You either think the United States of America is a hellhole of poverty, unemployment, violence, marauding Hispanics here illegally and lost dreams, or you don’t. That’s the divide that emerged in the first general-election presidential debate at Hofstra University Monday night, and the one that snagged Donald Trump the GOP nomination.
This is not, and cannot yet be, an election argument divided by how candidates and voters think we need to fix our problems. The divide is over what the problems are, what the nation is like, how we live now.
In the tone and the words Trump used resides his vision. He argued that we are losing at everything, with American jobs gone across the border, along with corporate profits. Other nations take advantage of us with horrible trade deals in which our producers get taxed on the goods the United States sends out and foreign concerns do not have to pay equivalent tariffs on goods they send in. The result is a decimated manufacturing sector, rampant unemployment, hopelessness, a huge deficit and uncontrollable street crime.
According to Trump, the neighborhoods where black and brown people reside are horror shows of crime and terror. And oh, the violent immigrants.
The challenging party candidate has to argue things are going in the wrong direction, by definition. But the words Trump used at Monday night’s presidential debate went far beyond that, to downright dystopian. His top doom phrases included:
“Thousands of jobs leaving Michigan, leaving Ohio. They’re all leaving.”
“Our country’s in deep trouble.”
“We’ve become a third world country.”
“We have a situation where we have our inner cities, African-Americans, Hispanics are living in hell because it's so dangerous. You walk down the street, you get shot.”
Here’s the thing: If a significant portion of the nation didn’t agree with Trump on our current state, he would not be doing as well as he is. But the country is not a plummeting disaster. It’s a great and wealthy land, free and vibrant, but with problems that need to be addressed. But Trump tapped a vein 16 other GOP candidates, most of whom were more conventionally qualified, could not reach.
They were too upbeat.
Clearly, Hillary Clinton has more knowledge than Trump on how governments and taxes and armies and treaties and foreign relations work. Hardly anyone would say otherwise. But she finds herself in an odd position. She’s telling voters she can fix the problems of our nation, and many believe she’s oblivious to what the problems of our nation are.
What’s odd is that the voters who support Trump, almost exclusively white and rural or suburban, aren’t the ones supposedly suffering from the ills Trump … trumpets. Trump voters believe the inner cities are murderous hellholes where immigrants here illegally maraud, but they don’t live in those cities. They believe crime and unemployment are horrible in the black community, but they aren’t black.
Obviously, the manufacturing sector that gave so many white men good jobs and benefits has suffered, but the great majority of that happened before Barack Obama came to power in 2008. What’s happened since seems to have less to do with actual jobs than with a sense that the Democratic Party is more worried about others than it is about these displaced white workers. Trump is telling these voters they will be his top priority.
So, yes, more than people have even realized thus far, Clinton’s race is a referendum on eight years of Obama. If you feel the nation is an absolute disaster, how could you reasonably vote for someone who emphatically promises more of the same?
Obama recently garnered a 58 percent approval rating. In the end, it doesn’t seem enough people will agree with Trump’s appraisal of the country to let him run it. But the contrast does make clear the governance issue she’ll face if she takes the White House. A sizable minority of the country will think she finds acceptable a nation in a state they find deplorable.