Trump Victory Exposes Weakness in Liberal Political Infrastructure
As the dust settles with the terrible news of the election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency, there will be no shortage of analysis of just how the reality show king pulled it off, what with his lean campaign staff and ostensible lack of ground game. Most will likely be wrong.
It was not Trump’s mastery of the media alone that won him the big prize, nor did he lack ground game. Trump’s triumph is as much the product of a political infrastructure built by right-wing operatives over the course of the last 40 years as it is the candidate’s prowess at manipulating the press. Liberals and the left have no comparable political infrastructure, and left-wing donors have shown little interest in building one. And so we have President-elect Trump, the ultimate backlash candidate to the barrier-breaking presidency of Barack Obama, whose ascendance to the White House was a feat built on Obama’s own knowledge of political organizing. Yet the work done to organize the Obama candidacy was never leveraged as it could have been to build a sustained, long-term movement. The same could be said of umpteen liberal candidacies and campaigns focused on legislation that came before and after.
Trump has never been one to pay for something he needed when he could either convince someone else into ponying up on his behalf, or simply bully them into doing so. In his pursuit of the presidency, he didn’t need to build the vaunted “ground game”—the mechanism for turning out the vote in one’s favor—because a comprehensive get-out-the-vote (GOTV) machine was already in place, built by leaders of the religious right (whose denizens apparently turned out en masse for Trump), and Charles and David Koch, the billionaire industrialists.
The Kochs’ Americans for Prosperity, taken together with the religious-right organizing of Faith and Freedom Coalition founder Ralph Reed, represent a pretty impressive ground game.
As I wrote here in August, for all of their purported disgust with Trump and unwillingness to support his candidacy, the Koch brothers would have the machine built by their donor network working overtime to bring Trump voters to the polls. Ditto for the network of conservative church-goers mobilized by the religious right. Taken together, the Koch GOTV machine and the religious-right operation offer all the ground game a candidate could need, especially when mobilized in opposition to a woman candidate for president, with its players stoked, as well, by racial and religious bigotry. It’s a machine that’s been 50 years in the making, and it’s not just engaged at election time. The machine runs every day of the year, conducting events and outreach around the latest outrage said to be perpetrated by liberals—say, regulations on business designed to save the planet, or false accusations by right-wing operatives about the conduct of Planned Parenthood. Then those events and outreach are leveraged as organizing tools for the next election.
Those who fund the liberal establishment have shown little interest in such sustained movement-building, leaving liberal candidates to rely on the shrinking resources of labor unions and the often-meager budgets of other liberal and progressive organizations, many unconnected to each other, to mobilize the vote.
The campaign for a single candidacy can be mighty and overfunded and highly staffed, but it’s no substitute for the infrastructure of a sustainably built movement with interlocking parts.
Now the unthinkable has happened: A presidential candidate whose campaign was fueled by outright misogyny, racism, nativism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia has succeeded. He won not in spite of, but because of, his expression of those resentments and hatreds.
Protests are important for calling the nation’s attention to the disapproval of the masses. But protest alone won’t turn the tide. That will take a movement—one with some well-forged apparatus. Time to start building.