Donald Trump's red wave changes everything. His rise to power upended the establishments of both parties, dispatching dynastic establishment candidates. His right-wing populist movement mobilized voters against the elites, reminding us it could no longer be dismissed as just a glitch. His surprising victory could herald the end of the global political and economic structures as we know them.
But when we look at what's been going on for the last year, it shouldn't be too much of a surprise. Trump won the nomination of the Republican Party, after all. In the Democratic primary, Clinton had been challenged by self-described socialist Bernie Sanders, who was an independent. In those primaries, despite the Clinton juggernaut, Sanders went on to win 22 states and 47% of the votes.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll of more than 10,000 people conducted on election day found that 72% of Americans believe "the American economy is rigged to advantage the rich and powerful." Bernie Sanders's theme was a "political revolution" against the "billionaires and oligarchs" with the aim of creating a nation of social and economic justice, yet he was written off by the Democratic Party's elite as a single-issue candidate.
The unemployment rate may be dropping, but positive trends don't reflect the pain Americans continue to feel. New data indicate that median family income is lower now than it was in January 2000. Put bluntly, the gains of the economic recovery have been beneficial to those at the top; for everybody else, it practically stood still.
The truth is that America has become a country of deepening inequality. Today, 45 million Americans live in poverty. For many disillusioned Americans, the sense of a corporate takeover of American democracy is real, and they blame both parties for it. According to a 2015 Gallup poll, only 29% of Americans identify as Democrats, while 42% consider themselves to be independents.
In the year of anger, Donald Trump managed to shapeshift into the candidate of change, the one who would finally "drain the swamp." He attacked the rigged economic system, super trade deals favored by multinationals, the SuperPacs, and Hillary Clinton's cozy ties to Wall Street.
This isn't to say the prospect of a right-wing authoritarian populist is the answer. We should have no illusions. Donald Trump's victory is a calamity for the systemic ills of American society. But, as Democrats start the autopsy of their crushing defeat, it's imperative not to overstate the impact of ethnic nationalism.
The economic anxiety has fueled racial resentment, and yes, in some Trump voters, it has trickled down to open racism. But, to write off deindustrialized rust-belt anger as a "whitelash" is intellectual laziness, and it is negligent. Early evidence suggests Trump's whopping 16-point swing came from the income demographics earning less than $30,000 a year. The last time they voted, they were considered the Obama coalition. As The New York Times's Nate Cohn acknowledged, "Clinton suffered her biggest losses in the places where Obama was strongest among white voters. It's not a simple racism story." However seductive it may be to write off blue-collar resentment as racism, the facts simply don't bear it out.
From the start of the 2016 election cycle, Clinton's campaign refused to acknowledge the plight of the American working class. To them, "America never stopped being great." But, it's not great -- far from it. Vast rural areas are withering away, leaving behind trails of economic wastelands. A few people, like Chris Arnade, closely tracked the urban-rural divide and how the loss of dignity was fueling a wave of despair in the form of the opioid epidemic.
To be fair, Hillary Clinton embodied the consensus of the modern Democratic Party. Unlike Reagan's presidency, Bill Clinton's was never a transformative one, but his legacy lingers to this day. It's hard not to notice endless concessions on economic issues. Take, for example, the steady erosion of labor laws, NAFTA, cuts, and deregulations, among other things. Obama's promising presidency was, at best, refurbishment. We saw voters not just vote for Trump but for a resounding rejection of Clintonism and neoliberalism.
The Republicans were always the party of big business and corporate power. In contrast, as Thomas Frank puts it in his book, What's the Matter with Kansas?: "Now it was the Democrat whose aristocratic lifestyle was always coming into question, who couldn't seem to take a step without detonating some explosive reminder of his exalted position." Now, the dislocated working-class has rebelled against the complacency that has been rotting the Democratic Party for decades.
The problems go much deeper, of course.
Centrism is in crisis across the Western world. Multiple factors are responsible, from the financial crash to automation and the changing nature of the workforce to its cultural and political disconnect with the lives of rural communities. Donald Trump speaks directly to that sense of resentment in the United States. Brexit speaks directly to people living in British communities who feel ignored. The Guardian columnist George Monbiot wrote of how political paralysis and lack of agency led to "the disenfranchised turn instead to a virulent anti-politics in which facts and arguments are replaced by slogans, symbols and sensation."
On the face of it, there should be an open space for a new political story. In times of crises, social movements create opportunity. Political earthquakes like Brexit and the election of Trump leave a vacuum for a new political narrative; it reinforces the urgent call for grassroots mobilization and the reconfiguration of the system's decaying mechanics.
The sense of betrayal that is tearing at the Democrats runs through the party's heart. If establishment Democrats do not take heed, re-examine, and regain an emotionally compelling vision, then the tide of Trump's red wave will wash them away for generations.