By Harold A. Gould*
The unexpected, indeed the inconceivable, has happened: Donald Trump, the womanizing side-show barker with a flair for mass-media showmanship will be the 45th President of the United States commencing in January 2017. One might say that the traditional political system which began in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence has finally coalesced with contemporary American mass-media culture. And Donald Trump’s ascent to the presidency, surrounded by a growing coterie of pedestrian sycophants and opportunists, is the ineluctable incarnation.
How such an event could have occurred at this point in time in the world’s most powerful democracy poses challenges which political analysts both at home and abroad are now compelled to address. There is much to be done, as the phrase goes, and there are many variables that must be factored.
As a prelude, I think it is important to recall what the noted Princeton economist Paul Krugman says about the 2000 election which George Bush won (some would say stole ) against Vice-President Albert Gore.
“Throughout the campaign,” Krugman declares. “most media coverage gave the impression that Mr. Bush was a bluff, straightforward guy, while portraying Al Gore — whose policy proposals added up, and whose critiques of the Bush plan were completely accurate — as slippery and dishonest. Gore’s mendacity was supposedly demonstrated by trivial anecdotes, none significant, some of them simply false… And right now I and many others have the sick, sinking feeling that it’s happening again.”
Professor Krugman was of course devastatingly accurate in his assessment of where the current election was headed. It was ‘deja vu all over again’, as the saying goes. If you insert the names Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump into the narrative in place of Gore and Bush the pattern and the outcome are virtually identical.
And there is a further chilling statistic: Thanks to the arcane prevalence of the so-called ‘electoral college’ in the American political system both Gore and Clinton actually won the popular vote and still lost the election to their Republican opponents! The United States is the sole major modern democracy that possesses such an institutionalized mechanism, devised by the country’s elitist so-called Founding Fathers, because in those days they did not trust the capacity of ordinary citizens to make sound political choices. Instead they left it up to the individual states. By assigning a number to each state reflecting its physical-demographic magnitude, it was possible to determine which candidate achieved a majority of electoral votes (currently 270) and thus award the presidency to whomever achieved or exceed that number.
However, the problem was/is that since a majority of the votes in an individual state rather than the total vote determined who was the winner of the state’s electoral votes, all of the individual votes in excess of the majority needed to determine who won the state’s electoral votes were essentially thrown away. This flaw came home to roost in the 2000 election when the states which Gore won technically exceeded the total votes cast by the overall electorate but fell short of the 270 electoral votes required to win the election. This outcome has repeated itself in 2016. Secretary Clinton will ultimately (when all the votes are finally counted) garner around two million more popular votes than Trump in the states she won, but these states do not add up to the 270-plus electoral votes she needed to win the election under the existing constitutional rules.
Therefore, from a strictly mathematical standpoint, Donald Trump, along with his ideological and policy baggage, is a ‘minority president’, as was George W. Bush 16 years ago. The difference this made in 2000 was between an incumbent President, who was a naive ‘neo-con’ who plunged America into a disastrous Middle East war, and by every indication an intellectually deeper, more emotionally stable person who might have formulated a much less ideologically strident, far more mature foreign policy.
The same contrast is painfully relevant today. By any measure, Hillary Clinton possessed the intellectual maturity, policy-making experience, and public-policy record to have become a highly effective (not to mention the first woman) President of the United States!
But alas it was not to be because of this crucial structural flaw in the American political system and also because the prevailing demographics proved not to be on Hillary Clinton’s side; and also, quite frankly, because in the end she turned out to be a less than inspiring political campaigner.
In terms of the election’s demographics there is no question that racism played an implicit role as it almost inevitably does in one way or another in American politics. This time it supplied an increased measure of ethnic fuel to those portions of the marginally educated White working class in the so-called “rust-belt” region of middle America (states like Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, etc.) where there is high blue-collar unemployment caused by factory closures and rapid technological change, as well as in the states where Whites are gradually losing ground to increasingly socially conscious Black, Hispanic and Asian populations who are no longer willing to accept second-class-citizen status in the American socio-political firmament.
The fact that Donald Trump won despite the rising tide of non-Anglo-Saxon ethnic communities is not only a byproduct of the salience of the already noted structural and socio-economic factors but also of at least two other factors as well.
One is known as gerrymandering. This refers to the power that each incumbent state government implicitly possesses to determine the boundaries of its legislative constituencies and to concoct self-serving rules that restrict access to the polls. Republican parties are currently in the majority in two-thirds of the country’s state governments and it is they who systematically gerrymander constituency demographics and manipulate the rules for voter access to the disadvantage of the non-White ethnic communities. This played a crucial role in assuring Trump’s election victory, one which mass-media commentators blatantly play down or simply ignore, in part because they disdain or lack the sociological sophistication to factor them into their analyses.
Finally, there is the intellectual naivete of a large portion of the American electorate; especially that very segment, i.e., the small-town White working class, which guaranteed Donald Trump his victory. Possessing in most cases little more than a high school education, and simultaneously immersed in shallow television programming throughout their waking hours, they are simply intellectually ill-equipped to distinguish truth from falsehood in political discourse which renders them vulnerable to the kind of remorseless demagoguery that Donald Trump and the Republican Party churned out against Secretary Clinton and President Obama throughout the election. Cries of “Lock her up!” at Trump rallies, for example, that was the culmination of totally fabricated charges of her ethical conduct while she was Secretary of State; denunciations of the press and media, accusing them of “rigging” the election, for exposing Mr. Trump’s sexual indiscretions and financial skullduggery.
The point is that a naive and gullible portion of the White electorate believed the lies and distortions because they lacked the intellectual sophistication to see through them. This is something the Trump camp counted on. The result is the ascendancy of a President who is already making it clear that he will surround himself with racists, sycophants and intellectual mediocrities, like Trump himself, who will over the next four years endeavour to dismantle all of President Obama’s progressive domestic and foreign policy accomplishments while at the same time seeking to restore and preserve White supremacy in America.
In the long run these efforts will fail because the long-range demographic trends are against them. But it will be a very painful political journey en route.
*Harold A Gould is an American anthropologist who is a visiting professor in the Center for South Asian Studies, University of Virginia. He can be contacted at: [email protected]