The American Dream 2016

Into the Unknown With Trump

Tunku Varadarajan is the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Fellow in Journalism at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He is a regular contributor to Open
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Trump wants to make America great again but we’re not sure how he will pull that off

IN THE WEIRD AND startling hours after it became clear that Donald Trump had won the presidential election, a most lovely thing befell the United States: an outbreak of courtesy. In addressing his supporters at a Manhattan hotel, a triumphant Trump had a tone so courtly and said such sweet things about Hillary Clinton that one wondered whether his hitherto acrid soul had been captured by a benevolent force eager to spare the nation from any more political conflict.

At around noon on the day after the election, Hillary Herself appeared in public before bedraggled and shell-shocked supporters to concede defeat to Trump, and to wish him every success as president. It was an elegant, even handsome, speech of concession, and one marvelled at the poise of this relentlessly accomplished woman who’d had her ambitions dashed with such cosmic brutality.

There’s more. A couple of hours before her speech, President Obama had wished Trump a happy presidency. He did so in that eloquent way of his that has filled his supporters with admiration and his detractors with rage during his eight years in office. (There is no man more infuriating in politics than a silver-tongued adversary.) But as Obama spoke, America took note of the absence of partisan rancour, as it did when George HW Bush—father of Jeb—called the president-elect, his beloved son’s tormentor in the Republican primaries, to offer his congratulations. The two men spoke for ten minutes, it was reported; ten precious minutes of American political civility.

This was American politics at its finest. I say this without a smudge of irony. The world’s oldest democracy has many flaws— including, you’d think, a system by which the candidate who wins a majority of votes cast doesn’t necessarily win the presidency, as is the case this year with Hillary (and was the case with Al Gore, in 2000). But a peaceful transition from one president to the next, comprising a concession by the loser and its gracious acceptance by the winner, is never in doubt. Which is why Trump’s earlier refusal to commit to accepting the results of the election if they went against him had caused such torrid gasps of disbelief across America. Of all the things Trump had said in his campaign, that was the most un-American.

Mercifully, we never got to test Trump’s willingness to concede.

SO HOW DID Trump win? In the most basic terms of electoral arithmetic, he won because Hillary got many fewer votes—6.6 million to be precise—than Obama did in his re-election in November 2012. That isn’t a mere fall, it’s a bungee jump (without reliable elastic). Yes, Trump, too, got fewer votes this year than the Republican Mitt Romney did in 2012, but only by 1.8 million. Crucially, for a candidate who was spoken of as a party renegade and spoiler—and to whom the Republican establishment offered only lukewarm support, at best—Trump polled 90 per cent of Republican voters, almost as many as Romney did in 2012. There was no defection of Republican voters to Hillary. By contrast, there was a relative failure of Democrats to come out to bat for Hillary. She took 89 per cent of Democrats to Obama’s 93 per cent in 2012. That four-per-cent erosion may have cost her the White House.

As Amy Walter has pointed out in her blog for the Cook Political Report, the famed ‘Obama Coalition’ let Hillary down: young people and minorities voted for her in notably smaller numbers than they did for Obama in 2012. She got only 55 per cent of the young vote to Obama’s 60 per cent; 88 per cent of African Americans to Obama’s 93 per cent; 65 per cent of Asian Americans to Obama’s 73 per cent; and, most strikingly, only 65 per cent of Latinos to Obama’s 71 per cent. This last statistic is one that will haunt her. How could she not pick up more than 65 per cent of the vote from a community that was the explicit target of Trump’s most negative campaign rhetoric. So hostile was he to undocumented aliens in the US (the majority of whom are Latino), so adamant was he on the theme of curtailing immigration (a policy area dear to Latino voters’ hearts), and so abusive was he of Mexicans, that most analysts were speaking of a Hispanic/Latino wave in her favour that would match the African-American wave for Obama in 2012. Instead, she barely got a Latino ripple.

I’ve spent my entire life in busi ness, looking at the untapped potential in projects and in people all over the world. That is now what I want to do for our country

So there was nothing in Hillary’s armoury to counter the energised White turnout for Trump, particularly the 72 per cent of non-college-educated, working-class Whites who voted for him. In 2008 and 2012, Obama got a 36 per cent and 40 per cent share of this group’s vote, respectively. Hillary got a piddling 28 per cent. Particularly galling for the woman who would have been America’s first female president was Trump’s margin of victory over non-college-educated White women—the ‘waitress moms’ in pollsters’ parlance. Trump romped home among this cohort by 62 per cent to Hillary’s 34 per cent. The visceral tug of the blue collar was stronger than any notional aversion to a glass ceiling. It didn’t help Hillary with these White women when she referred to the class from which they come as “deplorables”, an elitist put-down that inflamed thousands of proud working-class families now fallen on straitened times.

It didn’t help, also, that Hillary’s campaign headquarters were in Brooklyn Heights, one of the priciest zip codes in America. I thought at the time at which she set up camp there that this was a classic Hillary miscalculation. Why didn’t she go to gritty Bushwick or Crown Heights, if it had to be in Brooklyn? Or Harlem or the Bronx? Or Staten Island? That last place was the only New York borough where a majority voted for Trump. Had Hillary parked her entourage there, I’m sure the (blue-collar, White) natives would have been kinder to her at the polls (if only because of the late-night pizza business from a bustling campaign office).

The bitter truth, for Hillary, is that there was no real ‘gender dividend’ for her among women voters. All told, they voted for her over Trump by 54 per cent to 42 per cent, hardly a thumping endorsement. John McCain and Romney polled only slightly better among women than Trump in their respective runs, in 2008 and 2012, both of which were elections in which Obama (at 55 per cent and 56 per cent, respectively) took a higher female vote- share than Hillary in 2016. In other words, a candidate running to be the first female president of America, and running against a blowhard sexist whose misogyny has been on spectacular public display, could do no better among women than Obama did against a crotchety old Senate warhorse and an uncharismatic, plain-vanilla Mormon. You’d think Hillary would wipe the floor with Trump on the women’s vote; but nothing of the sort happened. In fact, if there was a ‘gender dividend’ in this election, it was of men for Trump; or better put, of men against Hillary.

A triumphant Trump had a tone so courtly that one wondered whether his hitherto acrid soul had been captured by a benevolent force eager to spare the nation from any more political conflict

This seeming ‘vote misogyny’ was most sadly apparent in the African American numbers. As CBS News has reported, her fall in the share of the black vote compared with Obama in 2012 is due entirely to her loss of the Black-male vote-share. She won Black women by 93 per cent to 4 per cent; she won Black men by 80 per cent to 13 per cent. Ouch.

Poor Hillary. The truth is that no one likes her all that much. Not even Obama, whose popularity is at an impressive high for a president who has made so many mistakes in office, could coax a larger flocking to the polls out of the eager groups that sent him to the White House. Whereas there was passion for Trump—all of it raucous, so much of it distasteful—there was very, very little of it for Hillary. Those enthused by her candidacy were egged on by a noble idea—to have a woman in the White House—and a ‘suffragette’ aspiration updated for the 21st century. But it was an idea that failed spectacularly to ignite the imagination of women who weren’t educated, liberal, and urban. As the pollster John Zogby said the day after the election, Hillary was “the wrong woman at the wrong time”.

ZOGBY IS A maverick pollster, a man I know personally and admire. The day before the election, when the Los Angeles Times had published its jaw-droppingly blousy prediction that Hillary would win 372 Electoral College votes (she got 228), Zogby had warned that polls giving the election to Hillary could all be quite wrong. Writing after her defeat, he described some of the reasons why she lost. She was, he said, ‘the perfect foil for someone running an anti-Establishment campaign. She embodies that Establishment, the permanent government, the elite. She also embodies a singular lack of authenticity that voters—especially younger ones—just could not handle.’

The most acute political noses smelled a kill in the offing when polls in the weeks before the election showed that more than 50 per cent of Americans thought Hillary was ‘corrupt’. It’s a perceived flaw that Trump tapped into, like an expert fracker in search of gas. It’s why I tweeted, on the morning after she lost, that ‘Biden must feel sick to his stomach right now’. We’re going to have to wait for his memoirs to know the deeper truth, but the American vice-president barely got a chance to contemplate a run for president—lost as he was in the despondency that follows a son’s untimely death. By the reckoning of many, and with the generous help of hindsight, he’d have made a better presidential opponent for Trump than Hillary. I say this without getting into the question of whether Bernie Sanders, Hillary’s Democratic primary opponent, could have beaten Trump. We will never know, but I suspect Bernie wouldn’t have thrown his hat into the ring if Biden had been the anointed Democrat. There is something ineffably macho about old man Sanders. He couldn’t abide Hillary.

There’s no doubt that Hillary was flawed to the core. As Zogby wrote, ‘Any other Democrat would have won handily. Mrs. Clinton was not done in by her emails, or by FBI director James Comey. She made them all possible. There would have been no Comey had there not been questions. And there would not have been questions if she wasn’t always trying to bend the rules in her own favour. They were the result of her own actions.’ Even those who voted for her acknowledge this. Take Ann Marlowe, a New York-based journalist who has written extensively about post- Gaddafi Libya, where the killing of the American ambassador when Hillary was Secretary of State led to a long-festering crisis. On her Facebook page, she posted: ‘I did vote for Hillary, but I have no sympathy for her loss, and I refuse to accept her as the best of American womanhood. She lost because she has a sketchy ethical record and bad judgment and stale policies. A better woman candidate would have won.’

TRUMP WAS NOT, of course, a more worthy candidate than Hillary. Not by any stretch of rational imagination. Yet he won, because Hillary failed to pull off a win against the most politically incendiary, intellectually unprepared, socially offensive, offensively masculine candidate ever to run for presidential office.

But Candidate Trump is now President-elect Trump. In January, he will be president. The weeks between now and then are weeks in which he will put together a team, consolidate his policies, and seek to reassure a palpitating world that the United States will not become a horror show. He is, in many respects, a blank slate. We know that he wants to make America great again—and who doesn’t want to do that, except Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping?—but we’re not sure how he will pull that off. The measures he promised while in his campaign do not fill us, even remotely, with any confidence for a better tomorrow.

The Republican Party, to which he belongs—and whose establishment has rushed to embrace him after his election—is showing a jaunty (and unseemly) enthusiasm for the immediate future. They are like water-buffalos wallowing in an unexpected gift of abundant and gorgeous mud. Thanks to Trump, and to the anti-establishment rage that brought him to the White House, the party has control of Congress. They can get a conservative back on the Supreme Court to replace the late Antonin Scalia. And they can repeal the Affordable Care Act—‘Obamacare’— which probably did as much, along with that unsavoury blue- collar White rage against a globally waning America under a Black president, to make possible a Trump presidency.

But there will be no irrefutable Republican monolith in Washington of the kind there would have been if Marco Rubio had won the presidency with a full congressional flush. The party doesn’t trust the president-elect. It doesn’t want to cede power to Trump, to become the Party of Trump. There is gratitude, for sure, for securing political power, but also no desire to hand over a storied party to a loose-cannon arriviste with no credible policies. The party establishment will want to ensure that Trump does not wreck free trade or NATO, or antagonise allies like Japan and South Korea. The world does not know what to make of Trump, although ‘Hindu’ India seems to enjoy his favour. Prime Minister Modi could find himself playing host to the 45th American president sometime in the early part of 2017.

A Republican Party that was so disoriented that Trump was able to muscle to the front of 15 others in the primaries is now unexpectedly revived. The next step is to ensure that Trump works for the party, not vice versa. That will be the American battle royale in 2017. Apart, that is, from the one that will be fought outside the frame of conventional politics—by the many women and men who voted against Trump, who will want to make sure that their vigilant opposition stops an uncouth president from buggering up what is still a great and classy country.