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Sorry, uncovering America’s racist underbelly wasn’t why Trump won

Supporters cheer for Donald Trump during a campaign rally at the Airborne Maintenance & Engineering Services hanger November 4, 2016 in Wilmington, Ohio.
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Supporters cheer for Donald Trump during a campaign rally at the Airborne Maintenance & Engineering Services hanger November 4, 2016 in Wilmington, Ohio.

Millions of Americans, especially those in the Washington establishment, woke up on Wednesday feeling shocked and hurt by the surprise election of Donald Trump to the White House. But like every failure or painful turn in life, it will mean nothing and lead to nothing but hurt feelings unless these wounded Americans learn a real lesson today and become tomorrow's wise. To do that, they must accept and learn the real reason Trump won.

First, they need to ignore the prevailing angry explanations that are all off the mark. The first incorrect reason many of us began hearing well before Election Day was that Trump was being bolstered by overt racists and more nuanced "alt-right" haters who were acting like a springboard after eight years of an African-American in the Oval Office. That theory went further to insist that Trump's hard-line stance against illegal Mexican immigrants invigorated a nascent nativist hatred movement.

But the facts simply didn't bear that out throughout the election and now we know that even more based on the fact that Trump did five points better than Mitt Romney among black voters and two points better among Latinos. Trump's victory is simply not the result of some kind of burgeoning race war.


"This is a divide that truly began in America during the Vietnam War, which was protested and defended by the rich and upper middle class while the lower middle class and poor actually did the fighting in country. That divide and the wounds from it have never really healed."

The second reason many people have been using as a crutch against the real reason for Trump's victory is sexism. Many of us are being led to believe that, in the end, too many American voters just wouldn't vote for Hillary Clinton because she's a woman. There's probably no way to prove this is false via statistics. But based on what most of us saw and heard on social media and elsewhere throughout the election, it sure seems like more people voted for Clinton because she's a woman rather than the other way around. Moreover, if the morose Left would just try to find a silver lining in all of this today it might realize that Clinton's gender never really played much of a role at all in this election for the overwhelming majority of Americans. A glass ceiling has indeed been broken when it comes to the way voters think. That should not be forgotten or missed.

The last wrong explanation for Clinton's loss is one people both on the Left and the Right are making: The Clinton email scandal. Of course, the continuing cloud of the on again/off again FBI investigation into Clinton's illegal private email server didn't help her campaign. But it always served as one of those fake reasons people give for not voting for someone they just never were going to support anyway. That is not to say the use of the server wasn't reckless and serious, but Clinton's fate was sealed long before most Americans had ever really learned of the scandal or knew the name "James Comey."

Nope, the real reasons Trump won have been real in America for at least the last 40 or so years. They are all the same reasons I finally recognized five-plus months ago when I first realized he was headed to victory. It's simple: The largest single economic group in our country has been sold out and ignored by the leaders of both parties for more than a generation. They are the hourly wage-earning Americans who have been bounced around from good manufacturing jobs, to service jobs, to seasonal work without the rest of us noticing that much. And that's even though there are a lot more of them than the college-educated white collar office workers out there. You know the financial uncertainty you felt last night when you saw the Dow futures crash down by 750 points? That's the kind of emotion millions of your fellow Americans have been feeling every night for years even though they're not "poor" or even necessarily unemployed.

These are the people who have been the acceptable sacrifices for our trade and wage-deflating immigration policies that do boost our economy overall ... just not for them. These are the people who have been scoffed at for not choosing to go to college, even though doing so has become an exercise in playing a game of "economic chicken" with student loans and irrelevant skills.

And it goes beyond economics. This is a divide that truly began in America during the Vietnam War, which was protested and defended by the rich and upper middle class while the lower middle class and poor actually did the fighting in country. That divide and the wounds from it have never really healed. I doubt we'll ever see an exit poll this specific, but I'd be willing to bet that Trump won 60 percent plus of the Vietnam veterans' vote because he spoke to their past and current pain in a way actual Vietnam vets like John Kerry and John McCain — guys who actually served in the war — never could.

Since Trump can't affect positive changes for this group of long-ignored Americans without help, it's imperative that Democrats and Republicans get acquainted, really acquainted, with the people who elected him.

Hillary Clinton and the 16 Republicans who lost to Trump in the primaries failed because they really have thought of this group of people as "deplorables." Clinton was just the unlucky one who got caught saying so.

The good news is that this is not a segment of the population that relies on welfare or needs new government handouts. In fact, just knowing that someone in Washington is finally listening to them and not writing them off as racists or Neanderthals will be an amazing start. And the politicians and other establishment types who do the most and best listening over the next four years will be the ones who move this country the most forward and reap the most rewards.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

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