republican voters enthralled by Mr. Trump’s provocative, superficial proclamations.

Mr. Trump needs the cooperation of Capitol Hill for the next four years if he is to succeed in the policy realm, and they need him if they are to deliver an agenda that would satisfy their conservative constituents across the nation. A common ground will have to be found, and distrust and loathing will have to be set aside, no easy tasks.

The prognosis is not good in this sphere — talk of impeaching Mr. Trump has gained ground, and it is not inconceivable to imagine a scenario where such drastic action would be called for. Mr. Trump, the argument goes, is prone to being impulsive and could thus endanger U.S. national security. If he does so, there may be a case for Congress, even such a staunchly conservative one, to remove him from office.

Second, Mr. Trump has already indicated his disregard for propriety in official matters as he is apparently pushing his family members to take lead roles in the White House transition team. It is possible that as President, he may take this tendency to new heights, even bend the rule of law for private benefit, perhaps favouring his real estate businesses. If he thus fails to toe a fine line across these conflicts of interest, that could be grounds for impeachment too.

In either case there is a clear shining path that could lead the Democrats to longer-term revival: To survive Trump, and to fight again another day, Democrats must calmly introspect and engage in a broad-minded discourse with the “forgotten man and woman.”

narayan@thehindu.co.in



The Democratic apparatus did not realise that it was losing a large chunk of those who had supported Mr. Obama in previous elections



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