Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Why Trump Won

by James Burkinshaw

In the immediate aftermath of the American election result, it seems difficult to improve on the words of the New Yorker's David Remnick: "The election of Donald Trump to the Presidency is nothing less than a tragedy for the American republic, a tragedy for the Constitution, and a triumph for the forces, at home and abroad, of nativism, authoritarianism, misogyny, and racism." Trump’s shocking victory, his ascension to the Presidency, is a sickening event in the history of the United States and liberal democracy. On January 20, 2017, we will bid farewell to the first African-American President—a man of integrity, dignity, and generous spirit—and witness the inauguration of a con who did little to spurn endorsement by forces of xenophobia and white supremacy." 

I studied at university in Alabama in the mid-1980s and lived and worked in New York and New England for much of the 1990s. I love America: its people, landscape, history, literature, music, art, movies and TV - and its politics. Like so many others, I felt a sense of numbness when I awoke to the news of Trump's election victory this morning. Post-Brexit, I was certainly aware that anything was possiblethat pollsters can get things badly wrong. However, that has not lessened the shock of the result, the sense that this all too surreal to be true. 

Many of those voting for Trump have been motivated by the same sense of dispossession and anxiety that underpinned the Brexit vote. Bill Clinton noted that "they think the political system is rigged against them, which it is to some extent, and they think it doesn't make any difference anyway, so they want to vote for whoever they think will raise the most hell." Trump supporters felt that globalisation threatened not only their economic security but their very sense of identity. And they responded overwhelmingly to the candidate who claimed he would shake up the status quo (or "drain the swamp").

Part of America's enduring appeal is the ideal that, unlike other nations, it was not founded on a specific ethnicity or religion but on Enlightenment principles of equality and freedom under the law enshrined in the Constitution regardless of creed or colour. Of course, from the very inception of the United States, there has been a tragic, sometimes farcical, gap between the ideal and the reality. Above all, America has forever been haunted by the legacy of slavery - its "original sin" - and the racial attitudes lingering from that time. For decades, Republican politicians in particular have used "dog whistle" political messages to mobilise white voters through coded issues (such as welfare) designed to stir resentment against African-Americans in particular, but with increasing attacks on other minority groups. Donald Trump's innovation was to throw away the whistle and offer an explicit message of racial resentment against minorities - most notably Hispanics, but also Muslims and African-Americans - to devastating effect. After all of the hope that Obama's election in 2008 would help to hasten the end of centuries of racial tensions in the United States, the first African-American presidency seems only to have deepened a sense of insecurity and resentment among a significant percentage of the white population. Trump's own political career was launched by his promotion of the lie that Obama was a Kenyan-born Muslim, an attempt to delegitimise the President in the eyes of those voters; as a result, over a third of all Americans and nearly half of Republicans believe these things to be true. It was the votes of white voters (male and female) that carried Trump to victory (turning out in unprecedented numbers) - whereas the overwhelming majority of non-white voters (African-American. Hispanic and Muslim) voted for Clinton. Far from being the constitutional republic founded upon shared democratic values envisaged by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison et al, America increasingly seems to be divided between different ethnic enclaves more akin to the Balkans.  

America's history, from the Revolution to the Civil War to the civil rights movement and Obama's election, been characterised by slow, painful steps towards racial equality: often two steps forward, one step back. When Democratic President Lyndon Johnson enacted the landmark Voting Rights Act (VRA) in 1965, forcing Southern states to allow African-Americans to vote, he privately noted that "the Democrats have lost the South for a generation" as a result. As a Southerner himself, he understood the depth of racial resentment that impeded any chance of class solidarity between working-class/middle-class blacks and whites. Since then, Southern states (and, increasingly, Republican-dominated states in the Mid-West) have sought to introduce ways to intimidate or inconvenience minority voters (i.e. those most likely to vote for Democrats) in order to suppress their votes. As far back as 1985, as a student in Alabama, I was involved in the Voting Rights Project investigating such voter suppression techniques as holding polling stations in whites-only churches. Suppression efforts have only increased in recent years, as Southern states such as North Carolina and Texas have been given increased sanction by the US Supreme Court to remove protections for minority voters that date back to 1965, resulting in the closure of over 800 polling stations in poor and non-white voting districts. With the Republican party now in control of every branch of the federal government and most state governments, there will be nothing to stop further disenfranchisement of minority voters. Trump himself has shown little respect for democracy, but he has frequently expressed great admiration for the "strong leadership" (in his words) of Vladimir Putin in particular; the same Putin who has rigged elections, locked up political opponents and intimidated journalists (21 of whom have been murdered since Putin came to power). Trump and his entourage have many ties to Russia, including links to Putin's government, as well as sinister white nationalist groups in both the US and Russia (something investigated by conservative writer Anne Applebaum here).  What will the consequences of Trump's election be for freedom of speech, freedom of the press and voting rights within the USA? To what extent can the rest of the world count on the USA as a guarantor of democracy across the globe: the role it has played (however imperfectly) for almost a century? There is no reassurance to be found in the triumphalist, authoritarian rhetoric Trump and his acolytes have used throughout the campaign. 

Another admirer of Putin is Britain's former UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, a key player in the Leave campaign, who un-coincidentally appeared at a rally in support of Donald Trump during the election, where Trump presciently described himself as "Mr Brexit", correctly predicting that, like the Leavers, he would confound the polls and pundits who had been predicting his loss.  Not only were the US polls wrong (like their British counterparts), but the vast majority of experts and public figures (including many former Republican diplomats, generals, politicians and even presidents, as well as celebrities) were supporting Clinton, just as their British equivalents had urged voters to support Remain. Clinton was endorsed by almost every newspaper in the country, liberal and conservative - including one that hadn't endorsed a Democrat since the Civil War. All to no avail. People had (in Michael Gove's infamous words) "had enough of experts". 

What has perhaps made Trump truly unstoppable has been the way in which he has harnessed atavistic forces of white racial resentment (dating back to the aftermath of the Civil War) to the power of modern media. If he knows nothing else, the former host of The Apprentice knows television. From the moment he emerged down the escalator at Trump Tower to announce his candidacy (to initial incredulity and mockery), Trump has dominated every moment of the campaign, offering repulsively compulsive television: a grotesque caricature perfectly pitched for a reality-TV presidential campaign. The news networks couldn't bear to take their cameras off him for a moment (the president of NBC News cynically gloating that, whether or not Trump was good for the country, he was great for NBC's advertising revenue). Indeed, throughout the campaign, Hillary Clinton seemed as much part of the audience as the rest of us, watching Trump with a mixture of fascination and horror. 

And what of Hillary? As had been pointed out by so many, there has rarely been a candidate more qualified for the office of President, as not only a former Senator and Secretary of State but someone who had worked side by side with her husband, President Bill Clinton, for eight years in the White House. However, it was that same long-standing experience, that sense that she was the consummate insider (with 25 years at the heart of government) that doomed her in the eyes of so many voters desperate for change of any sort, desperate to "raise the most hell", as Bill Clinton recognised. In that same speech, the former president acknowledged that "they think the political system is rigged against them, which it is to some extent". For all her experience, skill, intellect and undoubted good intentions, Hillary Clinton was clearly part of a system (exemplified by her quarter-of-a-million dollar speeches to Wall Street executives) that served the interests of the few ("the 1%"), not the many. This did not make her any different to the vast majority of mainstream American politicians (of either party), but it was her misfortune to be running against a man who played the role of "outsider" to perfection. Trump is a terrible businessman (as his many bankruptcies attest), but a brilliant con man - and in this election he has pulled his biggest con of all: convincing half of the electorate that a man who has lived his entire life in a world of unbelievable privilege and wealth, who has lived only to indulge his own desires and inflict his will upon others, is a tribune of the working class with their best interests at heart.

However, in one significant way Hillary was very much the outsider: her gender. It was a testament to the media's Trump obsession that the historic nature of Hillary Clinton's candidacy as the first female presidential candidate from a major party, was relatively ignored. However, this did not stop her being subjected to misogynistic treatment throughout the campaign (not only from the Trump campaign but some elements of the media), portrayed as over-ambitious, cold and conniving - where a male contender would have been seen as determined, tough and smart. She was presented as "too serious", not the sort of person voters "would like to have a beer with", as if being prepared, hard-working and knowledgeable was a character defect rather than a fundamental qualification for the presidency. Most damaging of all was a ridiculous media obsession with her emails (debunked very effectively here- as if somehow it "balanced out" Trump's multifarious lies and scams; as a result, Clinton was seen as more dishonest than Trump despite all evidence to the contrary (see chart below from fact-checkers Politifact):

This damaging "false equivalence" on the part of the media and voters was skewered by late-night satirist Seth Meyers (to no avail):

However, yesterday, there was, for a time, a sense of excitement and pride among those voting for the first time for a woman president, many taking daughters with them to vote. In New York state, on a beautiful sunny morning, hundreds of voters visited the grave of women's suffrage pioneer Susan B Anthony (1820-1906) to attach their"I voted today" stickers on her gravestone. 

For me, this was one of the most moving and uplifting moments of an often-dispiriting campaign. The other took place back in July, at the Democratic Convention, when the inspiring Khizr Khan, Pakistani immigrant father of an American Muslim army officer killed in Iraq, challenged Donald Trump to live up to the promise of the American Constitution of fair and equal treatment, regardless of religion or race, under the law. Much now rides on whether President Donald Trump can live up to the Jeffersonian ideals so eloquently articulated by Mr Khan. 


  1. Good work JIm. I'd say you have it right.
    A month out HRC was approaching a signifcant lead until the adminsitration had to admit to a 22% increase in ACA premiums and at the same time the FBI injection into the picture.It out HRC back on the defensive. Instead of going high for the last leg she was forced into a hyper attack on Trump.I think if she had position to spend the last two weeks bugling what she was going to do for the country she would have won.

  2. Thanks, Ron. I agree that the two acronyms (FBI and ACA) very possibly changed enough minds to swing the election to Trump; it was extraordinarily close. However, the fact remains that, despite Clinton's huge financial advantage (she spent millions and millions more on ads), her superior GOTV infrastructure, the active support of a popular president and his even more popular wife, the support of the entire Democratic establishment and much of the old Republican establishment and the endorsement of practically every newspaper in the country, she only just beat Trump in the popular vote. Ultimately, she didn't have much of a message - particularly for those worst hit by the effects of globalisation, free trade, etc.

  3. ... which left room for an accomplished con-man, playing the role of the outsider who will shake up Washington, to hoover up the votes of the disaffected. I think that, for once, Trump might have been being honest when he said he feared Bernie Sanders more than Hillary Clinton.

  4. Beautifully written. I am reminded of Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy, which saw the rise of an unstoppable maverick whose unpredictability ran against comfortable assumptions of an inevitable future that had been based in turn on misconceptions of the past. It didn't go well there... Ah well.

  5. Thanks, Mr R. Yes, I think we will soon be re-categorising Azimov, Bradbury, Orwell, Huxley etc as Non-Fiction.


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