It’s inevitable—and appropriate—for election analysts to ask: What did voters find so attractive in Donald Trump? But they shouldn’t lose sight of another question: What was it about Hilary Clinton and the current version of Democratic Party liberalism that voters found so repellent?
Beyond the issues that floated to the top of the campaign—Clinton’s “extreme carelessness” and the Clinton Foundation’s masquerading as a charity—there was something bigger: a condescending smugness toward those who didn’t share her views. Only smugness could have led Clinton to declare, with a satisfied smile, that Trump voters could be bunched in that “basket of deplorables.”
That now-famous formulation only hinted at a much deeper disdain for what proved to be a winning electoral coalition. How smug must you be to suggest that nothing’s wrong with taking a knee when the national anthem is played? How much smugger can you get than criticizing a liberal Supreme Court justice for calling such protests “stupid”?
Clinton’s smugness was everywhere. It suggested that there was no reason to criticize, and every reason to tolerate, a campus environment in which speakers are shouted down and disinvited. It told voters that on the great issues of the day—whether and how to cope with climate change, whether and how the government should manage the market for health insurance, whether and how to deal with a potential nuclear Iran—there was really nothing to discuss. The solutions were self-evident.
In her smugness, Clinton viewed much of the population as collateral damage of the virtuous progressive tidal wave. She boasted about putting coal miners out of work. She said that she would sideline construction workers in order to keep fossil fuels in the ground. She refused to acknowledge the culture shock born of unchecked mass immigration. This smugness distinguishes today’s Democratic Party from yesterday’s. The Wall Street Journal’s William Galston, once a domestic policy advisor to President Bill Clinton, recently urged those liberals perplexed by concerns about immigration to “work harder to understand why people who disagree with them think as they do—and the extent to which the facts warrant their concerns.”
Hillary Clinton celebrated the politicization and degradation of popular culture—while mocking the concerns of those who “cling” to religion and mourn the passing of old-fashioned values. (Not that Trump is an exemplar in these regards, of course.) To rustle up votes, she deployed Jay-Z, a rapper who boasts of his background as a crack dealer, and Beyoncé, a talented singer who demeans herself and her audience with her hypersexualized dancing.
Many years ago, Martin Peretz, then editor of the then-centrist New Republic, observed that “neo-conservatism is a conversation with liberalism.” We have since learned that liberalism is no longer interested in having that conversation. A Democratic presidential candidate just paid the price for that refusal.
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