Never has getting it right felt more wrong. Whether it’s the estate tax, climate change or immigrant-baiting, my own view is that president Trump’s policies increase the chances of zooming inequality, civil liberties setbacks across the board and mankind slowly boiling the planet. But my politics are irrelevant; the day you become a ‘conservative pollster’ or a Labour pollster, you’re no longer objective. The job here is to set out some of the key truths underlying his victory. And why for me at least, Trump’s win was far from a surprise.
The immediate media reaction on November 9th was predictably shocked and self-serving. So, to correct a couple of myths first – the polls weren’t ‘wrong’ and America hasn’t ‘turned racist’. Nationwide surveys – accurately – pointed to a victory for Clinton in the popular vote, while the state-by-state numbers gave pretty good clues to Trump’s path to victory overall. I have pasted my own map (based on realclearpolitics.com’s averages) below. Like many, I missed Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. But the point is – Trump still won. And this tide has been incoming a long time.
My former professor Eric Kaufman at the LSE, and a tiny group of other analysts, pin-pointed the factors undergirding the rising new Nationalism of Brexit and Trump: a vehement rejection of ‘open borders’, reprioritisation of security in the face of terrorism, and a reaction to rapid increases in racial diversity. Note, not race itself – Trump actually increased GOP support among black and latino voters. In political campaigns, nothing matters more than your message – and Donald Trump’s (like Vote Leave’s) chimed far better with the times.
‘I know he’s crude and rude… But do you notice that the guy actually answers the question straight? When Hillary starts talking, it just sounds like a bunch of bullshit…’
– Quote from Michigan undecided voter in focus group (pre-election)
The overwhelming majority of the news media fit the facts to the narrative they wanted to tell. They saw things as they wanted them to be, not as they are. Yet all you had to do was feel it. Democrat operatives like David Plouffe and Jim Messina repeatedly touted the millions the Clinton campaign spent on ‘big data’ analysis and the most sophisticated digital GOTV (Get Out The Vote) operation in history. Indeed, they shelled out somewhere between two and three times what Trump did. But all you needed to do was attend a Trump rally – or listen to a focus group – to notice the difference. The passion of The Deplorables. In recent years, qualitative research has had a hard time from the data die-hards, but remember that in the end, the qual usually leads the quant. And this ‘enthusiasm gap’ was ultimately what did Hillary in: fully five million Obama voters just didn’t turn up for her on the day, in spite of all that investment. What is more, over an eighth of Obama ’08 voters switched straight over to Trump eight years later. That is quite a journey.
Without wishing to sound cruel, Hillary was a lousy nominee. She was as symbolic of the ‘status quo’ as it’s possible to get in a year the salient driver of vote was the desire for ‘change’. And yet, the Democrats (like Labour) still adamantly refuse to learn the lesson that coronations create crap candidates. Ask Gordon Brown. This was not misogyny. Rather, she had no answer to those who saw the insider-dealing, pay-to-play politics and crony capitalism of the Bush/Clinton/Obama (the Obushton) era as symptoms of a rotten and rigged system. After 30-odd years at the top, she embodied it.
‘Look at the choice you’ve given us… between people who are unqualified or incompetent. It boils down to me having to choose between a liar and a lunatic…’
– Undecided voter from Pennsylvania focus group (pre-election)
The people saw Democrats ignoring patterns of behaviour that were called ‘corrupt’ and ‘grotesque’ by such raging right-wingers as, err, Harvard Professor Larry Lessig and Bob Woodward. They chose to overlook her difficulties in beating first-term senator Barack Obama. And then in overcoming a 75 year-old socialist, Bernie Sanders. And they didn’t pick up on the single attribute Sanders shared with Trump, which ultimately saw some influential activists switch directly between the two: the perception that they – unlike Clinton – could not be bought.
Instead, Democrats pointed to stats which said 64% believed Donald Trump did not have the temperament to be president. The two thirds who believed he was not ‘honest and trustworthy’. His record high ‘unfavourable’ rating of 60%. Higher than Clinton’s in every case. It mattered little. The addiction some political-types have to ‘favourability’ ratings is as mystifying to these eyes as the enduring appeal of Tom Cruise. Whether they like you is irrelevant compared to whether they believe you will deliver the outcome they want – and in 2016 that was ‘change’.
‘For eight years, Obama preached hope and change but we got nothing… Because the system is working against us; it’s in the hands of special interests. It’s ALL against us’.
– New Jersey Trump voter (post-election)
Trump appeared to follow some deeper centuries-old political lessons: he consistently made the weather. He understood that it is more important to strike a clear position on an issue, even if it appears unpopular or against the conventional wisdom. Contrast that with Clinton’s pusillanimity on everything from trade to transgender rights and gay marriage. He took every opportunity to express strength and what Machiavelli called ‘virtù’, not virtue, but ‘martial spirit and the achievement of great things’. He bore down on voters’ core needs for economic and material security. Machiavelli’s name was besmirched for centuries primarily by the Church because he contradicted their dogma and their dominance. He saw deeper truths which they wished away. Sound familiar?
It must be hoped that the Democrats (and Labour in Britain) do not do the same. The US and UK are divided, from top to bottom, in a way we haven’t seen since the 1960s. Trump’s policies – even in his current, centrist pragmatist pose and not the cartoonish shitforbrains we saw on the campaign trail – will likely do nothing for the poor folk of the Rustbelt who carried him over the line. But that doesn’t make a comeback inevitable. Remember the other times when conservatives the media labelled ‘divisive’, ‘dangerously unprepared’ or ‘extreme’ have won power – think Reagan in 1980, George W. Bush in 2000 or Nixon in 1968 – they went on to be re-elected with thumping majorities. Just being ‘different’ – as appears to be the forlorn hope of the clique around Jeremy Corbyn – simply isn’t enough.
A strong, smart and savvy opposition is more essential than ever. To preserve the safety net, to stand up for minority rights and liberties. And to protect the victims of the forthcoming economic crisis, which ‘Trumponomics’ will only accelerate. But liberals will have to begin by listening to the people they’ve spent the past year or two labelling ‘Deplorable’, or sneering at for hoisting a flag. Liberals and labourites must own their failure – they had almost nothing to say in the face of concerns over immigration or stagnant wages, except tired tropes about ‘green jobs’ and globalisation. They need a new song that the electorate can whistle too, or discover the one thing in politics worse than losing an election: Irrelevance.