How Hillary Clinton Can Build a Bridge to Trump Supporters

Emphasizing infrastructure spending may give the Democratic front-runner the chance to win over disaffected working class voters.

Justin Sullivan / Getty

Hillary Clinton will soon face the strangest general-election campaign in modern American history. In a conventional sense, it’s the easiest. That’s because her likely opponent, Donald Trump, is almost certainly too unpopular to win. A full two-thirds of Americans view him unfavorably. To be sure, Clinton’s unfavorability rating is high as well: It’s around 50 percent. The difference is that she retains the support of core Democratic constituencies, like African Americans, Latinos, single women, and the young. Trump, by contrast, is disliked by literally every major demographic group in the country: Even the blue-collar whites who are supposedly his base.

But while Clinton should find winning this fall’s election easier than past nominees have, she’ll also find it uniquely perilous. That’s because this year, more than at anytime since the 1970s, the country’s racial and class conflicts threaten to spiral out of control. Trump’s supporters constitute a minority even of working-class whites. But they are a desperate minority, driven by a toxic combination of economic hopelessness and racial resentment. And, already, Trump has repeatedly spurred some of them to violence.

Politically, Clinton can defeat Trump by rallying President Obama’s “coalition of the ascendant”: minorities, single women, white professionals, and the young. But since it is losing—politically, economically, culturally, and racially—that has driven Trump’s supporters to back him in the first place, defeat will only leave them more aggrieved. And more dangerous.

Clinton, therefore, must win without spiking the ball. If she’s not careful, her victory will only strengthen Trump supporters’ belief that the forces of “political correctness” are oppressing them. And the political violence that has become a feature of the Trump campaign may continue in other forms. As crazy as it sounds, Clinton must approach the 2016 campaign a bit like Nelson Mandela approached his campaign against F.W. De Klerk in 1994. Her presidency, following Barack Obama’s, would represent an inversion of America’s racial and sexual order almost as profound as the one that Mandela brought to South Africa. Like Mandela, Clinton must show the vanquished defenders of the old order that it’s still their country, too.

She has started to recognize that. Ten days ago, in a clear reference to Trump supporters, she asked her audience “to just for a minute, to put yourselves in their minds,” the minds “of people that feel their best days—and therefore our country’s best days—are behind us.” After talking about the ravages of the Great Recession, she then admonished her backers not to see Trump’s followers merely as racists. “When we see people running for president who are literally inciting bigotry and violence,” she declared, “it’s easy to say, ‘I’m not even going to pay attention to that.’ But that would be wrong because we’ve got to reclaim the promise of America for all of our people. Every single one of them.”

Clinton needs to say this again and again. She needs to make it central to her campaign. And she needs a policy agenda to match.

She has an opportunity because Trump voters don’t oppose big government. That’s part of the reason purist conservatives find them so threatening. What they oppose is a government that they think favors other Americans—African Americans, Latino immigrants, Muslims—over them. Clinton can’t stop defending the vulnerable minorities that Trump targets. But she can reach out to Trump’s supporters by focusing on those forms of government action that they see as benefiting them.

The most obvious is infrastructure. Establishment Republicans generally resist big increases in infrastructure spending. They prefer trying to stimulate the economy via tax cuts. But Trump disagrees. In Crippled America, he writes, “Our airports, bridges, water tunnels, power grids, rail systems—our nation’s entire infrastructure is crumbling, and we aren’t doing anything about it … This is going to be an expensive investment, no question about that. But in the long run it will more than pay for itself.” Infrastructure spending is government action you can see. That’s part of the reason Trump’s supporters love his idea for a wall with Mexico. It offers a seemingly tangible government solution to a complex social problem. As one Trump supporter wrote to my colleague Conor Friedersdorf, “Of all the candidates, ONLY TRUMP has ever BUILT any REAL THINGS.”

Last November, Clinton proposed building things, too. She proposed spending $275 billion over five years on “roads and bridges but also public transit, freight rail, airports, broadband Internet, and water systems.” But as another colleague, Russell Berman, noted, “The reaction from advocates of more robust infrastructure spending has been less than enthusiastic, a nod to the fact that the size of the Clinton plan falls well short of what studies have shown the country needs.” Back then, the assumption was that Clinton couldn’t propose something larger because congressional Republican would never go along with it.

But that’s no longer so clear. Because of Trump, there may be fewer Republicans in Congress after this election. And those who remain will be reckoning with Trump’s overthrow of their party’s establishment. Given that infrastructure spending is something Trump supporters back, some congressional Republicans may also decide it’s smart to back. Which means that if Clinton expands her infrastructure proposal now—bringing it more in line with the country’s actual needs, which are vast—she may be able to accomplish something big on infrastructure next year.

That wouldn’t only make America more prosperous. It would make America less divided. Putting Americans to work fixing bridges and roads constitutes a form of government action that clearly benefits everyone. It can’t be easily racialized. And it would show that the new political order that Clinton and Obama symbolize has something to offer Trump’s supporters. Trump is playing on their fears of economic, cultural and racial dispossession. Clinton needs to show that, even in defeat, it’s still their country, too.