Written By: Shaw Friedman
It’s become self-evident since the election: Our presidential nominee was absolutely the wrong person to convey a message to working class families and hold together the traditional Democratic coalition that had carried us to success in years like 1992, 1996, 2008 and 2012.
It’s time journalists like Frank Rich stop blaming the election loss on supposed ignorant “hillbillies” in rural parts of the country, including rural Indiana, who went for Donald Trump in droves. Rich’s recent article for New York Magazine was titled, “No More Sympathy for Hillbillies.” It was author J.D. Vance’s ode to hillbilly culture and his up-by-the bootstrap tale from rural poverty in Ohio and Kentucky that got many to thinking that working class whites were responsible for their own problems and were ignorant and uneducated in not being able to see what was coming with a Trump presidency. Much of the hillbilly analogy suggests that those folks down in the holler and many Trump voters were motivated by appeals to racism and too ignorant in their own misery to understand their own self-interest.
As I wrote just days after the election, LaPorte County is a great example of why the hillbilly analogy just doesn’t work, and doesn’t explain the tremendous Trump appeal that led to a half million vote margin in Indiana, swamping down-ballot races like that of our outstanding governor candidate, John Gregg.
LaPorte County has been predictably Democratic in presidential elections for 30 years, including 2004 when it was one of just four counties to support John Kerry in Indiana. Same with solid margins delivered for Barack Obama both in 2008 and 2012, yet Donald Trump soundly defeated Hillary Clinton in LaPorte County, carrying traditional white, working class neighborhoods that have been reliably Democratic for many years.
It wasn’t ignorant hillbillies nor was it appeals to racism that cost Hillary Clinton a win in places like LaPorte County. This county is proof-positive that with the right economic message, blue collar, working class voters will give candidates a chance no matter their race, gender, religion or creed. This county not only carried Barack Obama twice with solid margins, but elected an AfricanAmerican countywide as commissioner in 2010. No, Clinton’s was a campaign and candidate so devoid of any powerful economic message of real change as to invite this kind of anti-establishment vote that carried Donald Trump here.
Sure, Bill Clinton’s up-from-the-holler roots as the “Man from Hope, Arkansas,” helped him to be seen as a “man of the people,” who could feel the pain of working families a quarter century ago. Think back to John Travolta’s portrayal of Clinton in the movie “Primary Colors” as Clinton sat in that Krispy Kreme donut shop just talking endlessly to the clerk about the clerk’s health issues and challenges facing his family. Roll the clock forward 25 years, and both Bill and Hillary were viewed in a completely differently lens as card-carrying members of the Establishment, and that killed any notion that Hillary was an agent for change. Hillary would go into states like Michigan and Pennsylvania and talk about how retail sales were up, corporate profits were good but she conveyed little notion of the tremendous hurt that average folks were still feeling in broad swaths of these states, and how much resentment there was toward Wall Street, the big banks and powerful interests, as well as trade agreements pushed by those same interests.
Along comes Donald Trump who inveighed endlessly (and effectively) against hated trade agreements like NAFTA and TPP and in the worst case of ‘bait and switch” ever in politics, promised in his closing TV ad to go after Wall Street firms like Goldman Sachs that had helped implode our economy in 2008.
No longer the “Man from Hope,” Bill Clinton came to personify in many voters’ eyes someone who had traded on his insider credentials and had become incredibly close to Wall Street titans like Robert Rubin, Lawrence Summers and the billionaires who jet off to Davos each year. With Hillary Clinton pocketing nearly $21 million in speaking fees from big banks and powerful interests since she left as secretary of state, she had absolutely no credibility to speak to or for the little guy.
The two Clintons, who once campaigned across the nation with Al Gore on a theme of “Putting People First” in 1996, now carried the dead weight of having authored NAFTA, which shuttered 60,000 factories in our country and had idled millions of workers – many living in critical swing states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Let’s face it – by leading the fight to kill Depression-era protections against big banks’ abuse of depositors, and in signing the repeal of Glass-Steagal in 1999, the Clintons had absolutely no credibility in being able to take on Wall Street.
In the process, the Clintons’ inept campaign left a vacuum that was unthinkable, allowing this billionaire buffoon from television to somehow champion himself as the voice of the “forgotten man and woman” who said he would shake up the old order that was viewed by many as hollowing out whole communities and stacking the deck in favor of the rich and powerful.
But for some to simplistically assert that racist appeals turned 300 counties in America from Obama to Trump ignores the powerful economic message that many believe was the true motivator. Our former vice president, Joe Biden, who proudly claims blue-collar Scranton, Pennsylvania, as his home, agrees. We needed a much more powerful, more strident economic message – along the lines voiced by Bernie Sanders – to motivate our base and gin up turnout. In real populist economic messages, there’s not a zero sum game that some want us to play. Black, white, straight or gay, male or female voters still vote their pocketbooks, and the failure of the Clinton campaign to put front and center the fact that “middle class working families” were left behind in the gains of the last eight years has lost us the presidency to this charlatan. Trump has made it abundantly clear that his pledges to blue collar workers to go after Wall Street were nothing but snake oil and an illusion, as he stands by his appointment of six former Goldman Sachs execs to his administration and pushes tax cuts that would benefit only the wealthy and powerful.
The swamp isn’t being drained. It’s just being stocked with new alligators and crocodiles who will take their turns biting the hides of average working families, and the best example of that was the highly unpopular TrumpCare legislation, that has now been exposed as a sham that deserved its ignominious end this past week.
The tragedy is that many working class families fell for an economic message from this huckster because we had the wrong messenger opposing him, who had no credibility to speak to their needs, hopes and desires. That’s the real tragedy of what happened on Nov. 8.
Shaw Friedman is former legal counsel to the Indiana Democratic Party who practices law in LaPorte and is a longtime HPI columnist.
This article was written for Howey Politics (pg. 5-6). Find more information & articles at this link.