A call to action from three of Washington's premier political scholar-journalists, One Nation After Trump offers the definitive work on the threat posed by the Trump presidency and how to counter it.
American democracy was never supposed to give the nation a president like Donald Trump. We have never had a president who gave rise to such widespread alarm about his lack of commitment to the institutions of self-government, to the norms democracy requires, and to the need for basic knowledge about how government works. We have never had a president who raises profound questions about his basic competence and his psychological capacity to take on the most challenging political office in the world.
Yet if Trump is both a threat to our democracy and a product of its weaknesses, the citizen activism he has inspired is the antidote. The reaction to the crisis created by Trump’s presidency can provide the foundation for an era of democratic renewal and vindicate our long experiment in self-rule.
The award-winning authors of One Nation After Trump explain Trump’s rise and the danger his administration poses to our free institutions. They also offer encouragement to the millions of Americans now experiencing a new sense of citizenship and engagement and argue that our nation needs a unifying alternative to Trump’s dark and divisive brand of politicsan alternative rooted in a New Economy, a New Patriotism, a New Civil Society, and a New Democracy. One Nation After Trump is the essential book for our era, an unsparing assessment of the perils facing the United States and an inspiring roadmap for how we can reclaim the future.
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What Trump's Election Meant, What It Didn't, and Why Trumpism Doesn't Own the Future
Two moments define Donald Trump's rise to power.
March 2011: Trump initiated his long entanglement with birtherism, the false claim that President Obama had not been born in the United States and was therefore ineligible to be president. In a March 17 interview on ABC's Good Morning America, he told Ashleigh Banfield: "If I ever got the nomination, if I ever decide to run, you may go back and interview people from my kindergarten, they'll remember me. Nobody ever comes forward. Nobody knows who he is until later in his life. It's very strange. The whole thing is very strange." Six days later, on The View, Trump asked Whoopi Goldberg and Barbara Walters, "Why doesn't he show his birth certificate?" He added: "I wish he would because I think it's a terrible pall that's hanging over him. ... There's something on that birth certificate that he doesn't like."
The outbursts crystallized all that was wrong with Trump — and also how he would get to the White House. He was a shameless liar, and unapologetically demagogic. He would rally the angriest wing of the Republican Party by exploiting its racial and religious fears and prejudices.
June 10, 2014: In a Republican primary result almost no one expected, Eric Cantor, the House Republican majority leader, was ousted by a little-known college professor named Dave Brat. The routing of a thoroughly conservative Republican leader by the Tea Party, a movement Cantor himself had extolled, was a sign of how vulnerable traditional Republican politicians were to challenges from inside their party. No matter how much they tried to appease the GOP far right, more would be demanded of them. Brat's campaign was a prototype of what was to come.
He fiercely attacked Cantor as beholden to the party's moneyed interests and soft on immigration. "Eric is running on the Chamber of Commerce and Business Roundtable principles," Brat told an audience of Tea Party supporters. "They want amnesty for illegal immigrants. They want them granted citizenship. And it's in the millions — 40 millions — coming in."
Brat, the prototype of a new nationalist, populist-sounding far right, explicitly denounced Cantor as a tool of Wall Street. "All the investment banks in the New York [sic] and D.C. — those guys should have gone to jail. Instead of going to jail, they went on Eric's Rolodex, and they are sending him big checks," Brat said. "They get cheap labor," he added of big business, "but everyone in the 7th district gets cheap wages."
John Judis, a journalist who closely followed the Tea Party and other populist movements, accurately noted at the time that Brat, a libertarian, would likely end up being far more business-friendly than he advertised himself in the campaign. But Judis added presciently that "in defeating Cantor, Brat echoed the age-old, darker, and more complicated themes of right-wing populism. These themes will continue to resonate, even if Brat abandons them."
They did, for Donald Trump. At the time, the front-running Republican presidential candidates did not make the connection. In 2016, this would prove to be politically fatal for Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, and even Ted Cruz. In more moderate tones in the cases of Bush, Rubio, and, especially, Kasich, and with a harder edge in Cruz's, all would count on a mainstream conservative message to deliver them the party's nomination. Cantor might have warned them that a large contingent of the GOP rank and file was looking for something more incendiary.
Because Trump's rise to the presidency surprised nearly everyone (including the authors of this book and, it would appear from the evidence, Trump himself), he and his supporters have taken to scoffing at any and all analysts who, since his victory, have pointed to the underlying weakness of his position: his loss of the popular vote, his low favorability ratings throughout the campaign, and his record-low approval numbers on Inauguration Day. The idea seems to be that those who saw Trump as an unlikely president before Election Day are doomed to be wrong about everything they say now about the trouble he faces.
Humility is certainly a virtue, and it's fair to preach its benefits in the wake of the difficulties prognosticators confronted in 2016. But in fact, the predictions that Trump would never appeal to a majority of Americans were correct.
It is important to remember the basic facts of 2016. Trump's victory was a very close-run thing — a matter of 77,744 votes in three crucial states, almost certainly enabled by the intervention at the end of the campaign by then–FBI Director James Comey, who made Hillary Clinton's controversial use of email central to the dialogue in the final ten days before voting. Trump was also helped immensely by the interference of the Russian government and the heavy play throughout the fall of disclosures from hacked Democratic emails. There was also evidence that the two events overlapped — that Russian disinformation about the Obama Justice Department's handling of the email investigation may have prompted Comey's aggressively critical public comments about Clinton.
And it was no trivial matter that Trump lost the popular vote to Clinton by some 2.9 million ballots and ran nearly 11 million votes behind the combined Democratic, Libertarian, and Green totals. Trump received 62,984,824 votes, a gain of 2,051,167 over Mitt Romney's 2012 total. Nationwide, Clinton received 65,853,516 votes, just 62,419 fewer than Obama. A monumental shift in the nature of the nation's political leadership was enabled by relatively modest shifts in the electorate.
Trump's victory was less an endorsement of his program than a rejection of Clinton. Exit polling found that in the electorate that made Trump president, 60 percent had an unfavorable view of him; only 38 percent had a favorable view, which suggests how small his core support was on Election Day. But Clinton's numbers were nearly as bad, as 55 percent had an unfavorable view of her. Here is what should be seen as the decisive piece of data about the 2016 election: Among voters who had an unfavorable view of both Trump and Clinton (nearly a fifth of the electorate), Trump won decisively, 47 percent to 30 percent. Among the quarter of voters who explicitly said that the main motivation of their choice was dislike of the other candidate, the numbers were similar: 50 percent for Trump, 39 percent for Clinton. The 2016 election was a negative verdict, not a mandate for Trumpism.
These numbers are critical for understanding how fragile Trump's hold on the public is and why he began his term with the lowest approval ratings of any new president in the history of modern polling. They explain why his disapproval numbers increased so quickly after he took office and why a large-scale grassroots movement rose up against him so rapidly. Trump did not speak for the country, and Trumpist ideology — to the extent that he even has a consistent ideology — does not command majority support.
Through all of the controversies in Trump's early months in office, political analysts regularly argued that despite his problems, Trump was still hanging on to support from his "base." But his base was a minority, and Trump showed little capacity for expanding beyond this core. This will have consequences in the long run, and it should give heart to Trump's foes.
Moreover, as the political analyst Nate Silver has shown, Trump's supporters are not blind to his failures or indifferent to his most questionable actions. Silver wrote: "The current conventional wisdom is that while President Trump might not be popular overall, he has a high floor on his support," and his "sizable and enthusiastic base — perhaps 35 to 40 percent of the country — won't abandon him any time soon." The problem with this conventional wisdom? It "isn't supported by the evidence." Silver found that the proportion of Americans who strongly approve of Trump fell from around 30 percent in February 2017 to just 21 or 22 percent of the electorate in May. Trump's real base may amount to a mere one-fifth of the American electorate.
Trumpism is thus no juggernaut. Trump's opponents should have the confidence of knowing that he does not speak for anything like the majority of the American people and that his own supporters are not inured to his shortcomings. The experience of Trumpism in practice has bolstered the positions of his opponents. This certainly seemed to be the Trump effect in Europe, where far-right movements in Austria, Holland, and, most significantly, France fell back as more moderate political forces were victorious. There has been, as Boston Globe columnist Michael A. Cohen observed, "a backlash to the backlash," a rallying to the defense of liberal democracy and openness. As we will see, this "backlash to the backlash" in the United States has taken the form of unprecedented political mobilization and engagement.
But what of the argument that Trump has become the authentic tribune of the white working class? We will have much more to say on working-class discontent later in the book, but it is clear from both the exit polls and the raw vote count that these voters did make Trump's narrow victories in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania — and thus his presidency — possible.
Erie County, Pennsylvania, a once-booming manufacturing center that has been hit hard by deindustrialization, is a representative example. Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney by a large margin in the county: 68,036 for Obama to 49,025 for Romney. But in 2016, Trump carried Erie County with 60,069 votes to 58,112 for Clinton. Comparable swings were delivered by demographically similar counties in all three crucial states, as well as in Ohio.
The exit polling told a related story. Obama, for example, carried Wisconsin in 2012 and won 45 percent of the vote among whites without college degrees. Clinton managed only 34 percent among such voters, and lost the state.
Notice something here: Even in victory, Obama lost the white working-class vote in Wisconsin. He lost it by even larger margins nationwide. The movement of such voters to the Republican Party had begun long before the rise of Donald Trump. Overall, Trump overwhelmed Clinton among whites without a college degree, 66 percent to 29 percent. But Obama performed only slightly better. He lost these voters to Romney in 2012, 61 percent to 36 percent. Clinton's gains among white college graduates were not large enough to offset these losses.
These figures demonstrate that there was not some immense wave of white working-class voters moving toward Trump. He built on existing trends rather than engineering something entirely new. In many working-class counties outside the Northeast and Midwest, Trump did no better and no worse than Romney did.
Further — this is often lost in the focus on the white working class's role in 2016 — a large share of the Trump constituency was affluent or at least comfortable, made up of traditional conservatives and Republicans. As the political scientists Nicholas Carnes of Duke University and Noam Lupu of Vanderbilt University showed, about a third of Trump's supporters in the primaries made $100,000 or more annually. In the general election, they found, about two-thirds of Trump voters "came from the better-off half of the economy."
Within the white working-class, hostility to Clinton was as much or more of a driving force in Trump voting as it was in other groups. Many of the counties in Michigan and Wisconsin that Clinton lost to Trump were also counties she lost to Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries. It was a warning the Clinton campaign did not take seriously enough. It should be said that some of the anti-Clinton vote was certainly rooted in sexism, and we will later point to some early postelection studies suggesting its role in her defeat. Trump himself certainly played on gender prejudice throughout the campaign — for example, by regularly attacking her alleged lack of "stamina." While separating sexism from other factors is difficult, it would be a mistake to ignore misogyny's role in 2016.
The essential point is that Trump's seemingly singular appeal to the white working class should be neither exaggerated nor underestimated. He may only have built on the appeal Republicans and conservatives already had to working-class white voters, but the legitimate discontents bred by deindustrialization, trade, and technological change no doubt helped him increase his margins. And what has often been cast as a populist rebellion in the economically stressed former factory centers in the United States has parallels across the West. It was reflected, for example, in support for Brexit in Britain and for Marine Le Pen's National Front in France. It should worry Democrats and the center-left elsewhere that so many working-class voters feel unrepresented by parties and politicians once seen as their champions. Writing about both the United States and Britain in his timely book The New Minority, Justin Gest observed that "social and economic forces have isolated the white working class as a political constituency, to the extent that many in this demographic feel like a peripheral afterthought in a country they once defined."
Still, as the Democratic pollster Guy Molyneux noted in a postelection analysis, it's just as important to remember that the white working class is not monolithic. By Molyneux's estimates, about half of the white working-class vote is reliably Republican, perhaps a sixth is reliably Democratic, and a little more than a third might be seen as a swing electorate, cross-pressured on many issues. Trump's gains among white working-class voters were achieved through a combination of sweeping policy promises and appeals to cultural and social anxiety. Even assuming his demagogic style allows him to retain some of these voters, Trump's support could be vulnerable if he fails to restore manufacturing jobs and if his agenda on health care, taxes, and government spending turns out to be — as it has been so far — traditionally conservative in its orientation toward the wealthy. Martin Wolf, the legendary economic columnist for the Financial Times, called Trump's ideology "pluto-populism," which he defined as "policies that benefit plutocrats, justified by populist rhetoric." If even a significant minority of Trump's working-class supporters reach the same conclusion, his pluralities in key states will evaporate.
The 2016 outcome must also force a reckoning with a crisis in our democracy that conventional accounts of our elections too often ignore: our political system increasingly allows a minority to prevail over the majority. This is obviously true of the Electoral College, but it is also true of a Senate that vastly underrepresents the larger states and of a gerrymandered House of Representatives. The system empowers the old over the young, whites over nonwhites, and declining rural regions over growing metropolitan areas. Supreme Court decisions weakening the protections afforded by the Voting Rights Act and strengthening the hand of concentrated money in politics have aggravated all of these problems.
Begin with the Electoral College. In the 172 years from the widespread adoption of popular voting for president in 1824 through 1996, there were 44 elections. In only three of them did the winner of the popular vote differ from the winner of the Electoral College. Two of those cases were idiosyncratic. The election of 1824 was a four-way race held after one system of party competition had broken up and the new one had yet to take hold. Even in 1824, Andrew Jackson, the popular vote winner, won a plurality in the Electoral College. But because he lacked a majority, the election was thrown into the House of Representatives, which chose second-place finisher John Quincy Adams. Partly because of outrage over the outcome, Jackson handily defeated Adams four years later. In 1876, the election returns from three southern states were hotly disputed, and it is hard to know with any precision what the popular vote was. Only 1888, when President Grover Cleveland lost reelection even though he won the popular vote by 0.8 percent of the total, provided a clean case of an Electoral College/popular vote split in this long period.
But two of the five elections between 2000 and 2016 have involved a disparity between the popular and the electoral vote. Why has an occasional problem in our past become a semichronic issue now? It has to do with a major demographic change over the last 50 years in which an ever-larger proportion of the population has moved from rural areas to more populous metropolitan regions.
Excerpted from "One Nation After Trump"
Copyright © 2017 E. J. Dionne, Jr., Norman J. Ornstein, and Thomas E. Mann.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of ContentsForeword: A Manifesto for Turning Back Trumpism
Introduction: When a Crisis is an Opportunity: The Perils of Trumpism and the Call to Engagement
Part One: Trump and Trumpism
Chapter One: Trumpian Misconceptions: What Trump's Election Meant, What It Didn't, and Why Trumpism Doesn't Own the Future
Chapter Two: When the Truth Doesn't Matter: The Crisis of the Media and the Rise of "Alternative Facts"
Chapter Three: Bad Behavior: The Disappearing Norms of American Politics
Chapter Four: A Penchant for Authoritarianism: How Trump Intimidates Opponents, Promotes Kleptocracy, and Challenges the Rule of Law
Chapter Five: Phony Friend of the Working Class: Trump, "Populism," and the New Politics of the Far Right
Chapter Six: Race, Immigration, Culture, or Economics? The Complicated Motivations of the Trump Voter
Part Two: The Way Forward
Chapter Seven: With Opportunity and Justice for All: Building a New Economy
Chapter Eight: Yearning to Breathe Free: Discovering a New Patriotism
Chapter Nine: Our Little Platoons: The Urgency of a New Civil Society
Chapter Ten: What 'Draining the Swamp' Really Looks Like: Bringing a New Democracy to Life
Chapter Eleven: "Show Up, Dive In, Stay at It": Building One Nation After Trump