Thinking with You, Niyi Akinnaso, firstname.lastname@example.org
Hillary Clinton did not win. And so, she never succeeded in becoming the first female President of the United States of America. Therefore, you can go ahead and blame me all you want for going all out for her in the US presidential election of November 8, 2016. I share the blame with thousands of pollsters, journalists, and editorial writers across the globe. I also share it with over 60 million Americans, who voted for her, believing strongly that she would win.
History was made quite alright. But it was not the kind of history some of us had anticipated. That’s why the critical question this week is what kind of history was made and what are its implications?
Donald Trump made history both as the richest man to become President and the oldest man in that office on first inauguration, when he would be in his 71st year. Besides, he would be the second person in American history to become President without either serving in the military or holding public office. But these facts pale in comparison to the far-reaching national and international dimensions of his victory. Those, to me, are the lessons of history to be learned from Trump’s victory.
At the domestic level, Trump’s victory was a victory for nationals vs immigrants (never mind that the nationals were themselves descendants of immigrants); rural vs urban America; the working class as well as struggling middle class vs the elite; and the outsider vs the establishment.
Throughout the primaries, Trump ran as an outsider against his own party’s establishment candidates, and won. We should have seen it coming, when he ran against the Democratic Party’s establishment candidate in the general election.
Trump earned his victory by stoking people’s fears and anxieties about the future as he aimed his campaign at the White working and struggling middle classes, especially in rural America, many of whom had lost manufacturing jobs and are not skilled in new technology jobs. Most have no college degree and are, therefore, difficult to retrain. Most of them are White.
Politically, these differences translate to race and identity as the dividing line in American politics, which roughly matches the ideological divide between the two major parties. On the one hand, rural America, which voted overwhelmingly for Trump, is White and inward-looking. On the other hand, urban America, which voted for Clinton, is diverse and cosmopolitan.
Rural America responded well to Trump’s anti-globalisation message in much the same way as they responded to his anti-immigration message, believing that immigrants took their jobs. He would create new jobs, “lots of jobs”, he said, by stopping outsourcing and bringing manufacturing back to their backyard.
In the process, he promised to build a wall across the Mexican border and deport illegal immigrants. He would impose heavy taxation on companies that outsource jobs in order to force them to bring those jobs back and discourage them from further outsourcing. He would block Muslim immigration or vet Muslim applicants intensively. He would defeat ISIS and fight terrorism to the death.
Even more importantly, he successfully painted Clinton as a “liar”, a “nasty woman” and an elitist, who romances Wall Street and financial institutions, collecting high speaking fees. Above all, he painted her as untrustworthy, citing her email scandal, and promised to put her in jail.
To further stoke his supporters’ fears, he spoke of a vast conspiracy against him and them by some faceless global elite, media organisations, financial institutions, the federal government, and even his own party leadership. “You must take your country back from them”, he told supporters.
It was all music to the ears of rural America, especially in the so-called Rust Belt, encompassing about 10 states, stretching from northern New York and Pennsylvania through Ohio and Michigan to southeastern Wisconsin, where economic decline, population loss, and urban decay followed the shrinking of its once-powerful industrial sector. It was no accident that Trump won virtually all these states.
What was hardly realised during the campaign, and which pollsters never really captured, was the cumulative effect on voters in the Rust Belt of Trump’s repeated campaign against immigration, globalisation, free trade agreements, and the outsourcing of the US jobs. On further reflection, it occurred to me that Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America great again”, was a code for “Make America White again”.
How then did pollsters and media organisations miss these fine points? It became clear after the election that many pollsters and media organisations used data from Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns as the benchmark, forgetting that Obama was not on the ticket. This was evident, for example, in the CNN’s election coverage, which made repeated references to the Obama coalition.
Besides, their data were largely skewed in favour of urban America. The case of Pennsylvania is particularly instructive. True, Clinton won handily by a margin of nearly four to one in Philadelphia and surrounding suburban counties, but whatever she gained in these urban counties were offset by Trump’s votes from rural Pennsylvania counties as vote counting went on. It would be so throughout the country, except the blue states along the West Coast, which stood by Clinton.
The gullibility of rural voters speaks to a deep gap in American education that is often missed. According to the 2010 census data, less than 40 per cent of Americans hold a college degree. Educational attainment in the Rust Belt is even much less than the national average, which explains why voters there took Trump’s campaign seriously, believing in his promises.
What was equally missed were the international dimensions of Trump’s campaign and eventual victory. European politicians on the far right, from the Balkans to the Netherlands, applauded Trump’s election as a radical restructuring of the political landscape, even beyond the United States.
For them, the pro-globalisation and pro-immigration consensus, promoted by mainstream politicians and the media, has been overturned by the politics of heightened nationalism, immigrant-bashing and anti-globalisation. That’s why many far-right politicians were gladdened by Trump’s victory. This includes those already in office, like Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, and those seeking office, like Ms. Marine Le Pen of France and Geert Wilders of the Netherlands.
Again, back home to the United States, while Republicans were gloating in Trump’s victory, the outcome was quite disruptive for the Democratic Party establishment and Democrats in general. Some voters, especially minorities, millennials, and urban women, took their frustration, fear, and disillusionment to the streets in protest against Trump’s election.
With Obama going out of office in January and the Clintons decimated by defeat, a leadership crisis looms in the party. Donna Brazile, interim Chair of the Democratic National Committee, and her successor have their job cut out for them.
The emergent party leadership must work harder on getting the voters out in subsequent elections, beginning with the midterm election in 2018. Data from the recent presidential election show that Democratic voters didn’t come out enough. True, about 47 per cent of registered voters didn’t vote at all; but more than half of them are registered Democrats. A higher turnout of Democratic voters would have upset the negative effect of the reopening of Clinton’s email investigation some 11 days before election by the FBI Director, James Comey.
While Democrats engage in soul searching, Donald Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States on Friday, January 20, 2017. With Republicans in charge in the White House and Congress, the future of Obamacare, that is, the Affordable Care Act, and the composition of the Supreme Court is up in the air. But also up in the air is whether Trump’s presidency will be the beginning of the rise or the decline of America’s influence around the world.