FeatureLiberal Democracy in Question

Why Did Trump Win?

A Proposal for Modesty

Why did Trump win? I begin with a question. Because it is a question being asked by so many people, ordinary citizens (and “undocumented” resident non-citizens) and intellectuals, writers, and academics. And because it is and will long remain a question, one with no simple answer.

Election day was only a few days ago. The votes are still being tallied. And the results were dramatic, and shocking to many, including me. And so the questions are furiously being posed, and answers furiously being given. There is much anger, and effort to carefully analyze the polls and the election results. And wishful thinking. And laying of blame.

Here’s a suggestion: a very wide range of responses make sense, and people should share them, but at the same time some sense of provisionality might be in order, because it is impossible to furnish the kinds of answers that are now being sought, and that are now being offered.

One reason is because it is simply impossible to definitively settle complex questions of political and historical causality. This is what keeps historians and social scientists in business, for good or ill.

A second is because it takes more than a few days to sort through all of the relevant evidence, and it takes even longer to generate compelling and sufficiently nuanced accounts of events so current and so shocking.

Let me be clear: I am not making an academic point. And I am not suggesting that we should all just calm down, or that we should refrain from acting until we know more or know better. People are acting now, in the streets, on social media, in their neighborhoods and in their conversations, and they — we — ought to act, now. And we are acting now because we know a lot, now, about the racism and sexism and xenophobia that Trump’s victory has mobilized, and about the dangers posed by the policies that Trump has promised to enact, and about the hostility with which Trump clearly treats an independent press and all forms of criticism and opposition. At the same time, as we express our solidarity and our outrage and opposition to the great dangers that a Trump Presidency poses, we ought to refrain from a premature and too-confident sense that what has happened, and what is still happening, fits easily within our pre-existing understandings. And so I suggest that as we act, now, we also think hard, now, about the causes of Trump’s victory, the contours of the current political situation, and the best ways forward.

In the past couple of days, I have read so many things written by so many smart people that contained truth but were put forth with confidence as the truth. Instead of asking, listening, thinking, paying attention, arguing, rethinking, there has been lots of self-assured answering. And the votes are still being tallied! Further, we are in still in a state of shock.

That’s right. The people likely to be reading this are in shock. Few if any expected that what happened would happen.

Since the Democratic primary, many really smart and good people dissented from those, like me, who loudly supported Clinton. They rightly criticized her neoliberalism. They did not like Trump. But as the campaign unfolded they thought that Clinton’s victory was pretty likely, and thus reasoned that it made more sense to focus their energy on criticizing the neoliberalism of the Democratic candidate than the neofascism of the Republican candidate, because Clinton was likely to be the next President. And Clinton lost.

Farther to the left were people who adamantly refused to even acknowledge the danger of Trump or the importance of defeating him. Susan Sarandon spoke for these people, and apparently Slavoj Zizek speaks for them now. Their enemy is neoliberalism. For some any kind of support for Clinton was impossible. For others the defeat of Clinton was to be welcomed so that new spaces for their brand of left politics could flourish. Some voted for Jill Stein, some perhaps even for Gary Johnson. Some abstained, or wrote in another name. Some talked about building a new communist party. They insisted that Trump was not the danger to be most feared. And now many of them are out in the streets, calling for massive resistance to Trump. It now appears that Trump is really scary.

And then there were people like me, left liberals or even just liberals who were never excited about Clinton, and who were for a time excited about Sanders — in my case, it was an excitement tempered by skepticism — but who strongly supported Clinton when she became the Democratic nominee, because we saw good things about her as well as bad things, and also because we feared Trump, and we believed she could defeat Trump. We were sometimes accused of fear mongering about Trump. Some even accused us of picking on Trump so as to absolve Clinton of her sins. Two things are clear: (1) we did fear Trump, and (2) we never thought that Clinton’s victory was assured; that’s why we argued so much on behalf of supporting her. Yet we underestimated the depth of the resentment against the Democrats, Clinton, and neoliberalism itself. And we really did think that, in the end, Clinton would win. We thought it would be close. But we believed the polls, and the “logic” of her “firewall” strategy, and the “logic” of the two party system. And she lost.

There’s a lot of blame to go around if we are seeking to disparage the opinions of others with whom we disagreed. And nothing supports blame so much as a ready-made explanation.

But such explanations come up short. So let me propose a more provisional set of thoughts. Consider them hypotheses if you will. They are designed to enter into an ongoing discussion and to generate further discussion. They are not academic hypotheses but practical ones, fallible suggestions intended to help people of like mind to think through the current situation and then to act, in times that are both dark and uncertain.

1. Trump won the election, in a way. And in a way not.

He won a majority of state-allocated votes in the Electoral College. According to convention and long-standing due process, in December, the Electoral College will meet, the votes will be cast, and he will receive a majority of electoral votes. He will then truly be President-elect.

But Trump did not win a majority of votes. Clinton won the popular vote. This does not negate her electoral defeat according to the established procedures. But it does negate the idea that the election somehow conferred a “popular mandate” or a special “democratic legitimacy” upon Trump. It did not. It is important to remind Trump and his supporters and his media acolytes of this. But it is also important to remind some on the left of this. Some have quite loudly proclaimed that Clinton’s loss was inevitable because she is a flawed candidate and people were sick of her. Many people were sick of her. But more people were sick of Trump. And more people voted for her, and some of them even did so with some enthusiasm. She was not defeated in a landslide. And indeed she was defeated, in a simple procedural sense, mainly because the US lacks a system of popular election for its President. Noone thought that Trump could lose the popular vote and win the election. And yet, like in 2000, it was the Electoral College and not a voting majority that gave the election to the Republicans.

2. It is not only that Trump failed to win a majority of popular votes and yet still “won.” In many other ways this election was flawed, and perhaps “rigged,” even by the very minimal standards against which US elections are normally judged.

This is very important politically, and it is somewhat surprising that many commentators, right and left, are so willing to bracket this out of their explanations and to moralize in simple ways about victory and defeat.

I’ll be brief here, and simply mention three things we know to have played some role in the defeat of Clinton.

Voter suppression: the US has a very decentralized system of electoral laws. It is well known that in some states — including Florida and Wisconsin, where Clinton lost by relatively small margins- — Republican-dominated state legislatures have sought to restrict voting and have succeeded in doing so. There is a mobilization of bias against typical Democratic voters that is built into the electoral system and, many of my colleagues have compelling argued, it is intentional.

Wikileaks: for months the e-mails of the Clinton campaign and the DNC were hacked — probably by Russian government-linked hackers — and released, in a deliberate effort to weaken the Clinton campaign, by Julian Assange and Wikileaks. This happened to one party in a two party system, and it happened regularly and systematically. And each time it happened, the media jumped all over it — the hacked e-mails, and not the hacking. And at key moments the Republican candidate, Donald Trump, seemed to encourage the hacking, and to encourage anything that might undermine “Lying Hillary.” The hacking involved breaking the law to advantage the Trump campaign. It worked. How much did it work? We don’t know. But that it worked cannot be doubted.

James T. Comey: for years the Senate and House Republicans had used the oversight powers of Congressional committees to investigate and interrogate and harass Clinton over her e-mail practices when she was Secretary of State. This was an obviously partisan effort, and when their guards were down, the Republican harassers said as much. In July, the FBI finally determined that there had been no criminal wrong-doing. But FBI Director Comey found it necessary to exceed his authority and publicly to cast aspersions on Clinton’s character. Then, in the waning days of the campaign, Comey issued his famous letter about “new e-mails.” The letter violated Justice Department protocols and was sent against the advice of Comey’s Justice Department superiors. The letter was sufficiently vague to immediately cause a firestorm of condemnation of Clinton, which was seized upon by Trump, and for days fueled his campaign. Then Comey admitted that no one in the FBI had even seen any of the e-mails in question. A few days later, he declared that the e-mails contained nothing of relevance. Nothing. There can be no doubt that Comey’s behavior completely altered the momentum of the contest. Due to some fine investigative reporting, there can also be no doubt that Comey was responding to a strong core of anti-Clinton FBI agents in New York city with close connections to Rudolph Guliani. A “rogue element?” A “deep state?” Clearly something that one would think people on the left would incorporate very seriously into their analyses.

In each of these ways, the election was weighted if not rigged against Clinton. It was not a “free and fair” election as this is normally understood by people who care about such things. I am not suggesting that in a simple sense the election was “stolen,” or that there is constitutional recourse. But the election was weighted against Clinton.

These things are well known. They suggest that the question “why did Trump win” needs to be addressed in manifold political ways, and not reduced to a simple tale of Trump’s popularity or Clinton’s coldness, neoliberalism, arrogance, or whatever. The voting was translated through complex decision rules, and it was shaped in complex ways by a political environment in which legality was skirted to the advantage of Trump.

3. Further, the election, in all of its procedural complexity, was in the end a very close election. Political scientist Larry Bartels, among others, has gone so far as to argue that the election was little different than any recent close election (putting aside for a moment, of course, its tone and its impact on the future!) — roughly evenly divided electorate, the tendency of a two-term incumbent Presidential party to be replaced, etc.–and that in the end it was so close as to have been decided by a coin toss.

When you put these three things together, what you have is something very far from a strong popular victory for Trump.

But Trump did receive over 60 million votes. And he won the election according to the rules governing US Presidential elections. And Clinton conceded. It has been “decided.”

4. Was it race or gender or class that mattered most in explaining the fact that Trump received over 60 million votes, and won many Rust Belt states that had been treated as safely Democratic?

Many commentators have held forth in support of each of these explanations.

Some claim that in the end Clinton was defeated because she was a woman. This is not implausible. There was a clear gender gap in the voting, even if Trump apparently received many more white female voters than expected. Clinton had been subjected to sexist attack for decades. And Trump’s masculinism is a central element of his public persona and his public discourse.

Some claim that in the end Trump won because he was a white man in a society still shaped by a deep racism. The racism of his rhetoric, and of his supporters, is not in doubt. Trump’s huge support among white voters is clear. Trump lost the Black vote and the Latino vote to Clinton by gigantic margins. The margins might have been marginally smaller than the margins whereby Obama beat Romney. But only marginally so. Race clearly played an important role.

Some claim that in the end Trump won because his voters were alienated by serious economic insecurity and decline, and by neoliberalism, and by a corrupt political establishment. As William Greider put it: “I predict that this date will live forever in the annals of small-d democracy. The governing system was overthrown by the plain people, who are mostly ignored by systems of power and influence.”

On this view, which is most prevalent among supporters of Bernie Sanders who refused to support Clinton, the election was really about class, about the fact that there has been a demonstrated decline in the living standards of the (white) blue-collar working class, and these people are “mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.”

Was it racism, or sexism, or classism, that explains Trump’s voters?

The answer, obviously, is all of them!

Of course many members of the white working class have become increasingly disaffected from the dominant institutions of political and economic governance, and for good reason, and of course this disaffection played an important role in their political behavior. The surprising Democratic losses in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin are obvious signs of this, and signs that the Democratic party failed to say and do the things necessary to appeal to these voters.

And of course all of the men and women who voted for Trump are not wife beaters and proponents of sexual harassment. But just as clearly, they were willing to support a political leader whose words and actions screamed “sexist user and abuser of women.” Sexism might not have been the single motivator for most of these Trump voters, male and female. But these voters were willing at least to accept Trump’s sexism, and they were willing to buy his tough-guy promises about “kicking the shit out of America’s enemies,” and they were willing to embrace many of the anti-Hillary tropes that have long been laced with undeniable sexism. In these ways sexism was hugely important, even if it was not everything and it obviously varied in importance from person to person.

And of course most of the white men and women who voted for Trump are not members of the KKK or proponents of “white supremacy.” Many might not have been motivated subjectively by racial animus. Some might have voted for Barack Obama in 2008 or 2012. Some might have supported Dr. Ben Carson in the Republican primary. But everything about Trump’s political persona has been laced with race and racism, from his crusading “Birtherism” to his rhetorical denunciations of Mexicans and Muslims and Arabs and Latinos to his angry responses to Black Lives Matter to his recirculating of KKK and neo-Nazi posts and symbols to his embrace of Stephen O’Bannon and of Breitbart and of the entire “alt right.” Sure, most of his voters were against corruption and against free trade, and they resented the Democrats and especially their female and feminist candidate. But they were also for Trump, and Trump was all about the Mexican wall and the deportation of millions of people and the ban on Muslims and all-in with Breitbart. And so they were for all of this. Were they all mean spirited harbingers of racial hatred? No — though a great many were, and those that came out to Trump’s rallies, and who energized his campaign and gave it media cache, were often angry and violently racist. Were they supporters of a candidate who stoked racial and ethnic hatred and who promised to institute racist measures? Yes! If that is not racism, what is?

But again, my point here is not to offer a complete or final explanation. It is to underscore how many things are necessarily factors to be taken into account in the effort to understand and to explain.

Many commentators will use their interpretive skills to explain why their favored explanation is right. Many commentators will use their statistical skills to assign a correlation coefficient — a number — to the factors they consider essential. But no one will provide a knock down explanation, not now, and indeed not ever.

Does this mean that that explanations don’t matter? No. They matter. And the effort to “get it right” makes sense. Because “getting it right” will help those who care to “do the right thing.”

But here’s the rub: we know that there will never be consensus on either the right explanation or the right thing to do.

And so we should approach the tasks of explanation and of strategy with a healthy sense of epistemic modesty.

Race and ethnicity and gender and sexual identity and class all matter. Nationality matters. And nature matters, even if does not “speak” for itself.

A left-liberal-progressive-egalitarian-democratic socialist-civic alternative — that’s right, I can’t find the right word — will need to pay attention to all of these things, to develop explanations and narratives and visions that can bring diverse constituencies into agonistic, respectful, and productive dialogues and compromises, and can reconcile the importance of racial equality, gender equality, economic equality, an open and cosmopolitan sense of national and civic identity, and a serious commitment to the sustainability of life itself on planet earth.

All of these things matter. How do they matter? How can they be combined in a reasonable and just way? How can movement politics and party politics be reformed to politically empower such combinations?

The answers remain to be determined. The answers we arrive at will be imperfect, contestable, and contested, and they will greatly impact the solutions we attempt in 2018, and 2020, and 2022 and beyond. The more each of us shouts what we think the answer is, the less likely it is that we will be able to learn from each other. And if we cannot learn from each other, and arrive at common initiatives and collective actions based on this mutual learning, then we are doomed.

Jeffrey C. Isaac

  • Emmryss

    A necessary corrective to all the dazed certainty floating around. Thank you. But the solutions we attempt can’t wait till 2018. For one thing, that implies they are restricted to electoral politics. For another, that we have the luxury of two years. Neither, I think, is true.

  • gnosis

    Excellent, thank you for taking the time to lay all of this out.

  • cesium62

    Trump won because Americans are stupid. He and the alt-right lied, and Americans loved the lies. And there is no counter-strategy that works against that.

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