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Why have we elected an apprentice?

| Friday, November 18, 2016

If Notre Dame could hire the high school football coach Gerry Faust (30-26-1) to manage its major university football program from 1981 to 1985, why not let American working-class voters choose an apprentice to occupy the White House? Three traditionally Democratically Rust Belt industrial swing states decided the election by a mere 107,000 votes — Wisconsin by 27,000 votes, Michigan by 12,000 and Pennsylvania by 68,000 votes. Those razor-thin margins propelled GOP nominee Donald Trump into the White House for a four-year term. While some may cite Wisconsin’s strict voter ID law as disenfranchising nearly 300,000 voters, which could have easily overcome the Trump margin, widespread white working class voter angst accounted for the nation’s demand for change.

Professor Kathy Cramer, author of, “The Politics of Resentment,” studied rural Wisconsin residents for more than a decade. She found that rural Wisconsinites — like my relatives in Pennsylvania who voted for Trump but had traditionally stood up the electoral “blue firewall” by routinely supporting Democrats, labor unions and the need for government programs — joined other legions of Trump voters in Rust Belt states who believed in change regardless of the risks associated with a wart-covered and character flawed candidate. They yearned for a fair shot at their long-gone American dream where working hard paid the bills and bettered life for their children. They further believed that urban coastal elites and the government itself unfairly dominated them, disrespected them and deprived them of their “fair share.”

Democrats in Washington are asking the “would have, should have and could have” questions to analyze why their candidate, Hillary Clinton, lost. Clinton garnered more than 62 million votes—the most historically of all candidates other than President Obama. Clinton turned out her voters in exactly all the key areas that she needed to win except for the suburban and rural working class voters. These voters are not racist, misogynistic or stupid as portrayed by popular analysts. These voters felt helpless and forgotten in an economy that seemed to be rigged against them since the 1970s when manufacturing jobs began their flight to Asian countries. In their minds Clinton’s long political participation would merely continue their plight, whereas Trump’s outsider business skill was the change that could free them.

In such an atmosphere where progress for others seems to have exploited those left behind, only radicalism portends hope for the psychologically, culturally and politically outcast. Extremism attracts such dispossessed voters. Therefore, Trump’s rhetorical cries — while at times crude and rude — nationalized his message as an agent of change fighting rigged systems. When seemingly targeting the African-American community by asking what did they have to lose by voting for him, Trump succinctly resonated beyond and into the white working class electorate.

Democrats —the champions for the working class since World War II — have utterly failed for decades to maintain their rhetorical connection in working class communities. My suburban Pittsburgh home county, Washington, swings 5,000 to 8,000 votes each presidential election, but Trump won by more than 30,000 votes this year. Working class whites, whose long-term economic desperation was never solved by establishment politicians, gladly overlooked the massively flawed businessman. In their view, Obama’s hope and change had bogged down in the typical Washington swamp, but Trump was now their best and only choice in a national election.

Ironically, Democrats have for decades tolerated many factions ranging from Blue Dogs to Socialists without a lockstep message. Their campaigns therefore hold an altruistic highbrow view of political discourse; unlike the Republican’s historically smash-mouth laser-focused political battle plans. Democrats have yet to strip off the GOP emperor’s bipartisanship clothing, which only occurs on GOP terms when they hold a majority — begun by Newt Gingrich’s short 4-year scorched-earth style speakership. Democrats continually fail to convey this massive Republican culpability to the voting public.

The GOP political mastery lies in messaging, congressional obstruction and legislative rigging.

Locally, they enact voter suppression laws and gerrymander congressional districts to create a decade-long House majority. On the evening of Obama’s inauguration, GOP party leaders vowed to oppose and delegitimize Obama at every turn. The GOP ignored its constitutional duty to consider Obama’s Supreme Court nomination, an unheard of breach for a party so frequently embracing the Constitution. They refused to participate in drafting healthcare legislation, infrastructure restoration or displaced workers’ reeducation efforts to stimulate the economy. The GOP ultimately shut down the government blaming Obama despite the multi-year grand bargain he nearly struck with then-GOP Speaker John Boehner, ultimately vetoed by the Tea Party’s Republican House Freedom Caucus. As a gesture of compromise and good will, Obama offered to negotiate aspects of Social Security — a move that outraged progressives in his own party.

Good news does exist for Democrats: The next presidential election is a decennial year when a large voter turnout may thwart the GOP gerrymandering and its congressional stranglehold. Secondly, Republicans control the federal government and must now demonstrate reasonableness over ideology. Americans have a short attention span, especially my former steelworker and coal miner relatives in Pennsylvania who once held living wage jobs and expect TrumpWorld to honor the promises to restore their American dreams. Anything less will flip these working class voters back onto the blue electoral wall with a resounding refutation of, “You’re fired!”

Gary J. Caruso, Notre Dame ’73 American Studies major, serves in the Department of Homeland Security and was a legislative and public affairs director at the U.S. House of Representatives and in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. Contact him on Twitter: @GaryJCaruso or e-mail: [email protected].


The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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