Like many Democrats, I sat down on my couch with a beer Tuesday and turned on CNN. I expected at worst a modest victory for Hillary Clinton, and at best a resounding national rebuke to the Trump campaign. According to my text logs, by 9:00PM it was evident things were not going according to plan. “I’m surprised about Virginia, no poll had that red” I typed as the returns started to come in. As we know, Virginia did vote Democratic, but the fact that it was even up for grabs seemed concerning. By 9:26 I wrote “This is uncomfortably close” and at 9:57 all I could manage was “This is Fucked.”
Like so many, I have spent the last day trying to come to terms with what has happened. Naturally, the finger pointing started right away. Some argued Democrats should have nominated Bernie Sanders, a talking point I saw on Facebook from both Trump and Hillary voters. My despair at 1AM on Election Night made me write on the timeline of a gloating Bernie Bro acquaintance that now was not the time to be smug. They replied that my movement of “middle-class kids from Long Island with advanced degrees had failed.” By now I felt a little drunk and a little confused, having discovered I was part of a movement of Long Islanders with advanced degrees. I sat with the lights out in my living room and fell asleep to Wolf Blitzer and John King searching desperately for unaccounted Hillary votes in Michigan and Wisconsin.
By sunrise, I had found out that Trump had made a victory speech around 3am during the few hours I managed to sleep. The pundit and thought piece industry quickly began to churn out post-mortems on the Clinton campaign. They varied between white people who are probably racists won the night, the working class rebuked the elites, the democrats ran an establishment candidate when the country wanted to “drain the swamp”, college educated people are out of touch, and people of color did not turn out enough, and when they did some voted Republican.
I spent yesterday in the doldrums and did not feel like eating or doing much at all besides watching The Simpsons. I felt especially terrible for religious minorities and people of color. My privilege means that I will be able to escape the next four years relatively unscathed. I also spent most of yesterday coming to the conclusion that I was unhappy with mostly everything I have read about why the Democrats lost, which led me on my own voyage to opine.
I realize now that I had totally taken for granted the coalition of people who put and kept Obama in office, and believed they would also deliver a victory to Clinton. Unlike so many newspaper and magazine columnists, I did not have to look far to find Trump supporters. They dwelled in my own family and some even had four year and advanced degrees. In retrospect I should have been alarmed that these family members voted for Obama in 2012 and now had swung to Trump. How did I justify to myself their perplexing change in allegiances? Arrogantly, I assumed it was partly because I was not around to lead the family debate. It was easy to fall under the spell of Trump when he was the candidate that offered everything and promised to restore a fuzzy and nostalgic version of the United States that baby-boomers have false memories of. It was easy to fall for Trump when you knew people in the FDNY and NYPD who felt under siege by Black Lives Matter.
I believed that although Trump enjoyed more support than Romney or McCain did, ultimately the same coalition of level headed people who could discern rhetoric from fact would deliver victory to Clinton. Sure, that turned out true in New York, but I have never spent more than a day in Michigan, and have certainly never been to Wisconsin (though I have heard good things!). In these two states, along with Pennsylvania, that coalition dissolved. How?
I have come to the conclusion that Trump won because he told people what they wanted to hear and Clinton told people what they needed to hear. Clinton’s big-tent of multiculturalism, pragmatism, and internationalism succumbed to the very wonkiness that made me and others support her. It does not matter if the economy is doing well if you do not feel that. Obama won in 2008 running on uplifting phrases and quite honestly an implausible optimism rooted deeply in emotion. In summer 2008 I thought Obama was just running on catch phrases and charisma, and I initially supported the self-proclaimed maverick and compromiser John McCain. Ultimately I voted for Obama because I believed McCain gave in to the powerful right-wing forces of his own party, and because Sarah Palin was unequivocally unqualified to be VP.
I failed to realize that Trump was using emotion to cruise to the White House. He unleashed something powerful that people merely felt. You don’t have to explain yourself if you feel something is right. People felt Trump was right, and it was not just white people. Trump managed to snag 30% of the Hispanic vote. The United States has been exceptionally good at assimilating immigrants into mainstream society, and it seems many Latino people, especially the second and third generation are becoming as indistinguishable from the “majority” as an Italian American or Irish American. It is easy to think Trump is not talking about you when Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio flanked Donald Trump on the debate stage. This 30% were likely swept up in the same emotional current that white voters found themselves in.
The point of this little thought piece is not to say Hillary Clinton was a soulless candidate lacking in emotion and charisma. As a woman, Hillary was in a bad spot. If she was too rhapsodic she would have been pegged as an “emotional woman.” Unfortunately, Donald Trump had the advantage of gender and the skill of being a master at appealing to emotion. I hope in four years we can reignite the spark of hope and change that gave us the best President of my lifetime.