Tuesday’s roots run deeper than the possibly flickering phenomenon of Donald J. Trump and the associated wisdom of social media mantras and memes.
On what at the moment appears to have been the night of his political undoing, Trump carried a whopping 68% of the presidential vote in West Virginia, leading a rush of red that gave Republicans supermajorities in the West Virginia House of Delegates and Senate for the first time.
Democrats, who once couldn’t lose in West Virginia, suddenly can’t win a major race here.
Conventional thinking, often myopic, goes that this was the product of gun-slapping, Bible-thumping masses gobbling down partisan lines, that Republicans love God, firearms and unborn babies while Democrats want to outlaw internal-combustion engines and hand the reins of power to illegal immigrants.
This view ignores what a presidential aspirant of yore, Al Gore, would have called an inconvenient truth, which is that Democrats themselves, an icon among them in particular, played the primary role in the flipping of partisan fortunes into the GOP’s favor.
In fact, the unraveling of the Democratic Party in West Virginia began almost 27 years ago, when President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, signed into law the North American Free Trade Agreement. Never mind that his presidential predecessor, Republican George H.W. Bush, signed the treaty opening trade between the United States and Mexico and Canada. It’s more important to the point that Clinton signed that deal into law and lobbied tirelessly for its passage.
That happened at the beginning of Clinton’s eight-year run as president. At the end of it, before slithering off to a career on the paid-speech circuit, he completed the second half of his double shot to the midsection of the American working class. He signed a trade agreement with China and brokered the entry of the People’s Republic into the World Trade Organization.
At the time, Clinton told us the trade deal “creates a win-win result for both countries.” This proved at least half true. China’s economy soared. In the United States, over the 14 years that followed the trade deal’s signing, Americans lost 5 million manufacturing jobs, a staggering 29% plunge.
Naturally, Republicans favored both NAFTA and China joining the WTO. Corporations could outsource to countries where laborers are paid pennies on the dollar in comparison to those in the United States. Corporations could escape union contracts and watch profits climb. Some Democrats resisted this fervently. But not the leader of the Democratic Party. He helped make it happen. In the process, he issued a signal to American workers, not that they were No. 1 but a far less favorable message indicated with a finger other than his index raised.
Since then, Democrats’ overtures to American workers have rung hollow. When President Barack Obama arrived touting and enforcing tight carbon restrictions that rapped an already struggling coal industry, Clinton’s signal appeared to be repeated, only in double.
Democrats serious about reversing their fortunes here must get about the serious work of rebuilding their shattered relationship with the working class. This will require finding that group a clear and reasonable path to jobs, and then restoring the trust callously signed away a generation ago by the former leader of the Democratic Party.