Northern Ireland native, Michael H C McDowell (no relation to the former Irish justice minister) canvassed for Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania. There he encountered white male apathy, hostility to Hillary more because of her sex than her personal flaws, was encouraged by Hispanic anger at Trump and came away from the stump convinced he had witnessed White, Christian America’s swan song. Like nearly everyone else he had predicted a Clinton victory but believes Trump will have a rough ride in the White House.
I covered US elections, as a journalist, first from Canada, and then for nine years in Washington, D.C.
This time, I signed up for a campaign, but old reporting techniques weren’t so rusty, I discovered, as I spent six days intensively canvassing in Pennsylvania, a must-win “blue firewall” state for Hillary Clinton, and I took longer than some colleagues to speak with individual voters as I went door-to-door.
Full disclosure: I voted for Bernie Sanders, a social democrat like myself, but this was in D.C., which has only one House Member whose voting powers are very limited ,and which, unlike the 50 states, has no Senators. No-taxation-without-representation, do you say? Well the Republicans will never (?) allow us Washingtonians to have two full members of the upper chamber.
“I travelled to York, a city just over 90 minutes from DC near the Maryland border with Pennsylvania. And I saw, once more (I worked in ‘08 and ‘12 for Obama in East Central Virginia), that the Democratic Party ground operation was superbly staffed, with accurate research on tally sheets, GPS-focused precise addresses, detailed maps with routes highlighted, efficient clustering of voters and locations, and so on. We carried out multiple canvasses several times a day, with lots of people not just from from York, but Pennsylvania as a whole, and with help from individuals from DC, Maryland, Ohio, Illinois, you name it, young, old, more women than men, minorities.”
But I had a hunch something was missing, as I worked the region in and around York city – a rustbelt town, so successful even during the 1929 Depression, that its high-end manufacturing industries carried on, keeping workers at work. I covered poor African-American and Hispanic areas in the downtown, lower middle and middle class districts, suburbs and ex-urbs where lower middle class Hispanics and African-Americans had moved, and finally, mainly white middle class and upper middle class areas further out.
The weather was gloriously sunny and warm. But in six days I didn’t find a single Trump canvasser, and I kept looking.
This gave me false hope, especially for the attractive and smart and experienced woman Senate candidate, Pennsylvania native Katie McGinty, 53, from a skilled working class/lower middle class Irish Catholic family who I met a couple of times when she was a key White House aide working on environmental policy with Al Gore. McGinty had beaten a Democratic Congressman, a former admiral, in the primary, and looked set to edge out hard-right first-time Senator Pat Toomey, who refused, until an hour before the polls closed, to say if he was voting for Donald Trump. That move kept Trump voters on side with him.
So, apart from the missing Trump workers, what else was elusive? Well, I had a creepy feeling – no evidence, no real facts on the ground – that the white men I spoke to, and who were cagey about who they were voting for (I politely/gently asked), were going with The Donald. I falsely assumed too, that maybe a quarter of them, maybe more, would not vote at all, but sit on their sofas. Some of the wives would arrive at the door when I called and the women would often say they were voting for Hillary (but Hillary only got 47 per cent of the white women’s vote nationally).
The campaign of course knew that African-American voters would not come out in the same numbers as they did for Obama. But that was factored in. What fascinated me though, was seeing, on the ground, that Hispanic voters, were, this time around, determined to vote for Hillary Clinton and pick up any slack in the black vote. I found this inspiring in recent citizens. And I often spoke to them in Spanish.
Canvassing in several lower middle class but neat rental townhouse “estates” with heavily Hispanic tenants disproved an earlier theory. That is, that Hispanics may be a growing demographic in many states but historically had a low turnout in voting terms. This changed and was an encouraging finding for me. They were determined to vote and Trump’s nasty jibes about Mexicans being “rapists” and “violent criminals” had resonated with these higher achieving Hispanics. Same with lower middle class and middle class African-Americans.
Up to early Tuesday evening, Election Day, as I drove back to DC, I was pretty sure that, despite the FBI Director’s appalling 11th hour messing on the Clinton emails, Hillary Clinton would win by maybe 3-4 per cent. I, and almost everyone else, was wrong.
Clinton was a flawed candidate; she had been attacked for decades for corruption (unproven), being economical and lawyerly with the truth on multiple occasions (pretty true), and paranoid about privacy and believing the GOP were out to get her in all circumstances (correct). Her stump speeches were formulaic, packed with (too much) detail for the crowds. However she is intelligent, articulate, knows her stuff on almost everything, worked hard, and showed remarkable energy (not “low energy” as Trump nastily called her) and was a good debater and kept her cool consistently. She is an impressive human being and has a strong liberal record especially on protecting children.
But white men, working class (they don’t vote that much, frankly), lower middle class (they do vote) and even a decent fraction of educated middle to upper middle class men, clearly didn’t like her, and some hated her. I felt a real sense of resentment of her as a woman, not just as Bill Clinton’s wife, but as a Senator, and Secretary of State.
Trump, despite having no ground game to speak of – barring pretty nugatory Republican National Committee support – hit on a crafty personal strategy and it worked. The media gave him great free coverage and weren’t really critical of him and his past history until very late in the game. His nasty personal denigration of Clinton’s health, attacks on her being “corrupt”, despite no conviction and multiple investigations, his sound bite/Apprentice-like remarks, appealed to a particular choleric demographic.
However, I believe it is a demographic which is having its “last hurrah” – white “Christian” America. It is dying in numbers, as Hispanics and others rise (see The End of White Christian America by Robert Jones, Hillbilly Elegy by J.D, Vance, Strangers In Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild, and What’s the Matter With Kansas, by Thomas Frank, etc.). But this large grouping has a decade of more before it declines significantly. They came out big time for Trump. They loved the anti-establishment shtick of Trump and ignored this man actually from the establishment, with inherited wealth, multiple bankruptcies, stiffing of his workers, etc.
They are people who live in the middle and the South, between the coasts. They come from one-time major industrial/manufacturing, rural small towns and agricultural areas. NAFTA lifted many boats, increased exports, and produced many more jobs. But not for them, and it hollowed out many of the places where they worked. Yes, a generalization. Could they have been reeducated/retrained to take other jobs? Maybe, maybe not. It wasn’t done, and perhaps can’t be done. Automation also drove down labour forces in manufacturing in huge numbers and union numbers plummeted. Progress?
And what about the blatant hypocrisy of the conservative evangelicals? These “value voters” chose to ignore Trump’s sexual-predator accusers, his three divorces, foul language on women, and serial boastful philandering in his first two marriages. This group too is declining. The Religious Right is diminished – but it is not quite gone just yet.
Where else did Clinton lose — and Trump win? Clinton got 10 per cent less of the Roman Catholic vote. Women voted their party of choice, not on gender. Clinton also lost votes among millennials, who Obama (and Bernie) had energized. Trump was the “change” candidate, like Obama had been in 08, and much of the electorate, predominantly white, wanted to shake up the system. Clinton was the status quo. Venting trumped (pun, deliberate) sober second thought.
Clinton didn’t have a clear message (“I’m With Her,” was an innane slogan), and funnily enough I generally didn’t have to defend that at the doors, which had worried me. Her detractors voted with their hearts/emotions, not their heads.
Anger was of course palpable among the Trump crowds and he thrived on stoking it up. Many Trump voters are hankering back to the past, to a predominantly white America, which is frightened of “foreigners”/immigrants, the “other” (blacks, black president), Wall Street elites who are dominant in either party. These people sense a “precarious belonging”; it is not just that many of the working class are unemployed; where they live, there is NO work; work gives people meaning; they rightly sense that most politicians have, Democrat and Republican, left them behind.
Believing in Trump’s absurd promises of producing jobs on a massive scale in the coal mines, in steel plants, factories, etc., is sad indeed.
Remember that Clinton, not Trump, WON the popular vote but not the arcane Electoral College. Obama won both, twice. Remember too that the majority of legislatures are Republican now and they mostly set Congressional district boundaries and happily gerrymander them. Those GOP legislators deliberately made it difficult for the poor to actually vote. Voter “fraud” is virtually non-existent but this was pushed not only by Trump, but the GOP. The number of polling places was also deliberately reduced to suppress turnout and only 35 per cent of “eligible voters” actually cast a ballot in this election. This was reminiscent of the Jim Crow era of many decades ago.
SO, TO QUOTE LENIN: WHAT IS TO BE DONE?
Well, chill out Dems. The Donald and the GOP need 60 (not 50) votes in the Senate to pass major legislation and confirm nominees to the Supreme Court, Cabinet appointees, posts including Assistant Secretaries and above, and appeal court federal judges. So, when it is not in the interests of the overall majority of the country, then stymie the votes! The GOP did this to Obama regularly and he, unlike Trump, as I said, won the popular vote and the Electoral College, twice in a row. There is also the filibuster, which the GOP used more than any Congress in history. What comes around goes around. The midterm elections are now less than two years away.
Trump’s massive tax cuts for the wealthy will be done well before then, probably, the deficit will explode. It will explode further with his planned new spending on the military and infrastructure. Then there will be the dangerous sucking up to Putin and China, plus possible trade wars with China and others, and this is likely to drive down the dollar, increase inflation, slow growth to negative numbers, and, one assumes or hopes, that the Trump voters when they look in vain for all these great new decent paying jobs will find there aren’t any.
Patience! Organise, and mobilise!