In 1924, Robert and Helen Lynd, a husband-and-wife team of researchers, travelled from New York City into the heart of the midwest to undertake a study of daily life in an ordinary American town, Muncie, Indiana. The Lynds approached their mission in much the same spirit that Joseph Conrad entered the Heart of Darkness – to look upon denizens of middle America as an anthropologist might chronicle the strange customs of another race.
While many sociologists were “quite willing to discuss dispassionately the quaintly patterned ways of behaving that make up the customs of uncivilised people,” Helen Lynd wrote, for many others it was “distinctly distasteful to turn with equal candour to the life” of their fellow Americans. “Yet nothing can be more enlightening than to gain precisely that degree of objectivity and perspective with which we view savage peoples.”
The Lynds didn’t happen upon Muncie by chance. Indeed, they scoured the country in search of a city “as representative as possible of contemporary American life” – something that could stand in for the whole of American culture. In the bestselling book they published five years later, which would become a classic work of American sociology, they did not name Muncie or any of its citizens. They simply called it “Middletown”.
For the past six months, the idea of the “real people” out there has been the preoccupation of most journalists. First during Britain’s EU referendum campaign, and then as Donald Trump ran away with the Republican primaries, commentators opined from the metropolis while reporters ventured to the parishes to anthropologise the white working class. Editors charged their employees with finding out why “they” are so angry; what has made “them” so disaffected; what is driving “their” erratic electoral behaviour.
But the real problem is baked into the premise: “they” are not “us”. “We” don’t know “them”. “Their” views are not often heard in newsrooms and “they” know it. And so the journalist swoops in for a day or two, armed with polls, reports and expectations and finds the angry and disaffected people they are looking for. The reporters question their subjects on the holy trinity of identities – race, sex, and class, but only one at a time – and then they find some local colour (but rarely people of colour) and hurry back to the office.
Pundits speculated whether Hillary Clinton could win Texas when it turned out she couldn’t even win Michigan
The protagonists of any given story are easily slotted into already existing archetypes – soccer moms, white van men – and placed within a narrative arc that makes sense of their views: a revolt against the elites, or why the right must embrace diversity, or how the left needs to learn values. And then election night arrives – and the whole thing collapses under the weight of its own hubris, before starting all over again the next day with the hasty construction of a new narrative to explain what happened.
I came to Muncie in the path of the Lynds, although not necessarily in their tradition, in the hope that I might do something a bit different. Like them, I did not happen on Muncie by chance. It sits in a swing county – both Barack Obama and George W Bush won it twice – and voted for both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in their respective primaries, rejecting the pleas of both party establishments. It seemed like an ideal place to avoid the made-for-TV spectacle of a presidential election – which had pundits, at one stage, speculating about whether Hillary Clinton could win Texas when it turned out she couldn’t even win Michigan.
I arrived on the night of the second debate to find people more embarrassed than angry. Looking for a debate-watching party, I went to the Fickle Peach, a bar in town, where the three screens were set to either Sunday-night football or baseball. Dylan, the barman, put the debate on for me with the sound down and two of us watched it with subtitles. It was two days after news broke of Donald Trump bragging about grabbing women “by the pussy” – when his election prospects were understood to be over.
When I left town a month later, Trump was putting together his transition team and meeting Obama in the White House. On election night, a small crowd had gathered in the Fickle Peach. The results were on every screen, with the sound turned up, as the liberal audience, some crying, watched the certainties of just a few hours earlier evaporate – their hopes crushed in real time, state by state.
We woke to a new normal. The object of our derision would soon have the nuclear codes. Gingerly, but deliberately, respect for the process, the office and its trappings, superseded the moral issue of what the victor had said and done en route to victory. Many of the very same people who, just the day before, said he was unfit for office, now told America to unite around him. Meanwhile, those who had not seen any of this coming confidently told us what we had seen and what would be coming next. Middletown had spoken. For reasons to do with class, gender, race, masculinity, disaffection, populism, elitism – or all of the above – it had made common cause with a garish New York City multimillionaire to send a message to the establishment. Reporters were dispatched not to test this thesis but illustrate it.
When the Lynds arrived in Muncie 92 years ago to begin their fieldwork, they had more resources and more time than are generally available to a newspaper reporter. They had two research assistants, and they stayed for the best part of two years. They published their findings in 1929 with a detailed portrayal of a town becoming less devout and less deferent, more educated and more automated, where women were less likely to bake their own bread and more likely to work outside the home, young people led more independent lives, public speeches were getting shorter and schoolgirls preferred cotton to silk stockings.
“We are coming to realise, moreover, that we today are probably living in one of the eras of greatest rapidity of change in the history of human institutions,” they concluded. The sentiment is all too familiar. Something is happening, and faster than we thought possible. Trump follows Brexit as Marine Le Pen may follow Trump. Our political parties no longer seem capable of connecting with those they claim to represent; our democracies are more fragile than we knew; those institutions that make a functioning democracy possible – the press, Congress, the police – are less trusted than they were.
At these moments, the natural tendency is to search for a mirror we might hold up to ourselves – a reflection that tells “us” who we really are in the midst of crisis and change. When the Lynds published Middletown , it was immediately celebrated as an authentic portrait of real America in dozens of rave reviews, and reprinted six times in its first year. The influential columnist HL Mencken declared: “It reveals, in cold-blooded, scientific terms, the sort of lives millions of Americans are leading.” Stuart Chase at the Nation magazine wrote: “Whoever touches the book touches the heart of America.”
Robert Lynd once claimed that ideally the best person to study Muncie would not be American but a Chinese anthropologist with sufficient distance from his subject to fully understand it. But, he reflected, a foreigner would “have had a devil of a time in Middletown getting into homes, being a regular fellow at Rotary and the Chamber of Commerce, and generally hob-nobbing”.
I didn’t do much hobnobbing – though I did attend a swanky opening at an art gallery on campus. But I did have a prime-rib dinner one night with some Republicans and enjoy a Cuban sandwich with some Sanders supporters. Stick around long enough and you’ll meet the Republican chairman, with Syrian grandparents, who loaded his factory’s machines on to the lorry that took them to Mexico, and the Democratic school board candidate who lost his brother to a drug overdose. You’ll see the gun show at the Delaware County Fairgrounds right next door to a cavernous hall where they are giving away coats so the poor don’t go cold in the winter. You’ll hear a black candidate for local office choke up as she admits she will not let her husband accompany her canvassing for fear that he might get shot, and meet Republicans who ask if London is safe because the mayor is a Muslim and you can’t carry a gun.
You’ll hear things that have nothing to do with the elections and everything to do with politics. You’ll realise that the reason this outcome was unimaginable has as much to do with our imaginations as the outcome itself. The seeds for this moment were sown long ago and the roots are deep.
The result was dramatic; the fallout was tumultuous and the consequences will be dire and, for some, even deadly. But the final stages of the process that led us here were characterised less by anger than ambivalence. They didn’t poll for indifference. Few imagined we would sleepwalk into the abyss.
Every country has a Middletown. A real place made mythical by its elevation as an archetype – a town, city or region that encapsulates what a country wishes it had been; a nostalgia rooted in a melancholic longing for economic stability and cultural homogeneity, then nourished by patriotic myth.
Muncie is a small post-industrial town in eastern Indiana of around 70,000 that is on the way to nowhere in particular. On the inside cover of Middletown in Transition, the follow up written by Robert Lynd after the Depression, a map lays out the human geography of the town. To the north-west of the railroad tracks lie “homes of business class” and a small college and hospital, to the north-east of the tracks is the “Negro” area also known as Whitely, to the south of the tracks and the White River are “homes of working class”.
Abandoned plants like giant art installations depict what capitalism looks like when it doesn’t need people any more
“You could take this map and lay it on the town today and it’s just the same,” says James Connolly, the director of the Center for Middletown Studies at Ball State University, which occupies a far bigger section of the north-west than it did on the 1930s map; it is now the town’s largest employer.
No tour around Muncie is complete without a visit to the sites of its closed factories. The car slows down to the pace of a funeral cortege as your guide rolls past the tens of thousands of square feet of brownfield where abandoned plants sit like giant art installations depicting what capitalism looks like when it doesn’t need people any more. Muncie used to host factories that mostly made transmissions for cars. One in five people in the town were employed in manufacturing – today it’s one in 10. During the 1960 campaign, John Kennedy addressed workers at the Borg Warner factory, which is now abandoned.
“Almost everybody worked there,” says Jamie Walsh, 35, who grew up in Muncie’s Southside, the poor white part of town. “Most of my family, my friends’ parents. My grandpa retired from Borg Warner. Everyone was affected. By the time I grew up it was all gone … People started retiring early by 2000. By 2005 they were completely done.”
Skilled union jobs either went abroad, or to the south – places where labour is cheaper and unions are weaker. In the meantime heroin and crystal meth have arrived, ravaging huge sections of the town, both black and white. According to the US census, a third of Muncie lives below the poverty line, while white male earnings have slumped dramatically since 2000.
“When the university or the hospital [the town’s second largest employer] goes to hire a professor or a doctor, they don’t put an ad in the local paper,” says Connolly. “They draw people from around the world as applicants. So you have one part of this community that is plugged into these global networks and lives in a way that is not that different from a major metropolitan centre. And then you have another part of the town that is more isolated than ever because those old things that connected them, like unions and the party, have withered and the connections they created have declined. So not only are some people paid poorly but they’re not at all engaged with this global economy and these networks of connections that extend far and wide.”
This is as good a place as any to start understanding Trump’s victory. Because just as almost every nation has a Middletown, most western nations also have a Trump. Indeed, in no small part, they have a Trump precisely because they have a Middletown and their Middletown is suffering. Ukip’s Nigel Farage campaigned with Trump; Marine Le Pen, the leader of the Front National in France, was one of the first to congratulate him. Whether it’s Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, the Vlaams Belang in Belgium or Viktor Orbán in Hungary, each applies the same mixture of patriotic fervour, class grievance, racial animus and economic insecurity to their own national conditions.
The link between economic anxiety and rightwing nationalism can be overdone. The easy narrative of a populist revolt has an appealing simplicity, but Clinton won votes from more than half of the people who earn less than $50,000; the rich voted for Trump. He won the electoral college and lost the popular vote. Thanks to the lowest turnout in 20 years, Trump won a lower percentage of the eligible vote than John Kerry, John McCain, Mitt Romney and Gerald Ford – and they all lost. He got the same proportion of the white vote as Romney in 2012 and Bush in 2004 and only a little more than McCain in 2008. He may have led the charge to the right but comparatively few marched with him.
Nor is such a link inevitable. In several countries across Europe – from Greece to Britain – a populist left response has emerged to this same crisis. In the US Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator who calls himself a democratic socialist, shocked everybody, including himself, by mounting a dynamic insurgent campaign that addressed these very economic issues.
Nonetheless, the link cannot be denied. The case for solidarity requires more effort and empathy than the case for scapegoating. It also flies against the prevailing headwinds of individualism, nationalism and a narrow understanding of self-preservation.
The connection between closed factories and the rise of the populist right is threefold. First, people are desperate. They were desperate before the economic crisis. It’s not that there are no jobs available in Muncie. As well as the university and hospital, some new manufacturing jobs have arrived. But none can provide the kind of lifestyle to which previous generations were accustomed. Many of the houses on Muncie’s Southside that are not abandoned are collapsing, signalling that a way life is disappearing. Some factory jobs cannot be filled because applicants cannot pass company drugs tests. I heard of at least one manager who is thinking of laying on a bus to get people to work because they don’t have cars and public transport is inadequate.
People need something to change. “The [Democratic party says] ‘Let’s just do the things we’ve always done and have incremental change’.” says Dave Ring, who runs the Downtown Farm Stand, an organic food store and deli. “So they’re very, very happy with incremental change. And the rest of the public is out here like: ‘We don’t have time for incremental change.’”
Second, people blame the entire political class for making them desperate. Bringing down trade barriers and letting manufacturing move abroad was part of a western political orthodoxy that became dominant in the 1990s, creating an overcrowded political centre and leaving so much room at the extremes. The North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), was promoted and passed by Bill Clinton – who also repealed the Glass-Steagall Act, which deregulated the financial sector and contributed to creating the conditions that produced the crash of 2008. Obama championed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an ambitious trade deal involving 11 other countries, crafted mostly in secret, which would not only have likely depressed wages but allowed companies to sue governments if they change policy on, say, health and education to favour state-provided services. Clinton vacillated on it, first backing it, then opposing it. In the wake of Trump’s victory Obama has now effectively abandoned TPP, Trump having campaigned heavily against it.
This also helps explain why Sanders, who campaigned hard against TPP, did so well here. “They understand the trade issue,” said Ring, who voted for Sanders in the primary and then Clinton. “People know what killed their jobs and that was Nafta. And not only did it kill our jobs here but it exploited people elsewhere, and I think people are starting to understand how multinational corporations work. They move the jobs where there’s people they can exploit.”
But the issue was not simply about trade or globalisation: to many voters in Muncie, Clinton looked not only like an integral part of the establishment that had brought them to this place, but like a candidate advocating more of the same. “If you take a step back and look at all America has achieved over the past eight years, it’s remarkable to see how far we’ve come,” Clinton argued. For many of those who already had their backs against the wall, it was hard to see the progress. Trump, on the other hand, offered the near certainty that something would change. “At least he’ll shake things up,” was the phrase that kept coming up. One in five of those who voted for him thought he didn’t have the temperament to be president. For some who had little to lose, he was evidently a risk worth taking.
“The Democrats keep making out like everything is OK,” says Todd Smekens, the publisher of the progressive online magazine Muncie Voice. “And it’s not. Nobody’s buying it.”
Third, and perhaps most dramatic of all, people have come to feel they have no say about what is happening to their lives. That is why the slogan “Take Back Control” resonated with so many during the Brexit referendum. The nation state is still the primary democratic entity; but given the scale of globalisation it is clearly no longer up to the that task of meeting the needs of its citizens. Voters see people coming through borders they can’t close and jobs leaving that they can’t save and wonder how they can assert themselves on the world.
Trump, and his counterparts, are often described in Europe as a threat to democracy. But in truth they would be better understood as the product of a democracy already in crisis.
The Lynds were keen to concentrate on issues of class, and sought out a town with a “homogenous, native-born population” in order to avoid “being forced to handle two major variables, racial change and cultural change”. So one of their key criteria for selecting Muncie as “Middletown” was that it had “a small Negro and foreign-born population”. The foreign-born population really was small because the local business class deliberately imported workers from Tennessee and Kentucky. “There was a conscious attempt to keep foreign workers out,” says Connolly. “Because they wanted people to go home during slack times and they were worried foreigners would bring in dangerous ideas.”
So like a fairground mirror, Middletown gave America an image of itself that was both familiar and woefully distorted
The black population, however, was not small. At 5%, it was proportionally higher at the time than New York, Chicago, or Detroit – and growing faster as well. Today it stands at 12% of the population. “They try to unmask this myth about class. But what it did was create this other myth about a representative America – a nostalgic, white nativist America,” says Sarah Igo, a historian at Vanderbilt University, and the author of The Averaged American.
So like a fairground mirror, Middletown gave America an image of itself that was both familiar and woefully distorted – an image that the American commentariat preferred to reality. That myth, says Igo, is enduring. It can be found in Sarah Palin’s praise of the “real America” in 2008 or Ronald Reagan’s TV ad “It’s morning again in America” in 1984, or, most of all, Donald Trump’s pledge to “Make America great again” – a phrase first employed by Reagan in 1980.
Its persistence has been unaffected – and perhaps even strengthened – by the increasing diversity of the American population. As the white population shrinks in relation to other groups, some people keep their whitewashed image of the country alive by finding ever more desperate ways to dismiss the existence or validity of non-white Americans.
A few days before the election, when reports of huge Latino turnout for early voting presented the false promise of a Clinton landslide, the rightwing troll Ann Coulter tweeted that “If only people with at least 4 grandparents born in America were voting, Trump would win in a 50-state landslide.” (Apparently not realising that would mean neither Trump, whose mother is Scottish, his children or his wife, who is Slovenian-born, could vote.)
Race was a key part of Trump’s message and appeal. He branded Mexicans rapists, vowed to build a wall on the border and to stop Muslims coming into the country. He complained that an American-born federal judge presiding in a case against Trump University was “hostile” because he was “of Mexican heritage”. He threatened that he would not accept the results of the election because there would be voter fraud in the “inner cities” – a term that Trump uses to refer to places where non-white people live. When a black Trump supporter was booed at a rally in North Carolina, presumably because the crowd could not imagine he was not there to protest, Trump ordered security to throw the man out and called him “a thug”.
This was as electorally savvy as it was morally reprehensible. After eight years with Obama at the helm, at a time of heightened racial consciousness, the white anxiety on which Trump preyed was ripe for leveraging.
This sense of racial fragility was both local and global, real and imaginary. At home, white people will become a minority in around 25 years, the president is the black child of a mixed-race relationship that involved a lapsed foreign Muslim, the southern border is porous, and black people are on the streets again, demanding equality before the law. Abroad, jihadi terrorists are becoming ever more brazen and brutal in their attacks on western cities and civilians, the Chinese economy will soon be larger than America’s, the US military has failed to deliver victory in several Muslim countries, and refugees are desperately fleeing the Middle East. Add all that to the stagnant wages, falling living standards, decreasing life expectancy, and vanishing class mobility, and you can see how being a white American feels like it’s not what it used to be.
“While few explicitly talk about Obama in racial terms, the base [Republican] supporters are very conscious of being white in a country with growing minorities,” the veteran Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg explained a few years ago. “Their party is losing to a Democratic party of big government whose goal is to expand programs that mainly benefit minorities. Race remains very much alive in the politics of the Republican party.”
Making small talk over dinner with some Republicans in Muncie, I asked one if he had any plans to visit Britain. He shook his head and said he wouldn’t feel comfortable travelling in Europe at the moment – I assumed because of the threat of terrorism. The only place he would feel safe outside of America, he continued, was Israel. (In 2014, the murder rate in Muncie was higher than in London.)
For the white working class, says Jamie Walsh, who voted for Trump, the benefits of being white aren’t obvious. “People are afraid that they’re stupid. This whole PC thing – racism, sexism. All this stuff is being stupid. All these isms are ignorance. People don’t feel racist, they don’t feel sexist … They feel marginalised because of their ignorance. You don’t want to offend people.”
Trump’s victory cannot be explained by racism alone. He won several states that Obama took easily in 2008 and 2012
It is in the precise place where race and class merge that a section of white America finds itself both bereft and beleaguered. “White privilege is like a blessing and a curse if you’re poor,” Walsh says. “White privilege pisses poor white people off because they’ve never experienced it on a level that they understand. You hear ‘privilege’ and you think money and opportunity and they don’t have it. There’s protected women, minorities – they have advocates. But there’s no advocates for poor people.”
So Trump got almost 60% of the white vote and performed poorly among every other racial group. Race was clearly a central fault line – and how could it not be, in a country that practised slavery for 200 years, apartheid for the next 100, and has been a non-racial democracy for only the last 50?
But Trump’s victory cannot be explained by racism alone – and the efforts to understand race and class separately result in one misunderstanding them both entirely. Indeed, to get to the bottom of Trump’s appeal we will have to go beyond any monocausal interpretation of these results and adopt a more intersectional approach, one that takes into account the fractious way a constellation of identities collide and align.
People are, of course, many things – male, white, straight, rural, college-educated and so on – and just one thing: themselves. It is that whole person, not a segment of it, that goes to the polls and that we need to understand. Hillary Clinton won women – but Trump won white women and older women.
This, despite the fact that his campaign was steeped in misogyny, lambasting women for their looks, dismissing women who accused him of sexual harassment as gold-digging liars, and excusing his own boasts of assault as “locker room talk”. He even passed judgment on Clinton’s looks, telling a crowd in North Carolina: “She walked in front of me, believe me, I wasn’t impressed.”
Bea Sousa, the former spokesperson for the League of Women Voters of Muncie-Delaware County, said a higher bar was set for Clinton than her male counterparts of the past. “I’ve met a lot of women who detest her intensely,” said Sousa, who said she was not a “rabid Hillary fan” herself. “I can’t take credit for this statement but I heard someone say, ‘We’ve gotten used to voting for males we don’t like. We’ve held our nose and we’ve voted for them for whatever reason. But we aren’t used to doing that with a woman.’ Our culture holds women to a higher standard.”
But once again, to isolate misogyny as the central factor in Clinton’s defeat would ignore the fact that 94% of black women went for Clinton – and black men were nearly twice as likely to vote Clinton as white women. Just as race alone cannot sufficiently explain the choices of Trump voters, looking at only class, or only gender, in the absence of race, cannot make sense of these disparities.
Older people voted for Trump and younger for Clinton, although young white men went to Trump. In another sign of the widening divide over education – also visible in the Brexit vote – college graduates were for Clinton, those who did not attend or finish for Trump. An even starker partisan divide than gender or age was visible in the split between the rural and the urban vote.
To fully grasp how identity played a role in this – and clearly it did – the challenge is not to try to isolate the variables, as the Lynds did, but to include them. Otherwise, we trade the distortions of one fairground mirror for another.
“The age of party democracy has passed,” the late Irish political scientist Peter Mair declared in Ruling the Void, his 2013 autopsy of “the hollowing of western democracy”. “Although the parties themselves remain, they have become so disconnected from the wider society and pursue a form of competition that is so lacking meaning, that they no longer seem capable of sustaining democracy in its present form.”
The situation is no less dire in America than Europe – and it finds illustration everywhere you look in Muncie.
Thanks to its past as a manufacturing hub with strong unions and a reputation for machine politics, Muncie was once known as Little Chicago. The “little” matters: Muncie is big enough to have a political machine, but small enough that most of the people in that machine have known each other since childhood.
The Democratic party is based at 214 North Walnut Street, not far from the courthouse and City Hall – locally, the party establishment is referred to simply as 214. It drew its leadership, primarily, from the local fire department – the current mayor was once a firefighter – and it has a dynastic culture that would not be unfamiliar to the Clintons or Bushes. A few families have dominated the party, and their names still carry weight: Annette Craycraft, the unsuccessful candidate for Delaware county commissioner, for example, is the sister of Steve Craycraft, the Delaware county auditor, and both are the children of Ally Craycraft, who long held positions in town.
In 2010, a reformist caucus took shape within the Democratic party, calling themselves “Team Democrat”. These were Democrats who wanted to disassociate themselves from what they saw as the incestuous and corrupt grip of the machine overseers. “Every person had their own breaking point,” explains Victoria Rose, who once held a senior position in the local party. “I just couldn’t take it any more.” Rose says that each candidate for local office had to pay 10% of their salary to the party in order to stand, and then 1% annually if elected. Whenever possible, she says, the party liked the money in cash; much of it was never accounted for.
For at least six months, the FBI has been investigating Muncie’s Democratic city government over allegations of corruption. In one case, it is alleged that the city’s building commissioner – the son of a local Democratic party grandee who is also a fireman – gave his own building company more than $250,000 of work, some of it for demolitions at addresses where there are no buildings. “It doesn’t surprise me at all,” says Rose. “You could see it coming years away.”
Team Democrat set up a separate “political action committee”, asked people to sign up to a code of conduct, and ran in Democratic primaries against establishment candidates. Their office, a more modest, threadbare affair, sits on the other side of City Hall from 214. Beyond the ethics issue, Rose says there is little in the way of political difference between Team Democrat and the local establishment, although the reformists are possibly less working-class and more likely to have supported Sanders.
On election night last week, 214 looked like a wake. Presidential outcomes aside, Republicans won a virtually clean sweep, from what should have been a closely contested US Senate race, to the governor’s house, down to the county commissioners. The only Democrat candidates that broke through in local races were from Team Democrat.
During the primaries there was no doubt whose side 214 was on: Clinton’s campaign was based there. But beyond the African American community, where Clinton won handily, there was little they could do for her. Sanders talked trade and class, and that message goes down well in Muncie. Bit by bit during the primary, the sceptical became committed and the committed became active. Sanders won.
Muncie’s Democratic machine, much like the Clinton machine, maintained power but lost influence. Within the Democratic party, the Clintons had been cultivating connections for a generation. During the primaries they had the superdelegates sewn up; after it they had the funders lined up. They had the best surrogates: Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Jay-Z, Lady Gaga, Beyoncé. Clinton’s past provided extensive evidence that she was qualified, but for her future presidency – and the changes she might bring – there was no narrative.
In this period of despair and volatility, their offer of milquetoast, market-led managerialism is not a winning formula
You can pin it on the Russians, WikiLeaks, the FBI, the media, third parties, and they all played a role. But sooner or later moderate liberals are going to have to own the consequences of their politics. In this period of despair and volatility, their offer of milquetoast, market-led managerialism is not a winning formula. For a political camp that boasts of its pragmatic electability, it has quite simply failed to adapt.
Carefully scripted but complacently framed, the Clinton campaign emerged from a centrist political tradition at a moment where there is no centre, offering market-based solutions at a time when Clinton’s own base has begun to see the free market as part of the problem.
Nationally, the machine does not need a tune-up – it needs a complete overhaul. The people to whom Clinton failed to appeal wanted more from their politics than she would provide or was prepared to deliver. In short, economic injustice and class alienation are as much the reason why Clinton lost as why Trump won. He stoked his base’s fears; she failed to give her base hope.
“People look around Muncie and think, ‘What has capitalism done for the working man?’” says Dave Ring, the Downtown Food Stand owner who voted for Sanders and then Clinton. “Well, it’s taken our jobs and ruined our infrastructure and increased our healthcare prices so they’re unaffordable. If your job is good and you have good healthcare and you have retirement, then you don’t understand. That’s a very small group of people. And it happens to be the group of people who are in power.”
Trump did not introduce racism to the modern Republican party. He simply refused to observe institutional etiquette.
For half a century, Republicans had relied on Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy”, which deployed a coded racial message that could bind together a formidable coalition of southern states and suburban white voters. “You have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks,” Nixon told his chief-of-staff Bob Haldeman. “The key is to devise a system that recognises that while not appearing to.”
Trump had no problem “appearing to”, although he focused his bigotry on Latinos and Muslims more than African-Americans. Some people voted for him because of this rhetoric, while others voted for him because it didn’t put them off. The Republican party establishment was terrified by it. Even with less inflammatory rhetoric, the party had been struggling to win the White House.
Over the last few election cycles, the black Republican vote has all but vanished – and the party’s escalating anti-immigration rhetoric seemed certain to erase its share of the Latino vote as well. The trend is clear: Republicans are attracting fewer votes from a growing segment of the population.
Party leaders have long been arguing that this trend is not sustainable. “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term,” Senator Lindsey Graham said in 2012. Then along came Trump, the erstwhile leader of the birther movement – insisting that Obama was not a legitimate president, because he had really been born in Kenya. When people said they hadn’t seen anything like this before, they actually hadn’t been paying attention. True, he was more brazen than his predecessors. But he didn’t break the mould; he adapted it.
I hated Donald Trump during the primaries. He was a mockery
Trump’s nomination was supposed to tear the Republican party asunder. When the primaries came to Indiana, only Ted Cruz and John Kasich were still in the race, and Trump’s nomination felt like a done deal. He won 53% in Delaware County, but most of the Republicans I spoke to there thought he was a deeply flawed candidate.
“A lot of what he’s done and said is indefensible,” said Jim Arnold at a meeting of the Citizens of Delaware County for Good Government (CDCGG), a local conservative group. “I would have been happier with almost anyone else. I wanted [Ben] Carson, then Cruz then Rubio. Trump would have almost been my last choice.” Most of the 12 in the group preferred another candidate. One senior Republican called him a “bully”. Jamie Walsh, who voted for Trump, called him “garbage” and a “word-butcher”. “I hated Donald Trump during the primaries,” she said. “He was a mockery.”
Around the time I was talking to the CDCGG, the national press were writing premature obituaries for the Republican party, complete with circular firing squad metaphors, civil war analogies and even comparisons to the last days of Hitler’s bunker. The local Republican party was also divided – with the CDCGG attacking the party establishment with the same kinetic energy and purist ideology I had seen in other Tea Party groups over the years. When someone threw a brick through the window of Delaware County’s Republican headquarters, the joke in town was that nobody knew whether the vandal was a Republican or a Democrat.
But when election day arrived, the Republicans all voted for Trump – because however they felt about him, they loathed Clinton – and they enjoyed a near-sweep of state and local races as well.
“From the beginning I worried about whether she could win,” says Bea Sousa, who cast her ballot for Clinton. “I think if the Republicans had voted for John Kasich or Jeb Bush, we wouldn’t be talking about this now because I think a lot of people who are having a hard time voting for Trump would not have a hard time voting for a moderate Republican.”
She had a point. Trump lost the popular vote – which the Republicans have only won once since 1992. But this year, it turns out that the people who might have had a hard time voting for Trump had a harder time voting for an establishment Democrat like Clinton. In the end, it was Trump who was lucky to have her as an opponent.
A week before the election, the police chief in Muncie – who also served as the chairman of the county Democratic party until late last year – abruptly announced his resignation after 31 years on the force. In his resignation letter, he singled out the actions of the mayor, who heads the city government currently being investigated by the FBI, as the reason for his sudden departure.
Muncie is now bracing itself for criminal indictments. People lower their voices a little and roll their eyes when they mention the FBI investigation. They are embarrassed, but not really surprised. What I heard over and over again in the city, in many different ways – in matters national and local, political and personal – was ordinary people feeling that they were not getting a fair shake. That the news they get is tainted, that politicians are lining their own pockets and getting away with it; that nobody in power really cares about them and there’s not a damn thing they can do about it.
Trump’s allegations of potential voter fraud were patently ridiculous. More people in America are struck by lightning than impersonate other people at the polls. Trump’s claim that the FBI had soft-pedalled its investigation into Clinton’s emails was clearly bluster: he withdrew it when they appeared to be reopening the case and renewed it again when they said there was no case to answer. But his incessant complaint that “the system is rigged” rang true. Americans no longer have faith in the institutions that govern them. They may differ on why and in whose interests it is rigged. But the trust has gone.
In places such as Muncie, where the recovery has been glacial by comparison to Washington or New York, the legacy of the economic crisis is more than just a distant memory. “My parents lost everything in 2008,” says Cathy Day, an English lecturer at Ball State University. “They remortgaged their home to put three kids and my mum through college. All of that work they put in and they’re left with nothing.”
“It was brutal,” Dave Ring recalled. He set up the Down Town Farm Stand, selling organic produce, much of it from local farms including their own, just before the financial crisis. “The first few years were very, very hard. We just got through it. Every dollar that we have, we put into this little store. We’re not wealthy. We were totally undercapitalised when we started the store. It was half this size. We didn’t have the deli. Just a few things on the shelves.”
And then, earlier this year, the City of Muncie announced that it was partnering with a major regional supermarket chain to help bring a new organic grocery store to town. “A competitor wants to come here that’s one thing,” says Ring. “But to subsidise a competitor? We live here. Our profits are here. We pay our taxes here.”
It’s just one story. But it’s the sort of story that I was told more often than any other in Muncie. And when enough voters have their own versions of this same story – of grievances real and exaggerated – their sentiments don’t have to be firmly grounded in facts for them to be keenly felt and fervently acted upon. When a tiny conspiratorial minority believes the system is rigged, that’s their problem. But when a majority believes it, then the system has a problem.
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Main picture by David Levene