Kiwi Google exec Ben Goodger: Here's what the Democrats need to learn from Trump's win

San Francisco-based Kiwi Ben Goodger, an exec at tech giant Google, describes his disbelief at Donald Trump's election
US President-elect Donald Trump gives his acceptance speech during his election night rally. Photo / AP
US President-elect Donald Trump gives his acceptance speech during his election night rally. Photo / AP

It's been a wild week, though given the context of 2016, the outcome should probably not have been so surprising.

In the Goodger household, the initial reaction was disbelief, followed by hollow shock, disappointment, anger, anxiety... the list goes on.

Before the election, I'd read an article in the Washington Post calling for Democrats to feel empathy for the Trump voter. Liberal circles on social media debunked it - asking why oppressed minorities should feel bad for working class whites whose anxiety was economic and whose only significant loss was a sense of superiority. And surely a vote for Trump was an endorsement for his abhorrent views towards women and various underrepresented classes.

I remember those days, back when polls had Clinton up by a comfortable 3-4 points nationwide, and with wider margins in important states. It was easy to cast off the concerns of this group, and think that they just needed to get with the times, or fade away.

On Tuesday, they showed up to vote, and now everyone is paying attention.

Who elected Trump? Turns out in some cases it was people who had voted Democratic for much of their lives. This may be a hard one for people on the coasts to swallow.

Why? He spoke to them with an economic message that resonated, at a time when they felt left behind by the major political parties.

Ben Goodger with his wife Marissa, 3-year old son Liam and 20-month old daughter Vivian. Photo / Todd Rafalovich
Ben Goodger with his wife Marissa, 3-year old son Liam and 20-month old daughter Vivian. Photo / Todd Rafalovich

For much of the election cycle the pundits have talked about the "establishment" wings of both parties - basically the Clinton/Democratic National Convention wing of the Democrats, and pretty much all of the Republicans other than Trump.

These groups are heavily invested in what my friend David Max educated me about recently - the concept of "propositionalism," or the notion that there is some set of central ideas that define America. The core elements of both parties are thus driven by ideology - on the left, elements of inclusiveness and diversity are recent hallmarks, and on the right various elements of neoconservative theory, small government, etc hold sway.

The thought of America as more than just a geographic location, that it is also a set of ideals, resonated particularly strongly with me.

America has relished this position in the wake of World War II, and its leaders have at various times talked about this at length - what is America, what America isn't, and so on.

This was a central theme of the Clinton campaign - that we are all Stronger Together, drawing a sharp contrast with the actions on display and encouraged by her opponent.

This all made good sense to me, an educated, well paid person working in a coastal centre. The contrast was stark. Victory seemed inevitable. The media confirmed it, as did the polls.

As it happens, America isn't a propositional nation at all. There is no central idea or set of them that binds it together.

See, this is the interesting thing. At the point at which you start talking about ideas, or morality, or anything sort of abstract like that, you presume a level of basic security in your audience that gives them the head space to focus on understanding the tangible implications of what you're saying.

I mean for sure, the ideal of inclusiveness resonates with minority communities because there is a very tangible benefit to them, but for some others, the tangible aspects require a bit more communication. And if those others are suffering from economic distress, abstract concepts are probably not even on their radar. Maslow's hierarchy of needs and all that.

So then you end up with a candidate that walks in, and aside from all the bluster and offensive rhetoric consistently hammers on a message of economic rejuvenation, and doubles down on a promise to blow up the "losers" that made the mess people believe they're in.

He seems crazy, which is concerning (exit polls confirm this), but maybe things are bad enough that it's time for a revolution. We'll rebuild it better next time?

That's the logic. For what it's worth, I disagree with this - I think things could always be a lot worse, especially with someone crazy in control. Additionally, exit poll data has shown that the Trump voter typically isn't below the poverty line - that group mostly went for Clinton. But it is a group that has felt increasingly disenfranchised by a government that has been deadlocked and dysfunctional for years.

I think that for many of these folk, the sense of detachment from the political process was sufficient that they were even able to look past the more horrific parts of Trump's character. This is the key point I think liberals will have to understand if they hope to move past this and learn from it.

Not every vote for Trump is an endorsement of every aspect of his behaviour, as much as it is convenient to think that it is.

I think it's also worth understanding the extent to which this vote comes from a place of belief that he'll be able to deliver on his many ridiculous campaign promises, or just a desire to show the middle finger to the status quo on both sides.

This is really an emperor wears no clothes moment for the Democrats. In one fell swoop, two unassailable orthodoxies were shattered - the idea of the solid "blue wall" and that of an inherent "demographic advantage". On the latter point, Trump, with all of his disgusting hateful rhetoric outperformed Mitt Romney with African Americans and Hispanics.

What could the Democrats have done differently? It pains me to say this given my position a few days ago, but I actually think given how things played out Tuesday night, Bernie Sanders would have won. He would have held the "blue wall" in the north, maybe even taking Ohio, and probably would have kept Virginia.

He had the same trade and economic message as Trump that resonated so well with voters in these states, but without any of Trump's drawbacks. Bear in mind a majority of the electorate admitted to being "concerned or scared" about Trump's fitness to serve, which given the numbers in many places mean that some people that admitted this also voted for him.

Bernie himself had some negatives for sure, including decades in the Senate which might have been used against him, but in retrospect with the mood of the electorate, it seems like he might have prevailed.

Look, I have issues with several of Bernie's policy positions. Though I strongly agreed with the desired outcome on several of them (for example a single payer health-care system similar to what we have in New Zealand), I felt like he didn't provide enough detail on how they would be implemented in a world of (quoting Obama) "legacy systems", or how he planned to pass any of them through congress.

I was concerned that he was promising things to young people that he would have no chance of delivering. This was especially frustrating against a backdrop of Clinton being portrayed as the dishonest candidate - she was clearly very uncomfortable promising things she knew she couldn't deliver.

But even as people derided him for being a "single issue" candidate earlier in the year, his single issue turned out to be the one that mattered. It would behoove all of us that scorned him to eat some crow and think about this, but especially Democratic party leadership if it wants to find a way to climb out of this hole. And what a hole. They are shut out of federal government now at virtually every level, and not just that, a Republican has beaten them on economic populism.

Fact is though, there is no way Trump can deliver on all of his insane promises in four or eight years, so the door isn't permanently shut. But the Democrats will have to up their game a bit and understand the electorate isn't ready back them only on the basis of principles.

I think what's needed now is a sit down with Bernie and folk like him, and embark on an earnest effort to talk to and understand the needs of the people in these communities.

I say this not to undermine the horror of much of the messaging of the Trump campaign, to discredit the concern about it. I also don't want to say that all votes for Trump are based on purely on feelings of disenfranchisement and don't reflect in some instances repugnant worldviews.

But I worry that if we jump right to that point of fundamental disagreement from the get go we, and by that I mean not only liberals but all of humanity, will stand to lose a lot over the next few decades.

And as for us "liberal elites" - it probably does come as quite a shock that maybe there isn't a common set of ideals that define America. But here's one thought as I close: If America isn't a set of ideas, it is a mirror, a beacon that reflects, in aggregate, the views and aspirations of its inhabitants around the world.

While we can infer from this reflection as a set of defining principles, it's not immutable, as this election has shown. That's frightening - but it's also an opportunity, a reminder to us not to take doing just works for granted. To think about what we all can do to make our communities and the world better.

Even if we can't all agree on who to vote for, we can at least resolve to ourselves, our families and our fellow human beings to treat each other with kindness and respect, because we want to be sure the image that gets reflected is one we can be proud of.

Ben Goodger is a Kiwi living in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife Marissa, 3-year old son Liam and 20-month old daughter Vivian. He is a Distinguished Engineer at Google Inc. where he co-founded the Chrome team.

- NZ Herald

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