How do we explain the election of Donald Trump? Far too much of the media’s response to this question has been to take Trump’s account of his own powers at face value. This scion of the elite, who never felt at home amongst the elite into which he was born, imagines himself as able to work with kings yet not lose the common touch. His use of Twitter is integral to this fantasy, resting on the illusion of unmediated interaction with everyday Americans. But the biographies I’ve read of Trump in recent months make me wonder if it goes further than this, reflecting an identification he has cultivated since his early years as a young man who felt out of place, with endless meetings with ‘ordinary people’ facilitated by his work with his father. Either way, as Jan-Werner Müller cautions in this excellent essay, we need to avoid taking the account of figures like Trump at face value:
While disputing virtually every claim made by populists – especially their supposedly simplistic policy solutions – they buy without question the story that populists sell about their own successes. When Arron Banks proclaims that ‘Facts don’t work … You’ve got to connect with people emotionally,’ they just nod. But it isn’t true that ‘the masses’ are emotional basket-cases ready to be seduced by a charismatic demagogue. For a start, the neat distinction between reason and emotion is misleading. People are angry for a reason, and usually they can articulate that reason, as part of a larger story about what went wrong in their lives. Trump gained some trust as an outsider and, even more, as a credible exemplar of what it means to be unprofessional in politics.
There are many features of our political context which remain obscure if we uncritically accept Trump’s narrative of his own success. This crucial essay by Mike Davis captures many of them: the results of Republican gerrymandering, voter suppression, flight of funders away from the Presidential race towards House and Senate, investment in state-focused political think tanks, the electoral peculiarity of the American system and the psephological particularity of the result.
However the most important feature is perhaps the weakness of the Clinton campaign. As Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes report in their Shattered, the Clinton campaign deliberately sought to avoid substantive engagement with the working-class electorate, so long dormant within American politics, which Trump’s campaign successfully mobilised. From pg 193:
One of the lessons Mook and his allies took from Michigan was that Hillary was better off not getting into an all-out war with her opponent in states where non-college-educated whites could be the decisive demographic. In Michigan, they believed, Hillary’s hard campaigning had called attention to an election that many would-be voters weren’t paying attention to, and given Bernie a chance to show that his economic message was more in line with their views. So Mook’s clique looked at the elevation of the Michigan primary—poking the sleeping bear of the white working class—as a mistake that shouldn’t be repeated. “That was a takeaway that we tried to use in the general,” said one high-ranking campaign official.
Their analytics driven campaign was orientated towards tactical advantage in each state during the primaries, leaving them to ignore the large swathes of rural and/or working class voters whose disengagement rarely registered empirically in political models. From pg 130-131:
Bill’s time on the ground only encouraged his skepticism of Mook’s reluctance to send him outside population centers. Having grown up in Arkansas, Bill understood that a major political player—a senator, a governor, or a former president—could bridge ideological divides by just showing up in small towns that never got much attention from elected leaders. He liked to go to small towns in northern New Hampshire, Appalachia, and rural Florida because he believed, from experience, that going to them and acknowledging he knew how they lived their lives, and the way they made decisions, put points on the board. Mook wanted Bill in places where the most Hillary-inclined voters would see him. That meant talking to white liberals and minorities in cities and their close-in suburbs. That was one fault line of a massive generational divide between Bill and Mook that separated old-time political hustling from modern data-driven vote collecting. Bill was like the old manager putting in a pinch hitter he believed would come through in the clutch while the eggheaded general manager in the owner’s box furiously dialed the dugout phone to let him know there was an 82 percent chance that the batter would make an out this time. It’s not that Bill resisted data—he loved poring over political numbers—but he thought of it as both necessary and insufficient for understanding electoral politics.
What engagement took place was largely tone-deaf, reflecting the limitations of public opinion research, the insulated world of political operatives and the limitations of campaign structures which reinforced orthodoxy. Any account of the virtues of Trump’s campaign needs to be supplemented by an account of the weakness of Hilary Clinton’s.