Why Trump won

RW Johnson on what lay behind the extraordinary upset in the US presidential elections

Three big reasons

Three large facts need to be understood initially. First, 2016 should always have been a Republican year. If you look at the last eight two-term presidencies and then look at who won the mid-term elections in the sixth year, this correctly predicted the presidential result two years later in seven out of eight cases. In 2014 the GOP (as the Republicans are known – the Grand Old Party) heavily defeated the Democrats, winning nine Senate seats, thus giving them a clear majority in both Houses.

On that basis alone any Republican should have won this year. If you add in the fact that the GOP went into this election holding the governorship in 31 of the fifty states – a powerful fact once the state administration is effectively put behind the governor's party – 2016 should have been a shoo-in for a Mitt Romney or a John McCain, and especially against such an unpopular candidate as Hillary Clinton.

Second, one should remember that when Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act in 1965 he said sadly that that would mean the Democrats would lose the South for a generation. LBJ was a shrewd politico and his judgement proved entirely correct. One should bear that in mind: in 2008 and 2012 America elected a black President with an outspoken black First Lady and hitherto “extremist” figures such as Al Sharpton became regular visitors to the White House, let alone a large supporting cast of other black celebrities – Oprah, Beyonce etc.

In addition Americans had to get used to a black Attorney-General (Eric Holder), a black UN ambassador (Susan Rice),and the fact that Valerie Jarrett, Michelle's best friend and a very determined black woman, seemed able to out-rank and out-command anyone else in the White House – without herself holding any defined post.

All of which America twice voted for – but it is hardly surprising that it should ultimately produce a reaction among white Americans. This group includes many who have had to watch black, Latino or women candidates being promoted above them at work, in access to college or to jobs. It is a group which is constantly told – correctly - that it is a shrinking group and that the future belongs to the black, Latino and Asian minorities.  That may be so but this is now and this group was not prepared to face the sunset yet.

The third great factor is the death of the American Dream. This has produced a populist revolt of volcanic proportions. At the heart of the problem is the stagnation of US real wages and the consequent lack of upward social mobility as higher education costs escalate out of sight.

Some data is relevant here. Between 1948 and 1973 productivity in the US rose by 96.7% and real wages by 91.3%, almost exactly in step. Those were the days...of plentiful hard hat jobs in steel and the auto industry when workers could well afford to send their children to college and see them rise into the middle class. But from 1973-2013 – the era of globalization, when many of those jobs vanished abroad - productivity rose a further 146.4% but wages rose only by 17.6%.

Trump argued that this was caused by unrestricted illegal immigration and the off-shoring of jobs, though in fact any proper analysis shows that these were only partial causes: the erosion of trade unions probably accounts for 25-30% of the net loss in earning power. And above all, globalization means that the European and American working classes now have to compete with the Indians and Chinese. But it is simply easier to blame other people than abstract causes.

These trends could also be blamed on racial/gender grievances over affirmative action, providing further fuel for Trump. Undoubtedly, the admission of 11 million illegal immigrants did exert a strong downward influence on wage levels but it should be realised that such workers form only part of the now vast mass of non-unionized labour competing for jobs.

The dreadful fact of growing inequality

In any mass democracy where the poor have the vote, this would spell trouble. The trends above were disguised for some time by more women going out to work, creating two income homes, and later by many workers taking two or three jobs. But the stress of such a downward spiral had to be felt and is more and more visible. Drive across America and you notice who mans the pumps at the gas stations.

Over and over again it is white men and women in their 70s, pensioners desperately eking out a few more dollars. Such people were unlikely to be impressed by the parade of celebrities at Hillary's rallies – Beyonce, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, Bruce Springsteen etc. This is all super-rich glitz and not only does it have no connection to the lives of poorer Americans, it seems to mock it. The French have a term - “la richesse insultante”. After all, what does it mean for someone on Social Security to walk past shops with watches or shoes or dresses marked in the thousands of dollars? Each price ticket says “You're just nothing, you're a loser”.

There is no sign at all of any cessation in the trends towards greater inequality (and a Trump victory, bringing tax cuts to the rich, will, despite his rhetoric, only increase them). Since 2000 the wages paid to college graduate recruits have actually fallen. For men wages have risen slightly but for women they have plunged, producing an overall fall. The situation at the bottom is worse still: for the bottom 10% wages actually fell 5% between 1979 and 2013. Moreover, employers have slashed health benefits. Only 7% of high school graduates now get them and only 31% of college graduate recruits, down from 60% in 1989.

One final figure speaks volumes. On average in 1965 an American CEO earned 20 times what a worker did. By 2013, on average, this figure was 296 times. This increasing inequality has, indeed, borne out Marx's predictions which foresaw ever greater concentrations of capital accompanied by the pauperisation of the working class as wages decline. But the result has been the opposite of what Marx predicted - an angry revolt by the white working class and lower middle class, largely to the benefit of the Right.

The first pointer to this was the Occupy Wall Street movement (the famous 99% and 1%) but this revolt also powered the Bernie Sanders surge as well as Trump. It is the elemental nature of this revolt which explains why much of Trump's support was quite impervious to his peccadilloes or foolish statements. Things that might have sunk earlier candidates did not sink him. Hillary spent scores of millions of dollars on negative ads about Trump, with no apparent effect at all.

Populism of right and left

After the Romney defeat in 2012 the GOP concluded that it must increase its appeal to ethnic minorities, women and the young, otherwise they would find themselves marginalised. This was widely agreed. But what happened was the very opposite: they ended up with a candidate who was anathema to all those groups. Why? Because the people who voted in GOP primaries were “old” Republicans rather than the “new” Republicans they were hoping to attract. But Trump then did something quite remarkable. He simply ignored most of the rules of the game.

He didn't prepare for the presidential debates, which Hillary easily won. He spent more on “Make America Great Again” baseball caps than he did on opinion polls. And nowhere did he have a ground organization comparable to Hillary's to get out the vote. Overall he spent only half as much as Hillary and depended instead on his being a crusade, a “movement”. Like all successful populists, Trump promised to bring back yesterday – in this case, to reinstate the American Dream. Nothing is so alluring as the belief that you can bring back the past – and change it: as witness, Jay Gatsby.

Similarly, the success of Bernie Sanders has shown that the Democratic nomination is wide open to someone well to the left of Hillary. Hillary beat Sanders only because she had a far better organization, more money, her juggernaut was prepared years in advance and she had a virtual monopoly of super-delegates. If a left-Democrat like Elizabeth Warren runs next time she will not face such an opponent.

Truth to tell, Bernie Sanders might well have beaten Trump. And while it would have caused a Democrat civil war given the fact of the “entitled” Hilary bandwagon, Obama probably missed a trick by discouraging Joe Biden from running. Biden has always had a good rapport with working class voters and would probably have beaten Trump by a clear margin. Hillary's best chance had been in 2008 and she would have done better to call it a day after that.

However, might-have-beens are just that. In this election much always depended on which electorate would show up to vote. In 2008 and 2013 the 11 per cent of the US population that is black cast 13% of the ballots and among women and the young too, turnout rose markedly to Obama's advantage. But this time fewer of all these groups bothered to vote while more white working class voters turned out than before.

Back in 1992 Ross Perot predicted that when the NAFTA treaty was signed what you would hear was “a vast sucking sound” as American jobs disappeared over the Mexican border. This has indeed occurred and while economists would generally say that the treaty has been beneficial to the US, the trouble is that the benefits have gone to the rich and workers have lost their jobs. The result is a large loss of faith in the free market, free trade and globalisation. Sanders and Trump both inveighed against NAFTA and other pending trade treaties and Clinton was forced to change tack and do the same. This was just one more sign that what worked for Bill Clinton twenty-odd years ago would not do now.

No one listening

Listen to Debbie Dingell, the Democratic Congresswoman for Michigan's 12th district. During the campaign she repeatedly warned Hillary (whom she supported) that Michigan was not safe and that Trump could win. People thought she was nuts: Michigan, home to Detroit and the auto-industry, has been solidly Democratic for most of the last eighty years. She was “infuriated” that Hillary didn't pitch up in Michigan until the weekend before the primary vote, by which time Bernie Sanders had visited her district ten times. The auto workers went heavily for Sanders who won the primary. From that moment on she feared that they – and Michigan - would go for Trump, as they duly did.

“The ordinary working man or woman in this country isn't asking for a lot”, says Dingell. They want to make a decent living. They want to be able to provide for their family, buy a house in a safe neighbourhood, put food on the table, go to the doctor when they need to, afford their medicines and educate their children. What many don't understand is how these things are in danger of becoming unattainable for too many Americans”.

She ain't kidding. If you look at high school graduates – the peculiar America-speak for those who didn't have a higher education or enter the middle class – you find that between 2007 and 2014 their median incomes fell by 14%. During his campaign Bernie Sanders would point to the example of United Technologies, a giant firm which benefits from many government contracts.

In February 2016 it announced the closure of two manufacturing plants in Indiana, although both were profitable. They moved both to Mexico where wages were far lower, thus creating super profits. Recently the company gave its CEO a severance package of $184 million, presumably wishing to reward him for his shrewdness in throwing Indiana workers out of their jobs. “You really can't make this stuff up”, as Sanders put it. Indiana went for Obama in 2008 but Trump won it by 20 points this time.

Middle class liberals, picking up on Trump's obvious sexism and nativism, are prone to dismiss his supporters as so much racist trailer trash. This was the mistake Hillary made when she termed them “deplorables”. This was hotly resented because Trump supporters see themselves as honest working people who are deeply grounded Americans.

Many of them work every day on assembly lines next to blacks or Latinos and are well aware that upper class liberals know such people only as domestic servants. Others had black and Latino buddies when they served in the armed forces. They were angry at being called racists and were against political correctness of every kind.

The arithmetic of election day

Pollsters were repeatedly faced by a large bloc of voters who said they didn't like Clinton or Trump. Inevitably these became “Don't Knows” - yet all the indications are that they broke heavily for Trump. Hillary, meanwhile, had made women her focus from the start, clearly assuming that the 53% of the electorate that is female would want a woman President.

Her rallies were mainly attended by women, her donors were 60% female and in mid-campaign this seemed to be working, at least among middle and upper middle class women. For the first time ever Hillary led among college graduates and even among those earning over $100,000 p.a. But the focus on women was a mistake: women are simply not a cohesive group and when push comes to shove are always far more likely to break along class and ethnic lines than to vote as a gender bloc.

This was visible as voters weighed their choices. The top issues across the board were (in order) race, guns and immigration. “Race” nowadays usually betokens dislike of affirmative action in any sphere and, often, a dislike of illegal Latino immigrants. “Guns” breaks down into concern at the amount of violence on the streets (cops and blacks shooting one another) and the slew of terrorist incidents which made people feel more insecure than at any time since 9/11.

The first American response to such threats is always to want to be armed oneself. In such a climate, it was a Democratic handicap that neither Obama nor Clinton could bring themselves to pronounce the phrase “Islamic terrorism”. The conservative refrain of “How can you fight something you're not even willing to name?” registered with many.

Similarly, Trump's repeated vow to “bomb the shit out of Isis” should also be seen partly as a response to terrorist incidents at home. “Immigration” denotes both a concern at the downward pressure that immigrants exercise on wage levels and a considerable irritation that the law winks at 11m illegal immigrants although it is sternly enforced on citizens.

It should be noted that climate change was well down the list of popular concerns. Hillary and Obama gave the issue great prominence but the low salience of this issue meant that not many votes were to be gained that way. On the other hand voters in states which depend on hydrocarbons – oil, coal or fracking – tended to see an emphasis on climate change as threatening to their livelihoods. All such states went for Trump and it would be unsurprising to see oilmen in his cabinet.

In the end the various groups broke disappointingly for Hillary. Trump beat her 2:1 among high school graduates but in the end college graduates broke only 50-50. Only among those with graduate degrees was there a Democrat majority – as there has been steadily since 1988. 

Hillary beat Trump 54-42 among women, but this was counter-balanced by her losing 41-53 among men. In the end fewer women voted for Hillary than had voted for Obama. Blacks went for Hilary by 88 to 8 – but they had gone for Obama by 93-6, so there was slippage there too. Hillary had placed great hopes on Latino women, but in fact only 68% of Latinas went for Hillary compared to 76% for Obama.

In the end, however, this election was more about class than any election since the New Deal. The FoxNews.com polls show the gathering landslide among men with only high school education. With two weeks to go they favoured Trump by 48-32 (+16); with one week to go by 53-32 (+21) and on election day by 61-20, a crushing 41 point margin which swung the Rust Belt states to Trump.

Interestingly, women with only high school education favoured Trump by 58-31 with one week to go but actually moved in Hilary's favour in the last week, ending up 53-32 on election day (though, as may be seen, this was not so much a move to Hilary as a move away from Trump). Nonetheless, the harsh reality is that their class position far out-weighed their gender, so in the end they went in the same direction as their menfolk.

As can be seen it was only in the last week that this working class landslide to Trump really built momentum as the Don't Knows and the “plague on both your houses” voters caved in. It was this last minute movement which caught the pollsters off-guard and which also fooled Trump and his team. They had been preparing to lose, had been working on a concession speech and had no victory speech ready.

There has been much talk of the similarities between Brexit and the Trump victory. As Peggy Noonan puts it, they have both been “an uprising of the unprotected” - and a clear sign that the old politics is fading fast. The old class politics has reversed. Hillary could win the rich but lost the workers. Labour can win London, the richest part of the UK, but has lost the workers to Ukip and the SNP. We are in uncharted territory.

One fact that has to be assimilated by both Labour and the Democrats is this: when Bill and Hillary arrived in Washington in 1992 they had little money. Now, despite remaining notionally in public service throughout, they are worth $200 million. Tony and Cherie Blair were also impecunious when they arrived in power in 1997.

Today they are worth over $75 million. Think now of the working class voters whom the Clintons or the Blairs exhorted to vote for them in the 1990s: they are probably worse off now than they were then. In effect the Clintons and Blairs merely surfed on their grievances and inequities, making themselves rich and leaving their voters in the dust. Such contrasts have been duly noted, which is one reason that the old politics is no longer working now.

This then is how Trump won. He lost the popular vote because the three Pacific West states (California, Oregon and Washington) all voted massively against him. He lost all the big cities but won the South, the West and, above all, the Rust Belt. Whichever candidate had won, their legitimacy was sure to be contested by the losers but the difference is that a Clinton victory would have created complete political gridlock while Trump has the Senate, the House and two-thirds of the governors on his side.

Moreover, he had coat-tails, so that not a few Republican members of both Houses will know that they owe him their seats. Take Wisconsin, for example. Ron Johnson, the Tea Party Republican Senator running for re-election trailed badly throughout the campaign behind Russ Feingold, the popular liberal Democrat ex-Senator – never by less than 10 per cent and often by 13-14 per cent. Yet that last minute slide to Trump carried Johnson over the line by 50-47. Johnson is just one of many Republicans who will be eager to stay onside with Trump even if he is hardly an orthodox conservative.

What Trump does is likely to be largely determined by where there are overlaps between his insurgent populism and the orthodox conservatism of Republican legislators. They will not find it hard to vote tax cuts for corporations and for the rich, to elect a new conservative judge on the Supreme Court, to increase defence spending, and kill any trade treaties currently in negotiation.

Something has to be done about Obamacare but, despite the rhetoric, it's not clear what: in a democracy it is extremely hard to roll back social entitlements, once they have been granted. After that it gets more difficult though, in all conscience, that is quite enough to be going on with.

The great question, however, is whether Trump can keep faith with white workers, build The Wall, tear up NAFTA, force corporations to repatriate jobs, apply tariffs to Chinese goods and so on. The Republicans will have little interest in any of this: already Mitch Mc Connell, the Senate Majority Leader, has signalled that his caucus doesn't have much enthusiasm for the heavy infrastructure spending that Trump has promised.

Probably Trump's best hope is that tax cuts plus a defence build-up will create a Keynesian boom, just as it did under Reagan. The massively wider budget deficit thus created will hardly be heeded if the result is more jobs and higher wages. Wall Street is already sniffing this prospect, sending stocks to an all-time high. What is clear that Trump has the ball at his feet and, with a GOP majority in both Houses, has no excuse for inaction. If he fails to deliver he will merely convince his Rust Belt supporters that they have been betrayed once again.