Economic anxiety alone doesn't explain divisive power of Trumpism: Keith Boag

The election ends tonight, but regardless of the outcome, the effects of Donald Trump's controversial campaign will persist. Keith Boag takes a look at the forces behind the controversial Republican nominee's movement.

Nasty campaign ends tonight with promise of more bitterness and dysfunction to come

Eileen Fuscaldo stands outside her home Bellmore, N.Y., which features a collection of pro-Donald Trump and anti-Hillary Clinton signs. (Stephanie Keith/Reuters)

When the U.S. elected Barack Obama as its first black president in 2008, it seemed to millions of Americans that they'd found a bright flame in the darkness of two wars and a recession to illuminate a fresh page in their history.

They re-elected him four years later without as much of the sunny optimism and what Sarah Palin called the "hopey changey stuff" of his first campaign, but still the fact he won that second term seemed a confirmation of something.

Barack Obama and his running mate Joe Biden celebrate their election win in 2008. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

This time is different.

The polls suggest Americans will likely elect their first female president tonight, and if that moment comes, the strongest emotions will be a sense of deep relief among slightly more than half the country, and an even deeper anger among the rest. 

Trumpism has split the nation and the search for an explanation for it has been underway for months.

We're told over and over that economic anxiety is driving it. But that might just be an excuse for those who can't bear to look at all the rest of what's gone on these past 16 months.

A punchline

To some, "economic anxiety" seems such a phoney argument that it's become a punchline on Twitter.

Someone posts a picture of a Trump fan showing off a T-shirt that says "Rope. Tree. Journalist." and a cheeky someone else retweets it sarcastically as another example of "economic anxiety."

Likewise, when aging rocker Ted Nugent stands next to Trump at a rally, grabs his own crotch and says, "I've got your blue state right here, baby," that's just his economic anxiety talking.

Same thing for the young North Carolina woman who sells 1,500 firing range targets with Clinton's face on them in two hours. It's all economic anxiety, right?

Trump's candidacy is a contemptuous middle finger to the status quo in his party and in Washington. We get that. His unsuitability for the White House isn't outrageous — it's the message.

But even if his anti-globalist rhetoric, similar to that of Clinton's former Democratic rival Bernie Sanders, attracted some people to his movement, let's not forget that this particular political career began not with a truth about globalism but with a lie about Obama's birth.

Trump's political origin story

The conspiracy theory that Obama was born in Kenya and so is ineligible to be president defined Trump years ago as a do-anything, say-anything opportunist eager to whip up resentment among those who couldn't stand the fact of an African-American president.

From there, Trump moved to debasing the conversation within his recently adopted Republican Party with the most juvenile behaviour of any politician in memory. He licensed his admirers to laugh off his insults to women, veterans, Muslims, Mexicans, his opponents and so on as merely anti-political correctness, not anti-civility.

The election ends tonight but the search continues for the true explanation of Donald Trump's surprising appeal. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Next, he set to work undermining confidence in institutions that were critical of him or at least didn't pull in his direction. Those included first and foremost all the media he'd loved and that had loved him back for decades, the opinion polls that he spoke of glowingly during primary season but said were rigged against him in the general election, the voting system, the FBI — and then not the FBI and now the FBI again.

All, he says, are rigged against him.

Economic anxiety might be mixed up in this foul concoction of racism, xenophobia, suspicion and fantasy, but it has all been aimed at recasting white voters in particular as a threatened interest group. 

Once that's turned on, is it possible to turn it off? Can a nasty and poisonous campaign lead anywhere else but to more nastiness and poison?

An anti-Clinton display in front of a home in Bellmore, N.Y. (Stephanie Keith/Reuters)

It won't just be Republicans who will have to manage all the passions and expectations whipped up by their nominee after this election, Democrats will need to as well and we shall see tonight what both sides will have to work with.

While most pollsters expect there will be a Clinton presidency, control of the Senate is more uncertain.

Republicans have mused lately about using the Senate to block Clinton appointments to the Supreme Court — indefinitely. And there are more than 1,000 other appointments a Republican Senate could obstruct as well.

They look likely to keep their majority in the House, and when Republicans control the House, the base of their party expects they'll keep their promises. 

From the hustings, the base has been promised a repeal of Obamacare (again), the rounding up and deportation of illegal immigrants, and investigations of Clinton that will end with her impeached and sent to jail.

'Lock her up!' has been a popular chant at Trump's campaign rallies. (Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters)

That is how the campaign drew to a close — not on a note of promise that Washington will work to bring relief for the economic anxiety supposedly foremost in voters' minds, but with something more typically "inside the beltway": the promise of bitterness, acrimony, political score-settling, dysfunction and dark days ahead. 

At least this time we were warned.

Follow the U.S. election on Nov. 8 with CBC News

CBC Online: Our day starts first thing in the morning at with news and analysis. Then as polls close get live results and insights into the conversations happening on the ground and online. We'll cover the story from a Canadian perspective all day until a new U.S. president is unveiled.

CBC Television: America Votes, the CBC News election special with Peter Mansbridge, starts at 8 p.m. ET on News Network and at 9 p.m. ET on CBC-TV. You can also watch our election special through the CBC News app on both AppleTV and Android TV, and on the CBC News YouTube channel.

CBC Radio One: Our election special hosted by Susan Bonner and Michael Enright starts at 8 p.m. ET.


Keith Boag

American Politics Contributor

Keith Boag writes about American politics and issues that shape the American experience. Keith was based for several years in Los Angeles and now, in retirement after a long career with CBC News, continues to live in Washington, D.C. Earlier, Keith reported from Ottawa, where he served as chief political correspondent for CBC News.


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