The Amer­i­can ex­per­i­ment will soon be put to the test

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - OPINION - Eu­gene Robin­son

What hap­pens when the fac­to­ries and the steel mills don’t come back? When the coal mines fail to re­open? When both a tight­fisted Congress and the gov­ern­ment of Mex­ico refuse to pay for his boon­dog­gle of a bor­der wall?

When the pres­i­dent-elect, Don­ald Trump, takes of­fice and has to con­front in­con­ve­nient re­al­ity, how will he re­act? “We owe him an open mind and a chance to lead,” Hil­lary Clin­ton said Wed­nes­day, and of course she is right. But I wouldn’t be hon­est if I pre­tended, at this point, to be hope­ful. My fear is that the man we saw on the cam­paign trail is the same man we will see in the White House.

He proved to be a tremen­dously ef­fec­tive dem­a­gogue. He stunned the world by en­er­giz­ing and mo­bi­liz­ing le­gions of “for­got­ten men and women” -- white, work­ing-class Amer­i­cans liv­ing in small towns and ru­ral ar­eas across the na­tion -who bought into his pledge to “make Amer­ica great again.” In­stead of se­ri­ous pol­icy pro­pos­als, he gave them scape­goats: im­mi­grants, Mus­lims, peo­ple of color liv­ing in “in­ner cities” that he imag­ined as cir­cles of Dante’s hell.

His prom­ises were of the non­se­ri­ous va­ri­ety, in that they can­not be ful­filled. Surely Trump knows full well that glob­al­iza­tion and tech­no­log­i­cal change can­not be re­versed. The mil­lions of man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs that have been shipped over­seas or elim­i­nated by au­toma­tion will not mag­i­cally reap­pear; many as­sem­bly lines are “manned” by robots th­ese days. The coal in­dus­try is dy­ing not be­cause of gov­ern­ment pol­icy but be­cause oil and nat­u­ral gas are so cheap and plen­ti­ful. The huge in­fra­struc­ture projects Trump says he will build, in­clud­ing the bor­der wall, have es­sen­tially no chance of be­ing funded by a Repub­li­can-con­trolled Congress de­ter­mined to cut spend­ing, not boost it.

How, then, will Trump keep his “for­got­ten” sup­port­ers from be­com­ing dis­il­lu­sioned and dis­af­fected? One way would be to con­tinue to stoke their anger and re­sent­ment. To be black, His­panic, Asian-Amer­i­can, Mus­lim or an im­mi­grant to­day is to feel one­self po­ten­tially a tar­get of white griev­ance and rage.

For my adult life, fol­low­ing the tri­umph of the civil rights move­ment, overt big­otry and racism have been so­cially un­ac­cept­able. Trump re­leased th­ese demons from the back room of the Amer­i­can psy­che where they had been stuffed. Dur­ing the past year, I have seen and heard a kind of raw ug­li­ness that I hadn’t wit­nessed since the dy­ing days of Jim Crow in the seg­re­gated South.

Trump was the can­di­date not of work­ing-class Amer­ica but of work­ing-class white Amer­ica. It is hard not to see his vic­tory as partly, or per­haps mostly, a re­ac­tion to the eight-year pres­i­dency of Barack Obama, the first black man to oc­cupy the White House. Some peo­ple might dis­re­gard the fact that Trump branded him­self as a po­lit­i­cal fig­ure by be­com­ing a leader of the “birther” move­ment that chal­lenged Obama’s le­git­i­macy as holder of the na­tion’s high­est of­fice. I can’t for­get it, or for­give it.

There will be time for an ex­ten­sive au­topsy of the Demo­cratic Party, which is at a mod­ern-era low. Repub­li­cans will con­trol the White House, both cham­bers of Congress, most gov­er­nor­ships and most state leg­is­la­tures. The Democrats need new blood and new ideas -- and they need to fig­ure out how the GOP some­how be­came the party of the work­ing class, which used to be the Demo­cratic Party’s core iden­tity.

The old po­lit­i­cal or­der lies in rub­ble. Don­ald Trump is go­ing to be pres­i­dent. The strength and re­silience of the Amer­i­can ex­per­i­ment are about to be tested.

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