Democrats' Failure to Address Economic Insecurity Gave Trump Election Advantage

Posted Nov. 16, 2016

MP3 Interview with Thomas Frank, political analyst, historian and author, conducted by Scott Harris


For weeks, pollsters across the board had predicted a decisive victory for Hillary Clinton in the Nov. 8 presidential election. As the returns came in, it was apparent that the Democratic Party coalition that had delivered two previous victories for President Barack Obama failed to materialize for the former senator and secretary of state. Overall voter turnout was down, with some 43 percent of eligible voters deciding not to participate, a 20-year low.

While Hillary Clinton won the national popular vote, Trump won the Electoral College vote due to the geographic location of his supporters, many in the important Rust Belt states of Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Trump received roughly 5 million fewer votes than Mitt Romney did in 2012. But Hillary Clinton lost because she got roughly 10 million fewer votes than Obama in 2012 and 15 million fewer votes than Obama received in 2008.

In examining the reasons why Democrats failed to come out to support their nominee, political analyst, historian and author Thomas Frank argues that "Hillary Clinton was exactly the wrong candidate for this angry, populist moment – a technocrat who offered fine-tuning when the country wanted to take a sledgehammer to the machine." This against a backdrop of Democrats in general failing to lift up American workers, many still struggling to recover from the 2008 economic meltdown. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Frank, who examines the reasons why so many voters failed to turn out to support Clinton, and what the Democrats must do to re-structure their party’s priorities to address American’s economic insecurity. [Rush transcript.]

THOMAS FRANK: Hillary was uniquely vulnerable to the campaign of Trump. In fact, my opinion is that Trump basically chose his issues because he knew that Hillary would be the Democratic candidate. Everybody could see that long before. But the trade issue in particular, Hillary was uniquely vulnerable on that front because of her husband's deeds as president and it's also the sort of philosophy of Clintonism, which treats big parts of the Democratic constituency with the phrase "they have nowhere else to go." So leaders don't have to deliver anything to the rank and file because they know that they won't vote for the Republicans so therefore they can treat them badly and reach out to affluent people or do what they really want to do, which is to be a party of the wealthy. I mean, we really have now learned the folly of these strategies.

BETWEEN THE LINES: I certainly wanted to explore the issues of the Democratic party not delivering to working class people in this country any kind of program to address growing income inequality that's been apparent for quite some time, long before the Occupy Wall Street movement. This is a reality that certainly affects more than just Democrats. And obviously, Donald Trump struck a chord with the people who are coping with that same reality.

THOMAS FRANK: Well, when you put it in those terms, you see what you're getting at here, you're describing the same thing that put Barack Obama in the White House in 2008. Only then, it was a hopeful movement. I mean, people were scared then, too, people were frightened. But what you see in the Trump phenomenon is desperation; it is hope after it has curdled in vinegar for eight years. People had such high expectations for Barack Obama and they were disappointed. And I think that they were right to be disappointed. He really did not deliver in all sorts of ways that people expected him to. And things that he easily could have done – it's not like they were expecting things that were outlandish or really radical or completely off the table. He just didn't deliver them.

When I say desperation, we're talking about people that can see their way of life slipping away from them. The middle class of this country is crumbling. This is terrifying to people. And they rolled the dice and took a chance on Trump. Hillary did not really promise anything different. I mean, if you read the campaign platform very closely, she had a lot of things that I thought were pretty awesome – I voted for her – I'm certainly not going to vote for a guy like Trump.

But the thing is that nobody believed her promises. Nobody really thought she would actually try to get them done. There's just something about the way the Democrats have ruled. It's not just something vague. People just knew they couldn't expect anything different from Hillary.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Thomas Frank, do you have optimism that the Democratic party or progressive forces in general around the country, given the relative success of Bernie Sanders and the enthusiastic support he gathered during the Democratic primary contest, that there is a force in the country that can address some of these deep-seated economic concerns and fears of a lot of people, but move it in a progressive direction – a direction that doesn't prey on people's fears and prejudices.

THOMAS FRANK: Well, of course, I have hope that that will come to pass. That's got to be the next step within the Democratic party that's got to be the next measure that they take. It's the end of the road for Clintonism, I think. Look, in some ways, I'm very hopeful about the situation that we're in. Trump has shown, among other things that anything is possible in politics. Hillary outspent him. I mean, she had ads everywhere. He had virtually none. She had every newspaper endorsement in America. She had celebrities behind her. She had everything going for her. And this guy won. All the rules that we have been told were set in stone for my entire lifetime – all those rules are gone. You know, all the stuff about how you have to have billionaires on your side, you have to able to match the Republicans in ads. None of that means anything anymore. And there is a really wonderful freedom out there, and I hope that we can take advantage of it and rebuild this thing.

Visit Thomas Frank's website at and his Facebook page at

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