’Tis the season of looking back, which bring us inevitably to Election Day 2016. Donald Trump’s victory a year ago Wednesday is one of the most significant in modern American history. Not only did he change how politics is played, but he probably destroyed the Republican Party as we knew it. Most important, he will go down as one of the most effective politicians of all time, at least beyond the Beltway.
As with other course-altering events — 9/11, the moon landing, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Kennedys — many will remember where they were when the reality of a Trump presidency hit them.
Plenty of people had gone to bed on election night, believing Hillary Clinton would win. But those who stayed awake were reminded yet again that it’s not over until it’s over. In a word: Pennsylvania.
Trump had been declared the projected winner in other swing states and was leading in traditionally Democratic-leaning Michigan and Wisconsin. But when Pennsylvania was called, many stared at their screens in disbelief.
Trump won. What happened?
Much commentary and several books have attempted an explanation. Voter intensity for Trump was stronger than for Clinton; his surge was larger than hers; many Democrats stayed home because they didn’t like Clinton; others were bitter at how they felt Bernie Sanders had been treated during the primaries by the Democratic National Committee.
More to the point, in Pennsylvania as elsewhere, Trump’s dominance in rural areas overshadowed Clinton’s wins in urban areas. Specifically, the deplorables were out of the basket and setting the establishment on fire. Trump’s small- and midsized-town rural voters weren’t stupid, ignorant, racist, misogynist or nativist, not most, anyway. They were regular, God-fearing folks who were sick of Washington, distrustful of liberal policies, and fed up with elites.
There’s a wonderful line in Doug Marlette’s 2001 autobiographical novel, “The Bridge,” in which the late editorial cartoonist’s grandmother, Mama Lucy, a North Carolina mill worker, talks to her successful grandson about his life way up yonder in New York City. This fearless woman who chewed tobacco and packed heat, according to Marlette, wrapped up her thoughts nice-and-neat-like: I wouldn’t put a crick in my neck to look up at them tall buildin’s!
It was just one line, but those few words told a story of resentment by people left out of the American dream. New Yorkers were stand-ins for the mill owners, who acted as if they were better than Mama Lucy and her people; the tall buildings symbolized the big houses of her greedy employers.
What happened in 2016 could not be summed up any better. Mama Lucy’s attitude and the cultural context from which she spoke could be transposed with little tweaking. Not that members of Trump’s base are all poor or unpolished, but they probably understood Mama Lucy’s remark.
The irony is that Trump is the big building. But rather than make everyday Americans strain to see him up in his gilded tower, Trump came down and spoke to their darkest places. It didn’t pain him to say what they needed to hear, whereas Clinton, for all her husband’s “faux bubba”-ness, a term Marlette created for Bill, and her frequent references to her father as a “rock-ribbed, up-by-your-bootstraps, conservative Republican,” didn’t even know the words.
It would be a mistake for future candidates and campaign managers to miss these lessons. The resentments of Mama Lucy and others who feel slighted or looked down upon are as constant as kudzu — and no one yet has understood them better than Trump, the rage-filled city boy from Queens who could never get enough of anything.
Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist.