Donald Trump ran on a series of impossible promises, but enough people believed he could deliver on them that he won the Electoral College. His supporters are in for what might be the rudest awakening in recent political history.
Immediately after the election, the candidate who ran against the establishment, the guy who promised to “drain the swamp,” immediately surrounded himself with party hacks and lobbyists. He announced that Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus, perhaps the most prominent face of the dreaded “establishment,” would be his chief of staff. Good-government advocates expect the Trump regime to gut what remains of our already tattered campaign-finance laws. Reuters reports that, “despite his professed opposition to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, President-elect Donald Trump is considering several of the major advocates of that war for top national security posts.” And as Politico’s Ben White put it, “a populist candidate who railed against shady financial interests on the campaign trail is now putting together an administration that looks like an investment banker’s dream.”
Trump’s not going to make coal cheaper than natural gas and bring back a bunch of mining jobs. He might be able to negotiate some new riders for NAFTA, but they’ll be guided by the same corporate lobbyists who effectively wrote it in the first place, and won’t do anything to bring back jobs that have been sent overseas. There will be no 35 percent tariff on imports from Mexico or China.
The exit polls show that Trump beat Clinton among affluent voters, and Americans up and down the economic ladder responded to his dog whistles, or at least voted for their party despite the bigotry displayed by its nominee. But Trump made huge gains over Mitt Romney among those making $30,000 or less, and benefited from a major urban-rural divide. And it’s the rural poor who put him over the top in key swing states who are going to be hit especially hard by the coming bait and switch.
An analysis of the election results by researchers at the University of Washington found that the single greatest predictor for whether a county would swing toward Trump, relative to Mitt Romney’s performance in 2012, was a combination of short life expectancies and poor measures of public health. As a report in The Economist put it, “holding all other factors constant—including the share of non-college whites—the better physical shape a county’s residents are in, the worse Mr. Trump did relative to Mr. Romney.”
Clay County, Kentucky, is a profoundly depressed area in the heart of coal country. Whether its residents responded to Trump’s dog whistles or rolled the dice on a successful businessman to shake up a status quo that had failed them, the results suggest that they saw real hope in his election: Trump won the county 79-21. But according to NPR, a lot of folks in Clay County are now starting to worry about their health care, and with good reason. Kentucky set up an Obamacare exchange and expanded Medicaid under then-governor Steve Beshear, a Democrat, and today around one in three of the state’s residents are covered under the program. Kentucky’s uninsured rate dropped from 20 percent to just 7.5 percent over the course of two short years. In Clay County, where almost four in 10 live in poverty, 60 percent of the population relies on Medicaid, and Matt Bevin, the Republican governor who took over in 2015, wants to roll back the expansion if the federal government doesn’t sign off on his plan to charge beneficiaries higher premiums. Obama’s HHS was expected to reject Bevin’s scheme, but that’s unlikely to happen under Trump.
It is these very voters—less educated, struggling to get by on low incomes—who will bear the brunt of unified Republican government under Trump. The GOP Congress may give Trump his “infrastructure plan,” but that looks like it will consist of a bunch of tax cuts for investors to sink into toll bridges and toll roads. It will definitely give him the rest of his huge tax cuts, but those are skewed toward those at the top and won’t bring much relief to the “forgotten men and women of this country,” as he promised when campaigning. If the GOP repeals the Affordable Care Act, as it’s vowed to do since it was enacted, many of these voters will lose their subsidized health insurance. Block-granting Medicaid and privatizing Medicare will dramatically increase these their economic insecurity. They’ll lose food stamps and Head Start slots. They’ll lose access to reproductive health care. They can forget about a hike in the federal minimum wage. According to one estimate, 20 million Trump voters will lose out on a big raise when Republicans kill Obama’s overtime rule. And if the GOP doesn’t get rid of it entirely, they’ll at least hobble the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which reined in the kind of predatory lending schemes that often indenture the working poor. It’ll be death by a thousand cuts.
In a sense, Trump’s supporters are going to face the same realization that many progressives did when Barack Obama didn’t end racism or bring comity to Congress or usher in a new liberal golden age. Americans elect not only a president, but also over 2,000 members of a political coalition to policy-making positions across a sprawling government. Anyone who pins their hopes on an individual savior—like the people of Clay County, Kentucky—is guaranteed to be sorely disappointed. But in Trump’s case, the disappointment will be more profound, both because he promised more and because his party will likely have unified control of government for his entire first term and will own all of the pain he causes.
How struggling voters who pinned their hopes on Trump will ultimately react is a question that will be answered in the coming years. The best-case scenario is that they rethink support, or at least sit out the 2020 election. At worst, they’ll become more reactionary, and more likely to lash out at those they perceive as the other. What’s certain is that they’re headed for an epic case of buyers’ remorse.