Donald Trump managed to accomplish what no one has been able to do since the American Revolution (Friends, do not panic, I have not lost my mind!). He managed to put together (or at least ride the impulse of) a rural/working class coalition to defeat the most organized and powerful political forces allied with all the power of modern media. If you can put aside your partisan perspective and suspend your horror at the apparent repudiation of rational thought, there is something amazing and powerful that deserves a moment of respect.
When I was a political science student back in the 1980s, I was fascinated by the election of 1892 and 1896, a period of time historian Lawrence Goodwyn describes as the “Populist Moment.” I wrote my thesis on populism in Virginia and how, for a brief moment after the Civil War and before the full force of Jim Crow and the Industrialism took hold, there was a moment when hard working farmers, poor whites and blacks, and labor almost came together to control the destiny of a Nation. The peak of that moment was in William Jennings Bryan’s Cross of Gold speech before his nomination in 1896. I can only imagine the passion that burst forth in the convention hall in Chicago as Bryan railed against the economic impact of the “rigged” financial system…in his time caused by the gold standard which perpetuated a sharecropper economy because farmers could not obtain access to capital and banks controlled the money supply:
Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests, and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”
Bryan Lost to McKinley. The Republicans used racism and fear to undermine the farm-labor alliance that was promising in 1892 and by 1896, although Bryan took the South, he was decimated in the Mid West. The political interests, the East Coast elites, manipulated the population to not only defeat, but to destroy a generation of self-educated, problem-solving optimists.
I do not see the election of 2016 as a great victory for the working man, but I do see it as a great defeat of power that, in all historical context, should have prevailed. Yes, there was racism involved, and it is disgusting. Tons of lies and manipulation. But I am not convinced racism and xenophobia were used by Trump to divide people against their interests. I think people actually knew their interests and rejected the Democrats claim to speak for them.
Democrats have lost the legitimacy to speak with passion for working people. Hillary Clinton was the most qualified candidate to run for President in our generation…and I believe in her heart, she wanted to do all the right things. But the party had become an elitist machine. It had become comfortable in its traditional role and took the support of “toilers” everywhere for granted. Bernie Sanders had the passion and credibility…but I think it is pointless to go too far with what might have been…
We can disagree that voters made the right choice. Despite my thoughts here, I absolutely believe they made the WRONG choice. But it was a free choice and a choice that defied a suffocating power elite and a smug media that has dominated modern politics for all of my adult life.
My concern is that we are only half done. Trump is no William Jennings Bryan. I do not know what he will do next. But he has somehow managed to hit a reset button on politics that opens up a window of opportunity. Even here in Massachusetts, Democrats need to understand how to serve the needs of Trump voters or risk perpetual marginalization in American politics.