Mid-day, November 8, 2016. Not knowing the outcome and not being a scholar of elections, I thought I’d nonetheless make some comments on the election–hopefully informed ones.
The central question, the one that will occupy dissertations, articles, and books for many years to come, is how could about half of American voters, the great majority of whom are normal, decent, salt-of-earth Americans, choose as their president a self-admitted sexual predator and tax evader, policy ignoramus, major BS-er, unstable personality, and schoolyard bully who surrounds himself with neo-fascists?
(Does academic even-handedness require a similarly blistering description of Clinton? No, polite symmetry is not appropriate here. Clinton is in the historical range of somewhat-soiled presidential candidates–say, Nixon, Johnson, Kennedy. That pillars of the Republican party such as the Presidents Bush and Mitt Romney at least implicitly and conservative newspapers explicitly–the Arizona Republic and the Manchester Union-Leader, for example–do not endorse Trump testifies to his exceptionalism.)
One feature of this year’s campaign is that we have been able to follow social science research on it in real time. Web sites like Monkey Cage, Vox, Five-Thirty-Eight, and others have provided not only a running score based on the polls, but also often substantive analysis directed at answering that question, How could Trump could have so much support?
Anger? – Are voters especially angry this year? “The voters are angry” is a journalistic cliche trotted out at just about every election. (Not all elections–in 1984 Reagan won on a sunshiny “Morning in America” theme–but most.) Sure, many voters are totally pissed, but there are always many voters who are pissed–and they provide the best quotes for the press. The survey data over recent decades does not show any especially high level of anger. And history suggests that there probably were angrier electorates, say, during the Great Depression. Yet, even with what was happening in Europe during those years, neither party nominated a Trump-like candidate.
Economic Pain? – Similarly, the notion that Trump is the beneficiary of exceptional economic distress–which he sometimes claims is true of America–is not persuasive. For one, the 2016 economy is better than the 2012 one was and we had a normal second-term election then. Moreover, there have been elections under more severe conditions. Anyway, survey analysts have shown that core Trump supporters are not especially marked by financial disadvantage.
White Resentment?–This one is more persuasive because data analysis shows that holding hostile attitudes towards immigrants and blacks is, compared to other factors, highly correlated with supporting Trump–notably, among Republicans during the primaries. On the other hand, while white nationalism may describe the hard core of Trump voters, it cannot account for the over-45% of the votes he will probably have gotten by the end of today.
Authoritarianism?–In an earlier post, written while the primaries were in full bloom, I explored the authoritarian roots of Trump’s attraction. He projected himself as the strong man who, simply by his power, ends the people’s problems. There is a sizeable audience in the United States, as there was and is around the world (e.g., Mussolini, Peron, Putin), for this message. But again, that may explain much of the small constituency that provided Trump a plurality in the primaries but not the over-45% vote he is getting today.
Polarization?–Political polarization has sharpened greatly in recent decades, starting with political leaders (this is a nice visualization), but spreading to rank-and-file partisans in recent years, so much so that between-party distance and hostility is reaching levels we might imagine typify tribal warfare. (See this 2012 post.) Now, this isn’t actually warfare. The U.S. has had actual political warfare involving mob riots and killings (Bloody Kansas, the Reconstruction Era, anarchist bombings, etc.). The shoving matches at Trump rallies are placid in comparison. Nonetheless, we are more deeply polarized than we have been for generations.
This polarization, as others have argued, seems to be key to explaining Trump’s 45-plus: Republicans or Republican-leaners who voted for other candidates in the primaries or, more often, did not vote at all in the primaries, came around to vote for Trump in the general election. In a less polarized era, like the 1950s through 1980s, the numbers would probably have been much lower. Consider that evangelicals, for whom Trump’s entire life mocks their Christian values, swung around to support him. Consider that the Republican Jewish Coalition is backing a candidate who tacitly accepts support and staff from the antisemitic right. Political tribalism trumps even religious tribalism.
Accident?–Finally, we may not have had such an extreme election were if not perhaps for the accident that Donald Trump faced over a dozen opponents in the primaries, none of whom stood out from the crowd as he did. In such crowds, the ones who stand out can win out–at least for a while. (Remember when Herman Cain led the Republican pack in 2012?) Credit another accident, that this time the front-runner had the media skills to keep outshining his opponents. Even Trump’s “gaffes,” such as his vulgarity, slashing attacks, outrageousness, and misogony, fed his particular sales line: “I am the alpha male.”
(Temporary) Conclusion–Scholars will in years ahead settle in on a best explanation for the Trump phenomenon. These are my best guesses at the moment. Now, I’ll go look at how the story ends–or not.
Morning, Nov. 9 —
In the end, Trump will have received about 47-48 percent of the vote, a bit more than the 45%-plus discussed above and a bit less than Clinton. But (thanks to our federal electoral system, the weight of small states, and the spatial clustering on the coasts of Democratic votes), Donald Trump will be president.
Decades of analysis will dissect why Trump managed to get those extra fractional points in just the right states to win, but in terms of understanding the Trump phenomenon, the difference between 45-to-46 and 47-to-48 percent is not substantial–even though it is history-changing. So far, nothing I have seen in the reports suggest modifying the comments above–except perhaps to underline the exceptional ability of Trump, as a personality, to mobilize the white nationalist vote that was always out there but had under-voted. They voted and the Republican “tribe” voted. Well-placed, they just beat the Democratic “tribe.”