It’s Wednesday, November 9, and Hillary Clinton has defeated Donald Trump. Media commentators and political observers are celebrating the triumph of rationality, but a nagging question looms: In the battle between Clinton and Trump, who would have won if Trump had followed the wisdom of his staff and reined himself in a bit rather than stumbling into a million gaffes?
The likelihood of this post-election scenario is a reminder that even if Clinton can defeat Trump in November, Clintonism is ill-equipped to beat back Trumpism in the long run. It will take a much more radical vision to channel the popular anger that Trump has exposed toward positive ends.
Sure, the Democratic platform is its most progressive in years. Adopting the demands of Bernie Sanders supporters for a $15 minimum wage, affordable public-university tuition, new financial regulations, and a softened Trans-Pacific Partnership were enough to placate the Vermont senator and many of his followers. But the party remains firmly oriented toward business, defined by a decades-long record that includes NAFTA, gutting welfare, handouts to Wall Street, and the championing of projects like the Keystone XL pipeline. Disillusioned progressives could certainly be forgiven for doubting the party will keep its promises after the election.
Moreover, a significant number of Americans, who feel alienated from the political and economic establishment now aligned behind Clinton, remain firmly in Trump’s camp. So while it seems increasingly likely that a majority of voters will ultimately balk at Trump’s xenophobia and fearmongering, Democrats will have to deal with the rhetoric of Trumpism for cycles to come, especially in state and local races. Mainstream Republicans may spurn Trump, but they share much in common with their candidate and have total or split control of 34 state legislatures. Under President Obama, Democrats have lost almost a thousand state-legislature seats, a dozen gubernatorial races, 69 House seats and 13 in the Senate. A Clinton victory, even a sizable one, will not turn back this tide.
And it’s naive to suggest—as many Democrats have—that this political shift is simply the result of massive investment of money in politics by the Koch brothers and their ilk, and would melt away in the event of strong campaign finance reform or through reversing the GOP’s radical 2010 redistricting effort. Many Republican campaigns are rooted in deep grassroots organizing and enthusiasm, and Trump has only added to this zeal. The far-right populism fueling his campaign—and the rise of far-right parties in Europe—is here to stay, whether it’s featured at the front of the Republican ticket in 2020 or not.
The Democratic Party must ponder a tough question: How much of Trump’s support among the white working class can really be chalked up to Republican propaganda and race-baiting, or is a good deal of populist anger rooted in the Democrats’ hypocrisy on economic issues? If the past eight years of Obama recovery haven’t benefited these workers, why would they be enthused to rally beyond his anointed successor?