Facebook pixel Assistant Dean Carson Bruno Quoted in "Democrats Should Have Seen the Trump Train Coming" | San Francisco Chronicle | Newsroom | School of Public Policy Newsroom Skip to main content
Pepperdine | School of Public Policy

Assistant Dean Carson Bruno Quoted in "Democrats Should Have Seen the Trump Train Coming" | San Francisco Chronicle

Democrats should have seen the Trump train coming

By Joe Garofoli | November 8, 2016 | San Francisco Chronicle

Democrats are asking, “How could this have happened?”

But to millions of Americans who feel that the system isn’t working for them, who haven’t been part of the nation’s economic recovery, who think Washington doesn’t listen to them, it was something that needed to happen. Their choice was clear: Donald Trump was the imperfect vessel for their frustration.

“The message to the elites (of both parties) is, ‘You’re out of touch,’” said Mo Fiorina, a professor of political science at Stanford University and author of “Disconnect: The Breakdown of Representation in American Politics.”

“If you’re leaning toward giving the middle finger to the elites, then a vote for Trump makes sense,” he said.

The people who voted for Trump didn’t care that he offered slogans instead of plans. They didn’t care that independent fact-checkers like Politifact found most of the things he said were factually wrong. They shrugged at Trump outsourcing his signature ties and clothing to overseas workers, just like the factory owners who closed the plants where they used to work.

They cared more that Trump ridiculed bad trade deals supported by both Republicans and Democrats, because he said they were killing the kind of jobs Americans had — or used to have.

And in the process, the gut-level frustration felt by Trump’s working-class, white supporters and others sick of Washington gridlock went under the radar of nearly every pollster and pundit with a Twitter handle or a regular gig at MSNBC. Early exit polls showed Trump winning 2 of every 3 voters without college degrees.

They were so motivated that they ignored his boast that he planned to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. They didn’t think he’d be able do it, but they liked that he said it.

“Both parties, Republicans and Democrats, have been neglecting noneducated white voters,” said Carson Bruno, assistant dean at the Pepperdine University School of Public Policy.

Nowhere was the Clinton campaign’s tone deafness more apparent than across the Rust Belt states like Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin, each of which President Obama won twice.

In Michigan, early exit polls showed college-educated voters supported Hillary Clinton by 50 percent to 44 percent, while those with less than a college degree backed Trump 48 percent to 45 percent.

Clinton consistently underperformed Obama in key areas, like Ashtabula County in northeastern Ohio, which used to be full of union Democrats. Obama won the county twice, with 55 percent of the vote. But the recovery that lifted other parts of the country didn’t materialize there. Trump was ahead in a county where 19 percent of people live below the poverty line, only 9 percent of the residents have a college degree, and 90 percent of the residents are white.

And in Wisconsin, though early exit polls showed that 63 percent of voters viewed him unfavorably, 21 percent of the people who didn’t like him voted for him nonetheless.

“Even when (voters feel) their candidate is flawed, they often don't have a better alternative that will align with them ideologically,” said Kelly Dittmar, a professor of political science at Rutgers University and a scholar at its Center for American Women and Politics.

Obama may have touted Clinton — a former senator and secretary of state — as being the best qualified candidate ever for the job, but that was a detriment at a time when people are so mistrustful of the establishment.

“A lot of this is about Clinton, too,” Bruno said.

“If the Democrats had nominated someone like Joe Biden or even a Tim Kaine, we might not be talking about this,” he said. “Because the Clintons have this aura of being untrustworthy — even if they may not necessarily be — people who don’t trust Washington or politicians are less likely to trust someone like them.”

Much of Trump’s support was also rooted in a “visceral hatred of (Clinton) that I believe a lot of that is based on her gender,” said Barbara Ann Perry, director of presidential studies and co-chair of the Presidential Oral History Program at the University of Virginia.

“We have heard that these two candidates are equally bad,” Perry said. “But as a political scientist I can’t agree with that.”

So when Trump called out the system as rigged — as in rigged in favor of wealthy and powerful interests and Washington insiders — many voters felt that the Clintons embodied that. It didn’t matter that Trump was one of the powerful, born into the comforts of wealth. To Trump’s supporters, it was more important that he wasn’t afraid to be politically incorrect — or what others would call offensive and racist.

Four years ago, after being trounced by Latino and African American voters, the Republican National Committee commissioned a deep-dive study that colloquially became known as its autopsy; its official name was the Growth and Opportunity Project. It urged Republicans to reach out to Latinos, women and younger voters — the future face of America —in order to survive.

Trump’s campaign ignored the autopsy — and shunned the GOP elites who shunned him. His rhetoric focused on winning the noncollege white vote.

His backers overlooked the vile comments he made on the “Access Hollywood” tape about using his celebrating to force himself on women. He knew that many of his supporters didn’t care if he called Mexicans “rapists” and publicly made fun of a disabled New York Times reporter.

They didn’t care that he called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States. They liked that he talked like real people talked and not in Washington code.

“Trump was brutally blunt, and said a lot of factually wrong things,” Bruno said. “But people were convinced that he was being so blunt that he was being honest.”

To others, Trump’s bluntness encouraged a racist undercurrent that started to surface after Obama was elected. CNN commentator and longtime Bay Area activist Van Jones described Tuesday’s results as “Welcome to the #Whitelash.”

Vanessa Tyson, a professor of political science at Scripps College in Claremont (Los Angeles County), said Trump’s approach simultaneously stoked anger toward minorities while telling white voters that they were “losing their dominance.”

“In so doing, with slogans like ‘Make America Great Again’ he has convinced many Americans that they have reason to be afraid, and that he can better address their fears,” said Tyson, author of “Twists of Fate: Multiracial Coalitions and Minority Representation in the U.S. House.” That’s true “whether or not those fears are actually valid.”

But on Tuesday, many people felt those fears were valid enough to vote for Trump. The real surprise of Trump’s performance on election night was that it was a surprise to so many.

Joe Garofoli is The San Francisco Chronicle’s senior political reporter. Email: jgarofoli@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @joegarofoli