The writer, a pollster for Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, is author of ‘RIP GOP: How the New America is Dooming the Republicans’
After the UK Labour party’s humiliating general election defeat, “moderate” Democratic presidential candidates and commentators in the US urged the Democrats to learn the lessons of Brexit and Donald Trump: don’t veer too far left and make radical promises.
Meanwhile, Steve Bannon, the president’s former adviser, correctly reminded progressives in Britain and the US that “Brexit and Trump were inextricably linked in 2016”. He then provocatively — and incorrectly — added: “They are inextricably linked today.”
It is true that in the US, Mr Trump’s election victory was produced by the same working-class revolt against elitism and immigration that powered the Leave vote. But that historic conjuncture has since been almost erased from view by a very different, American story. Many Democrats have blocked out the backlash among the white working class against the Obama administration, which had expanded government to save global capitalism, bailed out the Wall Street banks, introduced a mandatory health insurance programme with high costs and incurred big federal deficits.
This cost the Democrats in the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections, and ensured Hillary Clinton’s defeat in 2016. The Democratic base of African Americans, Hispanics, millennials, and unmarried women did not turn out to defend the party because they were unenthusiastic about these policies and the claims of economic progress. Elites were indifferent to the anxieties about immigration that contributed to the white working class revolt and Mr Trump’s victory.
His anti-immigrant rhetoric allowed him to win the Tea Party base of the Republican party, and ultimately make immigration the top reason to vote Republican in 2016 and the 2018 midterms. The Trump campaign produced a surge of white working-class voters, many of whom were voting against Mrs Clinton who notoriously viewed them as “deplorables”.
However, disillusionment among the white working class set in just a year into Mr Trump’s presidency. Voters were soon put off by his cutting “meals on wheels” for seniors; in the summer of 2017, Mr Trump nearly passed a plan to slash spending on Medicare and Medicaid, which he had promised not to touch. Every day brought a new scandal, but slashing tax rates for corporations and the top 1 per cent was the last straw.
These voters turned on the president at their first opportunity in the 2018 midterm elections. The shift against Mr Trump among working people was three times stronger than the shift in the suburbs, where the Democrats were poised to flip seats. That obscured the working-class revolt.
Democratic candidates ran on reform and fighting corruption, reducing prescription drug costs and building infrastructure to create jobs. Nearly all Democratic senators across the rust-belt won by double digit margins.
Mr Trump is now running only even with the top Democratic candidates for the 2020 presidential contest among white working-class women, wiping out the 27-point margin he had in 2016.
That takes the US a long way from the electoral college map when Mr Trump was elected. As does accelerating demographic change. Every year, the US becomes less rural, more secular, and, most of all, more millennial. Millennials will probably make up a stunning 36 per cent of the electorate this year.
Mr Trump implemented a travel ban on Muslim countries, sent troops to the border to stop the caravan from Central America, battled to fund the border wall, separated children from their parents and created refugee camps. And America fought back, with millennials in the vanguard. Before the 2016 election, 53 per cent nationally said immigrants “strengthen our country”; that grew to 62 per cent before the midterms. As the administration escalated its anti-immigration efforts in 2019, the proportion offering a warm response to the words, “immigrants to the US” climbed from 52 per cent in January to 67 per cent in September.
The backlash against Mr Trump has played out in every election — most recently in November, when Democrats took total control of Virginia’s state government and won the governorships in Kentucky and Louisiana.
This has created a very different map and story to the UK, where the Brexit divide remains real. Those recommending the Democrats learn from Labour’s defeat should instead take note of the history the party has been writing since Mr Trump was elected.