Numbers and Narratives: Notes on the Trumpiad
If one picture is worth a thousand words, as we used to say before the Age of the Selfie, I wonder if one interpretation of meaning – or a “narrative,” as such things are known today– is worth a thousand polling numbers. In any case, in the aftermath of President-Elect Donald J. Trump’s surprise victory over Hillary Clinton in the U.S election on Nov. 8, 2016, numbers and narratives are what’s left. That, along with all the unused party favours, tinfoil chapeau conspiracy theories, and those piles of unread hacked emails from Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks outfit (with a tip o’ the hat, or “ht” as they say in Facebook-speak, to the Kremlin, who apparently facilitated the leaks).
I realize that most everyone, including the thousands of young people demonstrating nightly in major American cities in the week following the vote, is probably more interested in the hallowed question, What Is To Be Done? than in the dazed query, What Happened? True, Karl Marx suggested in the most famous of his “Theses on Feuerbach” (1845), “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” I agree with the folks in the streets about the urgency of changing the world, but I’m also interested in the often ignored first part of Comrade Karl’s sentence, which is now mainly used to take a poke at unworldly philosophers and other elitist type people. Since we haven’t yet understood the world, it might still be worth doing so before we rush in (where angels, but not populists, fear to tread) in order to change it.
The phenomenon of Republican Party nominee Trump — a combination of demagogue, more-than-occasional blatant racist, sexist on-the-edge-of-predation, schoolyard bully, outright ignoramous, and a person with an unreliable temperament who is thin-skinned, easily-wounded, and possessed of a cocaine-like Twitter habit — was so startling that there’s a tendency to forget that the outcome of the 2016 election was not all that different from the previous four American elections dating back to 2000. More important, the deep, roughly half and half split in the American body politic is not something invented by Donald Trump. Here are the popular vote percentages since 2000:
2016 Clinton 48.1 Trump 46.0
2012 Obama 51.0 Romney 47.0
2008 Obama 53.0 McCain 45.7
2004 Kerry 48.3 Bush 50.7
2000 Gore 48.4 Bush 47.9
(Election winner in boldface.)
As can be seen, the American divide has been fairly intractable since the beginning of the millennium. The differences are, as the current media cliché has it, “baked in.” Whether it’s populists, Tea Party mavericks, or establishment types on the right, and/or liberals, centrists or self-declared revolutionaries on the left, the divided populace has shown few signs of reconciliation in the last two decades.
Whoops, I almost forgot to issue the now requisite trigger warning for those plunged into numeracy trauma or whose eyes glaze over at the very sight of statistics: there are a few numbers lurking ahead. We’ll try to keep them to a minimum. The Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton received 65.8 million votes or 48.1% of the total (that’s as of last count) to Donald Trump’s 62.9 million (46.0%). Other candidates took 6.5 million votes (or about 5% of the total). The final tally will not be established for some time, but the numbers here are reasonably reliable.
( The source for most of the numbers is 2016 data collected by Edison Research for the National Election Pool, a consortium of ABC News, The Associated Press, CBS News, CNN, Fox News and NBC News. Additionally, I’ve made use of reports from Pew Research, Cook Political Report and Wikipedia, and the latter relies on the U.S. Federal Election Commission reports.)
Altogether, the voter turnout (“turnout” means percentage of voting age citizens who voted) was about 55.3%, slightly higher than the 54.9% turnout in the 2012 election (it was 58.2% in the 2008 Obama victory, and 56.7% in 2004). In fact, this year’s U.S. turnout is in the same range as it’s been in all of the five quadrennial presidential contests this century. (I should note that in the number-crunching profession there’s a technical debate about how to calculate the turnout. It turns on the difference between percentage of voting age population and percentage of voting-eligible population. Lots of people aren’t eligible to vote for a variety of reasons, but especially high incarceration rates in the U.S. If you use the voting-eligible model to calculate turnout that bumps up the numbers by about four per cent. Here, I’m using the lower Wikipedia and Federal Election Commission numbers — based on voting age population percentages.)
(For Canadian readers wondering how they compare to their neighbours to the south in terms of this measure of civic participation, turnout in the most recent federal election in December 2015, which Liberal Party leader and now prime minister Justin Trudeau won, was 68.5% — a significant 13 points higher than the U.S. turnout.)
Though Clinton won the national popular vote by nearly three million votes, it’s something of a Pyrrhic victory, because the winner of the American election is determined by the state-based 538-vote Electoral College system, which Trump won handily, 306-232 (this count isn’t absolutely final, but any changes that may occur will not affect the overall outcome). One obvious thing to note is that more than 45% of possible voters didn’t vote: that amounts to some 95 million people.
Trump won narrowly, securing the Electoral College majority by virtue of tight wins in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. The margins there averaged roughly one per cent or less, and Trump’s victories were noteworthy because those states had consistently voted Democratic in several previous elections. Indeed, they were reliably enough Democratic, that they were considered part of the bloc of “safe” Democratic states known as the “Blue Wall.”
Although there was considerable talk of a Trump “surge” that brought large numbers of heretofore non-voting citizens to the polling stations, that’s not immediately evident given that Trump’s total vote was pretty much in the range of previous Republican candidates John McCain and Mitt Romney in 2008 and 2012, both of whom lost to Barack Obama. However, Trump did secure two million more votes than either Romney or McCain (but much of that can be attributed to population increase).
It’s of course possible, given the high percentage of non-voting citizens, that Trump brought out similar or slightly more numbers of people, but different segments of the eligible voters cohort than McCain or Romney did. The evidence for that is the increased margin of victory Trump chalked up among older white male voters with less than a college education. (I’ll get to the demographics in a minute.)
The point to keep in mind is that a relatively few votes, cast in the right places (i.e., tightly contested “swing states”), were enough to make the difference. Since we’re not talking “landslides” here (if anything, Clinton’s popular vote total was more of a “decisive” statement than anything else), the practical election outcome (Trump’s victory) looks as much accidental as it does clearly motivated by voter discontent, although such discontent and the desire for “change” have been touted as the explanation of the results. In fact, the Electoral College results were, despite the 306-232 count, so close that some otherwise sober-minded observers were tempted by the conspiracy theory that the vote in at least three states (Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania) was somehow “rigged” by diabolically clever Kremlin-sponsored hackers.
One thing to note on the Democratic side is that Hillary Clinton received only 100,000 fewer votes than Obama did four years ago. Some of those “lost” votes may have been siphoned off to third party candidates who received over 6 million votes. Others may be due to “no-shows” on election day – people (particularly from minority ethnic sectors) who had previously voted for Obama; and some may be accounted for as older white men without college educations who had voted Democratic in the past, but voted for Trump this time. In any case, early analysis that suggested a huge drop-off in Democratic support turned out not to be true.
The most notable “big picture” features of the election are the sharp divisions in voting behaviour in the categories of race/ethnicity, gender, age, and education.
Start with “race”:
2016 Clinton Trump % Of Voters
White 37 58 70
Black 88 8 12
Hispanic 65 29 11
Other 60 33 7
Just to get an idea of how this compares to the previous 2012 election, whites (who made up 72% of the voting population then) voted 59-39% for the Republican candidate Mitt Romney. Blacks voted for President Barack Obama (93-6%), as did Hispanics, Asians, and others (by margins of roughly 70-25%). What this shows is that, first, there’s not much difference between the two sets of voting numbers and, second, given that Romney secured about the same percentage of the white vote as Trump, it’s hard to argue that the 2016 election represented a surge in white voters or a “whitelash” of some sort.
Nonetheless, an inescapable fact of the vote is that Caucasian Americans chose, by a significant majority, Donald Trump, and further, that the white vote was decisive to the outcome. Presumably, these white voters shared, or were attracted by, Trump’s ideas, vague as they often were, such as those about restrictions on immigration. Many identified with his implicit endorsement of racist and sexist attitudes or expressions of political xenophobia. They welcomed promises of an isolationism that would bring back lost jobs “outsourced” by capitalist globalization, and finally, they bought into a populist notion of “the people” versus the government (code-named “Washington”) in which the people “take back their country” from a shadowy elite who hold the nation in its thrall.
It’s important to remember, in the necessary generalizations that emerge from number-crunching exercises like this one, that the demographic groups referred to are not monolithic. So while a majority of white voters supported Trump, what about “the other whites”? Some 40 million white Americans backed Clinton, and rather clearly embrace values that are distinct from those embodied by white Trump voters, a real division that can’t be fantasized away in sentimental rhetoric about the desired unity of the American body politic.
A lot of these pro-Democratic white voters live on the U.S. West Coast. In cities like Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco, predominantly white populations gave Trump no more than single-digit vote tallies. As columnist Tim Egan writes, “This West Coast majority cares about climate change, tech and trade. They care about where their food comes from, and want family-friendly policies that don’t knock women out of their career trajectories. They aren’t afraid of raising taxes to make their cities more livable… They don’t think lunatics should be able to buy assault rifles. And their issues were completely forgotten in the presidential campaign.” (Timothy Egan, “The Other White People,” New York Times, Nov. 19, 2016.)
Turning to other notable divisions, the “generation gap,” as this divide used to be called, is large and relatively clear. People 18-39, who made up 36% of the electorate, voted approximately 53-37% for Clinton. Conversely, people 40 years and older, who made up 64% of the electorate, voted 52-45% for Trump, and the proportion is even larger if you look at older white voters. As is frequently noted, younger voters often have lower turnout rates, and that’s especially true of less-educated younger people, often members of ethnic minority groups. (And yes, as with almost every other aspect of the subject, there are available studies of non-voters; two of them are “The Party of Nonvoters,” Pew Research Center, Oct. 31, 2014, and Ellen Shearer, “Nonvoters in America,” at nonvotersinamerica.com.) In terms of developing a 2016 voter profile, the data gives us, so far, older white voters who were instrumental in putting Trump into office.
Perhaps the most interesting, and certainly most commented upon, division is gender. Given that Hillary Clinton was the first woman candidate nominated for the presidency by a major political party, the issue of gender naturally attracted considerable attention. Though Clinton lost, and it may be small consolation, it’s now fairly clear that a woman can be elected president and commander-in-chief in the United States.
Among male voters, Trump prevailed 53-41%. Among women voters, Clinton won 54-42% (and women make up a small majority of all voters). As clear as the gender gap is, the 2016 numbers are not all that different from the 2012 election when male voters went 52-41% for Romney, while women voted 55-44% for Obama. That is, the gender difference in American politics has existed for some time. If anything, one might have expected the gap to be significantly larger this year, but it wasn’t.
When you combine gender with race/ethnicity, one notable pattern that emerges is that while white men voted heavily for Trump (63-31%), it was also the case that a majority of white women (53-43%) voted for Trump as well. To secure a majority among women generally, Clinton was dependent on black and other ethnic minority women voters.
The answer to the question, why did a majority of white women vote for Trump?, is complicated, as are many questions about voting motivations. There was reason to think that white women might not support Trump in the numbers that they did. Trump was unusual (and that puts it mildly) in the number and repetitions of insults directed at women, both specific women and women as a category. A 20-year old recording that surfaced during the campaign had Trump advocating aggressive sexual approaches to women, including groping and grabbing them by the genitals (a set of remarks Trump later attempted to pass off as mere “locker room” banter). Trump claimed that one presidential debate co-host, TV anchor Megyn Kelly, had “blood coming out of her eyes… out of her wherever,” presumably a reference to menstruation, offered as an explanation for her allegedly hostile questions to him; it was revealed that a former beauty queen contestant (in a contest pageant run by Trump) had been repeatedly verbally abused by Trump for allegedly gaining weight after winning the contest; several women came forward to accuse Trump of sexual assault and/or harassment; and Trump, during the course of one of the presidential debates, called his opponent “nasty woman,” apparently a major putdown in certain social circles.
Despite all this, a majority of Caucasian women voters cast their ballots for Trump. Part of the explanation may be that they shared views with comparable males who saw other issues (such as employment and terrorism) as priorities, or that they more or less accepted Trump’s notion of “locker room talk” as relatively inconsequential, or even that they didn’t see issues of sexism and gender as something with which they strongly identified. Many women, of course, were simply loyal Republican Party voters who decided to support the party candidate, even though troubled by some of his slanders against women. Again, it’s useful to remember that “women” are not a monolithic bloc, something self-evidently the case for most other identifiable demographic categories.
One or two other factors are worth mentioning in developing a profile of a characteristic voter crucial to Trump’s victory, which so far is exemplified by older white male voters. Those factors are education and income. So, white women with a college degree or more (making up about 20% of the electorate) voted for Clinton 51-45%, thus bucking the trend of white women voting for Trump. White women without college degrees (about 17% of voters) backed Trump 62-34%. Correspondingly, white men without degrees (also about 17% of voters) overwhelmingly voted 72-24% for Trump. By the way, white males with college degrees voted 54-39% for Trump, thus proving that a college education, which these days includes a whole lot of business B.A.s, is no inoculation against ignorance (just kidding). The remaining 30%, non-white voters, went for Clinton 74-21%.
What all this gives us in terms of our imaginary voter profile is an older, white male without a college education (who may well be armed, although I didn’t run into any statistics on which voters were carrying a gun). Again, none of this is monolithic or surprising. There are also a lot of younger and middle-aged white guys (and gals) without college educations who voted for Trump, too. If you then crosscut that data with particular geographic locations in “swing states” like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin (and add to those other “Rust Belt” territories from Ohio all the way to North Carolina), you’ve found a fatherlode of Trump supporters, just enough to put him into the Oval Office (when he’s not in one of his Trump Towers). On the other side of the coin representing older-white-not-so-well-educated-males-often-living-in-small-towns is an invisible cohort of non-voters, often members of minority communities, living in the same locations, who didn’t show up this time to vote for Clinton (though they may have voted for Obama in previous elections). Put the two sides of the coin together, and what you’ve got is Clinton facing a “tails-you-lose, heads-I-win” situation, even though the coin teetered on its edge for an evening before coming to a 2-or-3-o’clock-in-the-morning decision.
A final word on numbers — numbers about money. Trump supporters, for all their suffering and sense of being “left behind,” are not poor. People earning under $50,000 family income (who made up 36% of voters), especially those earning under $30,000, gave a solid 52-42% majority of their votes to Clinton. Higher income voters, especially those in the middle range of $50,000-99,999 (a group making up just over 30% of voters) cast a 50-46% majority of their votes for Trump. The highest 10% of family income recipients split their votes more or less evenly between the two main candidates. The notion of middle income voters hostile to both those below them and the corporate super-rich (who make the decisions to outsource middle income jobs) will be taken up in the following discussion of “narratives.”
Have I left anyone out? Ah, but of course! For readers desperate to know the voting habits of the polyamorous diverse, relax. The LGBT community gave Hillary a 78-14% landslide, as expected.
“Narrative,” a term once solely of interest to the literary community, has temporarily been turned into a cliché employed by all and sundry sorts, especially media pundits. It’s, as far as I know, just an upscale word for “story.” It’s used quite loosely to mean a number of things, but here’s a fairly typical current example. The other day, I was watching a panel of reporters on TV discussing the problem of Trump’s business dealings and how he should properly distance himself from them in order to avoid accusations of conflict of interest. One of the panelists said, “If he doesn’t do something about it, it’ll become the whole narrative of his presidency.” Although I rather doubted the panelist’s claim, I was interested in how the term was used. In this instance, the word seemed to mean something like a defining thematic of a particular story. Here, I’ll be using it to point to post-election explanations of the meaning of the election.
Trying to analyse even a fraction of the exponentially growing number of narratives or analyses of the meaning of the U.S. election threatens to turn into a meta-narrative itself. (The latter term, by the way, is defined by a website called Urban Dictionary as “a postmodernism bullshit term often used by CNN reporters to sound smart.” Hmm, that will give you some idea of what we’re up against in the explaining business.)
The explanation I’m generally most comfortable with is the sort of nuts and bolts account offered by veteran political observer Elizabeth Drew at the New York Review of Books. She pays close attention to the intersection of all the factors, to demographics, general atmospherics, and unfolding campaign moments (say, a Trump temper tantrum or Twitter storm over a particular incident, or a Clinton equivocation about emails that made her seem less than trustworthy). Drew begins by recalling that a couple of months before the election, she ran into Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in the mid-1990s, and a present-day Trump supporter and “surrogate” spokesman likely to end up somewhere in “The Donald’s” administration. “Out of curiosity, I asked him how he thought the election would turn out,” Drew says. “‘There’ll be a surge for Trump at the end,’ he said. ‘There’s only so far that Hillary can go; too many people don’t like her.’ I dismissed this as spin, forgetting that for all his erratic nature Gingrich is a bit of a visionary… I think my reaction suggests how a great many people thought about this election, up until Tuesday evening [Nov. 8]: no way it could happen. So it wouldn’t.” But, of course, it did. (Elizabeth Drew, “How It Happened,” New York Review, Nov. 12, 2016.)
“People looking for ‘the reason’ Clinton failed in her long-planned effort to become the nation’s first female president are looking for the wrong thing,” says Drew. She adds, “Elections are complicated and a lot of factors come into play, some barely or not at all discernable. Clinton lost her historic race for a combination of reasons, some almost accidental – falling not many votes short in a given state; the unexpected intervention of the FBI, driven by a collection of agents with longstanding hatred of the Clintons.”
The latter refers to FBI director James Comey’s unusual actions during the investigation of Clinton’s use of unauthorized private email servers while she was Secretary of State several years earlier, thus possibly jeopardizing national security. First, Comey announced in July 2016 that the FBI had concluded its probe and recommended that Clinton not be prosecuted, on the grounds that there simply wasn’t an evidential case; shortly after, he testified before Congress, reiterating his sharp criticisms that Clinton, while not prosecutable, had been “extremely careless”; then, 10 days or so before the election, Comey reappeared and suggested that the case was being reopened to examine some newly discovered cyber-missives that might or might not be significant; finally, he popped up once more, the weekend before the vote, to say, in effect, Nothing to see here, folks. By then, as the majority of polls reported, the not insubstantial damage had been done. This is the sort of story Drew tracks in her piece. She adds, “We can’t know what turnout would have been absent the FBI’s involvement, but it’s clear that many voters simply stayed home. There was a dramatic falloff in Democratic votes from the 2008 election as well as the one in 2012, whereas Republican numbers held steady.”
She notes that “in much of the astonished comment about the outcome, Trump’s victory became inflated beyond what it actually was: this wasn’t the Reagan sweep of 1980,” nor even the Obama “hope and change” triumph of 2008. As the demographic numbers discussed above show, electoral patterns this year were not much different from previous recent elections. Drew then reprises the story of pollsters and their problems with forecasting particular states; she offers a look at the effects of third party candidates (not much, but maybe just enough to tip occasional balances, though the candidates, former governor Gary Johnson for the Libertarians and Jill Stein for the Greens, both seemed rather unimpressive); and much more important, Drew notes, “Throughout the campaign, blinders kept most of us from taking aboard a lot of what we were seeing: Hillary Clinton wasn’t giving people a reason to vote for her.”
Drew gives extended consideration to the personalities of the candidates, observing “that a low estimation of Clinton’s trustworthiness clung to her, in contrast to Trump who lied with almost infinitely greater profligacy” and notes that that “raises questions about the coverage of the two candidates and the relative importance that voters ascribed to their various traits.” Drew emphasises that “it was clearly more important to a great many people that Trump’s candidacy promised a break with the past, and that he said he would treat the causes of their economic anxiety.” She might have added that Trump promised a break with the immediate past only to conjure up a vision (or illusion) of another much earlier past in which America was “great,” hence the campaign slogan imprinted on the red baseball cap he frequently wore while speaking on the stump, “Make America Great Again.” Drew wryly observes that “the ‘moral’ of the story may be that if you’re going to lie in the course of a public contest, lie so often that people can’t keep up with you, and they might even see your serial exaggerations and fabrications as part of your charm.”
Summing up, Drew insists, as did many analysts during the course of the campaign, that the unconventional Trump touched a nerve, especially in small town and rural white America. “Clearly, large numbers of workers were attracted by Trump’s promise to renegotiate existing trade deals and to bring American jobs back from abroad. The essential fact is that Trump spoke to the economic anxiety of many in this country (despite falling unemployment rates and slightly increased wages over the month and year before, albeit still low), while Clinton did not,” Drew concluded.
What’s more, “Trump channeled the anger at Washington institutions that particularly the working class felt had failed them, while Clinton came across as the very symbol of those institutions. Though Trump was a wealthy man, his populist message – even the baseball caps – made him seem accessible.”
Like many other observers, Drew devotes considerable space to the role of white voters, describing them as “the most significant among the voting groups in this election, whom Trump won almost across the board.” Doug Saunders, the Toronto Globe and Mail’s insightful international affairs columnist, goes even further. In a lengthy feature headlined “Whitewashed,” written from the electoral frontlines in Sarasota, Florida (a crucial “battleground” state where Trump eked out a 1% victory), Saunders makes white voters the centrepiece of his analysis, asking, “The real reason Donald Trump got elected?”, and dramatically answering, “We have a white extremism problem.” (Doug Saunders, “Whitewashed,” Globe and Mail, Nov. 11, 2016.)
In his essay, Saunders treats white voters to the sort of anthropological scrutiny usually accorded to voters of colour, but his stark conclusions are evident from the outset. “The election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency on a platform devoted largely to themes of ethnic nationalism and racial and religious intolerance was a wake-up call to those of us who believed our ethnic group was largely benign, but for small pockets of zealotry at the margins,” Saunders begins.
“As white people,” he continues, “it was our turn to experience the cold shock of discovering that a significant part of our community has been radicalized, sometimes over the Internet, into a form of intolerant extremism that rejects conventional Western values and threatens the integrity of entire countries. That it has so far manifested itself in ballots rather than bombs shouldn’t mask its gravity. Because we are so numerous, our zealots are capable of paralyzing nations.”
Saunders pushes the conceit further, equating whites with various sorts of proto-terrorists. “We need to do what we have long told other groups to do when they face an extremism problem: Speak up about it, identify it, try to understand what has happened to so many people like us, find a way to lead them away from extremism,” Saunders dead-pans, sending up the patronising messages delivered to ethnic American communities, especially Muslim Americans, to rein in and report on their would-be extremists.
Trump’s election, Saunders says, buttressing his claim, “was the work, almost entirely, of white people. More than 90% of Americans who voted for Mr. Trump were white, and most white U.S. voters, both men and women, cast a ballot for him (even though his opponent got more votes over all). And at least 90% of non-white Americans did not vote for him. This was a white riot – an angry, rejectionist turn by a deeply pessimistic majority within the white population against the far more hopeful and inclusive politics of the rest of the country.”
Subsequently, when Saunders begins detailing his field-work among white voters, he drops the tone of exaggeration-for-effect, and concedes that the “extremists” are not especially distinguishable from other people. “The scores of white Americans I’ve met over the past 12 months,” Saunders recounts, “who eagerly embraced… the politics of Mr. Trump are usually, in many respects, impossible to distinguish from other white people. They tend to be normal, middle-class; the largest Trump-supporting sub-segment of them are, like me, men over 45 with only high school educations. With few exceptions, they are not overt racists or far-right zealots. Many of them are otherwise quite uninterested in politics.”
Still, “these white people have developed a set of beliefs that have led them to see a sort of strongman nationalist politics of ethnic exclusion as being perfectly acceptable, only two generations after their country fought a global war against that very thing.” And they find much more acceptable, from bans on Muslims to mass deportations of undocumented Mexican workers resident in the U.S.
Saunders adds, “These white voters, while they don’t consider themselves racists, do not see a problem with a president-elect… whose biggest advertising expenditure was a two-minute November ad in which he describes a global conspiracy of meddling Jews manipulating the economy – an ad that the Anti-Defamation League has denounced as resembling anti-Semitic propaganda.” Or, as Elizabeth Drew put it, referring to the same ad, “It’s hard to see how it could have been more blatant.” Currently, subtle inflammatory signals are known as “dog whistles.” Drew says, “These weren’t ‘dog whistles,’ they were dogs barking loudly.”
Saunders, who usually covers European politics, says this “is not just an American problem. There is a striking similarity, in lifestyle, geography and beliefs, between these white Americans who voted for Mr. Trump and the white Britons” who voted for “Brexit” — Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union – in June 2016 “on largely xenophobic grounds. They also have much in common with the white French, Dutch and Austrian voters who have turned far-right parties of racial intolerance into significant political forces.”
Among the many interviews and conversations Saunders conducts as he tours America, one encounter in the eastern suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio with a pharmaceutical salesman in his fifties named Burt, captures much of the flavour of resentment and woundedness being portrayed. Burt is “especially bothered by the change in complexion in his city. ‘Look around you, half the signs are in Spanish,’ he said. ‘They come in, not even legal, work for cash, and they get help from the government. I don’t get any help, and I keep paying more and more for health insurance.’ He talked about ‘elites’ in Washington more interested in minorities and refugees than in people like him; the idea of giving them citizenship appalled him. ‘They’re getting a free ride into the middle class when I have to work for it,’ he said.
“He didn’t personally know any Central Americans, but he felt drawn to Mr. Trump’s bid to solve the problem through mass expulsion. ‘This doesn’t feel like my country any more,’ he said – a phrase I kept hearing from Trump supporters. He liked Trump, he said, because he could restore the United States of his childhood. Things, he said, had kept getting worse, and he wanted someone to fix them.” Saunders notices that “one of the strongest indicators of Trump support is a belief that things were better in the past… a time before civil rights and racial equality.”
There’s a good deal more in Saunders’ thoughtful attempt to make the case for a kind of “white riot.” However, the picture he delineates shouldn’t be taken as an entirely novel phenomenon. True, the explanation he offers is supported by the electoral and demographic numbers of the 2016 election. But those numbers were also the case in the last several elections, dating all the way to 2000. Perhaps they’ve reached a tipping point now, a sort of “white America’s last stand,” as some people have put it. While Trump is unusual as a figure, he’s not unprecedented. Populist leaders like Huey Long, George Wallace, and others have provided earlier, if not as successful, versions of Donald Trump, going back a century or more. Taking a longer historical perspective, we find that the archtypal voter profile we’re focusing on here has been characteristic of so-called “populist” movements throughout the history of American politics. What’s different this time is that the candidate allegedly representing this point of view has been elected to the highest office in the land.
In John Judis’s relevant book, The Populist Explosion (2016), he points out that 40 years ago, in the mid-1970s, sociologist Donald Warren published a study of what he called “middle American radicals” (or MARs). It was a group that “feels the middle class has been seriously neglected,” as Warren put it. They see “government as favoring both the rich and poor simultaneously.” Judis notes that MARs-types “held conservative positions on poverty and racial issues,” rejecting school desegregation busing and welfare agencies as examples of “the rich [giving] in to the demands of the poor, and the middle income people have to pay the bill.” This segment of the population disliked the national government, but also thought corporations “have too much power” and were “too big.”
Typically, they were white, male, and had something less than a college education; their incomes fell in the middle range on the earning scale; “they had skilled or semi-skilled blue-collar jobs, or clerical or sales white-collar work.” Does the profile look familiar? Yes, it’s more or less the same as the demographic profile that helped turn the 2016 election. In the 1970s, such people were supporting segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace; in 2016, they were voting for a rich populist named Donald Trump.
I’m not trying to make a “yuge” point here (to use a favourite Trump word), but I am attempting to counter the widespread impression that Trump represents something entirely new or utterly unprecedented in American politics. Certainly Trump’s “tell it like it is” style (even when he wasn’t telling it like it is, but merely telling people what they wanted to hear) had a significant effect on the election. Hillary’s “negatives,” as they’re called in the punditry business, also had an effect, but neither had so much of an effect as many people assume. The more important thing is the chasm in the U.S. body politic. What’s more, Republican Party policies and strategies over the last decade have done much to prepare the ground for Trump’s more extreme views and his vulgar expression of them. Perhaps the historical approach is attractive because it suggests that however shocking the results of the recent election, it’s likely that we’ll survive this, too.
If Saunders and, to a lesser extent, Drew, focused on the presence of white voters, other analysts turned their attention to the absence of some non-white voters. Omri Ben-Shahar, writing in the business magazine, Forbes, argued that Trump won the election “because of lower Democratic turnout.” (Omri Ben-Shahar, “The Non-Voters Who Decided The Election,” Forbes, Nov. 17, 2016.)
“An astonishing spectacle of the election aftermath is the false account of why Trump won,” says Ben-Shahar. “The accepted wisdom is that Trump succeeded in awakening a popular movement of anger and frustration among white, blue-collar, less educated, mostly male, voters, particularly in non-urban areas. Trump promised them jobs, safe borders, and dignity, and they responded by turning out in masses at his pre-election rallies and eventually at the ballots, carrying him to victory.”
Yes, that’s certainly the talk we’ve been hearing from the talking heads on the “All explanation, All the time” cable news channels. “This story is mostly wrong,” Ben-Shahar declares. “Trump did not win because he was more attractive to this base of white voters. He won bccause Hillary Clinton was less attractive to the traditional Democratic base of urban, minorities, and more educated voters.” Ben-Shahar underscores the “profundity” of his interpretation, given that Democratic voters were allegedly “so extraordinarily repelled by Trump that they were supposed to have the extra motivation to turn out.” It should have been an easy win, instead there was “a strong distaste for Hillary Clinton among the Democratic base to not only undo [support for her], but to lose many additional liberal voters.”
The story’s of Clinton’s defeat, says Ben-Sharar, “is not the Trump Movement erupting in the ballots,” or various other “fables,” but is “altogether different, and very simple: the Democratic base did not turn out to vote as it did for Obama. Those sure-Democrats who stayed home handed the election to Trump.”
Ben-Shahar provides several telling examples supporting the no-show theory. “Take Michigan for example,” he says. “A state that Obama won in 2012 by 350,000 votes, Clinton lost by roughly 10,000. Why?” Obviously, because she received several hundred thousand less votes than Obama four years ago. “Detroit and Wayne County should kick themselves,” chides Ben-Shahar, because Clinton got 75,000 less votes from this predominantly Democratic district than Obama. “More than 75,000 Motown Obama voters did not bother to vote for Clinton! They did not become Trump voters – Trump received only 10,000 votes more than Romney did in this county. They simply stayed at home. If even a fraction of these lethargic Democrats had turned out to vote, Michigan would have stayed blue.”
The stats from Wisconsin tell a similar story that Ben-Shahar details. Trump got no more votes in Wisconsin than Romney did, but Clinton tallied a quarter-million less votes than Obama, and that was more than enough to cause a 30,000 vote defeat for her.
Further, “this pattern is national,” according to Ben-Shahar. “Clinton’s black voter turnout dropped more than 11% compared to 2012,” even though she racked up margins among black voters that were almost as high as Obama’s. The big difference was the turnout, perhaps to the tune of two million votes cast for Obama by black voters who did not show up for Clinton in 2016.
Ben-Shahar considers other factors, such as the possibility that passionately partisan supporters of Clinton’s rival in the Democratic primaries, Senator Bernie Sanders (Ind.-Vermont), didn’t vote for her despite Sanders’ own energetic pleas that they should. And Ben-Shahar allows that in places like Pennsylvania, “Trump’s gains over Romney were more impressive than Clinton’s loss of Obama voters. So the story of an energized GOP working class base is not a total fantasy.” Still, he argues, the basic cause was that Clinton “was deemed even more flawed by her own base” than Trump was by his. (Ben-Shahar’s interpretation is supported by a feature story investigation of the motivations of some black non-voters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Cf., Sabrina Tavernise, “Many in Milwaukee Neighborhood Didn’t Vote – and Don’t Regret It,” New York Times, Nov. 20, 2016.)
Clearly, there’s more than a grain of truth to this “narrative,” but it might be more accurate to pursue my “two sides of the coin” metaphor. Trump was able to energize enough of a Republican constituency to win, even if it was only a latent constituency needing a charismatic leader to bring them to the voting booths. Ben-Shahar may have been relying on early vote counts, but counts more than two weeks after the election show that Trump’s 62.9 million votes exceeded the votes that Romney, John McCain or even former president George W. Bush received in their respective campaigns. Trump’s percentage of the vote at 46% puts him in the same range as Romney and McCain, give or take a point.
Ben-Shahar is right about specific and crucial counties in Rust Belt states where Clinton “underperformed,” as they say, but it’s not as clear that this is a “national pattern.” In the counting on election night, it looked like Clinton’s vote was a disappointing 60 million (compared to the 65.9 million votes Obama scored in 2012), suggesting a 5-6 million vote gap between Democratic turnout this year and the previous election). But as vote-counting continued over the subsequent month, Clinton’s total rose to 65.8 million votes nationally, only 100,000 less than Obama’s 2012 total, and a commanding lead of almost three million more votes than Trump (even though the popular vote victory for Clinton was, in effect, meaningless). However, Clinton’s votes were in the “wrong” places. She piled up large majorities in places like California and New York, but was unable to secure pluralities in the crucial Rust Belt states, falling short by tiny margins. I think there’s enough room to accept that Trump’s energetic base, and the absence of possible Clinton supporters are part of a two-sided dynamic, and it’s more helpful than seeking a monocausal explanation.
Analysts further to the left on the political spectrum tried to present a deeper and more encompassing account than most of what I’ve discussed. My favourite such interpreter, Naomi Klein, the Canadian author of This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus the Climate (2014), summed it all up in the headline to her op-ed for the British Guardian newspaper, “It was the Democrats’ embrace of neoliberalism that won it for Trump.” Klein notes that disappointed Democrats will blame everything for the Clinton defeat, from FBI meddling, to voter suppression and racism, to the “Bernie or Bust” crowd of Sanders’ supporters. And don’t forget misogyny, third parties, the corporate media, and “WikiLeaks for airing the [dirty] laundry.” (Naomi Klein, “It was the Democrats’ embrace of neoliberalism that won it for Trump,” the Guardian, Nov. 9, 2016.)
They’re missing the point, Klein argues. They’re leaving out “the force most responsible for creating the nightmare in which we now find ourselves wide awake: neoliberalism. That worldview – fully embodied by Hillary Clinton and her machine – is no match for Trump-style extremism… If we learn nothing else, can we please learn from that mistake?”
Klein’s quick pitch for her interpretation goes like this: “Here is what we need to understand: a hell of a lot of people are in pain. Under neoliberal policies of deregulation, privatisation, austerity and corporate trade, their living standards have declined precipitously. They have lost jobs. They have lost pensions. They have lost much of the safety net that used to make these losses less frightening. They see a future for their kids even worse than their precarious present.
“At the same time, they have witnessed the rise of the Davos class, a hyper-connected network of banking and tech billionaires, elected leaders who are awfully cosy with those interests, and Hollywood celebrities who make the whole thing seem unbearably glamorous. Success is a party to which they were not invited, and they know in their hearts that this rising wealth and power is somehow directly connected to their growing debts and powerlessness.” Davos, for those who don’t follow these things is the Alpine place in Switzerland where international movers-and-shakers gather annually to… what? to celebrate their success?
Says Klein, “Donald Trump speaks directly to that pain” suffered by masses of people. “The Brexit campaign spoke to that pain. So do all of the rising far-right parties in Europe.” Unfortunately, “they answer it with nostalgic nationalism and anger at remote economic bureaucracies… And of course, they answer it by bashing immigrants and people of colour, vilifying Muslims, and degrading women. Elite neoliberalism has nothing to offer that pain, because neoliberalism unleashed the Davos class.”
So, according to Klein, the neoliberalism of the Democrats offers no solution; neither does the right-wing illusion of Trump and European nationalists. What’s needed “to do battle with fascism is a real left.” What’s needed is a “redistributive agenda… An agenda to take on the billionaire class with more than rhetoric, and use the money for a green new deal. Such a plan could create a tidal wave of well-paying unionized jobs…” Well, you get the idea, right? “People have a right to be angry, and a powerful, intersectional left agenda can direct that anger where it belongs… So let’s get out of shock and build the kind of radical movement that has a genuine answer to hate and fear represented by the Trumps of this world.”
Granted that this bit of rah-rah boilerplate appeared the day after the election, no doubt produced on little sleep and written-to-deadline, but I’m not sure what its function is. Maybe just to cheer up the troops. It does seem a bit simplistic about Clinton, neoliberalism, and even Davos (I have a friend who spent a couple of summers there making cheese on a local Alpine peasant farm). And if anyone in the American heartland is calling out for a “radical left” that will clear up all these problems, I haven’t heard it. These days, you can barely hear the cowbells on an Iowa farm as the herd comes in from a hard day’s grazing. I rather prefer Klein when she’s working in longform in her books, from No Logo to The Shock Doctrine to This Changes Everything. Her heart’s obviously in the right place, but I doubt that hasty op-eds change anything.
There have been all sorts of other “narratives.” Some of them, like Klein’s, come from the political left. Perhaps the best of the leftist reflections was from the venerable Noam Chomsky who had, after Bernie Sanders lost the Democratic primaries, said he would vote for Clinton, hinting that she was the lesser of two evils. After the election, there was a Chomsky interview circulating on the internet in which he worried that the two great dangers posed by a Trump presidency, apart from the man himself, were likely policies that would increase the threat of global climate disaster and the possibility of the use of nuclear weapons.
The worst of the left was provided by the often smart, always provocatively entertaining Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Zizek. The loquacious Marxist, when asked for his thoughts on the American election, couldn’t resist declaring that he would vote for Donald Trump, even though he also detested Trump. Of course, as a Slovenian philosopher, he didn’t have a vote. But Trump’s election, he thought, would increase the “contradictions,” as Marxists like to describe the ultimate strains and stresses of a society, which, in turn, would increase the likelihood of the necessary revolution. As one of my favourite British-accented CNN anchors, when confronted with particularly bizarre utterances, likes to briskly say, “Well.. right!” and then equally crisply move on to the train crash in India or the referendum in Italy, or anything but the sillies.
Other accounts dwelt on the role of the media. Matt Taibbi, the crack political analyst for Rolling Stone magazine, offered a histrionic media culpa for the whole mess. “The almost universal failure among political pros to predict Trump’s victory… spoke to an astonishing cultural blindness,” Taibbi confessed. “Those of us whose job it is to cover campaigns long ago grew accustomed to treating The People as a kind of dumb animal, whose behaviour could sometimes be unpredictable but, in the end, almost always did what it was told.” (Matt Taibbi, “President Trump: How Did America Get It so Wrong?”, Rolling Stone, Nov. 10, 2016.)
“Whenever we sought insight into the motives and tendencies of this elusive creature, our first calls were always to other eggheads like ourselves,” says Taibbi. “Day after day, our political talk show consisted of one geek in a suit interviewing another geek in a suit about the behaviors of pipe fitters and store clerks and cops in Florida, Wisconsin, Ohio and West Virginia. We’d stand over glitzy video maps and discuss demographic data points like we were trying to determine the location of a downed jetliner.”
After quite a bit more of this crying-in-your-beer prose, Taibbi wraps it up before last call. “We were too sure of our own influence, too lazy to bother hearing things firsthand, and too in love with ourselves to imagine that so many people could hate and distrust us as much as they apparently do.” One wants to intervene in this lachrymose recital, and remind Taibbi that “this is not about you.” But Taibbi’s on a verbal bender. “It’s too late for any of us to fix this colossal misread and lapse in professional caution. Now all we can do is wait to see how much this failure of vision will cost the public we supposedly serve… The world may never forgive us for not seeing this coming.”
Other “narratives” covered everything from vote rigging, to refighting the Sanders’ campaign for the nomination, to fixing the Electoral College, to that old standby sport, Hillary-hating. The Democratic candidate was accused of being a Republican, a Wall Street toady, a warmonger, a neoliberal, , a crook and almost everything except the Whore of Babylon (or did I miss someone accusing her of that, too?). And then the primaries ended and taking over from the more rabid “Bernie Brothers” types was the actual opposition that included incipient lynch mobs at Trump rallies chanting “Lock her up!” All of which behaviour was almost polite compared to what people had to say on social media, where participants are allowed to be less restrained than in “polite society.”
Underlying all the criticisms of Hillary Clinton, from her basic “unlikability” to her lack of charisma to the litany of near-criminal charges, was the unsettled question of the role of misogyny in cranking up Clinton’s “negatives.” For me, a good deal of the anti-Hillary behaviour, whether displayed by boisterous “Bernie Bros.” or those angry not-so-educated young and old male Trump supporters, was tinged with an indeterminate amount of old-fashioned sexism.
The surprising thing was how little the actual allegations against Clinton stood up to scrutiny. Her use of a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state was a clear mistake, which she admitted to and apologized for (but perhaps too slowly), but it had been done by some of her predecessors, and in the end, there was no evidence of any breach of security. Nor did the FBI think it was an error so grievous as to require prosecution. A long-standing Republican Party hobbyhorse (or maybe even an obsession) was Clinton’s performance as secretary of state during events in Benghazi, Libya. “Benghazi” became a Republican battle-cry, and Clinton even stood up to 11 hours of public, televised interrogation before a Congressional committee, and again, in the end, there was nothing there. The criticisms were overblown and appeared more partisan than factual.
The same thing was true of WikiLeaks’ relentless publication of private emails from the Democratic National Committee or the internal workings of Clinton’s campaign team. The amount of material, dribbled out day by day, and presented by WikiLeaks’ head Julian Assange, was enormous. The media eagerly rifled through the purloined letters, tweets, emails, etc., looking for the “bombshell” or the “smoking gun.” It never turned up. Because it wasn’t there.
And given that the leaked material all related, however indirectly, to Clinton, and none of it exposed the Trump vaults (which contain, for instance, his undisclosed tax returns), and further, that there was reasonable suspicion that WikiLeaks had acquired the material through hackers connected to Russia’s Kremlin, the entire WikiLeaks performance looked like a personal vendetta against Clinton orchestrated by Assange. Everytime I saw Assange pop up on the TV from his refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London (where he’s avoiding sexual assault warrants from Sweden), the question that occurred to me was, “Who elected Assange to anything, anyway?”
While a person such as Edward Snowden is a genuine whistle-blower who justifiably revealed secret surveillance-of-ordinary-citizens programs that should have been revealed, Assange was simply creepy, neither working in or for the public interest, as he appeared to pursue a personal grudge against Clinton. The “revelations” in the leaks were minor and mainly showed the internal workings of a competent campaign, as advisors to the candidate strategized and fretted and tried to anticipate her opponent’s moves. Nor was there much to the Democratic National Committee exposures. Unsurprisingly, it showed that the DNC occasionally had a thumb on the scales in favour of the longtime Democratic loyalist Clinton rather than for Sanders, who was a colleague of the Democrats but officially an independent. The DNC’s preference for Clinton was normal, and claims that it had somehow “stolen” the nomination from Sanders proved wildly exaggerated. Again, underlying practically all of this was how much of the motif was not just directed at Clinton, but at women as a category. This was the one lurking “narrative” that never escaped the shadows.
One of the narratives I found interesting was a meta-narrative about one of the more prominent thematics of the campaign. Hadley Freeman’s “I’ve heard enough of the white male rage narrative” begins by saying, “A lot will be written about how Trump’s victory represents a backlash of rage from the white working classes. The election of Trump, this narrative goes, proves how these people feel ignored by the elite politicians and metropolitan media. We need to hear more from the people, the argument continues, and how they have suffered because of globalisation, the demise of industry, the opioid crisis, the death of the American dream.” (Hadley Freeman, “I’ve heard enough of the white male rage narrative,” the Guardian, Nov. 10, 2016.)
Freeman argues that much of this narrative is wrongheaded. “Far from ignoring the white working class during this election, they were written about so extensively by nervously placatory liberal journalists that these articles became a genre unto themselves,” Freeman says, reminding me of pieces like Doug Saunders’ account of trekking through the Florida Everglades, interviewing every working class Trump-voting crocodile he could find.
“So here’s an alternative take,” Freeman proposes. “We’ve heard enough of white rage now. Oh sure, listen to the grievances of enraged voters. But understanding them is different from indulging them.” For one of the few times in the post-mortems, Freeman raises a question seldom asked. Namely, lots of demographic groups have complaints and tales of woe; the question is whether the complaints are justified, or is the rage simply a narrative the group has absorbed and is now regurgitating, whether they’re talking about making America great again or debating the circle of hell that “Crooked Hillary” should be assigned. And if the complaints are partially justified, as they surely are likely to be, does that justify the misogyny, racism, and xenophobia that is entwined in partially legitimate grievances?
Both the Trump and Brexit campaigns, says Freeman, “promised to turn the clock back to a time when white men were in the ascendance, and both were fronted by privately educated false prophets… who style themselves as friends of the working class while pushing policies that work against them. They have bleached language of meaning, boasting that they aren’t ‘career politicians’ (now a negative thing as opposed to someone who has devoted their life to public service) and they scorn ‘experts’ (who are now apparently the biggest threat to democracy.” Is it possible that the “elites” scornfully dismissed by populist leaders and their hordes of followers are people who actually know something? Is it possible that “politician” is a legitimate craft that requires knowledge? That “mainstream media” journalists are not trying to pull the wool over unsophisticated eyes?
Freeman says, “To call out voters for falling for such damaging racist and sexist messages” as purveyed by Trump is seen by many as damaging to the cause, “as though working-class people are precious toddlers who must be humoured and can’t possibly be held responsible for any flawed thinking.” She adds, “The much-discussed American Dream is only considered ‘broken’ when it’s the white working classes who are suffering. When it’s African-Americans, they are simply lazy and morally flawed.” Freeman may be onto something in suggesting that race may explain more about the situation in America than class. Her notion of holding people (angry white working class or anyone else) responsible for their sexist, racist, anti-intellectual ideas is so seldom heard, it sounds almost novel.
“However much people want to blame the Democrats, their voters or Clinton herself, the result of this election is due at least as much to anyone who pushed the narrative that Clinton and Trump were equally or even similarly ‘bad,’” Freeman concludes. “The most qualified candidate in a generation was defeated by the least qualified of all time. That is what misogyny looks like, and, like all bigotries, it will end up dragging us all down.”
I suppose this is the place where we should address the What Is To Be Done? question. But maybe not. There will be more than enough to do over the next few years (for the spry and active), but I don’t think what’s to be done is all that different from the What Is To Be Done of previous years. I suspect that the notion of some “magic bullet” solution to present dilemmas, or the idea of reinventing a radical left is probably less to the point than recognizing that, insofar as it’s possible, we’re likely to have in the short term “normal” politics, from debates in legislative chambers to demonstrations in the streets. Although it’s odd to say this, we may be less in need of a new, improved, radical left than a modestly improved liberal-social democratic centre, of the sort limned by Bernie Sanders during his campaign. It’s a form of democratic socialism that has to more intelligently figure out what to do with global capitalism and bureaucratic super-states so that the system doesn’t simply produce increased profits for the owners, declining wages and standards of living for the workers, and destruction of the planet. Almost needless to say, even modest improvements are a tall order, especially when the current context demands as much resistance as it does proposals of new paradigms.
In the meantime, there’s the besmirched philosopher Zizek. Though he may have disgraced himself by perversely supporting Trump, on other occasions he’s been charmingly illuminating. For instance, once, when considering Marx’s famous thesis about “changing the world,” he observed, “This discourse of urgency is more and more predominant today. Even rhetorically, I find it disgusting. I hate attending lectures where some social critic says something like, ‘Are you aware that for every word that you used in your speech, ten children died of hunger in Africa?’ or ‘Do you know that for every sentence that you uttered, a woman was brutally raped in this country? I’m deeply suspicious of this pseudo-sense of urgency. I think it’s the same as ‘act, so that you don’t have to think.’” (Slavoj Zizek and Robert Eikmeyer, “The Day After,” Fillip 5, spring 2007.)
Instead, Zizek suggests, “Today, more than ever, we need time to think. This doesn’t mean that we don’t protest or do what’s possible. But let’s not behave as if everything is clear. ‘We just need to act.’ But do what? Act how? Here I’m deeply skeptical. I don’t think we even have a really convincing theory of where we are today. We have these traditional theories that are either liberal theories asserting that ‘globalism is just capitalism doing better’ or Marxist theories claiming that ‘it’s just the same thing going on.’ Then we have these post-theories and theorists who are suggesting that something new is happening. Yet, I don’t think that we even know where we are.”
And now it’s several weeks after the election. The Trump Transition team is in the midst of picking and choosing from a horde of job-seekers looking for a place in the new administration. The Americans, or some of them, have had their American Thanksgiving and are now “moving on” directly to the extended Christmas shopping season.
At Thanksgiving dinners across the country, the Americans had their turkey dinners with all the trimmings, watched the football games on the new giant TV screen, and even put up for a whole afternoon with the inevitable kooky, cranky uncle who likes to shout at the TV. The only difference this Thanksgiving is that the kooky, cranky uncle has just become the President-Elect of the United States. As the senior CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer likes to say, in his cautionary but nice, avuncular way, “Elections do have consequences.”
Berlin, Nov. 25, 2016; voting statistics updated as of Dec. 15, 2016.