2016 Election Earthquake: Ten Expected Surprises
Paul Croce is Professor of History and Chair of American Studies, Stetson University; he writes for PubClassroom.com and the Huffington Post.
Huh?—an unprecedented campaign, two leading candidates with the highest disapproval ratings in American history, a Republican Tsunami—how’d that happen? Get ready, America, for four years of Trump’s reverse smile.
An air of shock and awe still hovers around the election results. Donald J. Trump declared war on the federal government, on big business, on military and foreign policy leaders, on words that work in campaigning, even on his fellow Republicans, and of course on Democrats. Few expected these results, from respected polling professionals to Republicans themselves—even as that party benefitted in Congress and state houses. Recent history shows that these surprises have been building for years.
1-Class Matters: The election signals the resurgence of class after a half century eclipse when race and gender attracted more attention, especially in the Democratic Party, but also among many Republicans who have been trying to play catch up since the Rights Revolutions of the 1960s. Republicans have often seemed reluctant or hesitant about cultural identity politics while they have put more emphasis on a class politics of their own in support of the already wealthy and the enterprising. Democrats largely did not challenge this trend, even as they added more protections for those vulnerable to marketplace dynamics. The result has been a broad consensus for a Republican-initiated economic structure with strong globalized businesses and government programs on the defensive. In the 2016 campaign, the most powerful and energizing voices were from a Republican and a Democrat who challenged this structure: Trump and Bernie Sanders became the voices of working-class politics expressed with liberal and conservative accents.
2-Human Motivation Trumps Organization: A conventional wisdom has grown around the business of campaigning about the power of money and the effectiveness of organization. Politics has been in step with marketplace thinking that already pervades so many parts of life. With the right branding, even a candidate with “high negatives” could be marketed effectively. Hillary Clinton excited quite a few people, especially for her range of experience, her message of inclusion, and her potential to be the first woman president, but she also generated a lot of doubts especially for representing an Inside the Beltway leadership establishment. Her campaign had the best organization in the presidential campaign, with about twice as much money and a much better “ground game” than the Trump people, but even marketing cannot erase a negative reputation. In 2016, motivation trumped organization. For good or ill, his supporters were fired up in defiance of the establishment, despite the irony of Trump’s vast wealth. His campaign became a movement triumphing over the mechanics of campaigning.
3-Boldness is Trump’s Brand: A bold, even brash self-presentation has been particularly important in the business world, at least since the age of Dale Carnegie, if not going back to the nineteenth-century, when the “confidence man” inspired fear and grudging respect for confident presentations that would also instill confidence in the content presented. In business, especially in sales, looking successful has been a major step toward being successful. In politics, confidence looks like honesty—and sometimes it is, but a strutting posture doesn’t need that virtue to play the role. A big part of Trump’s appeal, especially to working-class voters who have felt jilted by elites, is that he presents a picture of righteous indignation, from his sharp words to his scowling demeanor. He breaks with a decades-long trend of upbeat, smiling politicians; his trademark reverse smile presents a picture of righteous indignation. His scowling bluntness presents the appearance of telling it like it is, even when fact-checking of his comments and their policy implications told a different story. His brash promise to build a wall was of a piece with his demeanor; now as President-Elect, he is already dialing back the actual policy. He campaigned as the tribune of the angry, and he looked the part. This helps explain how he could say conventionally (and morally) outrageous things and not get hurt with a large swathe of the electorate. For many of his supporters, these comments—and that look—showed them that he was willing to stick it to the establishment.
4-Media Attention Matters: Trump often did not have to campaign. While surely many journalists favored Clinton or at least could not conceive of a Trump victory, Democrats have posed reasonable criticism of the media for granting Trump (free) news coverage of his shocking comments. A food chain emerged: shocking comment gains media attention; attention leads to discussion for and against, which brings shocking comment into plausibility as a point worthy of consideration; shocking point gets subsumed into a broader discussion with the initial shock serving as a symbol of a bold position, which is attractive for its boldness with one sector of the population; this divides the electorate over the broader symbolic traits of the issue while the plausibility of the position as policy gets forgotten. Shock sells because in a cluttered information environment, surprising facts and stories get the most attention. This way of conveying information reduces the chances for democratic deliberation, but the scramble for public attention and with that bigger shares of the market has been the direction of media exchanges for the last few years. The only surprise is that it has taken so long for a politician to use this approach so effectively.
5-Pollsters Call, But Who Answers?: Election watchers from polling and media organizations almost universally got this election wrong. After the third debate, the press portrayed Trump’s campaign to be in such a “death spiral” that Saturday Night Live ran a sketch portraying Clinton asking for the “election right now”; The New York Times, right through the evening of Election Day, predicted a 90% chance of a Clinton victory. Reporters are now confessing to simply missing the story, such as Margaret Sullivan, Media Columnist for the Washington Post, who admits that “although the [Trump] voters shouted and screamed, most journalists just weren’t listening.” Scott Trende of Real Clear Politics insists on the role of “margins of error” to defend his polling profession, but also admits to “sampling errors” in not surveying enough white working-class voters. Polling issues may stretch beyond problems of sampling into an ideological challenge. The populist upsurge that Trump (and Sanders) tapped has included a suspicion of intellectual professionals. They perceive that many in this class operate at the behest of power brokers in business or government and with theories they cannot understand. The alternative pools of half-truths quite properly make intellectuals bristle; meanwhile, many who are not college educated harbor deep suspicions, especially when the information counters their common sense. This polarization at the fountains of knowledge shows up for example in the difference between economists who have declared the recent recession technically over and workers who experience continued displacement. These intellectual and class differences enter into the scene when a worker considers answering a poll with all its formal language; that person might very well just say … Fuggedaboutit!
6-Slim Republican Majorities: Until the late twentieth century, most presidential candidates ran their campaigns toward the political center. By contrast, Trump was not shy about appealing strongly only to one half of a polarized electorate. The Republicans had already honed this strategy in the 1990s, as a response to Democrat Bill Clinton’s effective move to the center; they portrayed him as a radical leftist and grown-up hippie by reminding voters of his anti-war stance in the 1960s. Republican strategist Karl Rove made plans for gaining 50% +1 of the vote. It worked for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, but Republicans veered away from this approach in the next two presidential campaigns of John McCain and Mitt Romney, as Barack Obama won the White House by appealing not just to Democrats, but also to centrists willing to support his reasonable, thoughtful style. Trump has broken with many mainstream Republicans on issues and in style, but in strategy, he has turned back to Rove’s hope for (slim) Republican majorities. And despite the surprise of her defeat in the only election results with legal impact (in the Electoral College), Clinton won the popular vote nationwide. So with a polarized electoral, and with slim majorities in strategic states, Trump did not even need 50% plus one voter, but only about 47% of the electorate with over a million fewer votes than for Clinton.
7-The Power of Diversity Deferred: The 2016 election offers a reminder of 1968, not just for the divisions in a polarized electorate, but also for the approach of the Republican candidate. In 1968 and 1972, Richard Nixon, like Trump, also promised to save the nation from “too much turmoil”; political analysts Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg bluntly advised tailoring his message to those who voted most, “the unyoung, the unpoor, the unblack.” The Nixon White House worked this strategic way of appealing to mainstream white voters into their Southern Strategy, which has supplied a highly successful playbook for Republicans ever since. Recently, Democrats have held promises of success through reliance on the nation’s increasing cultural diversity to counter the large white majorities for the Republicans. But this election shows that while the white majority may be declining, it will not go quietly into minority status. As already forecast by tabloid newspapers and the popularity of country music, the white working class ain’t dead yet. Stay tuned: this election may be one of the last hurrahs of this white-centric politics articulated by Nixon’s advisors and unspoken for years before that; another indication of this is that those over 45 years of age voted for Trump in large numbers, while young voters gave him little support.
8-Down with Government! (Because Its Programs Have a Weak Brand): Trump joins a long line of Republicans who have presented liberalism itself as part of the establishment. Despite all the work of Democrats over the last century for economic uplift in support of workers’ rights, for racial and social justice especially with the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights Movements, and for environmental protection through regulation of polluters. Republicans present the argument, persuasive for about half the population, that reliance on big government, with its taxes and mandates, makes liberals the true elitists. In focusing on government intrusiveness into free choice, this narrative pays little attention to the importance of achieving these public goods and overlooks the top-down power of corporations in shaping people’s choices. The Trump campaign even blamed government regulations for the oppressive power of job-destroying global corporations. Businesses operate for private profit with much advertising shaping public reputation; government programs operate for public interest with virtually no advertising. In a time when media attention shapes perceptions, it is no wonder that Republicans up to and including Trump can critique government shortcomings with almost no counter-narrative. Government programs from the Head Start that underprivileged children receive to the administration of protections for our intake of food and drugs are unilaterally disarmed in the media landscape, with no advertising for their contributions to the public (and economic) welfare.
9-The System Was Rigged!—in Trump’s Favor: The plurality win of Donald Trump was a product of our federal structure, as a nation of states. James Madison, who was a leading architect of the Constitution before himself serving as President, hoped that the “extended republic” of multiple states, made up of people aligning with diverse “factions” or interests often concentrated in states or regions, would require candidates to appeal to a wide range of those different factions. Clinton was not able to do this despite her high numbers overall. So the structure of the system actually “worked” in this part of its design. She was very attractive to liberals, city residents, African Americans, Hispanics, and young people overall, but decidedly unappealing to many in the white working class, especially in the South, West, and in rust-bowl states, and to many independents and to ideologically ambidextrous populists who associated her with business as usual. There may be unsavory reasons, along with media hype, for her lack of appeal, including prejudice against women in high office, the unleashing of outright antagonism toward minorities, and exaggerated emphasis on her email issues. If Madison could be present to comment on these results, he would likely use his own words when he insisted that the Constitution should operate without relying on “angels … govern[ing] men,” words that he might like to deliver in sly commentary on the election result.
10-Tightening the Circle of Americanness: For all of Trump’s defiance of the establishment, including in his own party, on Election Day, he gained support from the same groups that have supported Republicans in recent years. In the nineteenth century, when the GOP (the Grand Old Party) was still new, it brought together people who had been identifying with the super-patriots of the American Party; they put a tight circle around what counted as American identity, which included exclusion of immigrants and Catholics. By contrast, Democrats appealed to those very cultural outsiders, in broad coalitions with Southern whites who objected to the mainstream directions shaped by urban, culturally liberal Northern life. The personnel have changed—most dramatically in the South, with Republican gaining large majorities among whites—but Democrats still appeal to cultural outsiders, especially non-whites, and those who defy conventional norms of gender and sexuality. Republicans still appeal to those who want to draw the insider circle more tightly. Trump appealed to that same constituency, but with more of them actually voting, since his anti-establishment stance appealed to many who had for years avoided the electoral system completely. First-time and previously infrequent voters cast their ballots for Trump in large numbers. Their disillusionment with the system was part of his campaign appeal.
The late New York Governor Mario Cuomo offered an elegant commentary on our raucous politics: we “campaign in poetry,” but we need to “govern in prose.” This campaign brought more opera than poetry with its melodramatic comments, fierce accusations, and one of the sharpest polarizations of the electorate in US history. These will make governing difficult. Republicans are now in the driver’s seat. Can they find effective prose and still more effective policies to heal the nation’s electoral wounds and solve problems without making them worse? That is their task for the next few years, and the nation’s hope. And the unRepublicans had better learn the populist lessons of this Election Earthquake.