London: So here’s what just happened. President-elect Donald J. Trump blew up the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, major funders, major foundations, think tanks and the mainstream media. And they are not pleased. Cosy relationships, some nurtured over decades, have been exposed and excoriated. Carefully developed plans have led to dead ends. Exalted leaders now face potential legal humiliation.
This should sound familiar. Policies and personalities aside, this is the same sort of political earthquake that shook India in 2014. And, to a lesser degree, the UK the day after the Brexit vote. Washington this week echoes Delhi of two years ago, and London in June. In DC, there is a mad scramble within normally staid, and often smug, institutions. Many believed their own propaganda and never thought this day would come. They didn’t plan for it. They are scared.
What happens moving forward will depend on how these “establishments” respond and adapt, and if Trump presses his advantage quickly and efficiently.
That means understanding what really happened on 8 November. And what didn’t happen. In spite of the oft cited narrative that the vote was the result of an unprecedented “whitelash”, according to CNN exit polls, Trump received a slightly higher percentage of black votes than Romney did in 2012 (Trump 8% to Romney 7%) and a slightly higher percentage of Hispanic votes as well (Trump 29% to Romney 27%). Trump also received slightly fewer white voters than Romney (Trump 58% to Romney 59%). Given the margins of errors, that’s hardly any difference. But almost no one was equating Romney’s numbers to a “whitelash”.
In 2016, race did play a new role in that many black voters simply didn’t turn up to vote. In some states, that low voter turnout may have been decisive. And a big part of that was down to the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Her policies didn’t widely inspire, and many remember her statements during her husband President Bill Clinton’s administration in which she characterised members of the black community as “superpredators” who needed to be locked up and “brought to heel”. Bill Clinton’s policies are responsible for some of the US’ extremely high incarceration rates. Some haven’t forgotten. So, rather than vote Clinton, or Trump, they just didn’t vote all.
Also, Trump didn’t win the popular vote. Had he run against Bernie Sanders, he likely would have lost the Presidency as Bernie could mobilise voters in a way Clinton couldn’t. So the idea that the US is somehow more racist than it was four years ago when pretty much the same percentages voted for Romney as voted for Trump doesn’t seem to make sense.
What did happen is that Trump pushed a wide range of buttons, and different buttons rang bells with different sectors of voters. Some of the buttons he pushed were TV, Twitter, trade, terror, trust, and truth.
It started with TV. Trump makes great TV. And he was given an early massive boost by billions of dollars in free coverage. According to leaked Democratic emails, this was fine with the Clinton team as they thought he would be an easy person to beat, and was one of their preferred opponents (along with Ted Cruz and Ben Carson).
Trump built on this appeal by being active on Twitter. Unlike the Clinton account, he was clearly in control of his tweets. They were personal, punchy, a bit erratic, but very real. They created a powerful personal connection with his followers. He would pop up on people’s phones and computers at home and at work, putting himself in their personal space, on a regular basis and at all times of the day and night. He wasn’t asking for money, he was just letting Team Trump know what he was thinking. It was very effective, and he used it to drive home his unique policy positions.
While TV and Twitter gave him the audience, it was what he did with that audience really shook up “the elites”. On trade, Trump’s questioning of the benefits of the current form of free trade agreements put him closer to Bernie Sanders than the mainstream of the Republican Party. It is also largely sympathetic to India’s stand on a balance between trade and the protection of critical domestic sectors, as was seen with food at the WTO negotiations. This message resonated very strongly with large sections of American workers (and unemployed). Clinton, meanwhile, seemed to offer no alternative to the current economic model. And while the leaders of the big unions tended to support Clinton, many on the (dwindling) factory floors voted Trump.
On terror, Trump’s lack of compunction in linking terror to extremist Islam resonated with wide swaths of the population exasperated at being called names for just trying to discuss and understand “what the hell is going on”. Apart from generalised security concerns, many felt that free speech was only permitted by certain groups for certain groups. They felt they couldn’t even try to explain their concerns without everyone from CNN to university professors calling them every name in the book.
For some it felt like the “establishment” had decided that their emotions weren’t valid. In fact, they were called evil for even having them. These Trump voters are watching the current anti-Trump demonstrations on the news knowing that, had Hillary won, and they had demonstrated, they would have been called fascists, Nazis, and more. They felt, as Trump said, “forgotten”. And now, they hope, they will be forgotten no more. Which leads directly to Trump’s next button.
Trust. As wide sections of the electorate saw themselves being branded “deplorable” and worse, they increasingly lost trust in being accurately and adequately reflected in establishment institutions, like the mainstream media and the Republican Party. During the primaries, the Republican Party was hewing a close line to the Democrats on the sanctity of free trade and need to avoid “Islamophobia”.
Since The Donald was willing to bluntly discuss both those issues, he immediately gained trust. Supporters may not have agreed with all his policies on those two topics, but there was at least a space in which they weren’t vilified for discussing them. This also gave Trump space to do things like have openly gay Peter Thiel in a keynote position at the Republican National Convention—a first. There was no obvious political reason for it. And Trump’s relationship with his supporters was so strong, the crowd gave Thiel a standing ovation.
This sort of thing also gave Trump a reputation for the truth. At least in comparison to “crooked Hillary” and her seemingly endless FBI investigation. This was fanned by a widespread switch of media allegiances. Having been repeatedly denigrated, hundreds of thousands (if not more) abandoned the mainstream media in favour of sites like Drudge, Daily Caller, Zero Hedge and Breitbart. They are the new powerhouses, with close links to the new Trump administration. Anyone who says they were stunned by the Trump win or that no one predicted it, wasn’t reading the Daily Caller or Zero Hedge.
Apart from editorialising, this “new media” also does actual reporting. They were the first to cover the Clinton health story, the questions around media funding of the Clinton Foundation, and anti-Bernie manoeuvres at the DNC. While CNN rambled on about how the evil Russians were trying to steal the election from Hillary by leaking her emails, the Daily Caller actually went through the emails and (in their own admittedly biased way) covered the contents, while linking to original sources so you could check for yourself.
While the source of the emails was opaque, and certainly not ideal, given they were supposed to have been handed over to the FBI and therefore to the American people already, most had no qualms about reading them. The contents of the emails were extremely problematic. They seemed to show institutional incest that was questionable if not illegal. Bernie Sanders had no chance against a Democratic Party that was a subset of the Clinton machine. Add in the Clinton Foundation shenanigans and the picture got even murkier.
So, at the end of all this, Trump, eschewing traditional funders and media, rose to the top, climbing over the broken pillars of establishment Republican Party economic and social policies. Along the way, the Democratic Party’s weak community foundations and possibly systemic compromise were exposed for all to see.
What happens next depends. Will the Democratic Party use the opportunity to tear out the rot and rebuild from the ground up? They lost traditionally Democrat, working class voters to the Republicans. Will they listen properly to what’s happening across the country and try to win them back? It sounds logical but it can be harder than it seems. In Delhi, after Congress’ massive defeat in 2014, the politically logical thing would have been to go for a change of leadership and direction. That didn’t happen.
Similarly, will Trump be tempered by Washington and lose some of his overt fight? Part of his base is counting on him to “drain the swap” and “lock her up”. Will he go after corruption immediately or lose valuable time allowing the currently stunned opposition time to regroup and retrench? Again, in India in 2014, there was a lot of hope for immediate anti-corruption action. The longer the delay, the harder it gets.
The next few weeks will give a much better idea of what Trump will actually be like as a President. He is already softening on Obamacare, likely having realised that a lot of his working class base has come to rely on it. He is not ideological. And he wants to get re-elected. He will likely listen, not to the DC pundits, but to his advisors, and his base. In the meantime, what he’s already accomplished—leaving both main political parties in tatters and fundamentally changing the media landscape—is a challenge for everyone involved to up their game. Now we’ll find out who really wants to make America great again.
Cleo Paskal is The Sunday Guardian’s North America Special Correspondent.