Trump and Brexit revealed gaping holes in political ‘reality’
In the space of a few months in 2016, two of the world’s most stable democracies delivered shocks to global politics. The vote for Britain to leave the European Union in June and Trump’s victory in November not only defied the polls but flew in the face of overwhelming certainty from media observers, the political class and financial markets.
Some attempted to justify that certainty from the polls, but it did not convince. In the United States, RCP polling average gave Clinton a margin of 3.2 percentage points by the end, which was exactly how much they got it wrong in 2012. The most accurate poll in recent cycles, the IBD/TIPP tracking poll, gave Clinton the narrowest of margins of one point (making it the most accurate in 2016 as well). Further uncertainty was raised by the spread. The last ten polls varied by some nine points, more than double the variation in 2012—from a comfortable Trump win to a Clinton landslide. State polls were somewhat misleading, but Wisconsin was the only Trump win outside the margin of error.
It was not just the raw numbers that should have raised doubts. Press reports indicated, unsurprisingly, that the Clinton camp was struggling to get African Americans out to vote in the same numbers as they had for Obama. On the flip side, the likelihood of voting was reportedly favouring older voters who tended towards Trump. Trump was also consistently leading in polls as the best economic manager. While traditional for a Republican candidate, it should at least have hinted that for many voters a Trump presidency was not unthinkable.
And of course there was Britain’s EU referendum just a few months earlier, with similar warning signs. The modest lead recorded by the Remain campaign towards the end carried substantial caveats from the pollsters, both on turnout, with pollsters warning older Leave supporters were more likely to get out and vote, and on the difficulty of polling for a referendum compared to a general election, which had also been proved wrong a year before. Nevertheless, like the US election, none of this dampened the confidence in the run up to the referendum vote that Remain would win, a confidence that included not just commentary and markets—even the leading Leave campaigner Nigel Farage conceded several times in the hours before the result.
So clearly the certainty of a Remain/Clinton win was driven by more than the polls. Perhaps it was attributable to the feeling that it just made sense. In the British referendum, it was expected that economic interests would prevail as they did in the Scottish independence referendum the year before. The Remain campaign’s so-called ‘Project Fear’ was widely scorned, but getting all the experts to warn of calamity if Britain left the European Union seemed to work. By the end of the campaign, polls showed Remain had (narrowly) won the economic argument.
The Remain campaign seemed also to have the moral ground—certainly enough to split the Leave campaign, with the ‘official’ campaign concerned about being associated with the more anti-immigration, extreme tone of Farage’s team. This concern seemed justified by the murder of pro-Remain MP Jo Cox in the closing days of the campaign, a terrible event that was widely viewed as discrediting the anti-immigrant tone of Farage and the Leave case in general.
For many observers, the Trump victory seemed even more incredible than Brexit. Going by the political consultant’s handbook, the Trump campaign was a disaster. Its management was in turmoil, with three campaign managers within the space of two months, and constant reports of struggles to control its candidate.
Trump was openly attacked by senior members of his own party who coalesced around the ‘Never Trump’ campaign. In crucial swing states such as Ohio, Trump was fighting not only against the Democrats but also the state’s Republican leadership. The lack of party support meant the Trump campaign was underfunded, with Democrats spending multiples of that spent by the Republican campaign, not only in ad time but also in campaign staff and activists on the ground. Reporters continually compared the well-organised ‘ground game’ of the Clinton campaign with the non-existence of Trump offices and workers in crucial voting areas. On top of its funding, Clinton had the unprecedented support of almost every major daily newspaper. More dailies called for ‘anyone but Trump’ than made a positive endorsement for him.
The idea that maybe massive advertising spending and ‘ground games’ to get out the vote might not be necessary if voters had something to vote for—and are increasingly needed because they do not—is not in the outlook (and self-interest) of the political professional. So perhaps with an unorthodox candidate running an unorthodox campaign, it is understandable that they missed what was going on outside the political machine. But what horrified media observers, and made a Trump win even more unthinkable, was the message coming out of the campaign.
Trump seemed to offend every group imaginable: women, the disabled, African Americans, Latinos, Muslims, even war heroes. As a result it seemed his campaign and his often chaotic rallies were attracting all the worst elements of American society. He even gained the endorsement of the KKK and fumbled disowning it. Clinton was unpopular, but Trump’s favourability ratings were even worse, and his campaign seemed intent on highlighting why.
The Clinton strategy then seemed to be to focus on Trump’s derogatory comments against women and minorities to build support from them as well as encourage disgusted Republicans to break away. They aimed to draw a sharp distinction between Trump and his Republican predecessors, and Romney, McCain and the Bushes were only too happy to help.
While Clinton had her own negatives, Trump’s lack of control kept the spotlight on him. The Podesta email leaks were embarrassing, but they never provided the ‘bombshell’ that right-wing pundits promised. Clinton’s email server problems were also a clear negative but the final exoneration by the FBI director in the closing days underscored the confidence of the Clinton camp and many observers that she would win comfortably, if not in a landslide. Just as ahead of Brexit, political thinking seemed unprepared for what was coming.
The failure of the ‘rainbow strategy’
The Democrats’ ‘rainbow strategy’ flopped: far from it drawing ethnic minorities away from Trump, Trump did better than Romney with every ethnic group except whites. Even with women, the first woman presidential candidate from a major party did (slightly) worse against Trump, with all his derogatory comments, than Obama did against Romney, who said something about binders. As for Republican voters, they proved no more prepared to listen to the GOP establishment to desert their nominee in the general election than they had in the primaries.
This went against every political assumption about how things were supposed to work. While voters were disgusted and offended by Trump’s comments, it did not appear to affect how they voted. Exit polls showed Clinton beat Trump on nearly every personal attribute except one, the ability to bring about change. On the leading issue of importance, equally to men and women, the economy, Trump was seen as having the best economic policies.
This was supposed to be the ‘gender election’, but it was not really. Black women voted overwhelmingly for Clinton, but she made little impact on the Democrats’ long-running deficit with white women, with Trump winning them with 52 per cent. While uneducated white women voted for Trump by two to one, educated white women favoured Clinton, but much less than expected with a margin of only six points. If the much talked about ‘shy’ Trump voters existed, they appeared to be women.
Perhaps a reason for this was that the Democrats struggled to make the campaign, focused on the possibility of the first woman president and the derogatory comments of Trump, tangible to women’s lives. Initially the campaign emphasis was on highlighting the importance of electing the country’s first woman president because, well, she was a woman. But after the release of the Access Hollywood video, and the charges of sexual assault that followed, the emphasis of the campaign switched decisively from Clinton to Trump. The understandable outrage at Trump’s remarks changed the course of the campaign to being simply about shattering a glass ceiling to supposedly, as the New York Times put it, being ‘the election in which women rejected the candidate who hates women in favour of the candidate who is one’.
But it was telling that an issue that did directly affect millions of women, abortion, was much less prominent in the ‘gender election’ than in 2012. This was despite Trump repeating the Republican commitment to overturn Roe v Wade. The only time it emerged in the debates was in the third one when Trump made a grisly attack on late abortions, which Clinton, in one of her best moments, rightly countered as being precisely the time when a woman needs control over her reproduction.
Otherwise, an opportunity for the Democrats to show how Trump’s anti-women attitudes directly impacted such a basic emancipatory demand was largely passed over. Instead the focus continued to be on Trump’s derogatory comments, such as those he made about a former Miss Universe. It is possible the Democrats hoped to tempt over socially conservative Republicans who would be more comfortable at disowning sexist comments than defending abortion rights—a combination of chivalry and refusal to allow women control over their own bodies not unheard of in the history of opposition to female emancipation.
There was a similar gap between political expectations and what voters did in the case of Latinos. Here was a key growing demographic that the Republicans had a strategy of carefully nurturing that Trump had supposedly blown apart. It was not only his policy on deportations and the wall, but derogatory comments when he announced them, as well as later aspersions about a US judge with a Mexican background. The view was summed up by Republican strategist Ana Navarro, who declared Trump would achieve a ‘historic low’ Latino vote as ‘sweet justice’ for his remarks.
Trump slightly improved the Latino vote, albeit off a low base. Here again the sharp distinction between Trump’s comments and those of his Republican predecessors did not translate into a loss of votes. Perhaps one reason was that Trump’s policy was not that different, not only to Romney’s call for ‘self deportations’, but also to that of the ‘deporter-in-chief’ Obama, who forced a record-breaking total of nearly 3 million Mexicans across the border during his presidency. Even Trump’s ‘wall’ merely revives the intention in Bush’s Secure Fence Act of 2006, which then senator Clinton supported.
The Clinton campaign, and many of the commentators covering it, assumed that highlighting Trump’s derogatory comments about different groups would result in them voting accordingly. But either other issues prevailed, or the sharp difference in what Trump said did not reflect what was often continuity in policy. This assumption that voters will be triggered by comments aimed at their social ‘group’ suggests a problem with political thinking that tends to see society as comprising homogenous blocs. Trump’s photo of him smiling over a bowl of tacos and the caption ‘I love Hispanics!’ was rightly derided, but the political professionals who slice and dice voters into ‘key demographics’ espouse in many ways a more sophisticated version of the same thing.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, especially when looking at historical events, because it is all we have. But it is surely not too difficult to look back at the Remain and Clinton campaigns and see their respective deep flaws that could have led to their defeats. Yet there has been little reflection either from the campaigns or observers about why every-one got it so wrong. Instead, we have had doubling down. In Britain, those who lost the referendum immediately began looking for a way to annul the result. In the United States, Democrats have talked of rigging from Russian interference and even indulged an attempt to encourage members of the Electoral College to overturn the wishes of the millions of voters who put them there.
Both failed campaigns, and their supporters, preferred to talk about the white older voters who turned out for their opponents. But they are still yet to explain why their ‘natural’ voters, the young, women, minorities, failed to turn out for them as hoped.
Elections are not secret things. The incomprehension at the results, almost denying them, surely suggests that a way of viewing the political world was found lacking. The inability to anticipate the Brexit and Trump victories before they happened, and the shock when they did, suggest that these two results represent not just a major change in political reality but perhaps even more a profound assault on current political thinking.
The failure of political thinking
The Trump victory and the reaction to it are a product of US decline and the curious nature of it. To talk of the United States in decline is not to suggest there is any real challenge to it. None of the developed political economies come close to the size of the United States, and China’s economy might do so, but its political and economic distortions mean it cannot match the United States in innovation or influence.
The historical problem for the United States has been finding a global framework to exercise that influence. The only really successful period was the Cold War, where the nuclear threat could command the world’s attention as the United States met one-to-one with the Soviet Union in the never-ending crisis and disarmament talks. On the domestic level, lining up behind the US war on communism became a useful means for governments around the world to establish order at home.
The implosion of the Soviet Union has left the United States standing alone but with international institutions such as NATO and ANZUS no longer playing the role they once did. This has run parallel on the domestic level in countries such as Australia, Britain and, to a lesser extent, the United States, where the declining social influence of unions has left many political parties and institutions also without the role for which they were set up.
It is important to note how unusual all of this is. The last 30 years may have seen the fading of the rationale for international and domestic political institutions, but with the United States facing no real challenge internationally and, along with countries such as Britain and Australia, facing no real social disruption at home, the political institutions remain largely intact.
This has shaped the political environment. Much of the discussion around these institutions has become less about whether they fulfil their purpose than finding one for them. As an international example, much of the discussion around NATO has been to find a new role for it rather than a rational assessment of what the problems are and what institutions are needed to deal with them. Given the original purpose of these political institutions is now redundant, it might be thought there would be reasonable openness to their modification or even dismantling. But it is precisely the lack of any underlying stabilisers to the global framework that has made any tinkering so sensitive.
During the campaign this sensitivity was behind the strong reaction to Trump’s repeating of Obama’s call in 2008 for NATO members to share a greater financial burden. Trump’s argument that given the United States is no longer as dominant as it was in 1945, the arrangements set up then might be overdue for review, might be considered reasonable. But the alarm bells from allies came from awareness that there is no real basis for another framework to replace it. How irrational this can get was shown by the reaction to Trump promising that the United States would defend NATO allies if they had fulfilled their obligations. This might be considered just reiterating how such treaties are supposed to work, but it was taken that the United States might not defend NATO countries otherwise. It seems we are supposed to consider the automatic triggering, regardless, of a war with a nuclear power such as Russia if it invaded Latvia as somehow reassuring (even to the Latvians).
At the domestic level, the increasing need for political parties and institutions to find a role has also made much political discussion irrational to everyone else. In Australia, politics has been increasingly swamped by ‘culture wars’ that are more to do with political parties defining themselves than representing social groups or addressing real social issues.
In the United States such culture wars assume even a greater significance. Much of this has to do with the international and domestic realignment at the end of the 1960s and early 1970s. This was chiefly in response to what was arguably the main challenge faced by the United States and Western powers at the time, anti-colonial national liberation movements. The move towards détente during the height of the Vietnam War was meant to draw the Soviet Union and China in to assist in their containment.
Domestically this coincided with moves by the West to remove overt symbols of colonialism and segregation and, in the United States, the Democratic administration under Johnson primarily focused on dismantling segregation in the South. As a result, the Democrats, historically the party of the Confederacy and Jim Crow laws, began gaining support from African Americans, while the Republicans, the party of Lincoln, gained support from the conservative southern white working class—under the ‘southern strategy’ pursued by Nixon and Reagan.
The realignment resulted in the coming together of often disparate groupings in both parties. The Democrats brought together their traditional unionised labour support in the north with African Americans and other ethnic minorities, while the Republicans brought together traditional middle-class voters with poorer white working-class voters in the South, as well as making some inroads into unionised workers in the north.
Significantly, these coalitions within the reconfigured parties existed more in the political realm than the social, in contrast, say, to the real converging interests between metropolitan and rural business interests that formed Australia’s ruling Coalition. So culture wars in US politics tend to be especially fierce, as they became important for the parties to define themselves against each other and instrumental in maintaining the coalitions that make up their constituencies—especially as any social basis for these parties falls away.
For the Democratic Party, the politics of identity, targeting women and ethnic minorities, became an increasingly necessary offset against its diminishing support from unionised labour and played a prominent role in the 2008 and 2016 primaries. An emerging theme in both primaries was the shift between the politics of identity and traditional support from a dwindling unionised base. Clinton tended to take the side of the traditional support base in 2008 against Obama, but switched over towards the politics of identity against Sanders in 2016. As the subsequent 2016 election showed, such shifts have more to do with internal party dynamics than what might work electorally.
On the Republican side, the fading of the Cold War saw the rise of ideological conservatism that initially defined itself against what it saw as the ‘compromises’ of the 1960s. Reagan notoriously underlined this at the start of his 1980 presidential campaign with a speech on states’ rights in Neshoba County, made infamous with the murder of three civil rights activists. More recently it has been up to the Tea Party to impose orthodoxy within the party, which may have been necessary for party coherence, but with an electoral appeal that was mixed to say the least. Balancing the two has been a continual headache for Republican presidential contenders moving from the primaries to the general election. The approach by the Republican establishment was to turn to bland candidates to avoid offending either party or voters, with Jeb Bush being their suitably uninspiring pick for 2016.
What was often missed by those looking at the Republican primaries in 2016 through a culture-wars prism was the extent to which Trump defied this ideological checklist in his run for the party nomination. On issues such as planned parenthood, health care, gay marriage, the Iraq war, protectionism and public spending, Trump continually faced charges from the other candidates that he was not conservative enough. This was partly offset by his views on immigration, especially Muslim immigration, but perhaps more importantly through his claim to get things done as a ‘winner’ against a paralysed political establishment. This claim was certainly why comments that provoked outrage from the establishment, such as on McCain’s war record, only boosted his case when he showed he could defy his establishment critics by doubling down.
Trump continually exceeded expectations not so much because commentators underestimated Trump, but because they underestimated the hollowness of the political establishment he was attacking. Commentators failed to see the weakness of the Republican establishment and the party, and gave too much importance to the ideology that was supposed to keep it together. Similarly, in the general election they appear to have overestimated the influence the Clinton campaign’s identity politics had on its targeted constituents.
Political institutions that are now unfettered by any direct social relationships inevitably develop an outlook that is unfettered by social reality. Political debates become marked by phoney polarisations that are as intense as they are transient, and just as little reflect the compromises of everyday society. Political outlook becomes trapped in the realm of ideas, and exaggerates their importance, rather than responding to what is happening in society.
This was the lesson of both Brexit and the Trump victory. The results showed the hollowness of the existing political institutions, but the shock of both across politics, the media and academia also highlighted the detached nature of political thinking that is prevalent throughout. What was exposed in 2016 was the difficulty such ‘pure’ political thinking now has in grasping social reality. This has especially become obvious in the aftermath as political thinking struggles to deal with the results.
The truth about ‘post-truth’ politics
One important limitation of this pure political thinking is the difficulty it appears to have with acknowledging the active social subject. It appears more comfortable slicing and dicing society as homogenised blocs and ‘demographics’. Where an active subject is acknowledged in political literature, it is increasingly in a debased and degraded form: volatile and highly susceptible to irrational ideas. If the Clinton campaign, and the outlook of much in the media, tended to have too one-sided a view of women and ethnic minorities as homogenous groupings susceptible to offence, the response since the defeat has been to search for the disruptive irrational agents.
Even before the election, the press carried occasional pieces to explain the ‘Trump voter’. Such surveys were usually unhelpful, not least because they started with the assumption that their subject was irrational, since Trump voters needed to be ‘explained’ whereas of course Clinton voters did not. They were also unflattering—invariably describing white rural or working-class voters as irrational either from bigotry or due to hard times dressed up as faux empathy. Often the articles described them as just another ethnic minority that had been passed over.
A classic example of this genre was provided by liberal economist Paul Krugman who, in trying to rationalise an election result he did not see coming, described it as a product of ‘identity politics’ from whites angry at non-whites—an answer even he seems unhappy with admitting: ‘to be honest, I don’t fully understand this resentment’.
But increasingly this faux empathy has been replaced by the more unflattering idea of an upsurge of white voters who, having waited patiently for eight years while being governed by an African American, now rather belatedly rebel against the non-whites in what one journalist histrionically described on election night as a ‘whitelash’.
Less histrionically, pundits have tended to describe this as a ‘new populism’. Yet for populism it is not terribly popular. Trump’s approval ratings were as abysmal as Clinton’s and his win was hardly convincing, only just winning in the key states that counted. There was some increase in the white vote to Trump in the swing states but the more important movement was white working-class voters who did not turn out for Clinton. Trump may command large rallies, but rallies do not constitute a ‘movement’, as much as he might like to claim it.
The only thing really ‘populist’ about Trump’s win was the by-passing of the political establishment, but this had more to do with a breakdown from above than an upsurge from below. While Trump was tapping into grievances with the political establishment, these grievances were long-standing in line with political institutions that had long ago lost much of their social relevance. What was distinctive now was that the incoherence and weakness of these political institutions on both sides of the Atlantic meant this resentment could not be concealed—allowing opportunists such as Trump, Farage and Boris Johnson to take advantage for their own political purposes.
But rather than see the problem as being the breakdown of long-redundant political institutions and parties, some pundits seem determined to look for the irrationality of the public to explain what they see as an irrational result. This focus on irrational ‘unpopular populism’ explains the bizarre reaction to the media after the election. We might think that an election where one candidate received the overwhelming endorsement of the press, opinion columnists, and most mainstream television networks—and still lost—suggests that the power of the media to shape opinions is somewhat exaggerated.
But instead we are now being asked to believe that even more power was waged by insignificant ‘fake news’ websites that managed to sway the election against a media watched by millions. The very obscurity of these websites means anything can be claimed no matter how far-fetched. Even one of the better known of these websites, Breitbart, an overtly hawkish pro-Israeli opinion-site, with a disproportionate number of Jewish writers and a Jewish CEO, could be branded as anti-Semitic with little demur. Evidence to support this supposedly came from a piece written by one of the Jewish writers attacking another Jewish writer as a ‘renegade Jew’ for being soft on the enemies of Israel, presumably assuming the Jewish author meant the epithet to be ‘Jew’ rather than ‘renegade’. The ultimate irony of these charges is that it obscures the most noisome feature of Breitbart, namely its anti-Muslim tone, which may be partly related to an excessive pro-Israel hawkishness but more likely comes from what then chairman Steve Bannon perceives as threats to the values of the ‘Judeo-Christian West’.
A similar reliance on dark, little-known undercurrents comes with the use of the term ‘alt-right’, brought to prominence by Clinton in a speech following the appointment of Bannon to run the Trump campaign. Again, the obscurity of a fairly juvenile, often offensive, internet circle that arose around ‘Gamergate’ meant the term can be ascribed to anything—white supremacists and neo-Nazis—with little need to back it up.
In reporting such obscure currents and without the need to know what is being talked about or even, given its malevolent nature, wanting to know what is being talked about (apparently parodied in an earnestly run Guardian article titled ‘“Alt Right” on-line poison nearly turned me into a racist’), it is understandable that journalists are making mistakes. The Washington Post, in a widely circulated piece on Russian propaganda fake news sites, unfortunately cited PropOrNot as a credible monitor, and subsequently had to offer a partial retraction when it was revealed that what PropOrNot considered Russian propaganda included CounterPunch, Truthdig and the Drudge Report.
The obsession with obscure media sites and socially insignificant internet circles is a consequence of unravelling political institutions and those embedded in them looking for external irrational agents to explain what is happening, and for what could have provoked them. The thinking behind this was perhaps best summed up in Clinton’s notorious ‘deplorables’ speech.
The description of half of Trump supporters as ‘a basket of deplorables’ to a room full of wealthy donors was seized on by Republicans as a sign of the contempt Clinton was supposed to have for ‘ordinary hard-working Americans’ and to give coherence to a fairly shambolic campaign. However, other features about that speech were less noted. The other half of Republican voters were hardly less favourably described as being desperate from economic hardship, forcing them to make an irrational choice. Also, although Clinton’s comments were widely seen by the media as a gaffe comparable to Romney’s ‘47 per cent’ gaffe in 2012, they were openly broadcast to the media because they shared many of the same assumptions in ‘explaining’ Trump’s support. Finally, the most significant point of her speech was the attack on Trump:
To just be grossly generalistic, you can put half of Trump supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? Racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic, you name it. And unfortunately, there are people like that and he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people, now have 11 million. He tweets and retweets offensive, hateful, mean-spirited rhetoric.
This is the central charge against Trump. Not so much what he says or does himself, but how he has given voice to the deplorables and ‘lifted them up’. This ‘triggering’ of a volatile and irrational public explains the obsession with fake news and obscure internet groupings. Commentators claim that all of this was driven by the Russians to sway an election that curiously the same commentators before the result did not think was swayed at all. It echoes the response of British Remainers after their defeat in the EU referendum, that either voters were duped or, more darkly, that Farage and other Brexiters had irresponsibly unleashed what Guardian writer Polly Toynbee called ‘furies’ that they cannot control.
The sentiment is worthy but profoundly anti-democratic. It puts the public in the position of not being ultimately the source of progress, the underpinning assumption of democracy, but the problem, and one that responsible politicians must not provoke—even if that requires restricting free speech.
Unsurprisingly, it is an argument that has not had much resonance in either country. In Britain, the latest poll at the time of writing indicated that 68 per cent (including half those who voted Remain) now want Britain to get on with Brexit, and that respecting the democratic mandate of the vote should be by far the most important consideration (over immigration and trade) when negotiating with the European Union. In the United States, derogatory comments about the ignorance of the voters is hardly likely to appeal. Attempts to discredit the result and call for a recount, or for Electors to change their vote, did not prevent a rise in Trump’s popularity in the month following the election from disastrous to, well, positively mediocre.
Trump obviously does not represent progress, but the post-election reaction to his victory has raised that most important question about progress: does it come from above or below? In Britain there was arguably more of a democratic consideration in the vote to leave the European Union, even if it meant faith in British political institutions whose limited accountability is being demonstrated as they smother the result. But at least in that referendum some basic democratic points were occasionally made.
One of them, ironically, was taken as a leading example of ‘post truth politics’ when leading Leave campaigner Michael Gove said ‘people have had enough experts’. But the counter position he was making was not between expertise and ignorance, but between who was in control, the experts or the public. In reply to whether they should trust him instead, he succinctly put that basic democratic concept: ‘I’m not asking the public to trust me. I’m asking them to trust themselves.’