National Column: At least Donald Trump frightened political elites

by Thomas Walkom Toronto Star

Donald Trump’s real accomplishment is this: He has terrified the establishment.

And maybe that’s a good thing.

Even before the votes in the U.S. presidential race were counted Tuesday night, the effects of Trump’s insurgent candidacy roiled the world.

A shameless self-promoter best known for his appearances on reality television, the New York tycoon was never supposed to make it this far – certainly not against an experienced politician like the Democrats’ Hillary Clinton.

His outsized personality may have worked in Manhattan, where money gave him entrÈe to the political elite. In 2005, for instance, Clinton and her husband, Bill, were honoured guests at Trump’s third wedding.

But Trump was never supposed to do well in politics. He was too bumptious, too contemptuous, too extreme.

When he entered the race for the Republican presidential nomination last year, he was almost
universally dismissed as a joke figure – as someone congenitally unable to master the art of getting elected.

He broke all the rules. He didn’t spend money advertising on television; he didn’t hire seasoned campaign consultants. Instead, he relied on mass rallies, free television coverage and Twitter.

He didn’t make a habit of kissing babies. Indeed, he insulted entire categories of voters.

After winning the Republican nomination, he didn’t feint to the centre in order to attract independents and moderates.

Instead, he doubled down on his core themes: deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement
(NAFTA) are destroying jobs; illegal immigration is out of control; crime is rampant.

In American politics, contenders often play the outsider card. In order to profit from voter
dissatisfaction with the status quo, experienced pols routinely present themselves as brash newcomers.

But in a very odd way, this moneyed real estate developer really was an outsider.

He defied the elite consensus on globalization. He defied good taste. He told unabashed whoppers. He openly insulted and allegedly assaulted women.

By focusing on the ills of the working class, he brought back into play a group of voters that both the Democratic and Republican establishments had ignored.

His pitch to this group was at best nativist and at worst racist. But it resonated anyway. And for the political establishment, that is what was so scary.

Traditionally in the U.S., the working classes have tended to vote Democrat. There have been
exceptions. Republican Ronald Reagan attracted blue-collar votes, as did Richard Nixon before him.

Otherwise, working-class voters in the northern states were viewed as belonging to the Democrats. In 2008 and 2012, the northern, white working class helped to propel Barack Obama to victory.

The Democrats initially assumed it would do the same for Clinton. But this time, they were confounded.

In part, the Democrats have only themselves to blame. They haven’t neglected the labour unions, most of whom still back the party. But often, they have ignored the people these unions represent. Obama, for instance, promised to renegotiate NAFTA during the 2008 election campaign. He never delivered.

The modern Democratic Party favours globalization, technocracy, high finance and well-to-do
Hollywood celebrities. It takes liberal positions on immigration and race. But most of the time, it is singularly silent on the needs of the working class.

Left-wing Democratic politicians are so rare that those who do exist, like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, have become celebrities.

Bernie Sanders, the only person willing to challenge Clinton for the Democratic presidential
nomination, didn’t even join the party until he decided to run.

This election should deliver a warning to the Democrats. They cannot take the allegiance of the working classes for granted.

For Republicans, the lessons are even starker. Their party, which has prided itself on free trade and family values, is so hollow at the centre that it was easily hijacked by a protectionist womanizer.

And for the political establishment generally, this election should serve as a reminder of the power of populism. The elites tend to dislike populism. It is so untidy.

But it is also a real and powerful force. If the left and centre don’t understand and harness it, the Donald Trumps of the world will.

Thomas Walkom’s column appears Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Copyright 2016-Torstar Syndication Services

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