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'Do you cut off your right hand or your left?': the choice facing middle America

Two weeks ago it looked like it was all over. Now, on the eve of the election, Trump has bounced back. What lies behind his enduring popularity?

Josh Neicho
7 November 2016
 Evan Vucci AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Donald Trump pumps his fist as he arrives to speak to a campaign rally. Evan Vucci AP/Press Association Images.Could it still happen? In spite of the series of sexual assault accusations that landed against Donald Trump less than a month ago; the legal cases against him due to begin hearings imminently; a perception that he and Hillary Clinton are being held to an absurd double standard over their alleged misdemeanours. 

In spite of the fact that Clinton was reported to not even be thinking about her rival as she enjoyed a double digit national poll lead ten days ago, and that the Republican candidate has alienated almost every imaginable demographic beyond white men, Trump has bounced back following FBI director James Comey's announcement last week to within 2-3 percentage points of Clinton — within the margin of error — and taken the lead in battleground states such as Ohio and Florida. 

Trump's defiance of political gravity makes more sense once you get a handle on what really matters to voters in this election, and the vehemence of middle America's dislike and distrust for Clinton. The Democratic candidate reminds Kerri Morningstar, single mother of three and a real estate agent of Native American, German and French origin from Fort Wayne, Indiana, of Eva Peron. "She came in on the coat-tails of her husband and had a political agenda all along.” While her personal attributes are "really remarkable,” her decisions are "selfish" — "I'm not really sure if she's for the people, or women, or minorities.”
Trump's defiance of political gravity makes more sense once you get a handle on what really matters to voters in this election 

Pat Carrier, an 80-year-old widow who lives in the Detroit suburbs and volunteers with a Catholic charity at her church, says Clinton "has no conscience. Doing whatever's necessary to push her particular formula doesn't help humanity [or] the country". She can't abide her redistributive tax plans. Obamacare is "a kind of a farce as it has raised everyone’s insurance" and a bureaucratic nightmare: "a friend had to get his brother who is quite ill on Obamacare. He could never figure it out, he finally had to put him on Medicaid". 

Carrier acknowledges that Trump "hasn't given any real plans. I don’t know what that means". But the risk of economic calamity or global instability may not count against him: "We have survived a lot. We can survive whatever happens". 

Morningstar, despite previously parting from the Republicans to vote for independents Ross Perot and Ralph Nader agrees with many Americans in seeing the election as a choice between two evils: "do you cut off your right hand or your left?” Trump is a shady superhero, who "doesn't care whose toes he's stepping on because he's trying to right some wrongs.” Daniela Varela, a 25 year old from LA, says the sex assault allegations will have no impact on how she or her female friends and relations will vote. “This election is going to turn out like Brexit," she says. "Most people are tired of government corruption and want change. Immigration, trade, term limits for Congress, and a Washington outsider are what is really important.”

Malise Sundstrom has worked in international development and public affairs and is now chair of Republicans Overseas UK. She's had the challenge of selling to globally-minded expats the concept of voting for Trump; a "horrible" candidate and a "historic low... It's kind of like coming out of the closet.” But she sees the election as a “huge opportunity" to talk about immigration, previously taboo, and to challenge the open borders and free trade status quo, thanks to the unusual spectacle of a self-funded populist as a major party nominee. If she voted for Clinton, she says, she would one day have to justify herself to her daughter, now 18 months old. "I've always worked with women, I've always worked in cities. I'm a feminist, absolutely. I think nothing will happen, nothing will change if Clinton is elected. I think she could betray women.” 

A Michigan-based senior sales director of an automative parts producer, of Maltese descent, is withering about Trump's xenophobia, the Mexican border wall and his "ridiculously low emotional intelligence.” Yet looking at his fellow Americans he sees the economic desperation (“the length of car loans is at an all time high… the loan default rate is at an alarming all-time high”) and hunger for change. Trump he credits with the assertiveness and animal spirit that the nation is seeking, plus moments of an empathy that John Kasich, for example, is incapable of; with “getting” the task needed because he has some understanding of business and with being certain to bring in good people to work with him if he reached the White House. 

On the other side, "one couldn’t find a candidate more attached to the current bureaucratic parking lot than Clinton.” David Frum, in an impassioned piece for The Atlantic, argued that conservatives should vote for Clinton ultimately in defence of the republic and the constitution. Many voters, feeling the republic is deeply tarnished already, or that entropied fundamentals of American culture and society face wipeout under Clinton, may make a different calculation.

Many voters, feeling the republic is deeply tarnished already, may make a different calculation 

All this said, Clinton remains in a much stronger position in the final hours of the race in terms of the electoral college maths: with reports that Nevada is securely in the Clinton column following early voting. It would be unwise to prejudge anything after a rollercoaster campaign, but it seems clear that for Clinton the bigger challenge is not simply getting to the White House but afterwards being able to command a mandate with a large section of the population unflinchingly hostile to her, and Trump having already declared he will not recognise the result if it goes against him; on top of the familiar bane of a legislative roadblock. Barack Obama faced down a movement that sought to delegitimise his presidency — how will Clinton reach out and address an even frostier resistance?

Ian Bassin, former associate counsel to Obama and deputy counsel to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio says that the noise of the campaign has obscured the fact that Clinton has laid out "a raft of strong proposals" to address precisely these issues, including a constitutional amendment to get big money out of politics and using the tax code to incentivise companies to profit share." But she's going to have to put these issues forward right away and be FDR-like in the sense that he was called a traitor to his class by standing up to the big moneyed interests early on.” Professor Melissa Deckman, chair of the political science department at Washington College and author of Tea Party Women, remarks on calls for her to go and visit blue collar voters in West Virginia that "I'm not sure those voters will listen to what she's saying.”

"I thought Obama had a better chance than anybody of healing the divide" says Deckman. "I'm not optimistic. The only thing I see getting us out of this is if we have a huge economic rebound.”

Former CNN producer and tech entrepreneur Melissa Jun Rowley grew up in Michigan. "There are countless people going broke from losing their jobs to offshore factories, or having to pay higher taxes, or from having to pay for Obamacare; I know many of them" she says. Hillary’s top priority should be addressing the Affordable Health Care Act — "she needs to find a way to not let the private insurance firms hike up the rates. Is this possible? We'll find out soon enough."
What's needed is a change of tone by the Democrats to treat those voters with respect and to demonstrate they are listening

Rowley's younger self found Clinton "off-putting and harsh", until she says she grew to understand that "when your entire career has been about breaking new ground, you have to be loud.” Her message to Hillary haters? "No one is asking you to like her. And maybe you like Trump, because a) he's not a politician or b) he's [like] the funny drunk guy in the bar who isn't afraid to say politically incorrect things or offend anyone. He's refreshing. He's entertaining. Keep watching him. Just think about who you want your kids looking up to as the leader of the free world before the end of this circus.”

There's no shortage of policy answers to the disaffection of white, blue collar voters — the kind of voters the Democratic party is supposed to represent — and the Obama administration is already pursuing them, says Marcus Roberts, international projects director of YouGov, who worked on the Gore, Kerry and Obama campaigns. What's needed is a change of tone by the Democrats to treat those voters with respect and to demonstrate they are listening rather than lecturing them. Can the party make the most of its “overwhelming demographic advantage, which wins elections, and also carry along some of the losers with them”, or will Trump supporters regroup around a less bombastic alt-right candidate with broader appeal?

This year's US election campaign has left people despairing about the limits to which democracy has been pushed, in terms of voters’ feelings of disenfranchisement and accusations levelled during the campaign. It is also threatening to demonstrate what is often said about countries in political transition, that democracy is about far more than elections. While Clinton has been held up as a defender of constitutional norms against the depredations of an opponent in one particularly feverish election cycle, she may find she has a long-running battle on her hands.

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