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Wednesday, 9 November 2016

The Morning After: Lessons From the 2016 US Presidential Election

The Morning After: Lessons From the 2016 US Presidential Election

Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 09 November, 2016

Copyright © 2016 Dr. Seshadri Kumar.  All Rights Reserved.
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Executive Summary:

Donald Trump is going to be the 45th President of the USA. Today’s election results have given him a comprehensive victory. This article discusses the reasons for his victory and the lessons that we must learn from his victory, and briefly talks about the implications of a Trump Presidency for the US and the rest of the world.

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Why Trump Won

On September 3, 2016, I wrote a blog post in which I explained why I believed that Donald Trump would win the election. I had hoped to publish the article in a national magazine in India, but the editors there balked at the content of the article – because I was predicting a Trump victory when no other journalist anywhere was willing to say the same. So I published it on my own blog.

In this article, I explained that the main reason for his victory would be that Americans are disillusioned with mainstream US politicians, both Republicans and Democrats, after 16 years of continual job losses. I explained that both Republicans and Democrats had been lying to the American people and telling them that things were going to get better, whereas in fact they were doing everything in their power to make things worse. The reason things were getting worse for the American people was that American politicians – Congressmen and women, senators and Presidents – were all doing their best to help American corporations make money – and corporations making money often meant sacrificing the common American worker – companies only care about finding the best talent at the lowest price, not about keeping jobs in America. I explained that these job losses were an inevitable consequence of globalization – that this was happening because of rapid changes in communication technology and the opening and liberalization of markets in China and India, the need for factories to be moved overseas not only to exploit cheaper labour but also to serve bigger markets in China and India.

My conclusion was that things would not improve for the average American for a long time, and American politicians did not have the requisite honesty to level with the American people. The people of the country figured out they were being lied to by people in the establishment, and lost trust.

Into this situation, two outsiders came in – Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Both made huge inroads into their parties’ bases. Trump demolished the competition in the Republican primaries. With a lot of connivance from the DNC and pressure from powerful donors, the Democratic Party managed to defeat Bernie Sanders, believing that a socialist would not be acceptable as President and that Hillary Clinton would be a winning candidate against Trump.

But Clinton was viewed by the American working class as the ultimate insider and part of the conspiracy to export American jobs and impoverish American workers. Trump latched on to the economic issues and savaged the establishment - both Republicans and Democrats -  for American job losses, and used this to win the election. This also involved demonizing those to whom Americans were losing their jobs – foreigners. So a strong undercurrent of racism and xenophobia came along for the ride as Trump tapped blue-collar Americans’ angst to propel his campaign.

Of course, Trump has no realistic solutions to the problem, but in their frustration, people didn’t care. They voted for Trump as an outsider because they could not trust any of the insiders. Bill Clinton had let them down, as had George W. Bush, as had Barack Obama. They could trust no one within the system. Had Bernie Sanders been the Democratic candidate instead of Clinton, Trump would not have had the advantage of being an outsider, because his opponent would have had the same advantage. But Hillary represented to frustrated Americans exactly what they thought was wrong with America.

And that is why Trump won.

While Trump did not win with the margin I predicted (360 electoral votes), he has still won convincingly. He looks set to win at least 305 electoral votes (including Michigan), and maybe more. This in spite of several scandals involving Trump, most notably several women accusing him of sexual molestation, soon after an audio recording emerged showing Trump bragging about sexual assault, all within the last month. It is conceivable that Trump’s numbers could have been significantly higher had it not been for these setbacks.

Lessons to Learn from Trump’s Victory

1.      Economic unrest was the key issue in this election. All these days, while watching CNN (the only American channel I get to watch in India), people who were concerned about job losses were always described in CNN panel discussions as racist blue collar unemployed uneducated white folks. Their concerns were never taken seriously – until today! After the election result, every CNN analyst is talking about job losses as though they only understood this issue today. The exit polls reinforce this conclusion. Asked what they thought was the most important issue facing the nation, 52% of voters responded saying that the economy was the most important issue. This compares to 13% identifying immigration, 13% identifying foreign policy, and 18% identifying terrorism. In the same polls, 42% said that the main effect of international trade was to take US jobs away, as opposed to 38% who said that international trade creates US jobs.

2.     Polls are imperfect by themselves. A lot of people treat polls as sacred. This was one of the most common reactions to my earlier article where I prophesied a Trump victory: “How can you predict a result that goes against what Nate Silver (of fivethirtyeight.com) says? He says Trump only has a 27% chance of winning!” The problem is that Silver is only a statistician. His command of statistics is formidable indeed, and I would not presume to challenge him on that.

However, what is missing is the political calculation. Why did Trump win even though fivethirtyeight.com and realclearpolitics.com said he would lose? Because those models are based purely on statistics. In other words, at the time of the poll, they said that many more people supported Clinton than they did Trump; and they projected from previous election results to say that from that point on, Trump could not possibly win the election. There are two errors in this conclusion.

First, the idea that the poll is supposed to represent a perfect sample. In practice, it never does, despite the best attempts. The idea that a sample of 1000 people could be a reliable guide to what a nation of 250 million thinks is a flawed assumption. Random sampling is a good idea, but in a sample of 1000 people, how many black people can you have? Will richer black people think the same way as poorer blacks? Will black men think the same way as black women? Will a 20-year old think the same way as a 60-year old? Will the poll include all these demographic groups within the black sample? NO. This is not to say that polls are useless; it is only to bring some caution that polls are not perfect – that the margin of error is much greater than the 3% (or similar number) that is usually quoted as the margin of error of that poll. Clearly, after the election results, we can now say that most polls that predicted Hillary Clinton would win this election have a 100% margin of error.

Second, past trends on polls were not a good guide to this election because the fundamentals had changed. The logic of previous elections was inapplicable here because people had lost trust in the mainstream parties – they could not, therefore, be expected to behave as in the past. The reason for this is not statistical; it is political.

3.     The Occupy movement was a very important bellwether of the popular mood and the distrust of the people. It lasted for only 5 months between September 2011 and February 2012; and politicians thought that since they were able to successfully break the back of the movement and disperse the crowds without giving them anything, they had solved the problem. But you don’t solve problems by force – the disaffection did not go away but kept simmering under the surface. The trust deficit between the politicians in power and those they were governing widened as nobody did anything to address the concerns of the disenfranchised. People continued to lose jobs, and jobs continued to be exported for the benefit of the corporations on Wall Street. It would be foolish to continue to sweep this under the rug as it was done in 2012. Cynical management-speak such as “Americans need retraining to be more competitive” will not wash any longer. It was because of these reasons that Sanders became very popular – he tapped into the public mood and was able to articulate their concerns in the primary campaign. Unfortunately, no one in power listened to him. The Democratic Party adopted a dogmatic posture and decided that a socialist could not be the President of the USA. The US, after all, was the global champion of capitalism. What this dogma fails to recognize is that capitalism, as it exists in the US, has failed most Americans. Sanders' message was and is an important one, and the American establishment would do well to heed it. This is not to say that capitalism should be abandoned; but it certainly needs to be significantly modified.

4.     Democratic supporters were constantly in denial about Trump, saying that blacks and Latinos would not vote for him because of how he had described illegal immigrants to the USA from Mexico and for the general perception about him as a bigot. But you do not win an election so comprehensively if none of these people vote for you. In fact, the exit polls from the election showed that Trump won 8% of the black vote, 29% of the Latino vote, 29% of the Asian vote, and 37% of votes of other races. Overall, Trump got 21% of the entire non-white vote. What does that tell me? That people were more concerned with his core message regarding jobs and the economy. Racism was not the key to Trump’s victory; economic issues were.

5.     A similar line of thinking blinded Democrats into thinking that women would never vote for Trump because of his sexist and misogynist behaviour in the past. He had in the past described a woman as a “piece of ass” and was known for sexually objectifying women. This history, coupled with his comments about Alicia Machado and allegations from several women about sexual assault in the wake of the publication of a conversation he had years ago with Billy Bush in which he bragged about sexually assaulting women, led Democrats to believe that women would never vote for him.

But these predictions were, as in the case of race, equally wrong. Again, data from the exit polls show that 53% of white women voted for Trump, compared to 43% for Clinton; and 26% of Latino women voted for Trump. If Latina women were so terribly offended by Trump’s offensive comments about both women and about Mexicans, what explains this? Why did 53% of all white women vote for Trump if they were so put off by his attitudes towards women? Also, across all races, 42% of all women voted for Trump. The mainstream narrative is clearly wrong.

Perhaps the best explanation is that Americans are fairly pragmatic people. In spite of most people disapproving of Clinton’s bad behaviour in the Lewinsky episode while he was President, he was and remains a very popular figure. It was said during the 2000 campaign that, in spite of his scandal, if Clinton had been eligible to run for the Presidency again, he would have won. This is because most Americans viewed this as a personal matter between Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, and Monica Lewinsky. They were only worried about the state of the economy. Unemployment was at historic lows then and the economy had been booming for 8 years.

The same pragmatic attitude is true now of Americans. Trump may be a bigot and misogynist, but people are more concerned about how he will run the country. He focused on the jobs piece and that resonated more strongly with people than the reports of his sexual offenses and bigotry.

6.     The media has not exactly covered itself with glory, with most of them forgetting their primary duty to report and analyse, and instead re-interpreting their jobs as propaganda agents for Hillary Clinton. Nothing was worse for me than watching CNN daily and finding their reporting to be totally pro-Clinton. It almost seemed like they were themselves believing the alternative version of reality that they were spinning. Unfortunately, when you do not cover an event, especially one of this magnitude, with the appropriate objectivity, what happens is that you are completely nonplussed by the outcome, as is evident from the reactions of various CNN anchors and panellists today.

Just repeating that a candidate is going to lose does not ensure that he will lose. CNN needed to search for the truth, which it clearly did not. Most polling agencies also did not care. This election should call into serious question both the use of polls as well as the ethics of media organizations.

There was highly inadequate discussion of the candidates’ policies. It becomes impossible to objectively discuss policy prescriptions when, as a media organization, you refuse to even acknowledge the claims of one of the candidates, viz., that there are serious problems on the job front and the export of jobs overseas. If you are going to treat that statement as Trump propaganda (which media tended to do), then you are not going to discuss which candidate’s proposals are better. But this requires a willingness to admit that things under the current administration are not exactly rosy. If you are reluctant to admit that because such an admission might affect the prospects of one of the candidates, you cannot give viewers a fair discussion of issues and the positions of candidates. For example, if you are going to characterize those complaining about job losses as racist rednecks, you cannot ever discuss the job losses issue fairly.

7.     It is hard to understand why the Democratic Party and the media were so busy inventing reasons for why Trump was winning when he was giving the reasons quite explicitly himself. So, for example, instead of focusing on the obvious answer that he was winning because he was focusing on Americans’ economic difficulties and their frustration in their declining living standards and in the export of jobs, both Democrats and the media went out of their way to invent other reasons – Trump supporters were racist, xenophobic, rednecks, uneducated. They would have had a lot more success had they given answers to the questions Trump was posing to the people. Instead, Hillary Clinton kept saying “America doesn’t need to be great again, we are already great” – which is a perfect example of denial.

Why did the Democrats do this? A simple reason is that creating strawman arguments is an expedient device to win arguments. It was easy to explain on TV debates why Trump was winning – just say that all his followers are racist white unemployed men, and ignore all the women and people of colour that actually did support Trump. The problem is that such logic is fine when you are living in your own bubble; it is inadequate to deal with the situation, as it is now, when reality comes crashing down on you. Hillary tried to do the same thing with her “basket of deplorables” comment.

Concluding Thoughts

For better or worse, Donald Trump is the President of the USA. As I wrote in September, I am no fan of Donald Trump. He is a highly flawed individual. He successfully understood in this election cycle the mood of the American people and their chief concerns, although I do not believe he will do much to solve the underlying problems – because he cannot. The juggernaut of globalization will continue to move inexorably, and neither Trump nor anyone else can do much to stop it. American jobs will continue to be exported simply as a response to global competition. Any attempts to interfere with free trade will only be to America’s detriment and make things worse than they already are. I have explained this in detail in my other article.

What does Trump’s ascent to the highest office of the land mean for the USA?

Well, it is certainly not good news for progressives. The progressive agenda that Obama broke ground on is most likely going to be reversed – Trump has himself promised that. So Trump is going to do his best to make gay marriages illegal again; repeal Obamacare, as he said; appoint at least one – maybe two or three – very conservative Supreme Court Justices who will interpret the Constitution literally - something that will affect America for decades; oppose abortion; and increase gun rights without any background checks – all these are explicit promises from Trump. With a majority in both the House and Senate (which many establishment Republicans doubted), he will find it easy to push through his domestic agenda.

Trump will find it harder to change international agreements because of the wide-ranging consequences: NAFTA, NATO, the Iran deal, and other obligations where the US cannot unilaterally withdraw without serious consequences. What a candidate promises on the campaign trail and what he can actually deliver are two different things. The wall with Mexico he promised is most likely going to be a pipe dream.

Trump’s dramatic victory will definitely change the make-up of the Republican Party. This is a victory that he has fashioned almost single-handedly. Several prominent Republicans publicly spoke against him and said they could not support him and would vote for his opponent. By routing Clinton in such impressive fashion, Trump has made a statement that he is now the big dog in the Republican Party – that he doesn’t need the party – the party needs him. The fact that so many Senators and Congressmen won their races riding Trump’s coat-tails adds to his authority. He will definitely fashion the party according to his need. People like Paul Ryan need to make up to Trump after being so hostile during the campaign – and Trump might still dump Ryan at the opportune time. Trump’s inner coterie of Chris Christie, Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, and others will now be calling the shots. Success has its perks.

Trump has promised to reduce America’s involvement in overseas wars – a pledge that would be very welcome in the rest of the world. But whether he can actually deliver on this promise is doubtful, if history is any guide. US foreign policy has remained remarkably consistent no matter who is in the White House.

Trump wrote a book on the art of the deal. He is going to have to learn the art of compromise in international relations.

We are going to live in interesting times for at least the next four years.

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Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of Dr. Seshadri Kumar alone and should not be construed to mean the opinions of any other person or organization, unless explicitly stated otherwise in the article.


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