An overflow audience of more than 280 people asked a wide range of questions about the 2016 presidential election during a panel discussion November 15 sponsored by the La Follette School of Public Affairs and the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
The event – exactly one week after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States – featured Public Affairs Writer in Residence David Weigel, Milwaukee talk-radio host Charlie Sykes, and UW–Madison faculty members Kathy Cramer and Mike Wagner. Professor Barry Burden, founding director of the Election Research Center, moderated the 90-minute event at the Pyle Center. La Follette School Professor Susan Yackee introduced the panel.
Cramer, director of UW-Madison’s Morgridge Center for Public Service and a professor of political science, drew upon her ongoing conversations with people in rural Wisconsin to shed light on the election results.
“The general sentiment ... is this notion of people beyond the Madison and Milwaukee metro areas that they’re not getting their fair-share of decision-making power; that all of the decisions are made here in Madison and communicated out to them, and no one is listening to them in return,” said Cramer, a La Follette School faculty affiliate and author of the 2016 book The Politics of Resentment.
Weigel, a national reporter for The Washington Post, noted that people who previously voted for Democratic candidates gave president-elect Donald Trump their votes this year. “I keep saying the president’s full name to make this point: There are white men in rural Wisconsin who voted for Barack Hussein Obama twice when the NRA (National Rifle Association) told them not to and then voted for Donald Trump,” he said.
While several factors may have contributed to this flip, Weigel said, redistricting in Wisconsin and other states after Republican victories in 2010 was one of them. Democrats forgot that many people already are voting against them in down-ballot races, making them vulnerable at the national level, he said.
Sykes, a leading voice in the Never Trump movement, added that religious freedom and gun control played big roles in the rural vote.
“If you actually thought that the U.S. Supreme Court was going to overturn the Heller Decision and you lived in rural Michigan, rural Pennsylvania, rural Ohio, Wisconsin you did not care that Donald Trump bragged about grabbing women, you did not care that he made fun of the disabled, you did not care that he was going to ban Muslims – this became the binary choice for you,” he said about the 2008 U.S. Supreme Court decision on an individual’s right to possess a firearm.
Mike Wagner, an associate professor in the Journalism and Mass Communication Department, addressed some broad tensions throughout the election, including traditional and other media. “There were lots and lots and lots of negative stories written about Donald Trump,” he said, adding that the president-elect received more attention than anybody else combined in terms of mainstream media coverage of politics.
“On the one hand, we might think that this gave him a huge advantage,” said Wagner, a La Follette School faculty affiliate. “One the other hand, we might think, ‘isn’t negative information supposed to make us view people negatively’.”
Audience members’ questions also touched on topics frequently mentioned throughout the campaign, including sexism, which Cramer said definitely played a role in the election. “Partly, it was about ‘is it appropriate for a woman to be the leader of the free world,’ but it also was about ‘what is appropriate behavior for a man these days,” she said.
Sykes, too, was shocked by Trump’s “open contempt for women,” however, he doesn’t believe Hillary Clinton lost because she was a woman. “I think she lost because she was a terribly flawed candidate who provided no rationale, no vision, no excitement, and she was a retread,” he said. “Having said that, this campaign was about the uber masculinity that was really quite remarkable.”
Sykes recalled a friend showing him a photo of Trump and asking him if he understood why Trump was winning the white male vote. “He is standing next to his super model wife,” the friend told Sykes. “He is living the fantasy of every man in America that is feeling emasculated by the economy and the world.”
The inherent sexism again Clinton struck a nerve with Weigel. “As a human, it’s hard for me to think back to the people who wore shirts calling her the ‘c word,’ who then had a good election night,” he said. “I don’t feel good about that. That’s a sentiment that was rewarded this year that I hope is not rewarded again.”
In response to a question about racism and xenophobia, Sykes said he was disturbed by the comments and actions by Trump and some of his supporters. “As a conservative, I thought we had moved past this,” he said, acknowledging that he was shocked by how widespread white nationalists and white supremacists were.
“That cancer right now is sitting next to the president-elect of the United States,” Sykes added. “I don’t know whether Steve Bannon in his heart is an anti-Semite or a racist, but I do know that he has opened the door, he has normalized them, and he has enabled them. That will have real consequences.”
Wagner, meanwhile, referenced a massive election study from this year. People who strongly disagreed with the statement that “white people have certain advantages because of the color of their skin” were about 65 percent likely to vote for Trump, he said.
Cramer concluded: “As a country, we have never dealt with our racist past, and for me, a signal that the presidential campaigns in the future were going to be painfully racist came when Barrack Obama gave his first State of the Union address and someone – a member of our national legislature – yelled out ‘you lie’
“The level of disrespect that we exhibited toward our first African-American president really set the stage for this campaign along with the many other things going on in our country,” she continued. “The things that we’ve experienced around Black Lives Matter and the debates that have arisen around policing in the country show that it’s not just Donald Trump. We have a whole heck of a lot of work to do as a country.”