WEST LAFAYETTE — On a cloudy May 3, 2016, as tens of thousands of Hoosiers went to the polls, a realignment occurred right before our eyes. When the dust settled on primary election night, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders both won with 53 percent of the vote. It occurred despite Democratic leaders and super delegates unanimously backing Hillary Clinton, and Gov. Mike Pence and all but two members of the Republican National Convention delegation backed either Sen. Ted Cruz or Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
On Monday night at Purdue University, bestselling author J.D. Vance, whose book “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” has become a national bestseller, was interviewed by President Mitch Daniels before a packed Loeb Theater assembly. Daniels noted that Vance’s book “opened up a world to the elites they didn’t know existed,” and called the author’s family migration from the hollers of Jackson, Kentucky, to Middletown, Ohio, “a giant revelation.” The upper crust of American culture and the news media had reacted to the Trump nomination, as New York Times columnist Frank Bruni observed, with an air of “smugness and sanctimony.”
Trump’s stunning upset victory on Nov. 8 was an epic thunderclap, a microburst so compelling that it has scattered the American political lawn furniture well up into the treeline.
While his book never mentioned the name “Donald Trump,” Vance picked up the cue. “How else would they know?” Vance said. He explained that his fame over the past year had positioned him as the “Trump whisperer” as scores of union workers, so-called Reagan Democrats and blue collar Republicans not only flooded GOP precincts throughout Indiana (the middle finger of the South), the upper Midwest and the valleys of Pennsylvania down the southern range, but fueled one of the greatest presidential upsets in American history.
The Hoosier folk who voted early in camouflage and flooded Republican precincts from the Elkhart RV patch to the four Howard County voting centers in the shadows of the Chrysler/Fiat complex, to our own hollers of Oldenburg, Gnaw Bone and Sulphur Springs felt such a stirring in their civic souls, some for the first time in a generation, if ever.
This writer pressed Vance on how to gauge the Trumpian upheaval that has gripped the Capitol and filled airports and public squares with protesters this past week. Vance described an ongoing conversation with Michael Lind, co-founder of the New America Foundation, and a contributor to Politico. “He argued something that earned a lot of scorn and a lot of derision, but he said basically what we’re witnessing is a political realignment, which we haven’t seen since the 1930s,” Vance explained.
Then came this jaw-dropper: “In 20 years, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders will be in the same party. And in 20 years, Hillary Clinton and Paul Ryan will be in the same party. I think that is very, very interesting and that shift will be a big part of where we go over the next 20 or 30 years.”
During the Indiana presidential primary, Hoosiers witnessed both Trump and Sanders insisting that the economic and political systems were “rigged.” Both used the Carrier and United Technology job flight to Mexico as evidence. But on the ideological spectrum, they were approaching the vortex seemingly 180 degrees apart.
In January 2014, Lind wrote, “American politics looks to be on the verge of a grand transition from one political era to another; the declining coherency of the politics espoused by both Reaganite Conservatives and Clintonite New Democrats has opened the way for more assertive social democratic progressives and a more libertarian, anti-statist right.” In July 2015, Lind warned of a coming realignment. “Economic inequality has only grown dramatically after three decades of warmed-over Reaganism, fueling the resurrection of the sort of liberal populism that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have harnessed.” Progressives won the era on issues such as gay rights.
In Vance’s view, Trump, who is perhaps the first independent president, is challenging GOP orthodoxy. “If you think about what Trump really ran on, he made the centerpiece of his campaign, he slaughtered a lot of Republican sacred cows. What did he talk about: Raising taxes on hedge funds on billionaires, he talked about closing the carried interest loophole. He talked about immigration and primarily talked about it through the lens of wages and wage competition, another Republican sacred cow to be sacrificed.”
“He was very critical of the foreign policy that exists on the right and the left, especially on the right,” Vance said of Trump. “He framed the whole host of issues a pretty radical departure from George W. Bush in 2004 and very few people seemed to really appreciate that fact. Michael’s point is that if you look at the demographics, the Republican Party if you liked it or not, has inherited the FDR coalition of the 1930s, minus black voters.”
“More money from Wall Street went to Hillary Clinton than Donald Trump for the first time since the post-World War II era,” Vance stated.
In the first two weeks of the Trump presidency, Americans are witnessing on a daily basis the political temblors indicative of the political tectonic plates shifting.
— Brian Howey is publisher of the Howey Political Report, a weekly briefing on Indiana politics. Contact him at 317-506-0883 or at: howeypolitics.com.