The Bills

Clinton Lost the Economic Argument

It was the way she could have eased Trump voters’ racism, and she blew it.

President-elect Donald Trump addresses supporters at an election night event at the New York Hilton Midtown November 8, 2016 in New York City, New York.
President-elect Donald Trump addresses supporters at an election night event on Tuesday in New York City.

Jabin Botsford /The Washington Post via Getty Images

It is an ironic twist of history that Hillary Clinton, a woman who first came to national prominence when her husband won the White House following James Carville’s now-famed mantra—“It’s the economy, stupid”—lost her own presidential run, in part, because she did not take that message seriously enough.

That is not to say that the Donald Trump voters who were experiencing “economic anxiety,” as the pundit class put it throughout the election, were justified in feeling so, or that there concerns weren’t intimately tied up with racial tribalism. But Clinton didn’t help herself here either: In an election in which there was clear rage against the meritocratic machine, Clinton spent August hobnobbing with Wall Street bankers in the Hamptons just weeks before (accurately if impoliticly) calling half of her opponents’ supporters “a basket of deplorables” at a fundraiser that some donors paid $50,000 to attend. When the John Podesta email hack revealed she had told a roomful of bankers that politicians needed “a private and a public position,” her campaign didn’t address the issue at hand, instead criticizing the leak itself.

And it’s easy to make much of Clinton’s progressive drift now, but let’s not forget that she was prodded into it by the Bernie Sanders campaign’s left-wing insurgency. Early on, Donald Trump proclaimed on a debate stage that he would not cut Social Security, but for months Clinton’s statements on the issue were so carefully calibrated that retirement-security advocates were aghast. When Sanders first advocated for free tuition at public colleges, she initially pushed back. It was only this past summer that Clinton released her own plan to offer students from families with household incomes less than $125,000 a no-tuition higher education. It was a worthy plan. It was also technocratic. It fiddled at the margins instead of questioning the system itself.

The Trump campaign was powered in significant part by white resentment, by a cohort that saw America changing and didn’t see itself as part of it. And many members of that group translated those fears into economic terms.

In exit polls, just under 60 percent of voters said the economy was either the same as in 2012 or worse. A majority of those voters broke for Trump. True, many Trump voters are college-educated and have above-average incomes. But these voters see their economic fortunes in relative, not absolute, terms, with other groups as their measuring stick. People want to make progress, not feel like they’re treading in financial waters while others get life preservers.

Moreover, many Trump voters, even if they themselves are better off than average, aren’t living in particularly prosperous regions of the country. They often inhabit areas scarred by de-industrialization, drug addiction, and foreclosure, or rural areas where the jobs are barely existent. Housing prices may be soaring in Silicon Valley, but the reality in the Rust Belt is something else entirely. Less than 24 hours after the polls closed, General Motors announced it would lay off 2,000 workers at factories in Ohio and Michigan.

Others are way behind where they thought they’d be at this point in their lives. True, incomes for men who never graduated from college improved significantly in 2015, but to say that increase made up for the ground this cohort has lost since the start of the Great Recession—never mind the 1970s—is to engage in vast understatement. No surprise, white men and women who didn’t graduate from college also voted for Trump by significant margins. When asked, they told exit pollsters their personal finances hadn’t improved an iota since 2012. One-third said they were worse.

I saw all this when I spoke earlier this year to small business owners supporting Trump, a cohort that was among his earliest and strongest backers. Many were doing better than they were in 2008—but not as well as they were in 2000. “My sales have gone down steadily over the past 10 years, not by a huge amount, but again, what sales I have are getting eaten up by what I have to pay for workers’ comp, disability, and health insurance. I can’t pass the cost on to my customers,” says Robert Jones, the owner of Elcon Estimating Service, an electrical cost-estimating firm based in Dobbs Ferry, New York.

Moreover, we shouldn’t underestimate the ongoing failure to control the price of health care. It seems obvious in retrospect that a decent percentage of Americans are using the term “Obamacare” as a proxy for their own insurance and medical bills, even if they’re not insured on the exchanges that the health reform law set up. Tuesday night’s exit polling revealed that 4 out of 5 of the 45 percent of voters who agreed the signature legislation went too far broke for Trump. Not only didn’t Americans save $2,500 a year on out-of-pocket medical spending, as Obama promised; people with employer-provided health insurance have seen their costs surge by more than 50 percent since 2010.

And it’s not just that the Affordable Care Act may have become a convenient catchall for any and all health care grievances: Americans are notoriously resentful when they see others getting government assistance while they go without. It’s why Social Security—which is there for everyone— remains so popular but the Affordable Care Act, with its Medicaid expansion and subsidies for some but not all, may now be on the chopping block.

In truth, many of us don’t admit to the government help we do get. Almost all of us have taken advantage of unemployment insurance, student loans, Social Security, or the mortgage interest-rate tax deduction—the last of which isn’t viewed as a government subsidy but certainly is. When Suzanne Mettler, a professor of government at Cornell University, surveyed Americans a few years ago, she discovered a reason why signs begging the government to stay away from Medicare were popping up at Tea Party gatherings. About 2 out of every 5 recipients of any government aid did not realize where the money came from. But when groups see other groups getting aid, they can react. And they did.

In his surprise best-seller Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance resentfully recalls that when he worked as a supermarket checkout clerk, he would see customers “buy two dozen packs of soda with food stamps and then sell them at a discount for cash.” Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land is filled with similar sentiments from whites, who are angered by others—usually darker and poorer than them—who they feel are getting more of a helping hand from the government. It’s hard to sort the economic resentment from the racism. They are not mutually exclusive. The same way a paranoid has enemies, you can harbor racist thoughts and rightly perceive your economic prospects have dropped or at least flatlined. As Jeff Spross of the Week put it on Twitter on Tuesday night, “Trump took the entire frickin’ Rust Belt, most of which Barack Obama won *twice.* Time to revise the narrative.” In other words, instead of damning voters for their nasty thoughts, liberals need to identify what triggers some of them to act on those beliefs and put a stop to it.

And it’s not like all progressive economics failed last night. Initiatives that will increase the minimum wage not only passed in Colorado, Washington, and Maine, where a majority of voters supported Clinton, but also in Arizona, where Trump triumphed in the polls. People want their personal finances to improve, and they will do what they believe they can to make it happen.

Make no mistake, the damage of the past several decades to American life is severe. Income and wealth inequality is at record levels. That the stock market has more than doubled since Obama took the oath of office in 2009 means little to most Americans. Only about half of us are even invested in equities and, even then, the amounts a majority own are not significant. A majority of working-age people of barely have a mere few thousand dollars saved for retirement. The fabled 1 percent, on the other hand, has more than $1 million banked for that day.

It’s easy to think the latter is the normal amount when you live in a place like the Silicon Valley or Brooklyn, New York, where the Clinton campaign was headquartered. The cost of living is so high in these places, and the wealth is so extreme, that people earning several hundred thousand dollars a year are convinced they are struggling middle-class strivers. But that’s not the truth, and the deplorables let us know it. Left behind by the modern economy, resentful toward coastal elites and disdainful of the minorities they felt were the only ones getting a governmental boost, they took what action they could and pulled a lever for Trump.

None of this is to say Trump was a reasonable answer for them. Instead, this lifelong serial con artist pulled the ultimate con. He convinced millions upon millions of hard-working Americans of the sort he stiffed on contracting jobs, ripped off at Trump University, or otherwise defrauded in some way, that he was their champion. And they’re about to find out what it’s like to be his mark.