Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Why Trump Won

There were plenty of reasons to point fingers at some factors in this election that might help explain the Trump victory

  • The Comey "October surprise" that for nine days kept the shadow of a potential criminal investigation over Clinton’s head

  • The media’s relentless focus on the emails that had no real information to reveal but kept the pundits focused on her trustworthiness as they parsed her answers to the FBI and the numerous investigative committees and treated Trumps’ personal behavior and history of scandals as non disqualifying. The media’s refusal to take apart Trump’s lunatic tax trade policies and focus people’s attention on the harm they would do for ordinary people’s pocket books.

  • The lack of any interviewer prepared to take on Trump and ask any follow up questions that identified the false premises and assumptions and his appalling ignorance of the world and public policy.

But all of these reasons pale in comparison to Hillary’s play it safe campaign lacked a clear message. Was she running for Obama’s third term? Did she have a plan to respond to the economic devastation following the great recession that hit the rust belt longer and harder than many in the media were prepared to recognize or acknowledge? How was she going to improve Obamacare or move to a green economy? It was not that she lacked policy ideas in these areas (there were enough policy briefs on her website to fill a bookshelf) but that she did not seem to want to prioritize any one of them or explain how and why they were important in simple non wonkish terms. Her husband tried with Obamacare but did so in a way that confused rather than enlightened. Although she won the debates she lost the argument as to what she wanted to achieve as President. It seemed she wanted to try working with people from both sides to achieve incremental change but that had been tried and failed. The GOP dominated congress was not interested in incremental change. Some in the GOP indeed were more interested in prosecuting her for alleged crimes and impeaching her than they were ever going to allow her to complete any kind of legislative agenda.

How was the electorate going to get excited about any of her ideas or if any of them appealed to them (raising the minimum wage for example) the prospect of more of the same gridlock that would lead to more hot air and nothing changing. Arguably this was the reason why many democrats stayed home and minorities did not vote in the overwhelming numbers that had led to Obama’s 2004 and 2008 victories. Although this argument that Trump was dangerously unqualified to become President won the popular vote it was not enough to bring out voters in the heartland who were desperate for some kind of change that would move them from the kind of minimum wage dead end jobs to a future where they or at least their children could dream the big American consumerist dream once again.

The Trump vote largely composed of these largely white males angry at elites came out in droves for someone their perceived would not sell them down the river by making trade deals that shifted good paying jobs either south or eastwards. The fact that these jobs had permanently left the US for a complex number of reasons due to changes in technology and more flexible global supply chains seemed to escape the media commentators. But this was an election not based on facts but on a sense of grievance that a future the white American workers left behind by globalization had been once promised and had been betrayed by the elites in Washington. Trump understood this sense of grievance more so than anyone else in the GOP and knew how to employ his brand of
aggressive macho posturing to appeal to them. Never mind that the grievance mixed in racism and misogyny, whipped up xenophobia and nationalistic emotions, they lapped it up. It seemed authentic and authenticity was something that allowed them bridge the wide gulf between the billionaire's lifestyle and their own. He was a regular guy even though he flew around in his own 727 and owned golf courses and hotels he was relatable because he shared their view about outsiders and their macho values that had conditioned them to objectify and demean women and feel superior to those of different races and religions.

Trump talked their language --it was the language of a TV talk show host --short blunt and not politically correct. Even though he was by all accounts a dishonest operator in his business and personal life his language appeared honest when compared to the political speak used by the Washington politicians.  It was the language of the outsider fueled by his anger that derived not from any of the genuine frustrations that ordinary people felt about their lives but due to a personal sense of hurt that somehow the educated and monied elites had too often snubbed him for his crassness.

What can we learn from all this? Looking back, Bernie Sanders had the clearer message that could have won the race.  His theme that the elite had engaged in unfair trade deals, that the banks should be broken up and that the bankers who caused the great recession should go to jail for their crimes was responsive to the mood of the country. It told a story, one which inspired millennials in debt to their eyeballs that they deserved a chance to move forward and were being held back by having to payback outrageous loans for college, when post secondary education should be a right available to everyone and was a good investment for the society to make in its future, a much wiser investment than the enormous sums spent on the Pentagon. Sanders was set to remake the democratic party so that it could really respond to the 21st century needs of a nation that needed to continue to invest in its future and not be so beholden to corporate interests. The centrist part of the democratic party believed that Sanders represented too much of a leftward shift and moved to stop him becoming the nominee. Hillary’s was not going to give up her fight to become the first female president of the United States and the party top brass who knew that the Clintons had more access to big donors than anyone else agreed to go along. It is speculative to assess whether Bernie could have won over the independents who would use the word "socialism" as some kind of taboo word  but it underlines the point that in a change election year --the times did demand an authentic change agent not someone who believed in incrementalism as a kind of therapy treatment for a dysfunctional congress.

Hillary turned out to be not the right candidate for the times. We must now all suffer the consequences and continue the work of rebuilding a democratic party responsive to the nations needs in a time of dramatic change.

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