Most hostile commentators have laid the blame at the feet of white, working class Americans who feel they have been left behind by globalization; and have directed equally fierce criticism at a Democratic establishment which made them feel unwanted. Undoubtedly there is force in this argument, but it does not explain why millions of well-off Americans supported him too. Hatred of Clinton and a desire to protect their wealth from her taxes may have underpinned their reasoning, sure. But the reason they were able to follow through and swallow their doubts about Trump – surely the most bizarre, unprofessional major candidate in US history – is more complex.
On November 9th, Donald Trump won a gameshow. It is hardly original to criticise America for blurring the lines between politics and entertainment, but usually the argument goes that entertaining candidates beat good ones because they win more uninformed followers who have neither the time nor the inclination to consider fully the true merits of each side. Indeed, this has always been the case – and certainly in America. This is the country, remember, that elected Arnold Schwarzenegger governor of California after he drew parallels between his ability to vanquish Predators and annihilate high taxes.
Trump’s victory was different. Of course his… unique… style won him followers, but more importantly it seemed so startling different to what is expected of presidential candidates so as to render it apolitical. Apparently, Trump was not a politician; he was an entertainer. And because no entertainer would ever really win such a serious election, he never had any chance of victory. His inevitable failure reduced his campaign to an entertaining spectacle: a gameshow between him and Hillary Clinton which would end on November 8th when people had to make a real decision. There were to be no consequences of Trump.
29% – the estimated chance of Trump winning according to FiveThirtyEight
The transformation of enemy into entertainer was the product of an unbelievably bad candidate being reviewed according to a standard template for writing about elections. In all elections, any interaction between the candidates is subjected to forensic analysis by a media which presents it as a contest between performers, out of whom emerges one clear winner. The televised presidential debates are the best example of this. Even The Economist – just about the most self-consciously serious publication one can find – claimed of the first debate that ‘the 10-20% of voters who tell pollsters that they are undecided or planning to vote for a third party… saw one candidate who was well prepared and a bit rambling, and another who was downright weird at times. 1-0 to Mrs Clinton.’ The victor was whoever had looked more presidential and since that accolade had been awarded to Clinton, she had definitively “won” in such clear fashion that her victory could even be quantified as a football score. If winning elections is about appearances and Trump did not look right, then his triumph was literally impossible to imagine.
Indeed, Trump’s style seemed to seasoned political commentators not just unpresidential but apolitical. The only way to explain his continued success was that he was operating in a world separate to the political, with its own rules. He was a talented player of a game that was ultimately unrelated to the ballot box; and he was nothing more than that. The constant narrative of ‘Trump is doing well now, but…’ bred a complacency that allowed people to act as if he were not really there.
Every new scandal was heralded as the straw that would break the camel’s back, provoking a mass flight of his support. But is it really that surprising that the people who put up with Trump’s racism, misogyny and evident hypocrisy were not suddenly totally unforgiving when it emerged he was a sex pest or even a rapist? As for those who did care about his behaviour, each new transgression became less and less surprising: they thought he was awful at the beginning and still thought he was awful at the end. But because Trump was too immoral to win, Americans were left free to hold Clinton to a higher standard – and then to abandon her when she did not meet it.
42% – Percentage of the population that did not vote
Not voting for the Democrats – or even choosing their opponents – was all the easier for those whom Trump’s rhetoric did not target. For white Americans, not only was the election of Trump unlikely but even if it did happen, they would not have all that much to fear. Sure, the radical action or inaction of a Trump presidency would give illegal immigrants, black people, America’s poor and Syria’s citizens a rough time of it; but since they were not being threatened directly, better-off Americans felt free either to abstain in disgust at both candidates or to vote Republican: grudgingly or otherwise.
Obviously, not everyone who did not support Clinton took their decision on the basis that they would not have to live with the consequences of a Trump victory. I do not wish to provide a reductionist perspective on the election result; rather, I want to make one point among many which only when taken together provide a full explanation. But it is worth considering why millions of informed Americans did not vote against giving control of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal to a man whose own staff consider him so unreliable that they barred him from using Twitter. To LBC’s James O’Brien, Trump’s supporters live in a parallel universe, ‘a reality where the truth doesn’t matter anymore’ and where finally they can hear a presidential candidate say ‘my life is rubbish because of immigrants.’ Equally significant, I would argue, is the perception that Trump himself lives in another universe to ours, and therefore what happens in his world does not affect what takes places in ours.