trump_cpac_2011

 

There’s a simple reply to this question, but unfortunately given the blind panic that many people are in, they are providing much more dubious answers. Indeed, I would say that the right answer is pretty much incontrovertible. Donald Trump won the Presidential election on Tuesday not because he won the popular vote, but because he won in the electoral college.

Now, before I’m accused of being a simpleton, let me acknowledge that there are of course reasons why he won in the electoral college, not least of which is the fact that there is an electoral college. But if we want to explain why he won in the electoral college, then we need to turn to three key states: Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Of these three, Michigan and Pennsylvania have voted for the Democrat candidate in the last six Presidential elections, and Wisconsin in the last seven. Between them they carry 46 electoral votes, which, had they gone to Hillary Clinton, would now see her as President-elect. These three states are part of the ‘rust belt’ and contain significant numbers of white working-class voters, the majority of whom have tended to vote Democrat in the past.

Approximately 13.1 million people cast votes for the two major party candidates in these states. While Michigan is yet to formally declare, it looks like Trump has won there by a margin of around 12,000 votes. In Wisconsin he won by around 27,000 and in Pennsylvania by just over 68,000. That means that had Clinton either persuaded around 54,000 people to switch their votes from Trump to her or motivated 107,000 people who didn’t vote at all to vote for her, then she would now be on the way to the White House.

This is peanuts. We don’t really need exit polls to tell us that out of over the 13 million voters in MiPeWi, there were significantly more than 54,000 people who voted for Obama last time round who voted for Trump this time round. And the reason is because we know why these people voted for Trump, or why ex-Obama voters didn’t vote at all. Not because, after voting for a black President in the two previous elections, they have suddenly become Klan-loving, immigrant-hating racists, but for the reasons they have stated clearly. They are fearful not of Mexican and Chinese people, but of a future that looks even worse than the immediate past: stagnating living standards, increasing automation putting people out of work, decrepit and dead public spaces, and a political and economic elite that does not care about them.

Donald Trump is a hateful person, who may yet do some horrific things to America and the world. The people who voted for him are probably wrong to think that he will make their lives better. But for liberals and the left, the penny needs to drop. Large numbers of Trump supporters really are deplorables. But there are very considerable numbers of them, as there are of people who supported Brexit, who are not deplorable but rightly concerned about their and their children’s future. We need to listen to them, and we need to offer them something beyond the false fixes of walls and rigged ‘free’ trade deals that only further enrich the rich.

Donald Trump Sr. at Citizens United Freedom Summit in Greenville South Carolina May 2015 by Michael Vadon 13

Buffoon. Joke. Jerk. Those are just some of the descriptions of the current front-runner for the Republican Party nomination for president of the United States. From his fellow Republicans, that is. Beyond the party, Donald J. Trump has been lambasted as a bigot, misogynist, and racist. Yet none of this has seemingly hampered the popular appeal of his quixotic quest for the White House.

Should we take the Trump phenomenon seriously? The answer is, emphatically, yes. Laugh at or loathe him, Trump has been the Heineken candidate, reaching parts of the electorate no other candidate can reach. And whilst it remains to be seen whether he can translate his support in the polls into votes, Trump already dominates 2016 in singular fashion. There exists no precedent in the modern era for a political novice setting the agenda so consistently that the media focuses in Pavlovian fashion on whatever subjects Trump raises. From stopping illegal immigration through a ‘beautiful’ great wall with Mexico to a moratorium on all Muslims entering the US, no-one has commanded attention like the New Yorker. Moreover, not only have other Republicans felt compelled to follow his lead but even President Obama’s final State of the Union was essentially an extended rejoinder to the Donald.

So, what underlies the success? Anger, authenticity, media savvy, populism, and timing.

An unapologetically redemptive force

First, most Americans think their country is on the wrong track. Among white working class Americans – the core Trump constituency – stagnant wages, real income decline, and loss of a once-dominant status in a nation transforming economically and culturally underlies disillusion. For Americans regarding ‘their’ country as in need of taking back and among those fearing the US is in terminal decline – polarised and gridlocked at home, discounted and challenged for primacy abroad – Trump represents an unapologetically redemptive force: a visceral, primal scream from the heart of white American nationalism.

Second, Americans broadly view their government as ineffective and political system as corrupt. Running for Washington by running against it, on a platform of incoherent but potently opaque policy positions, no-one – for those wanting to change Washington – embodies the outsider like Trump. Moreover, uniquely, his personal fortune insulates him from charges that he can be ‘bought’ by vested interests. When Trump talks about knowing how to work the system as a businessman, he is credible. Add to that an outspoken willingness to speak directly, bluntly and without fear of causing offence and millions of Americans view the Donald as a truth teller. Like businessmen in politics before him, Trump promises that what he did for himself he can do for America, and that ordinary Americans will once more partake of the increasingly elusive American Dream.

Social media mogul

Third, Trump has exploited his formidable media knowledge with astonishing shrewdness. Outrageous statements, outlandish claims and telling personal insults – seemingly spontaneous but carefully pre-planned and road-tested – compel ratings. Social media abets the creation of an alternative reality and echo chamber from which the distrusted mainstream media are excluded. Disintermediation – cutting out the middle man – compounds Trump’s celebrity status to forge what his 5 million Twitter supporters perceive as a personal link to their politically incorrect champion.

Fourth, Trump – for whom id, not ideology, is all – upends conservative orthodoxy. A New York native who was for most of his life pro-choice on abortion, pro-gun control and a donor to Democrats, Trump is no staid Mitt Romney. In rejecting free trade deals and ‘stoopid’ Middle East wars, pledging to make allies from Saudi Arabia to South Korea pay for US protection, committing to punitive taxes on Wall Street and preserving entitlement programmes for the average Joe, Trump’s anti-elitism is scrambling a party establishment fearful of an anti-government populism it unleashed but cannot control.

Finally, if Obama won the presidency in 2008 as the ‘un-Bush’, what more vivid an antithesis to the current lame duck could be imagined than Trump? After seven years of the most polarising presidency since Richard Nixon, Trump promises to restore the art of the deal – something the US Constitution mandates for successful governing, and AWOL since 2009 – at home and abroad alike.

Can Trump triumph?

Can Trump prevail in the Republican demolition derby? The odds are still against him. After all, most Republicans do not support him and he has been first in national polls in large part because the ‘establishment’ vote has been so fragmented among Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Chris Christie. But if Trump can win or come second to Ted Cruz in the Iowa caucus, and then top the New Hampshire and South Carolina polls, the prospects of him securing the nomination are 50-50 at worst. By the time of the Republican Party convention in Cleveland, Ohio in July, if not well in advance, no one may be laughing other than the Donald.

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Rob Singh is Professor of Politics at Birkbeck. His new book, ‘After Obama: Renewing American Leadership, Restoring Global Order’ will be published by Cambridge University Press in May. Prof Singh recently appeared on an episode of BBC Radio 4’s The Long View which focused on ‘Donald Trump and the Politics of Celebrity’