At the very outset of his campaign – and perhaps even earlier – President-elect Donald Trump recognized there are two Americas in this country. There is the America that has recovered from the Great Recession and is full-speed ahead on the path to prosperity. This America is a knowledge economy that offers jobs, promotes education, leverages technology, values inclusion and represents opportunity for all who reside in it.
Then there is the other America. This America has enjoyed no such recovery from the Great Recession. Jobs are scarce. Higher education is prohibitively expensive. Technology doesn’t create jobs; it eliminates them. Hard work and honest living no longer guarantee a better life. Living paycheck-to-paycheck is the norm for many who reside in this America.
One America is full of prosperity and hope. The other America is wrought with despair and devoid of opportunity.
If this talk of “Two Americas” sounds familiar, that’s because it was the theme of a candidate in a previous presidential campaign – a Democratic candidate.
In 2004, Sen. John Edwards made inroads during the primary season describing Two Americas. Edwards described the Two Americas as follows:
“We still live in a country where there are two different Americas. One, for all of those people who have lived the American dream and don’t have to worry, and another for most Americans, everybody else who struggle to make ends meet every single day. It doesn’t have to be that way.”
Edwards’ message resonated with Americans, but he was a man before his time. The country was not yet ready to elect a philanderer with awe-inspiring hair to be its president.*
Twelve years and a financial crisis later, the country was ready when another philanderer with awe-inspiring hair arrived on the political scene.
Trump would readily admit that he has spent his life in the America of privilege and opportunity. However, he proved over the last year and half that he speaks the language of the other America fluently. It is a language that seethes with frustration and stresses the need for jobs, strength and empowerment.
Hillary Clinton tried to speak that language, but she never quite mastered it. Even when Clinton talked about jobs on the campaign trail, she got the accent wrong. She highlighted how jobs had returned to the economy and insisted the real problem was that wages had stagnated. Both statements are true on a national level, but Clinton failed to realize jobs hadn’t returned to a significant portion of the electorate.
A recent Georgetown University study found workers with only a high-school degree or less lost 5.6 million jobs during the Great Recession. Only 80,000 of those jobs have returned to the economy. A whopping 99% of the jobs created as part of the economic recovery have gone to workers with more than a high-school degree. Clinton’s lamenting how wages weren’t high enough completely missed the mark when more than 5.5 million people in her audience didn’t have any job at all. Clinton’s misguided message cost her dearly in the Rust Belt states that ended up propelling Trump to the White House.
That Clinton adopted a narrative that touted the economic recovery was not surprising. The overall economy had improved. One of the Americas was enjoying the recovery, so she had to promise more of the same to that America. However, “more of the same” was the last thing the people in the other America wanted to hear.
Clinton, hailing from a party long-associated with unions and the working class, struggled to distance herself from Wall Street and the status quo and was left tainted as the candidate who represented big business as usual. Trump, the candidate from a Republican Party most closely associated with big business, suddenly – and very effectively – positioned himself as the candidate of the blue collar American. Trump had borrowed a page from former President Bill Clinton’s political playbook: He co-opted his opponent’s message and made it his own. The only way he could have done so more blatantly would have been to hang a banner on Trump Tower that read, “It’s the economy, stupid.”
And it’s not like Trump highlighted the economy in some kind of under-the-radar kind of way. The first Trump-Clinton debate was the most-watched presidential debate in U.S. history. While one America was foaming at the mouth to see how Trump would answer questions about race and gender issues, Trump knew he had to use the stage to appeal to the other America. His very first remarks that night were as follows:
“Our jobs are fleeing the country. They’re going to Mexico. They’re going to many other countries. You look at what China is doing to our country in terms of making our product. They’re devaluing their currency, and there’s nobody in our government to fight them. And we have a very good fight. And we have a winning fight. Because they’re using our country as a piggy bank to rebuild China, and many other countries are doing the same thing.
So we’re losing our good jobs, so many of them. When you look at what’s happening in Mexico, a friend of mine who builds plants said it’s the eighth wonder of the world. They’re building some of the biggest plants anywhere in the world, some of the most sophisticated, some of the best plants. With the United States, as he said, not so much.
So Ford is leaving. You see that, their small car division leaving. Thousands of jobs leaving Michigan, leaving Ohio. They’re all leaving. And we can’t allow it to happen anymore.”
For the 5.5 million Americans whose jobs never returned after the Great Recession, Trump’s opening salvo was a first-round, knockout punch. They had heard all they needed to hear. The had found their candidate. One look at how Trump performed in the Rust Belt proves those remarks couldn’t have been more perfect for the America that is hungry for work and starving to make ends meet.
Over the course of the campaign, there were numerous internet memes mocking Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan. Some of the memes sarcastically questioned Trump’s supporters about what point in American history they would like to return: The days of slavery? The days before women could vote? But what if the answer was less racist, less misogynistic and far more recent than those memes pre-supposed? What if those 5.5 million out-of-work Americans simply wanted to go back 8 years or so to the days when they had a job, could provide for their families and had hope for a better future?
John Edwards was right about the Two Americas in 2004 and Donald Trump was right about the Two Americas in 2016. But unlike Edwards, Trump was able to harness the anger and despair that permeated across one America and use it to shock and awe the other America at the polls. The headlines from the presidential campaign of 2016 were all about race and gender issues, but the election was all about the economy, stupid.
*The details of Edwards’ dalliances didn’t emerge until well after 2004, but we all kinda, sorta knew. Right?