What does the US presidential election mean?

Twelve thoughts on politics in the US.

Gerry Hassan
8 November 2016
trump rally.jpg

Trump Rally. Image, Gerry Hassan.

This has been a fascinating election; a true rollercoaster of emotions - of hope and fear, the spectre of bigotry and violence, and the flames of intolerance, and even insurrection, raised in some right-wing circles.

Here are some thoughts and observations based on travels, conversations and attending various political events in the United States over the last few weeks.

1. In the past fortnight I attended a Hillary Clinton-Elizabeth Warren rally, followed by a Donald Trump event, and an eve of poll Barack Obama rally. There is a scale to such things beyond most UK politics, with sizeable events put on in an ad-hoc, last minute way as campaigns adapt to changing electoral fortunes and maps. That’s impressive, although the Trump event showed the stretch points of his ramshackle organisation. Basic things were badly done, with pre-Trump speakers coping with the PA continually cutting out and there being no overall MC for the event. 

2. Comparing the Clinton and Obama rallies – they had very different feels. There was a sense of seriousness at the Clinton one, of politics as business, whereas at the Obama gathering there was an air of celebration, even of a kind of family affair, with excitement and anticipation. Both of these were on university campuses – but whereas the Clinton event was filled with baby boomers, Obama attracted thousands of students, and this points to one of Hillary Clinton’s big electoral weaknesses – will younger people (along with non-white voters) turn out for her?

3. Supporting casts at these shows and in the election campaign matter. Trump had Kate Quigley, sister of Glen Doherty, who lost his life in the Benghazi tragedy of September 2012. Obama had Gabby Giffords, the Arizona Congresswoman who was nearly killed by a right-wing extremist in 2011. But overall, the Democrats have a class act in depth at rallies and in the election campaign, whereas Trump has a slim and unconvincing supporting cast – often padded out by members of his family. It does say something about the two candidates and their negatives that with this advantage Clinton has made such uphill work of defeating Trump.

4. Gender is critical in all this. The Democrats have impressive, confident women in bucket loads in elected positions all over the country. The Republicans have a women problem, but they also have a men problem. At the Trump event, apart from Kate Quigley, everyone else who spoke was an elderly man whose values and mindset are hardly in tune with contemporary America.

The wider Republican male attitude to women was illustrated by John H. Sununu, former Governor of New Hampshire, who thought it appropriate to say to a crowd: ‘When Bill said ‘I did not have sex with that woman’ he was talking about Hillary’: a remark that even in a Republican gathering was met with some laughter, but mostly, embarrassed silence. Many Republican men not only have a problem with women, but they barely understand modern life.

5. Oratory can only get you so far. Barack Obama has done all he can in the last days of his premiership to spread his stardust and charismatic appeal to help Hillary Clinton over the winning line. Yet, while oratory helped Obama win in 2008, it didn’t help him be a more successful president. Oratory does have its limits and governing requires other less obvious public skills. Maybe, just maybe, that could point to Hillary Clinton being a better president than she has been a campaigner.

6. Anger and discontent have their limits too. The Trump campaign has been all negatives and incendiary comments, but it didn’t create the anxiety, unease and fury which was already there. David Brooks, a conservative commentator noted that three seismic factors have reshaped the US these last 25-30 years: globalisation, immigration and feminism: and he believes all three have been good for the country. But in so doing a whole spectrum of people have lost out – most notably in the white male working class – and Democrats and the prevailing mainstream consensus have consistently failed them.

7. Numbers matter in terms of registration and who turns out. By the middle of October, 200,081,377 voters had registered – up from 146.3 million in 2008; a rise of 37% over the course of the Obama presidency. Turnout in numbers of voters was a record 131.4 million in 2008, falling slightly to 129.2 million in 2012. The higher the overall turnout, generally the better it will be for the Democrats, but differential turnout in different groups will have a big impact. Overall, Trump voters have been more motivated than Clinton voters, but that has eroded as the campaign closed. ABC News/Washington Post tracking polls gave Trump a 48:36 lead on enthusiasm in mid-September, but by their eve of poll survey Clinton had eliminated this, leading 52:51. If those findings are right that’s very bad news for any possible Trump surprise.

8. Winning margins matter. Obama won by nearly five million votes in 2012 (4,982,291) and by nearly ten million votes in 2008 (9,550,193). The narrowest presidential victories in post-war times have been:

  • - Al Gore won the popular vote over George W. Bush in 2000 by 543,895: 48.4% to 47.9%  (but famously lost the Electoral College due to Florida);
  • - Richard Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey in 1968 by 511,944: 43.4% to 42.7%;
  • - John F. Kennedy defeated Nixon in 1960 by 112,827: 49.72% to 49.55% but won the Electoral College by a decisive margin.

9. What happens to the Republicans after the Trump phenomenon? Trump isn’t a complete accident. He was made possible by years of toxic populist opposition – from shutting down the US government to the whole Birther conspiracy about Obama not being American. If Trump by some horrendous combination of factors won the presidency, the tensions in the Republicans and conservative community would not go away. But if he, as is likely, loses, they explode to the surface.

For a start, senior Republicans have been playing with fire for decades, fanning anti-intellectualism and base idiocies about Democrats, government and the world. The Republican appeasers who got on the ‘Trump train’ (‘Vichy Republicans’ to some) – getting on, off and on again – have to go down in history as apologists with bigotry, hatred and stupidity. Step up Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz and many others. How does this end? Well, modern parties do die and the Republican white rage has associated itself with a declining demographic in a country becoming more educated and diverse. The party has to change and adapt if it is to win a future presidential election.

10. Then there is what happens to the Democrats after the Clinton era – which if Hillary wins the presidency could last to 2024. It has seen the Democrats successfully win presidential elections, but become a party which has abandoned its old progressive credentials (the FDR New Deal coalition), which it had to do, but without finding a new credo. A Clinton presidency seems unlikely to break new ground in this, but the party has to find a more convincing politics than the incremental, cautious politics which the party exhibits up and down the ticket in 2016.

11. Americans are proudly patriotic and have an idealism about the values and principles of the US. But they are growing increasingly fed up and impatient at the style and content of politics on offer from both parties. All across the country there is cynicism and suspicion about politics and politicians that doesn’t auger well for the future. The Clinton era which may be just about to have a second series hasn’t helped in all this. And that could mean in the future there are opportunities for even more ugly, nasty, nativist populists.

12. Win or lose, Trump shows the extent the mainstream is in crisis. And it is highly unlikely that conventional Democrats or Republicans will be able to solve the deep malaise at the heart of America. Globally – given the state of politics across the West – Trump just could in a nightmare vision prove an inspirational figure to plutocrats and charismatic multimillionaires who fancy their hand at national political office. We have already had Berlusconi in Italy and Arron Banks funding of Farage’s Brexit campaign. In an age of a stratospheric wealth, where such people believe in their own unique importance and insights, could Trump, win or lose, provide a harbinger of the future to come?

Final Thoughts:

First, a superficial, but important dimension: the Trump campaign, awful as it was had more memorable (although outrageous) slogans – both official, ‘Make America Great Again’ and ‘Drain the Swamp’; semi-official ‘Lock Her Up’; and unofficial ‘Kill Hillary’. Hate and fearmongering are often easier to peddle, compared to the compromises of government. But they point to the ambiguous messages at the heart of the Clinton campaign – which is steady as she goes, status quoism with lots of policy wonk stuff.

Commentators talk of ‘the wall of empathy’ disfiguring US politics, whereby Democrats and Republicans willfully refuse to understand each other. A swathe of Trump supporters I spoke to at his rally confessed that they didn’t know a single person voting for Clinton. One Trump woman said that because she had lots of female friends she knew some Clinton supporters. The same is true of Democrats. This is one of the dynamics which aids uber-partisanship, and then is reinforced on the right by the murky world of the alt-media community. Large parts of Republican opinion now have a tenuous link with reality.

Everything today points to an unconvincing Hillary victory, but both parties unwilling and unable to face their own weaknesses. Democrats now have a natural advantage at presidential elections, but pre-Obama, in the post-war period, four of their victories came with minority votes (Truman, JFK, Clinton 92 and 96) and only two with majorities: LBJ in 64 and Carter in 76, both after national meltdowns – the assassination of JFK and Watergate. This was transformed by Obama’s two emphatic – but not landslide – victories with over half the vote in 2008 and 2012.

If Hillary, as is probable, does not get over half the popular vote, that matters for Democrats and her presidency. It limits her mandate. And shores up future problems. If the Republicans manage to hold onto the Senate, as well as the House, then the grotesque blocking games and Clinton paranoia of the campaign will continue and hinder her administration. Democrats look likely in future to have a strong hold on the presidency, but will be unable to turn that into House and Senate permanent majorities, and are thus condemned to fight a continual war of attrition with Republicans. That’s an unattractive picture, and not adequate for the big challenges the US faces economically, socially and in terms of imperial over-reach.


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