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We Debate Five Claims About The Trump Era

In this week’s politics chat, we consider five claims about the 2016 election and the state of politics generally as the Trump era begins. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): Welcome, everyone! Today we’re bringing back a game we haven’t played in awhile — buy/sell/hold — but with a simplifying twist. We’re playing agree/disagree. I’ll put forward five propositions, and you’ll take a stand! I’ll say at the beginning: We’ll be talking about some big topics that deserve 200+ chats rather than one-fifth of a chat, but obviously these are subjects we’ll be covering extensively going forward. So let’s pretend we’re sitting around the Thanksgiving table and get started.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Oh god. The last time we did anything like this, I think I still thought Marco Rubio would win the Republican nomination.

micah: Proposition No. 1. Agree/disagree: Democrats have a MAJOR problem in the Midwest because white voters there are moving away from the party.

farai (Farai Chideya, senior writer): Agree.

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): Agree.

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): What’s the Midwest?

micah: Harry.

harry: I’m serious.



Mostly I mean Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Minnesota and maybe Pennsylvania.

harry: I think the problem in Iowa is very real. I wrote about it in 2014.

natesilver: I can’t believe that you hadn’t been to Chicago before this year, Harry. Pathetic.

harry: But I think there is not that much proof that Michigan or Wisconsin is gone for the Democrats. Trump’s wins in those states could just be a one-off.

farai: Here’s what I know. After visiting Ohio to report on Trump voters, who were extremely organized and enthusiastic, I got some reports from Democratic organizers in the region. The messaging for Hillary Clinton fell extremely flat in part because of the real and perceived impact of free trade on the region. There were many other factors at play, but that is one with real regional impact.

clare.malone: I think portions of the traditional Democratic electorate out there have been saying since President Obama’s first term that there needed to be a more concrete jobs program/message — they wanted that in lieu of health-care reform. Of course, a lot of them still voted for him the second time around, but I think this Clinton loss is the chickens coming home to roost, post-2008 crash.

farai: But not just Democrats — establishment Republicans have the same problem. They just got eliminated in the primaries.

harry: Democrats have a problem until a Democrat with a pulse wins the Michigan governor’s race in two years.

One election doesn’t make a trend — let’s see Republicans do well in these states in another contest.

clare.malone: I’ll quote here from the Mahoning County, Ohio, Democratic Party chairman who wrote a stern memo to the Clinton team a while back: “Look, I’m as progressive as anybody, okay? But people in the heartland thought the Democratic Party cared more about where someone else went to the restroom than whether they had a good-paying job.”

natesilver: I agree, and furthermore, I think there was a certain sort of media bias involved in dismissing Clinton’s problems in the Midwest.

harry: What bias is that?

natesilver: People not looking carefully at the data which suggested that white voters without college degrees were overrepresented in the swing states. And the related assumption that Clinton’s more diverse coalition made it impossible for Trump to win the Electoral College.

micah: But why do we think this is a Democratic problem and not just a Clinton problem?

natesilver: Well, she’s a “generic Democrat” in a lot of ways. And also, Democratic Senate candidates, like Russ Feingold in Wisconsin, didn’t do so hot in the Midwest either.

clare.malone: The wing of the Democratic Party that’s had control of the party is bad on this front — the Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren wing was good on it.

farai: Clinton is not a generic Democrat. She’s a woman. Joe Biden may have won some of these states. Don’t forget that.

clare.malone: I don’t think it’s just that she’s a woman. I think she was seen as a super elite, someone who’d operated out of the realm of “normal” for decades.

natesilver: I dunno, Feingold is pretty Warren/Sanders-y, and he lost too. And he’s a dude.

farai: I agree, Clare.

Nate, I’m open to other interpretations, but until we have data that disaggregates gender from some of these other factors, we won’t know. How can we get that kind of data moving forward? This is a huge issue across many categories of inquiry.

harry: Feingold also lost by more in Wisconsin than Clinton did. Here’s the thing as I see it: There were clearly some big trouble signs for Democrats in Iowa in 2014. And things got worse for Democrats in the Midwest in 2016. Iowa wasn’t even close. And are we truly to believe that Wisconsin is that much different than Iowa?

natesilver: I’m skeptical that gender explains all that much about regional voting patterns, because the gender ratio doesn’t vary all that much from county to county and state to state. It’s certainly possible that people in some places have a bigger problem with a woman becoming president than in others, though.

harry: I would point out that Wisconsin elected a lesbian to be a U.S. senator in 2012.

farai: There’s evidence from the Western Political Science Association that Trump voters are anti-feminist.

micah: Speaking of!

Proposition No. 2. Agree/disagree: The 2016 election was bad for feminism.

clare.malone: Agree, but not strongly.

farai: Disagree. The election highlighted an anti-feminist agenda but will provoke a counter-response.

micah: So, Farai, the election was bad for women and good for feminism?

farai: If you asked whether the election showed anti-feminist sentiment, yes; if it was “bad for feminism,” I take the long view that this will be a seminal moment for millennials, in particular, to understand that gender wars are not by any means over. It will likely change the long-term political landscape and re-politicize centrist women if Trump’s administration attacks abortion rights, in particular.

natesilver: I agree with Farai that in the long run this will re-energize the left, and particularly young people on the left. Also, it’s easier to be united in opposition than when you’re in power.

harry: The first major-party female presidential nominee lost. The man who beat her consistently demeaned women. I don’t see how this was good for feminism, at least in the short term.

clare.malone: I think it was bad for feminism in the sense that Trump spread far and wide pretty retrograde ideas about women and those ideas were not rebutted forcefully at all by a lot of regular voters and political leaders alike (a whole lot of Republican officials quietly walked back their un-endorsements of Trump after the “Access Hollywood” tape came out). That’s the kind of thing that seeps into the heads of young girls and boys and continues a poisonous cycle of gender roles. So, on aggregate, not great for feminism. But I will agree that it does something to galvanize people who are already feminists to fight harder. I’ll also say that the women of Fox News coming out strongly against sexual harassment in the workplace will likely prove to do a lot of good work for spreading the gospel of gender equality in a lot of corners of America.

micah: Didn’t the campaign show that there’s a pretty strong anti-feminist strain in America?

natesilver: A pretty big theme of 2016 is that America is even more racist/sexist than we white guys thought!

farai: Absolutely. And that women are a key part of the anti-feminist coalition.

Some women.

natesilver: But was it that way all along, or did Trump make it so?

clare.malone: I think it showed the continued divisiveness of that label — feminism just means belief that women are equal to men, but a lot of people imbue it with meaning that goes beyond that.

farai: Clare, I think feminism is by its nature disruptive of the social order. Equality itself is disruptive of the social order, which is why American government needed amendments to the Constitution to enfranchise women and blacks.

natesilver: I agree with Farai in terms of thinking of feminism as a political movement. I think 2016 can simultaneously be bad for people on the left and good for left-wing political movements.

clare.malone: My point is that a lot of women who are Trump voters would agree with the Megyn Kelly argument of non-“feminist” feminism, which is to say, empowerment for women while eschewing what they see as a liberal-owned movement.

farai: Clare, totally agree with the Megyn Kelly example. Even women who voted for Trump may organize against the GOP if women’s health care is threatened. In the 2018 midterms and in 2020.

micah: OK, Proposition No. 3. Agree/disagree: The election of Trump was good for the Republican Party.

farai: Disagree.

harry: I’m going to agree.

natesilver: Disagree. Holding the Senate was good for them, though.

clare.malone: Disagree.

micah: OK, Harry defend your outlier POV.

harry: Perhaps I’m being naive. I don’t know what the future will bring, but how can winning a presidential election be bad for your party? You control the entirety of the federal government for at least two — and probably four — years. Yes, there may be an anti-Trump backlash, but the GOP still has power now. You might argue that Trump is bad for the Republican Party’s future because the country is becoming more and more diverse. But a diversifying country is no guarantee of a winning Democratic coalition.

clare.malone: My “disagree” takes into account the long-term view of the Republican Party. You might be right about the short term, Harry.

natesilver: My view is that Trump’s win was somewhat fluke-ish, taking advantage of a big Electoral College-popular vote split and an opponent who was really disliked and had some bad news hit at the wrong time.

farai: Harry, my argument is that the establishment GOP never got a fix on how to treat Trump as a candidate, and it sure doesn’t seem to know how to deal with him as a party figurehead. It is nominally united behind him, which displeases a majority of voters, who voted against him despite the Electoral College win. And many of the Trump voters I spoke with voted to defeat Clinton, rather than to endorse Trump. I interviewed Sue DeMarco, for example, a 66-year-old Republican from the suburbs of Pittsburgh. She wasn’t on board with a GOP in Trump’s image. Voters like her may not be satisfied with the long-term direction of the party.

micah: Here’s a long-term “Trump is good for the GOP” argument: There was a fundamental disconnect between the policy that Republican elected officials were pushing and what their voters wanted. Trump’s more populist positions have helped close that gap.

natesilver: It’s a pretty big risk to a party to have a guy who will start out with only a 40 percent or 45 percent job approval rating and a cloud of scandals swirling around him already.

clare.malone: Republicans continue to face a difficult premise for long-term success (i.e., just turning out all the white people) in a country that’s getting more and more diverse. There are some promises that Trump made during the campaign that I’m not so sure he can deliver on, especially if we end up in another cyclical recession. A lot of people were banking on him for radical change when it comes to their pocketbook, and I wonder if the radical proposition that he ran on doesn’t have a slimmer chance for success. There’s also the idea that he’s not going to deliver on a lot of the more popular-with-his-base inflammatory propositions — turns out he’s not actually going to “lock her up.” And let’s see what happens with that wall.

harry: Does anyone think it’s bad news? Or are you unconvinced that it’s good news?

Also of note: Trump did better with black and probably Latino voters than Mitt Romney did.

farai: Micah, this again brings up the key point of disaggregating Trump voters’ motivations, a problem current data elucidates only partly. Who voted for Trump as a populist? As a white nationalist explicitly or, more commonly, as someone championing white interests over other interests? As a Christian- or social-conservative? This a coalition whose center may not hold.

natesilver: And a lot of Trump voters were really just not-Clinton voters

micah: Aren’t we overcomplicating this, though? If the goal of a party is to enact an agenda, having Trump in the White House is manifestly good for the GOP.

harry: I hear a lot of people explaining why Trump was a fluke, but not why he isn’t good. He won. Republicans control the federal government.

farai: For example: If Steve Bannon (who’s been named Trump’s chief strategist) and his allies surface an explicit white nationalist agenda, those black and Latino and Asian voters who helped push Trump to victory may never be seen again by a similar candidate. And if not Trump, does the party go back to a free-trade agenda, pissing off populists? And/or does it keep a socially conservative agenda? What out of this grab bag stays and what goes?

clare.malone: We’re long-terming it vs. short-terming it.

natesilver: Right — how much of Paul Ryan’s agenda is going to get passed?

micah: Yeah, I guess Farai and Nate’s question is central.

clare.malone: Yeah, Congress could well remain a shitshow, and without an opposing administration to blame, that could be “bad news bears” for the GOP.

natesilver: One thing we learned this year is that there isn’t that much of a market for Paul Ryan’s agenda.

harry: Let’s see where we are in two months.

micah: Proposition No. 4. Agree/disagree: Trump’s election is bad for President Obama’s legacy.

farai: Disagree.

natesilver: For Obama’s historical reputation or for his policy legacy?

I say, good for his reputation, bad for his agenda.

farai: Good point. Agree with Nate.

clare.malone: Agree.

harry: Agree with Nathaniel Read Silver.

clare.malone: I think history will ultimately be kind to him, but there’s no way around this not being a blow. The man himself said so during his vociferous campaigning.

natesilver: There’s going to be a lot of “holy shit, how did Obama hold the country together for eight years when there was all this stuff lurking just underneath the surface.”

clare.malone: Yeah, Nate. That.

micah: But if many of his policy achievements are undone, doesn’t that hurt his reputation as far as history is concerned? I.e., “Americans rejected the Obama agenda.”

clare.malone: It’s the whole “a few steps forward, one step back” thing.

harry: I don’t know if they can undo as much as forestall. I mean the Trans-Pacific Partnership is gone. But can Obamacare really be changed that much?

clare.malone: There are some civil rights achievements in his legacy. I don’t think all of Obamacare will be dismantled — there are things that will survive.

farai: Again, I think disaggregating actions from intent is part of the picture. A lot of people in the GOP claimed to oppose Obama on principle. But one has to ask how much his race — and the drumbeat of birtherism, including from Trump — affected governance. That line of inquiry will be key to understanding his legacy.

The use of executive orders in Obama’s terms will stand as a cautionary tale to future presidents if they are dismantled.

micah: Totally agree. I get why he did it with a dysfunctional Congress, but this shows why that’s a bad way to govern.

harry: It turns out that passing laws helps.

micah: Proposition No. 5. Agree/disagree: The 2016 election demonstrated that white nationalism has become a strong force in the U.S.

farai: Agree.

clare.malone: Agree.

natesilver: Agree.

farai: I wrote a long personal essay on this here.

clare.malone: White nationalism has been mainstreamed this election — it looks “different” than we thought it looked a year ago, and that in and of itself proves that it has demonstrated great power in this election cycle.

farai: I’ve been covering white nationalists and white supremacists for a quarter of a century. They were always real but rarely as powerful as they are today. They are not that hard to talk to. We as journalists need to understand where truly fringe racial behavior morphs into digital harassment tactics by the alt-right morphs into Bannon’s world which now morphs into governance. It’s a chain of influence that is a threat to contemporary democracy, and they are unapologetic.

micah: Bannon working in the White House seems like prima facie evidence that the election shows the power of white nationalism.

clare.malone: Right.

farai: Alt-right.

micah: Farai wins the chat.

clare.malone: He wears barn jackets, not a hood — he’s the mainstreaming of white nationalism personified.

natesilver: I suppose I’m thinking more in terms of Trump’s racially coded appeals more generally, and less about Bannon specifically.

micah: But I wouldn’t separate them. Trump ran, in part, on a white nationalist platform and put a white nationalist in his government. It’s worth remembering: Contrary to popular belief, politicians keep most of their promises.

farai: This essay by a novelist on how Trump voters endorsed racism with their vote is also important.

natesilver: I don’t know, though. There’s sort of a freak-show aspect to Bannon, etc., that bothers me a bit in terms of how they’re being covered.

farai: Yes, Nate, that should bother us. They are not freaks; they are political warriors. Putting them in the category of freaks far understates their focus.

clare.malone: The fact that Bannon has reportedly said he wants the U.S. government to collapse should be taken as a fairly serious statement now that he’s going to work in the West Wing. (Bannon’s quote is claimed to be, “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”)

farai: Grover Norquist couldn’t drown the government in a bathtub, but Bannon may be able to submerge it to his own agenda.

natesilver: This is hard to articulate, but I guess I’m saying that it’s easier for a mainstream media outlet to point to Bannon, etc., and say “here are a few people that are a LOT racist” as opposed to saying “a LOT of us are a little bit racist.”

farai: Nate, I’d love to see social scientists, pollsters and data journalists have a confab on how to disaggregate voting behavior in 2020. This underscores the importance of that to me.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Farai Chideya is a former senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.