Capitol Journal

Trump's inauguration is a reminder that rebelling against the ruling class is in America's DNA

Millions of Californians will click on their TVs Friday and groan. They’ll wince as the unthinkable becomes a reality. Can you say President Trump? It’s painful.

Yes, he’s a terrible choice for all the reasons that need no listing here. He’s not California’s choice, but he is most states’.

And, yes, although it sticks in Donald Trump’s craw — to borrow an idiom commonly used by my late working-class parents — he won despite having received roughly 2.9 million fewer votes nationally than Hillary Clinton.

He won because of a convoluted, undemocratic electoral college system created by the Constitution’s framers to appease some lightly populated slave states.

OK, enough of the negative. There’s something genuinely positive here that illustrates America’s greatness with or without Trump. And it’s worth celebrating.

It’s simply that American democracy performed, although awkwardly, as the founders basically envisioned: Common folk could stand up against the establishment elite and boot them out the door. Of course, the founders reserved that right basically only for white men — no women, slaves or Native Americans — so we’ve come a long way.

Rebelling against the ruling class — peasants with pitchforks overrunning the castle — is part of the American DNA.

And these days, rebels benefit from technology. They can easily communicate with each other through social media while being rallied by Trump’s tweets.

In this case, Trump’s peasants were largely the white working stiffs without college degrees, the very voters who used to be the heart of the Democratic Party. FDR’s party. Harry Truman’s. Even, to a lesser degree, Bill Clinton’s.

But they started drifting to the GOP in the 1960s and ’70s during the civil rights movement and Vietnam War protests. They became Reagan Democrats in 1980.

For a long time, Democratic politicians have taken these folks for granted. They’ve been ignored and even disrespected.

“That has brought us to a pretty sorry place — not only the election of Trump, but the fact we’ve had a sharp veer to the right for many decades,” says Joan Williams, a UC Hastings law professor and longtime feminist activist who has written extensively about the working class.

So in 2016, this middle-class core — particularly workers in the swing Rust Belt states — installed a billionaire businessman in the Oval Office. They rallied behind him, ill manners and all, because he could speak to them and did. And they demanded change. No more Clintons or Bushes.

“I am your voice,” Trump told them.

“We’re voting with our middle finger,” a Trump follower said in Greenville, S.C., pointing to the establishment.

And Hillary Clinton?

“You could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the ‘basket of deplorables,’” she said. That was in September, and the Democratic nominee immediately knew she had stepped in it, as she’d stepped in so many things over the years.

Let’s be honest: Clinton was a horrible, flawed candidate. The Democratic elite deserved what it got in November by forcing this uninspiring retread on voters and ignoring other intriguing possibilities: potential nominees such as U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, or popular Vice President Joe Biden.

It’s not surprising that Trump’s popularity has slipped even further as Clinton begins fading from people’s minds and the president-elect no longer benefits from the two being compared side by side.

California, of course, is the great exception. Here, Clinton won by almost 2 to 1 — 61.7% to 31.6%. She received roughly 4.3 million more votes than Trump.

Trump drew a smaller percentage of the California vote than any Republican presidential candidate in 160 years. Two Democrats in the early 20th century fared worse: James Cox and Alton Parker.

Updates from Sacramento »

Most Republican legislative candidates attracted more votes than Trump in their districts, according to the California Target Book, which chronicles races. Assemblywoman Catherine Baker of San Ramon ran 28 percentage points better than the party’s standard-bearer.

But in battleground states, white working-class voters rejected the Democrat.

“It was incredibly stupid to ignore them,” Williams told me.

“I’m a lifelong Democrat and a San Francisco progressive. I really hope people will use this as an opportunity to listen to the white working class.

“Progressives have been seriously out of touch.”

Trump talked plainly about real issues that concern the middle class, Williams says: “I’m not a big fan of Mr. Trump, but hats off to him because he’s talking about good jobs for people who are not college grads.”

She adds: “They’ve been very, very angry for a very long time and people have dismissed their anger. And when that happens, that causes them to get angrier….

“The fact is, progressives and elites shouldn’t be blaming the white poor for their economic disadvantage, but we do just that. ‘Why don’t they get their act together and go to college?’ People would never say that about inner-city minorities….

“Progressives are extremely attentive to the structural disadvantage of poor women and people of color, but supremely uninterested in the structural disadvantage of the white working class. This has not been a central concern of either political party until Trump.

“Nobody has been listening to what they need, which are jobs that lead them to a three-bedroom, cinder block house. And they just have totally had it. It’s time to listen.”

It’s time for Democratic leaders to listen closely to the likes of Williams. And maybe pick up some clues from Trump’s inaugural address. Assuming he behaves.

george.skelton@latimes.com

Follow @LATimesSkelton on Twitter

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