(source – Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Image in slate.com)
Well, my prediction for the election was correct. I didn’t want it to be, I wanted to be wrong, for as much as I really do not like Hillary Clinton, I wanted her to win. But alas, that was not to be. So what happened then? What caused this absolutely unprecedented upset? I have seen a lot of different theories trying to pinpoint a specific cause, but I feel there are multiple intersecting reasons as to why this has happened:
Class – Trump is first and foremost a populist. What he offered to poor, white, working class communities of America was a reason for their poverty and decline in recent decades; illegal migration causing a strain on the US economy and the forces of globalisation moving jobs and capital abroad, and most importantly a solution; curtailing migration and creating protectionist trade. Whilst I suspect the vast majority of us completely disagree with these (and the other reasons for depravation of white, working class communities I will outline, I certainly do), they resonated with the feelings of American communities that the political establishment forgot. In comparison Clinton to these communities represents a political and economic elite, completely unaffected by the decline in American manufacturing gutting these communities.
Ethnicity – very similarly linking with class, we see a strong correlation between ethnic homogeneity in a state and support for Trump. Lack of effective multiculturalism over many decades in the US has lead to socialised intolerance of minority ethnic groups, very easy sentiment to prey on by a populist like Trump. Trump has offered a vision of the US in which “threatening” ethnic groups (both in economic terms and security terms) were no longer a “threat”; either from being deported or being not being allowed to enter in the first place, thus allowing for the creation of a world in which these white, working class communities would experience growth as pressure on the domestic job markets is alleviated.
Globalisation – Trump has successfully portrayed international markets and global trade as being directly detrimental to white, working class communities, moving more jobs abroad at for a lower price, depriving the US economy of capital and these communities of the means to sustain themselves, as most of these are traditional manufacturing communities (the so-called rust belt). Trump offered these communities and alternative, more protectionist trade policy that would place their needs above those of other states. In comparison Clinton to these communities embodied the connotation and indeed expansion of free-market global trade that could further threaten their livelihoods.
So why then did so many people choose to listen to Trump’s rhetoric on these issues when they are quite easy to refute? Why did they choose to either ignore or begrudgingly turn a blind eye to Trump’s horrendous views on ethnic/religious minorities and women? I believe there are a couple of reasons for this as well:
The Clinton campaign – The Clinton campaign took many of the states populated by the communities completely for granted. Either very little, or in some cases absolutely no campaigning from the top officials of the Clinton campaign/Clinton herself. This further builds on the narrative that Trump has successfully spun that the established political class simply do not care about these communities.
(source – AP Photo in Politico.com)
The treatment of Trump supporters by other actors within the election – throughout the entirety of this election there has been more condemnation and demonisation of Trump supporters than engagement. Rather than engage and debate Trump supporters and try to prove that there is a better alternative/the reasons Trump gives for their poverty are not accurate, we see widespread and simplistic condemnation that they are racist/sexist/homophobic/xenophobic etc. Whilst this is a very easy and very understandable condemnation to make (I am personally guilty of this at times), almost no effort was made on behalf of the majority of actors within this election, right from the top of the Clinton campaign to regular social media users, to understand the hardship and poverty they face on a day to day basis. This just further builds upon an “us against them” narrative that the vast majority of the political establishment, and Clinton supporters, do not care about the day to day suffering of these citizens.
The “establishment narrative” of the media – the media print what people want to read. This has been the way they have acted for decades and this is exactly the way they have acted over this election (a handful of pro-Trump publications as exceptions of course). For every article shared, for every “like”/”reaction” and for every comment on these articles, the media has been fuelled to print more and more. This builds up arguably the most damaging of the narratives that Trump has been able to spin, that it is not just the political establishment that despise/do not care about his supporters, but it is every single “liberal” across the entire globe. This is not a call for support, this is a declaration of war for Trump supporters to stand up against a world that in their eyes hates them and cares for everyone but them. He has convinced them of this.
There are many, many reasons as to why a morally reprehensible man such as Trump has been able to win this election, far too many for me to cover. Ultimately though, I feel that it has been the disengagement with and demonisation of Trump supporters by not just the Clinton campaign, but the vast majority of people, from journalists who write articles, audiences who read them and to those who vent their rage on social media. We are all guilty of giving Trump the advertising he needed and the opportunities for his narratives he needed. Ultimately we are all guilty of creating the cause for his supporters to defend their interests against minorities, globalisation and the “liberal elite”, no matter how devoid of reality the link between some these groups/process and the deprivation these communities face may be.
As a side note before I conclude, everyone saying that if it was Bernie Sanders running not Clinton that the result would have been different are correct. It would have been even more of a wipeout for the Democrats. Sanders was not only not as popular amongst life long Democrat voters but also would have embodied the wealthier, educated “liberal elite” that Trump’s supporters view as the main opponents of their needs. Whilst it is certainly plausible to argue that Sanders himself might have engaged more with some of these communities, I find it hard to believe otherwise that the demonisation of Trump supporters by the wider democrat campaign would have been even worse as they are more harshly contrasted to the Sanders campaign.
Ultimately this isn’t a case of asking “where did it all go wrong?”, it was never right in the first place. The demonisation of conservative voters, rather than engagement and understanding, partially cost Labour the 2015 elections. The demonisation of Brexit voters, rather than engagement and understanding, cost the Remain camp the UK’s membership of the EU. Finally, the demonisation of Trump supporters, not engagement and understanding, cost the Democrats the 2016 US election. Seeing a common theme here? A political culture of vitriolic demonisation is hurting those we se desperately want to help, marginalised groups who will now suffer under a Trump presidency. Through a lack of engagement we exacerbate alienation and funnel people grappling with very real issues into the hands of populists like Trump. We cannot win by shouting at our opponents, we can only win by engaging with them. I think ultimately there is a more apt question for us to ask: “will we ever learn?”