Five Thirty Eight’s Nate Silver, famous for the accuracy of his state by state predictions in the 2008 election, took a different tack. “I didn’t predict that the Republican Party would lose its [expletive] mind,” commented Silver. This election all of the usual rules didn’t work. The election was essentially unpredictable, a “black swan” event, so no one could be blamed for failing to call it correctly.
Almost alone, the New York Times’ David Brooks took a humbler path. “I was surprised by Trump’s success because I’ve slipped into a bad pattern, spending large chunks of my life … in professional circles with people with similar status and demographics to my own,” he confessed. “It’s necessary to go out into the pain,” he added, promising to spend “the next months and years” getting out into the American hinterlands and actually listening to people.
But was it really such a surprise? The reasons for Trump’s success were hiding in plain sight.
1. Racism: Anyone who still, post-Ferguson, post-Baltimore, post-Black Lives Matter, thought we were living in a “post racial” world was either blind or delusional. It was merely a matter of time before a politician would come along to exploit the racism that burbles just out of polite conversation. Trump’s refusal to disavow former Ku Klux Klan leader’s David Duke’s support, his “birther” insistence that Barack Obama was not really American, his refusal to condemn overtly racist epithets and violence from his supporters, all were clear signals to white followers that he was their candidate.
2. Xenophobia: Two groups of foreigners are troubling many Americans these days. There are the immigrants, documented or undocumented and largely people of color, whom many fear are taking their jobs, and the terrorists who many believe are threatening their lives. Never mind that Mexican immigration has actually reversed in the last year, or that immigrants have a far lower crime rate than the native born. Never mind that one’s chance of being killed by a native-born, white, anti-abortion or anti-government terrorist is greater than the likelihood of falling prey to jihadists. And never mind that the chance of being killed by a terrorist of any variety is far less than that of being struck by lightning. Trump’s demonization of Mexicans and Muslims provides a convenient scapegoat for the discontents of recent years.
3. Sexism and sexual anxiety: The sexual revolution, feminism and the changing status of women, the battles over abortion rights and gay marriage, the collapse of the “traditional” family and the blurring of gender, and the revolution in morals characterizing the years since the sixties have been profoundly threatening to many Americans – especially, but not only, men. Trump’s misogyny is a covert playing of the “man card” and a code word for the disquiet felt by many Americans, as well as an attack on Clinton herself.
4. The Recession: Eight years after the 2008 financial crisis, eight million Americans remain unemployed and another six million are working part time because they can’t find a full time job. Insecure jobs – the gig economy, temporary employment, contract work – have grown. Millions more have dropped out of the labor force altogether. For the employed and for those fearing unemployment, union protections have all but collapsed and the social safety net has frayed. For those who are lucky enough to be working, wages have lagged, yet the income of the top 0.1% continues to grow and grow and grow and none of the architects of the financial collapse have gone to jail.
5. Mistrust of government: A significant part of the American public has bought into the GOP’s badmouthing of government. ” Over fifty percent of Republicans tell pollsters that they “never” trust the government in Washington “to do what is right.” Who can blame them? It is hard to feel trust for our post-1970s governments of deregulation, corporate welfare, bailouts, outsourcing and privatization, tax rules favoring the rich, regulators leaving their government jobs to work for the companies they had regulated, lobbyists writing laws affecting their industry, union busting, tattered social safety net, and Wall Street executives running the Treasury Department. At the same time, people also tell pollsters that they like much of what government gives them. “Government keep your hands off my Medicare,” read the iconic 2009 Tea Party poster. Trump masterfully played both sides: On the one hand, he insisted he wouldn’t privatize Social Security, might even support an increase in state-mandated minimum wages, and would repeal Obamacare but replace it with a program to insure that “people [will not] die in the street for lack of health care.” But at the same time, he picks up on the widespread anger. “Government as we know it is “a disgrace,” he insists, adding that “good people don’t go in to government.”
6. Anxiety: Anxiety and depression among Americans have been steadily increasing for years. Part of it may be the result of the economy, our growing disconnection from government, and disease over rapid social and cultural change. Part may reflect the 24/7 diet of things to worry about offered by the media, from terrorism to Zika virus to the growing impotence of America on the world scene to the latest weather disaster or airplane crash. Part may have other “psychological” causes. Regardless, Americans heard Trump’s message in an already heightened state of fear.
7. Showmanship: Finally, Trump was an entertainer, skilled at the art of telling people a story they wanted to hear (e.g., about Muslims, Mexicans, women, and other villains), at making people feel good about themselves, in offering a mantra of hope (Let’s make America great again”). Frustration, fear, and rage open the door to demagogues, who offer not rational solutions to actual problems but emotional solutions to emotional pain.
Many of these same factors characterize other industrialized countries, as well as the U.S., and throughout Europe the last few years have seen the rise of nationalist, racialist right wing parties led by demagogues – Marie LePen’s National Front in France, Geert Wilder’s Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, Victor Orban’s Fidesz in Hungary, and similar movements in Switzerland, Austria, Germany, the United Kingdom, Poland, Greece, Denmark, and Sweden, among others. In the U.S., put these factors together, along with a few more contingent factors such as the size of the Republican primary contingent, and the triumph of Trump or someone like him seems less a surprise than an inevitability. The only surprise is that a Trump didn’t come along sooner.
So what about the general election? Is there a lesson for Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, in all of this? The going Democratic explanations for Trump’s success seem to be that it makes no rational sense. “We’re a stupid country, full of loud, illiterate and credulous people,” writes Sean Illing in Salon. “Fear” is the only reason workers vote against their economic self-interest, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich explains.
At the heart of the Democratic program is the belief that people’s politics reflects their self-interest, primarily conceptualized in terms of economic interests. Clinton’s proposals to promote economic growth, to increase the minimum wage, to invest in infrastructure, to provide tuition support for college students, to rethink trade deals, and to reform taxes so that the wealthy pay their fair share all follow.
Clinton has also recognized the potency of group interests – the need of the black community, for instance, for the end to the racialization of the criminal justice system; the need of women for reproductive rights and for equal pay for equal work; the need of gay and lesbian and transgender men and women for expanding the coverage of civil rights laws to apply to them.
But the Trump phenomenon shows that “self-interest” includes not only economic self-interest and the rights of one’s gender or ethnic group or race or other group. It also includes a need to feel oneself to be a good person and our nation to be a good nation; to pursue justice; to create a coherent self-narrative; to maintain a sense of oneself as moral; and to maintain a stable set of relationships with peers and with those we see as leaders. Trump has addressed those needs, in however demagogic and despicable a way.
Giving the Obama administration an “A” for “saving the economy” as Clinton has done, and believing that people are anxiously waiting to see what government can do for them won’t wash. Unless Clinton can directly address people’s anxiety, their mistrust of government and of politicians, their need for an honest explanation of what ails America economically, she gives Trump running room. Unless she, like Trump and her own immediate rival, Bernie Sanders, can inspire people, she, like Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and all of the other once-upon-a-time Republican hopefuls before her, may well fall before the Trump steamroller.