By Simi Mehta*
The office of the US Presidency implies great power and responsibility in the realm of international politics, and the US presidential election is usually watched with great interest around the world. The presidential election of 2016 was regarded as unprecedented and highly consequential that was a testimony to a highly polarised campaign spread throughout the nomination process until the presidential debates that ended in the electors choosing Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States.
There was a near unity in the media, political experts and scholars in the country and abroad that predicted the victory of the Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. A major reason for this was based upon the character assassination of Donald Trump resulting from his derogatory remarks on women, Muslims, Latinos, immigrants, and persons with disabilities that were not altogether misplaced.
It was expected that the American society would unite against the dread that could be unleashed should Donald Trump be elected as US President. Noted American filmmaker Michael Moore had described him as a “wretched, ignorant, dangerous part-time clown and full-time sociopath”.
Trump’s victory has exposed some of the worst nightmares for a large section of the population and this article would seek to understand the reasons that secured him victory despite the widely acknowledged misdemeanours and brash exposition of his policy preferences.
1. Trump has shocked the psephologists. According to Noam Chomsky, Trump’s victory points to the moribund state of the US political system, that was propelled in part by rural and Rust Belt voters, especially former blue states of the mid-west: Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which bore the brunt of the neglect of the political establishment.
He clinched victory because he hit the bull’s eye when he accused former President Bill Clinton (and indirectly Hillary Clinton) as the reason for destroying the industrial states of the Upper Midwest by their support of NAFTA, that led to the closure of several industries and retrenchment of the local workforce there.
Taking a cue from this, Trump espoused a rejection of open global trade, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and promised to nullify American association with NAFTA. He vociferously attacked Hillary for her stance on the TPP (which itself kept changing during several campaigns and Presidential debates). Trump’s staunch promise to apply a 35 per cent tariff on the cars manufactured by the Ford Motor factory in Michigan, for instance, if it proceeded with the plans to relocate to Mexico, drew applause from the working class there which indeed translated into votes in his favour. He has advocated an economic plan that would slash tax rates for the wealthy like himself.
2. His election was a glimpse of the accumulated insecurities of the white-American-men. The rapid emergence of women-power in the US and around the world and their recognition as an equal in all domains of life, coupled with the legalisation of gay marriages by the Barack Obama administration, led to enhanced frustration of the white-American men, who were annoyed for the past 8 years of being ruled by a Black man and felt endangered at the very thought of being ruled by a female for the next 4 or probably 8 years. Thus, he successfully tapped into the deep distress and resentment among millions of white working- and middle-class Americans.
3. While the two candidates were common on the fact that they supported an issue on one instance and denied it on the other, the 30 years of public service that Hillary Clinton harped upon was understood to have generated distrust amongst the voters. When she was running for Democratic nomination against Obama in 2008, she vociferously opposed same sex marriage whereas in readying herself as the 2016 candidate, she welcomed the Supreme Court ruling that legalised gay marriages throughout the continental US.
Her fickle stand like this one became an instance of the narrative that reinforced the old way of politics that concentrated solely on getting elected, and hence was seen as being dishonest and untrustworthy. Trump, on the other hand, exhibited that to secure electoral victory, one need not necessarily identify oneself among the persons living under moderate circumstances, as against Hillary who repeatedly described her father’s humble beginnings as a wholesaler of drapery fabrics.
4. During the debates and campaigns, Trump fiercely condemned the global elite for promoting “open borders,” which have allowed immigrants to take jobs away from US workers and lowered their living standards. As the Republican nominee, he had specifically mentioned Mexicans and Muslims creating the major problems. He accused Mexicans of bringing crime, drugs, and rape to an otherwise peaceful law-abiding nation and Muslim immigrants of favouring “horrendous attacks by people believing in jihad, and (who) have no sense of reason or respect for human life”. Therefore, it does not come as a surprise that right- and far-right wing political parties across the world, including India, have voiced jubilation at Trump’s elections. It is apprehended that Trump’s election would promote hate and racism and be ethnically restrictive across the vast sections of the populations — American as well as foreign.
Pew Research data in July 2016 shows that women and men prioritised many of the same issues during the election, including concerns over the economy, terrorism, and health care. Gender was not considered to be an important issue or at most the gender norms and ideals were inextricably intertwined with economic and social realities.
Over the course of his campaign, Trump spoke about imprisoning Hillary Clinton for the hefty email error she goofed up on when she was Secretary of State, suing women who accused him of unwanted sexual advances, neutering the speaker of the House and revoking press freedoms. He has promised to deport millions of illegal and undocumented immigrants, nullify trade agreements like NAFTA, called for rapid increase in the use of fossil fuels, including coal; reject help to developing countries that are seeking to move to sustainable energy; and, in general, sabotage international efforts to fight climate change.
This comes in sharp contrast with the findings of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) (2016), which reported that the past five years were the hottest on record with noticeable rise in the sea-levels, rapid melting of glaciers and thereby reducing the cooling effect of polar ice reflection of solar rays and accelerating the grim effects of global warming.
Trump has denigrated US allies and condemned international alliances, such as NATO, that makes it spend billions of dollars to secure other countries’ sovereignty. His America-first approach promised to withdraw the United States into Fortress America and build walls along the Mexican border. During his campaign, he sought to make friends with Russian President Vladimir Putin despite the latter’s blatantly anti-American policy, repeatedly lashed out against China, suggested policies for the Middle East that ranged from uninformed (such as his promise to abort the US-Iran nuclear deal), erratic and unimplementable (taking oil away from the Islamic State).
In essence, the major reasons for Trump securing majority of the electoral college votes was a representation of the frustration of the people accumulating over the years against the centrist political order, where the previous governments tended to ignore the middle-class and the working class, primarily those without college education.
These grievances have been a response to an economic system that favours the rich, the fear of losing jobs to new immigrants, and — exhausted with the slow growth and stubborn inequality — long-term stress on the federal budget.
Trump’s victory has sent shock waves around the US and the world, but one must not forget the words of historian C. Vann Woodward who wrote in 1960 that “One must expect and even hope that there will be future upheavals to shock the seats of power and privilege and furnish the periodic therapy that seems necessary to the health of our democracy”.
The credibility of the US as a country committed to pluralism, multiculturalism, inclusiveness, opportunities for all and human rights, in other words, US’s soft power, has appeared to have suffered a serious blow. Recovering that reputation for enlightened leadership will be hard for President Trump, given the xenophobia of his rhetoric on the way to the White House.
While the Trump phenomenon has been largely characterised by his unpredictability, the 2016 US presidential elections revealed that the passionate support for Trump was inspired primarily by the belief that he represented change, while Hillary Clinton was perceived as the candidate who would perpetuate their distress. The “change” that Trump is likely to bring would be harmful or worse, but it is understandable that the consequences are not clear to the electorate who represented angry nationalism and antagonism to international engagement, free trade, making their country open and inclusive and paving the path to welcome immigrants.
(Simi Mehta is a Ph.D. candidate at the US Studies Division of the School of International Studies, JNU, New Delhi. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent to [email protected])