In his cunning style that’s made him the Republican frontrunner, Donald Trump may have had a strategy when he initially refused to disavow the support of David Duke: The former Nazi and Klansmen is the model for Trump’s unlikely candidacy.
Duke roiled the nation in 1991 when he advanced to the runoff election for Louisiana governor. The New York Times described Duke as “speaking honestly about taboo topics,” appealing to American heritage, and someone who would “save the white race” from criminally minded welfare recipients. A full-court press from the establishment denied him the governorship, but Duke won 55 percent of the white vote, and brags his thinly veiled racism is now mainstream.
Duke served up easy scapegoats to whites anxious about the poor economy in Louisiana. Trump is a reality-TV super-charged version with all of his bluster and bullying, but the blueprint is the same. His hesitancy in disavowing Duke looks calculated now that his son, Donald Trump, Jr., has since granted a radio interview to a white supremacist whose show is called “the primary radio nexus of hate in America.” Just as Republicans adopted Duke’s racist policies, so have Trump’s rivals jumped on the immigrant-bashing and anti-Muslim bandwagon. The Clinton camp may delight that Duke was trounced by the notoriously corrupt Democrat, Edwin Edwards — whose appeal was encapsulated in bumper stickers declaring, “Vote for the crook, it’s important.” But Trump could win the presidency if he snags the Republican nomination.
That’s because the Clintons share responsibility for the rise of Trump.
Their attacks on workers and unions during their White House years in the 1990s, which have continued under President Barack Obama’s administration, severed bonds with many working-class whites now flocking to Trump’s banner. Trump will exploit this in a general election. Many on the left are uncomfortable talking about white workers as the Democrats’ policies do not discriminate, but unions on the ground are discovering this. A Working America survey of 1,689 working-class voters around Cleveland and Pittsburgh found of those who have made up their mind, 38 percent supported Trump — more than Clinton and Sanders combined — including “white working-class Democrats.”
By peddling fear, paranoia, and racism for decades, the country’s right wing bears the lion’s share of blame for Trump. He marches in the path of Barry Goldwater’s racialized conservatism and Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” of stoking resentment among whites over crime and welfare. The race-baiting triumphed with the “Reagan Revolution” in 1980. That election solidified the political realignment of Republicans as more white working class identified as Republicans, along with Evangelical Christians, office workers, and self-identified entrepreneurs. It also shattered the New Deal coalition that saw Democrats win the White House for seven out of nine elections starting in 1932. Reagan defeated President Jimmy Carter with assistance from a third of registered Democrats who abandoned their party, the highest cross-over vote in the last 70 years.
That is the key to Trump’s success this November: will his candidacy usher in a realignment, a political earthquake that strikes but a few times a century.
How did we get here? Bill and Hillary Clinton are part of the Reagan realignment. They won in 1992 by outflanking the right. They endorsed racialized tough-on-crime politics, intensified mass incarceration, and savaged welfare — consigning millions of women and children to deep poverty. The Clintons were theatrical in their racism to win over reactionary whites: Bill’s “Sister Souljah moment” and execution of Ricky Ray Rector in the 1992 primaries and Hillary’s later reference to Black children as “super-predators.” Once in office, the Clintons ditched mild Keynesian policies and failed to reform health care as promised on the campaign trail. Instead, they fulfilled Reaganism with policies like NAFTA, immigration reform used to deport millions, and Wall Street deregulation.
Clinton forged a Democratic majority at the presidential level, with the party winning five of six contests, including the disputed 2000 race. But attacking workers while coddling corporations gave non-unionized white workers little incentive to stay in the party. The right wing enticed them with a carnival of bigotry to explain their troubles. That solidified the national advantage for Democrats with a coalition of women, Blacks, Latinos, environmentalists, LGBT, and remnants of organized labor, propelling Obama in 2008. Fueling group hatred entrenched the right wing at the local level, enabling it to flip Congress and many state governments over the past 20 years. This is complemented by the lavishly funded right-wing media, think tanks, and policy outfits that stoke white anger. When race intersects with education, religion, and geography the Democratic disadvantage is stark. In 2012 a paltry 11 percent of non-college educated whites in Alabama and Mississippi voted for Obama.
The media, shell-shocked by Trump’s candidacy, fails to grasp this history. The Democrats have been some of the best recruiters for the right by throwing workers to the Wall Street wolves. The emerging Clinton strategy against Trump is apparently to abandon the working class completely. Former Pennsylvania Governor Edward Rendell told the New York Times, “For every one of those blue-collar Democrats (Trump) picks up, he will lose to Hillary two socially moderate Republicans and independents” in the suburbs.
If so, a Clinton victory could complete the realignment of the Democrats that began in 1992. It may turn the presidency into a one-party system where Democrats claim the broad center by becoming post-working class. Clinton is striking those notes with talk of faith, competency, social liberalism, and bromides about restoring the middle class while smacking down modest proposals for social welfare and stringent financial regulation.
She has many advantages despite the lingering email scandal and Clintonian capacity for self-inflicted wounds. Democrats are uniting behind her as her lead widens in the primary. Petulant Sanders supporters vow to sit out the election, but he will push his followers to fall in line. He’s reiterated support for the eventual nominee with a widely retweeted comment, “America's first black president cannot and will not be succeeded by a hatemonger who refuses to condemn the KKK.” Bill and Barack, who could sway millions of votes, have their marching orders to take down Trump: the street fighter and the voice of authority, respectively. Republican obstructionism over the Supreme Court will resonate as a live issue, not just a last-ditch abstraction. Democrats are gleeful too at the GOP civil war. Like a ball of stellar gas, Trump is attracting prominent Republican demagogues and racists to his fiery orbit, which could inflate his sky-high negatives.
There will also be a united front of bourgeoisie behind Clinton, extending from inside the Beltway and the Pentagon to pundits and CEOs. Wall Street may prove decisive, and not just for the billions of dollars they will shower on her campaign. If a Trump victory seems possible, then financial markets may panic, strengthening the anyone-but-Trump argument. Clinton will woo better-off voters of all stripes by presenting herself as a beacon of order against Trumpian chaos.
Ditching the working class, however, may play into the hands of Trump and the right wing over the long term. It would compound the Democrats’ anti-worker ideology and the racial and gender biases against the party, causing flux. True-blue Massachusetts with its deep pool of working-class whites may become a battleground, and Trump notched his biggest victory there on Super Tuesday. Democrats are also worried Trump may put must-win states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio into play. That is the mark of a realignment, when the electoral map shifts.
Dismissing Donald Trump is also a fool’s errand. Clinton has high negatives, and under Sanders’s avuncular pressure, she repudiated nearly all Clinton-era policies. Trump is harnessing the blow-up-the-system mentality that’s resulted from four decades of neoliberalism, which bodes ill for her centrist strategy. Rejecting right-wing orthodoxy has been crucial to his ascent, and Trump will savage her from the left for screwing over workers and imperial adventurism in his manner of projecting power by demeaning opponents. Most ominous, Trump is generating record voter turnout. Movements that shake up political systems bring in “the new.” That’s what the Nazis did. Same with the New Deal and Reagan coalitions, Obama’s victory, and the Tea Party backlash. Trouble is also brewing for the Democrats as they have so far fallen 3 million votes from the last contested primary in 2008. It appears Clinton is failing to excite any segment of working-class voters, whether Black, Hispanic, white, women or youth.
In such an unpredictable landscape, projections that Clinton will beat Trump should be viewed with caution. One thing that’s certain is that Trump’s policies would be a disaster for all workers. But genuine cross-over appeal gives him a shot at winning. Even if Trump loses and retreats back to reality TV and his garish towers, he will leave Trumpism behind. A Clinton victory will only delay the inevitable day of reckoning if the Democrats continue to kick the working class to the curb, as they have been. The Republicans, meanwhile, may be remade as a party of white nationalism, providing a willing vehicle for demagogic vulgarians ready to harvest the suffering and hate.