Alex Castellanos couldn’t say it enough this morning on Meet the Press: 70% of Americans think the US is going in the wrong direction and want change. To him this means Donald Trump has a chance to win the Presidency, since Hillary Clinton represents more of the same.
Americans have many reasons for answering “wrong track” on these kinds of surveys. Castellanos conflates these reasons into a general annoyance with American government and its political leadership. Let me suggest that much of the “wrong track” sentiment comes from disapproval of conservative social and economic policies and their obstructionist efforts to stop progressive changes people want. This is true of both conservatives and liberals, but only on the conservative side does this translate to support for Trump.
Conservatives think the country is on the “wrong track” because they disapprove of tolerance for less traditional social, religious, and sexual norms, and wonder what the world is coming to when fewer people attend church, the coach cannot pray with the high school football team, homosexuals can marry and young women can have recreational sex without consequences. They blame immigrants and minorities for their apparent loss of economic prosperity and political power and believe government does too much to help them. They don’t like changes they see in their cities and neighborhoods as immigrants and people of color move in or cities encroach upon rural areas. In fact, many people who say the US is going in the wrong direction actually want less change, and seek leaders that will finally put a stop to the madness. These people reject the establishment GOP because they believe conservatives fecklessly promised to do so while knowing they would not or could not.
The only change they really do want is a shift from the “free markets can make everything work” that lead to wealth inequality and corporations moving their jobs overseas. So they also reject the conservative governing establishment for failing to deliver the economic prosperity promised by Reagan and Americans for Tax Reform, and want US workers protected even if it means government action. The core of Trump’s support comes from disaffected conservatives annoyed with change in American society, and seek restoration of traditional values and and a capitalism based on a balance between profits for shareholders and the needs of the nation and its workers.
Liberals have other reasons for responding “wrong track” when asked this question by pollsters. They believe corporations, religious organizations, radical Tea Party groups, and super wealthy Americans have seized the system and moved the US in a conservative direction. These groups obstruct social and economic progress through the same GOP elite that annoys Trump supporters. Conservative would happily allow Americans to bankrupt themselves paying for health care. They support discrimination masked as religious liberty and would criminalize extramarital or homosexual sex. The GOP rejects the science of climate change – and indeed science in general – where it interferes with corporate profits. To conservatives, the right to own firearms matters more than reducing gun violence; indeed they support violent action generally for crime suppression and as a foreign policy tool.All this gives liberals a “wrong direction” sense, but no liberal will respond with support for Donald Trump.
Instead, they will turn to the Democratic Party for continuation of the incremental change brought about by the Obama Administration. These changes include regulation of financial institutions, new action on climate change, protection of civil rights for marginalized groups, living wage legislation, and an increased effort to hold police agencies responsible when their actions result in the death of citizens. And of course the expansion of access to health insurance, and thereby health care (including reproductive health care for women), under the Affordable Care Act.
To be sure, liberals agree with Trump supporters on free trade, a key reason for citizen anger. But Bernie Sanders has moved Clinton to the left on this, and we can expect her to support the changes to trade agreements that help American workers compete with those in other countries as well as policies to protect workers displaced by US participation in the global economy.
Many of the people who tell pollsters they don’t like the direction of the US say this because they think obstructionist conservatives want to block progress and move the country away from greater diversity, civil rights, and economic opportunity back to a more repressive, militaristic, and theocratic society. Note, for example, that the “wrong track” percentage drops when people think they’ll get more Obama and rises as they realize conservatives have blocked this path.
People do want change, but for many it’s the kind of change both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders propose. Donald Trump will win the votes of Americans who think the US is a better country when women, immigrants, minorities, and gays knew their place. He will win among disaffected workers who think a feckless government outsourced their jobs rather than corporations worried more about profit than workers or US economic power. And he’ll win the votes of disaffected whites who blame their troubles on immigrants and minorities.
Donald Trump will lose, however, among Americans who joined the Obama coalition eight years ago and want to continue along the path he has set. These people indeed want change, and Clinton will give them exactly the kind of change they want. This is why Donald Trump will never be President.