Trump got elected mainly because establishment politicians ignored the people
The election of businessperson Donald Trump as United States president on November 8 will be discussed, debated, speculated about and studied by scholars for not only days but years and decades to come.
Besides the factor of Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton’s lacklustre campaign performance, lack of bold vision and salient trust issues, here are some things that are beginning to emerge as we read through assessments in op-ed pieces and other political commentaries before we launch into more rigorous research studies.
As an African-American with a significant indigenous background, I can tell you that many of my fellow citizens are sick and tired of being lied to by indifferent establishment politicians perceived to be in the pockets of lobbyists.
As our cost of living as middle-class people, and especially as poor and working-class people, continues to soar, our children’s access to quality basic and higher education continues to be out of reach. Who can get a decent job these days with long-term security or afford to buy and be able to keep even a modest house?
The mass public perception is that American elites have grossly outsourced the domestic economy while we, the American public, suffer at home with job losses and having to pay more for imported goods that are sometimes not of the quality we used to make in the US.
This made 2016 a ripe year for an outsider such as Trump, who changed the rules of civil debate to ask sometimes crudely stern questions that his party competitors and the Republican establishment either did not have the language or the guts to respond to.
It became worse when Trump could so easily demonise Clinton as being just another crooked establishment politician who could not be trusted. It didn’t matter that Trump had no governance experience — in fact, that is what made him so attractive.
On a national level it was, as astute political commentator Michael Moore called it weeks ago when predicting a Trump win, the Jesse Ventura syndrome all over again — you know, the wrestler who became governor of the state of Minnesota a number of years ago. The difference was that Ventura did have governance experience as a mayor.
The great discrepancy between the big money backing up Clinton’s campaign and Trump’s relatively meagre budget, between Clinton’s debate wins and Trump’s losses, between the polls predicting a Clinton victory and a Trump loss, and between Clinton’s hundreds of newspaper endorsements and Trump’s one, is that they all point to something quite profound.
They show up how out of touch political establishments and their proxies such as media and pollsters are with regard to a restless white electorate, both women and men. The election has also shown how Americans of all hues and ancestries with traditional values felt ignored and even dismissed, not only as a result of their loss of racial privilege in a demographically diversifying nation-state with a black president but also because of their low educational status and their geographical location outside major urban areas.
Trump’s populist bluntness about bringing this socially disenfranchised electorate into the fold of becoming enthusiastic voters and followers — contrasted with Clinton’s problems in mobilising her constituencies — was the result.
The Obama-Biden administration and the Democratic Party had an odd and even schizoid public morality perspective that worked effectively for Trump and against Clinton. The power of Bernie Sanders’s attraction to young and progressive Democrat and independent voters stemmed from the growing elitism of the Democratic Party and how Clinton symbolised Wall Street interests.
As politically ignored African-American public intellectuals such as Tavis Smiley and Cornell West tried to convey, while President Barack Obama talked justice for the middle class, the urban poor tended to be ignored — except to react to the tragic rash of black killings at the hands of the police or white supremacists.
Remember that the initial response of Obama and his newly appointed African-American attorney general, Loretta Lynch, to the Baltimore youth protest in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death in police custody was to call them thugs and undesirables.
Recall the lukewarmness of Obama and other members of an affluent class of older African-Americans towards the #BlackLivesMatter movement, composed largely of younger black people (many from impoverished urban backgrounds) who were later paternalistically marginalised by the Clinton-Kaine campaign.
It is no wonder, then, why one of the major moral and economic issues that Trump pressured Clinton on during the three debates was: What had she done in her 30 years to help urban poor African-Americans, and what was she going to do?
Pro-choice abortion rights and same-sex and transgender rights are another moral issue where the Democrats were perceived to ignore or demonise the oppositional views of a public with evangelical and traditional values.
When the dust settles, we just might find that the tendency of the Obama-Biden administration to press its moral agenda (including the Obamacare healthcare programme) through executive orders and court orders rather than developing an environment of public debate and consensus-building moved millions of voters into the Trump camp.
Of course, the Republican Party’s determination to roadblock everything Obama has attempted — which led him to resort to executive orders — made such consensus-building impossible.
In the last few days before the election Obama did try to reach out to the black poor, but perhaps for only selfish reasons — to save his legacy, which only marginally touched the lives of urban and rural black people. Besides the symbolism of the colour of his skin, they saw little substance beyond the photo ops and the personal crumbs tossed here and there, as well as the lectures on working hard and keeping your nose clean.
If the moral stances of the Obama-Biden administration did not drive conservative and right-wing black voters into the Trump column, they certainly may have encouraged black people and Latinos, especially the poor and the deeply religious, to sit out the election — disliking both parties and assuming that it made no difference anyway, since politics are politics and God will provide either way.
These black nonvoters were more than likely joined by millions of millennials of all hues and ancestries — as emerging studies are confirming. Though Trump’s youth sub-constituency was somewhat smaller than Clinton’s, his was much more energetic — and went to the polls.
We are also finding that this election experienced an unusually large number of younger voters (who may have ordinarily voted Democrat) going for one of the two major third-party candidates, Jill Stein or Gary Johnson. One of the most interesting things to keep in mind about young nonvoters is not only the number who sat out the election or voted for a third party, but also the number of Sanders supporters who were not registered to vote and probably did not bother to register for the big day after he pulled out of the race.
And how can we forget the influence, touched on already, of the perceived and real decline of white privilege as a factor explaining Trump’s win?
It has often been claimed and even empirically proven that there are white people and even nonwhite people who have internalised white supremacy values and for whom it makes no difference whether Trump does all the horrible things he had said he will do.
It does matter: he will make the US for whites only again, even though in many respects the country is already a nonwhite society demographically and that trend is increasing daily.
If you do not believe Trump can turn back the hands of time to the Jim Crow racial segregation days so easily, just remember Nazi Germany.
And remember what happened in 1948 when South Africa’s National Party, under the leadership of right-wing radical DF Malan, unexpectedly beat his more progressive, internationally renowned incumbent opponent, Jan Smuts.
Given Malan’s powers and those of the successive apartheid prime ministers who followed him, by the 1960s all three government branches were under the thumb of the Afrikaner Broederbond, sort of like a Ku Klux Klan and with the same violent tactics to keep black people and noncompliant white people under firm control.
Apartheid became how South African governance turned its back on the emerging trends of anticolonial and civil rights movements occurring in different parts of the continent and the world, just as a Trump presidency might be the last gasp of white supremacy turning back the clock on a 21st century in which global power has swung from West to East and from North to South.
After all, Trump has already alerted the White House and the American public that, in two weeks, he will undo everything Obama’s administration did — which is possible because so much of what Obama accomplished was through executive orders.
Trump has promised to repeal President Harry Truman’s executive order in the late 1940s to desegregate the armed forces. He campaigned on deporting Muslims and building a wall on the Mexican border. As ridiculous as all of these promises may seem, we — including nonvoters — will soon see just how much discretionary power a US president can wield. In this case, he will do so with his party controlling both houses in Congress and about to appoint at least one justice to tilt the supreme court rightward once again.
Finally, what the election of Trump demonstrates is how far behind so many Americans are in political correctness. In a nation paying the costs of the defunding of public education and the growth of illiteracy and insularity, mixed with deep security fears of terrorists and culturally different peoples, many Americans still have traditional (albeit bigoted) attitudes about nonwhite people, women, those of different sexual orientations and the disabled.
It speaks to the failure of the national leaders in all three branches of government, plus those in business, religion and the media, to develop and implement effective public policies to transform the US into the multicultural democracy we profess to be, but are far from being.
We have played too often with race and gender using ineffectual cosmetic gestures and policies, with the outcome being the ability of a Donald Trump to win the race to the White House. So here we are.
Professor John H Stanfield II is distinguished research fellow and research director with the Democracy, Governance and Service Delivery research programme at the Human Sciences Research Council in Cape Town. His views do not necessarily represent those of the programme and the HSRC.