As 2015 drew to a close, political observers of all stripes were rightly getting raked over the coals for their respective failures to predict the most dramatic development of the 2016 GOP presidential campaign. But when it comes to the unlikely rise and surprising staying power of Donald Trump, President Barack Obama didn't seem at all taken aback by the Republican frontrunner's strength among older, whiter, less-educated, and working-class voters. Of course, that might be because then-Sen. Obama warned in 2008 about precisely that kind of right-wing appeal to frustrated and "bitter" voters who "cling to guns or religion."
Two weeks ago, President Obama explained the Trump phenomenon this way to Steve Inskeep of NPR:
"I do think that when you combine that demographic change with all the economic stresses that people have been going through -- because of the financial crisis, because of technology, because of globalization, the fact that wages and incomes have been flat-lining for some time, and that particularly blue-collar men have had a lot of trouble in this new economy, where they are no longer getting the same bargain that they got when they were going to a factory and able to support their families on a single paycheck -- you combine those things, and it means that there is going to be potential anger, frustration, fear.
"Some of it justified, but just misdirected. I think somebody like Mr. Trump is taking advantage of that. That's what he's exploiting during the course of his campaign."
If that sounds eerily familiar, it should. Because on the eve of the Pennsylvania Democratic primary back in the spring of 2008, candidate Obama told an audience at a San Francisco fundraiser much the same thing in his instantly infamous "Guns and Bitter" speech. His plans for tax relief for working Americans (to roll back the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest one percent and to provide universal health care), Obama warned, still might not be enough to win over those "in a lot of these communities in big industrial states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, people have been beaten down so long, and they feel so betrayed by government, and when they hear a pitch that is premised on not being cynical about government, then a part of them just doesn't buy it."
The truth is, is that, our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there's not evidence of that in their daily lives. You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. So it's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
For those remarks, Sen. Obama was immediately denounced as "out of touch" and "elitist" by his Democratic rival, Sen. Hillary Clinton, and Republican nominee John McCain. Some Obama supporters worried that his "ill-chosen" and "boneheaded" words could cost him the nomination, much as Gary Hart's "toxic waste dump" gaffe proved to be his undoing in New Jersey back in 1984. But despite losing both Pennsylvania and Ohio to Clinton, Obama nevertheless secured the nomination. GOP glee over his supposed weakness in "the industrial heartland" was short-lived: Obama beat both John McCain and Mitt Romney in the Keystone State and the Buckeye State en route to winning the presidency.
But fast-forward to 2016, and those who Barack Obama lamented were frustrated and bitter constitute the base of Donald Trump's support.
Working-class whites, once the lynchpin of the Democrats' New Deal coalition, pulled the lever as Wallace voters as part of the "Silent Majority" in Richard Nixon's "Southern Strategy" and, by 1980, as Reagan Democrats. At the heart of What's the Matter with Kansas, these should-have-been progressives chose social and cultural appeals over their economic self-interest. And now, as FiveThirtyEight explained last month:
Whites without college degrees are now the bedrock of the Republican coalition: They voted for Mitt Romney 62 percent to 36 percent in 2012. However, their share of the electorate is rapidly shrinking: They skew older and more rural, and we project that their share of the national vote will fall to 33 percent in 2016, down from 36 percent in 2012. Nonetheless, they still factor heavily in battleground states such as Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio and Wisconsin.
Like a goose-stepping Jerry McGuire, Donald Trump had them at "hello." As in "Hello, I'm going to deport all 11 million undocumented immigrants and ban Muslims from entering the United States."
In August, NPR explained why "Why Trump Is Here To Stay -- At Least For A While:”
In last month's NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, Trump did well among nearly every subset of the Republican Party. He registered highest with voters without a college degree. He also performed strongly among men. They viewed him very positively. He was most well-liked by Tea Party supporters and those who regularly listen to conservative talk radio.
By Christmas Day, Trump enjoyed a 21-point lead (39 to 18 percent) over Ted Cruz, currently his closest competitor for both the "bitter ballot" and the nomination. As the CNN/ORC poll showed:
Trump's standing in the race for the nomination is bolstered by widely held trust that he can best handle the top issues facing the nation. Trump holds massive advantages over the rest of the field as the candidate best able to handle the economy (57% Trump, his next closest competitors are Cruz at 8%, Rubio at 7%, Carson at 6% and Bush at 5%), illegal immigration (55% trust Trump, followed by Cruz at 15%, Rubio at 10%), and ISIS (47% prefer Trump, 21% Cruz, 7% Bush and 6% Christie)...
Education remains a stark dividing line among Republicans, but since last month Trump has gained ground with the party's college graduates. In the new poll, 27% of GOP voters with degrees back Trump, up from 18% in the late-November poll. Among those without degrees, 46% back Trump, the same share as in November. Non-college voters could prove to be an Achilles heel for Rubio, who holds just 6% support among that group compared with 19% among those who hold degrees.
As I've noted previously, the seething Republican blend of rage and myth-making now on display at Trump rallies began long before Barack Obama took the oath of office.
Even before the first vote was cast in November 2008, today's Tea Party types were calling Sen. Obama a socialist Muslim and demanding his birth certificate at McCain-Palin rallies across America. Just take a look back at Alexandra Pelosi's documentary of the 2008 campaign, Right America: Feeling Wronged. Clips from Right America look no different from the "McCain-Palin Mob" or "Tea Baggers 2009." As one McCain supporter put it before the November 2008 election:
"We all hate the same things."
For more proof, look no further than the Washington Post's October 9, 2008 article, "Anger Is Crowd's Overarching Emotion at McCain Rally:"
There were shouts of "Nobama" and "Socialist" at the mention of the Democratic presidential nominee. There were boos, middle fingers turned up and thumbs turned down as a media caravan moved through the crowd Thursday for a midday town hall gathering featuring John McCain and Sarah Palin.
As CNN reported in another October 2008 article titled "Rage Rising on the McCain Campaign Trail," one nascent Tea Partier announced at a town hall:
"I'm mad. I'm really mad. It's not the economy. It's the socialist taking over our country."
But in the intervening eight years, all that supposed socialist did was save the economy of the United States. Unemployment is lower now than when Barack Obama first entered the Oval Office. The stock market has doubled and the economy has created millions of new private sector jobs despite the contraction of combined public sector spending at the federal, state, and local levels. And while the overwhelming consensus of economists agrees that the Obama stimulus prevented a Great Depression 2.0, Obamacare has brought health insurance to more than 20 million Americans and reduced the uninsured rate to its lowest level in decades. Meanwhile, like his GOP rivals Donald Trump has proposed yet another massive tax cut windfall for the wealthy, one that delivers $1.3 million each to the richest 0.1 percent even as it adds a staggering $12 trillion in new deficits over the next decade.
But two decades-long trends have convinced some, as President Obama warned in December, that "they are no longer getting the same bargain that they got when they were going to a factory and able to support their families on a single paycheck." As Dan Balz detailed in the Washington Post on December 12, new survey data from the Pew Research Center reflects the long-term decline of the American middle class. Once the nation's economic backbone, the middle class now represents less than half the U.S. population:
For anyone trying to understand the emergence of Donald Trump as a force in this pre-election year, the Pew Research Center this past week provided some valuable insight. There's little doubt that what has happened to America's middle class has helped to create the climate that has fueled Trump's sudden rise...
There has been a "hollowing out" of the middle class, as the study puts it. In 1971, the middle class accounted for 61 percent of the nation's population. Today, there are slightly more people in the upper and lower economic tiers combined than in the middle class.
But that's not the only kindling Donald Trump's incendiary right-wing populist rhetoric is trying to ignite. As the New York Times documented in November, some middle-aged white Americans are literally dying to support Donald Trump:
Something startling is happening to middle-aged white Americans. Unlike every other age group, unlike every other racial and ethnic group, unlike their counterparts in other rich countries, death rates in this group have been rising, not falling...
The analysis by Dr. Deaton and Dr. Case may offer the most rigorous evidence to date of both the causes and implications of a development that has been puzzling demographers in recent years: the declining health and fortunes of poorly educated American whites. In middle age, they are dying at such a high rate that they are increasing the death rate for the entire group of middle-aged white Americans, Dr. [Angus] Deaton and Dr. [Anne] Case found.
The mortality rate for whites 45 to 54 years old with no more than a high school education increased by 134 deaths per 100,000 people from 1999 to 2014.
As University of Pennsylvania mortality expert Samuel Preston put it, "This is a vivid indication that something is awry in these American households." That something isn't rising annual death rates among this group being driven by the big killers like heart disease and diabetes, the Times reported, "but by an epidemic of suicides and afflictions stemming from substance abuse: alcoholic liver disease and overdoses of heroin and prescription opioids." And that, TPM's Josh Marshall declared, makes this "one of the most important studies in years in terms of understanding the current state of American politics and society." Paul Krugman went a step further:
In particular, I know I'm not the only observer who sees a link between the despair reflected in those mortality numbers and the volatility of right-wing politics. Some people who feel left behind by the American story turn self-destructive; others turn on the elites they feel have betrayed them. No, deporting immigrants and wearing baseball caps bearing slogans won't solve their problems, but neither will cutting taxes on capital gains. So you can understand why some voters have rallied around politicians who at least seem to feel their pain.
To be sure, Donald Trump and the Republicans following in his wake hear their anger. But Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders feel their pain, and are trying to respond to it. As Sanders explained to CBS Face the Nation last Sunday:
"Many of Trump's supporters are working-class people and they're angry, and they're angry because they're working longer hours for lower wages, they're angry because their jobs have left this country and gone to China or other low-wage countries, they're angry because they can't afford to send their kids to college so they can't retire with dignity. What Trump has done with some success is taken that anger, taken those fears which are legitimate and converted them into anger against Mexicans, anger against Muslims, and in my view that is not the way we're going to address the major problems facing our country,"
In 2011, President Barack Obama went to Osawatomie, Kansas to offer his plan to address the major problems facing the country. Obama wasn't merely speaking in the belly of the red state beast. He chose the very location where Theodore Roosevelt in 1910 called for a "new nationalism," including, as the New York Times recalled, "strong government oversight of business, a 'graduated income tax on big fortunes,' an inheritance tax and the primacy of labor over capital." For that, the president told his audience to great laughter, TR "was called a socialist -- even a communist."
Now, just as there was in Teddy Roosevelt's time, there is a certain crowd in Washington who, for the last few decades, have said, let's respond to this economic challenge with the same old tune. "The market will take care of everything," they tell us. If we just cut more regulations and cut more taxes -- especially for the wealthy -- our economy will grow stronger. Sure, they say, there will be winners and losers. But if the winners do really well, then jobs and prosperity will eventually trickle down to everybody else. And, they argue, even if prosperity doesn't trickle down, well, that's the price of liberty.
Now, it's a simple theory. And we have to admit, it's one that speaks to our rugged individualism and our healthy skepticism of too much government. That's in America's DNA. And that theory fits well on a bumper sticker. (Laughter.) But here's the problem: It doesn't work. It has never worked. (Applause.) It didn't work when it was tried in the decade before the Great Depression. It's not what led to the incredible postwar booms of the '50s and '60s. And it didn't work when we tried it during the last decade. (Applause.) I mean, understand, it's not as if we haven't tried this theory.
Obama is exactly right. As the record clearly shows, when it comes to job creation, income growth, GDP expansion, and stock market performance, the economy almost always does better under Democratic presidents. That includes the one who warned in Kansas that day that "gaping inequality gives lie to the promise that's at the very heart of America: that this is a place where you can make it if you try" and lamented "the rungs on the ladder of opportunity have grown farther and farther apart, and the middle class has shrunk." But while President Obama tried to address the despair and anger, Donald Trump has only sought to channel it.
The question in 2016 is whether those who are most bitter will still cling to him.