INDIANAPOLIS – A few weeks before the election, a friend of mine who is a Donald Trump supporter told me something I should have listened to more closely.
He said no one seemed to understand what Trump’s plan to build a wall along the Mexican border really was:
A public works project.
It would create jobs in a hurry and thus provide some breathing space for many working-class Americans suffering as a new, world-wide economy takes shape.
I scoffed at the time. Republicans view public works projects and sexually transmitted diseases with the same level of enthusiasm. There was no way a Republican presidential nominee would get behind one.
It turns out, though, that several of Trump’s advisers in fact now are talking about creating public works projects to provide some quick relief for those Americans who haven’t shared in the overall economic recovery.
In other words, a Republican president-elect is thinking about taking Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s approach to relieving economic distress.
And that, in brief, illustrates the problems the emergence of Donald Trump creates for both major political parties.
This election supposedly was an across-the-board triumph for the Republican Party. Come January, the GOP will control the White House, the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House of Representatives and, presumably, the U.S. Supreme Court.
America, the thinking goes, is now a Republican, conservative country.
Not so fast.
As is often the case, the truth is a bit more complex and not that easy to discern.
It is true that Trump won the presidency, but he lost the popular vote by more than 2 million ballots – and, if a relative handful of votes had gone the other way in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, Democrat Hillary Clinton would be getting ready to move back into the White House right now.
What’s more, Republicans lost at least two seats in the U.S. Senate and about a half-dozen in the U.S. House of Representatives. Normally, a winning presidential candidate sweeps fellow party members down ticket into office, not out.
Here in Indiana, Trump did have coattails, but even that may prove worrisome for Republicans. He ran several points ahead of every statewide Republican candidate but Attorney General-elect Curtis Hill, but gathered a couple hundred thousand more votes than Hill did. Trump picked up about 600,000 more votes than Republican Gov.-elect Eric Holcomb did.
That means that a lot of Hoosier Trump voters opted either to vote for Democrats down ballot — or just chose not to vote for other Republican candidates. That can’t be heartening news for the GOP.
But it also isn’t a reason for Democrats to start doing happy dances.
If this election demonstrates nothing else, it is that the Democratic Party has lost what was the backbone of the New Deal coalition, the white working class. While the party plans to pin its hopes on the emergence of new and more diverse coalitions to bring it back to power, there are significant historic and cultural barriers that likely will make pulling some demographic groups into the same harness hard work for a long time to come.
Worse, some current Democratic constituencies — Latinos, for example — would be more likely to align with the GOP on social issues alone if Republicans could refrain from alienating them.
That’s why Donald Trump is such a wild card.
He presents challenges to both parties’ prevailing assumptions.
Some of his moves, such as choosing public school opponent Betsy DeVos as secretary of education, conform with Republican orthodoxy. Others, such as his possible embrace of public works projects and his cozying up to Russian leader Vladimir Putin, do not.
That will set the stage for some interesting dynamics.
For example, can Democrats possibly hope to compete in states with high levels of labor anxiety if they aren’t seen as the voice of the working class? Can Republicans, even in places such as Indiana, hope to have continued success if they lose many more Trump voters by breaking with him over issues of economic development or foreign policy?
In many ways, Trump’s election now puts both Democrats and Republicans in the position of holding a wolf by the ears.
They can’t possibly hold on but they dare not let go.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.