Donald Trump's Fragile Hold on America

In a future campaign, the president-elect would need to keep his supporters faithful, while not further alienating groups who opposed him this year.

Carolyn Kaster / AP

Count Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s White House consigliere-in-waiting, as the latest political operative who has extrapolated a single, narrow presidential victory into a blueprint for a generation of electoral dominance. “The globalists gutted the American working class and created a middle class in Asia,” Bannon recently told The Hollywood Reporter’s Michael Wolff. “The issue now is about Americans looking to not get [messed] over. If we deliver, we’ll get 60 percent of the white vote, and 40 percent of the black and Hispanic vote and we’ll govern for 50 years.”

That prediction may seem grandiose for a strategist whose candidate is on track to lose the popular vote by more than any successfully elected president ever. On Wednesday, Hillary Clinton’s popular-vote lead over Trump crossed 2 million; several analysts tracking the remaining votes—which are mostly in California—believe her final advantage will near 2.5 million. Clinton will win the popular vote by more than John F. Kennedy in 1960 or Jimmy Carter in 1976, and could even approach George W. Bush’s margin in his 2004 reelection. Trump will win a smaller percentage of the popular vote than Mitt Romney did in 2012.

That doesn’t invalidate his victory. But it’s a fragile beachhead from which to reverse the public’s consistent reluctance over the past generation to grant either party a lasting hold on power. Except for 1988, when George H.W. Bush prevailed after two terms of Ronald Reagan, neither side has held the White House for more than eight consecutive years since 1952. (That’s despite the fact that Democrats since 1992 have now twice won the popular vote in three consecutive elections.)

And while Republicans are understandably euphoric that they will control the White House and both congressional chambers next year, neither party since 1968 has maintained such unified control for more than four consecutive years, a far more rapid turnover than in earlier generations. History suggests the best advice for Republicans now celebrating their unified control might be three simple words: Don’t unpack everything.

Yet Bannon and Trump have reason for optimism. While Trump did not establish new patterns in political allegiance, he did squeeze more advantage out of the old patterns than many, myself included, thought possible—and suffered less backlash from the groups most resistant to his coruscating message.

Trump dominated virtually every segment of blue-collar and non-urban white America: He not only beat Clinton among white men without a college education by more than Reagan beat Walter Mondale in his historic 1984 landslide, but he also equaled Reagan’s margin among non-college-educated white women. Even in households that included whites without a college degree who belonged to a labor union, Trump trounced Clinton by 58 percent to 32 percent, according to exit-poll figures provided by CNN’s polling unit. He crushed Clinton everywhere along the non-metropolitan continuum from mid-sized and small cities to rural hamlets. As important, Trump made these gains without losing as much ground among college-educated whites as polls predicted he would, while slightly improving over Romney’s anemic performance with non-white voters—at least according to exit polls, which are disputed by some minority analysts.

Yet all this still left Trump with no margin for error. He not only lost the popular vote, but also sealed his slim Electoral College victory with wins of about 1 point or less in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania—the three loosest bricks in the Democrats’ “blue wall.” Trump’s hold on those states could easily slip in a future election if he loses any ground among the constituencies who supported him, or if he further alienates the ones who opposed him.

Maintaining his standing with both groups will test the dexterity of Trump and advisers like Bannon. In his Hollywood Reporter interview, Bannon insisted that he, and by extension his candidate, is “an economic nationalist” and not “a white nationalist.” Both Bannon and Trump have, in fact, championed economic-nationalist themes aimed at both foreign competitors and domestic elites. But the right-wing Breitbart website that Bannon formerly ran also unmistakably appealed to white racial anxieties with lurid articles hostile to immigrants, Muslims, and African Americans. Trump, starting as early as his campaign announcement speech—when he denounced undocumented Mexican immigrants as “criminals” and “rapists”—consistently struck more racially divisive notes than any presidential candidate since George Wallace.

Blending messages of economic and racial solidarity, Trump positioned himself in a long line of conservative populists who have pledged to defend what historian Michael Kazin called “the virtuous, masculine middle of America” against threats from above and below them on the income ladder. But delivering on that promise won’t be easy. Even if Trump pursues aggressively protectionist trade policies, it’s a heavy lift to reverse generations of decline in fading industrial cities. In office, he’ll also confront the contradiction that while he talks tough against elites, his agenda apart from trade offers them huge corporate and personal tax cuts, and a rollback of federal environmental and consumer-protection regulations.

If Trump can’t deliver the economic results his supporters expect, he might try to salve them by amplifying confrontational cultural policies like his pledge to accelerate deportations of undocumented immigrants. But that would virtually ensure a backlash among white-collar white and minority voters, most of whom opposed those ideas and might not have believed Trump would actually pursue them in office.

With his blue-collar dominance, Trump impressively swept every Rustbelt swing state and charted a new Republican path to the presidency. But those working-class white voters are irreversibly declining as a share of the electorate, while the groups most dubious of Trump—Millennials, minorities, and college-educated white women—are still growing. Maximizing support from the shrinking groups, without provoking even greater resistance from the growing ones, is the puzzle looming over Bannon’s dream of a 50-year Trump imperium.