by Ronald J. Granieri*
American presidential election campaigns, for all their pageantry and constantly increasing length, are generally predictable affairs. Although the print and electronic media will trace every slight variation in public sentiment, and the final vote count may be the source of election night drama, every presidential election since 1948 has been won by the person who led in the national polls by late October. This year, however, proved to be something else entirely. As perhaps befits the two main competitors—the first woman ever to be nominated by a major party, and the first major party nominee who had never held major elected or appointed office—this election was indeed historic. When the votes were in early in the morning of November 9, Donald Trump appeared to have won a significant victory over former Secretary of state Hillary Clinton.
Considering the demographic factors that favored Democrats, the divisions within Trump’s party, and his uniquely problematic style, Trump’s victory not only shocked many on election night, but continues to infuriate and befuddle. It’s not surprising that some Clinton diehards see malign forces at work and are pursuing claims of electronic skullduggery by Russian intelligence or vote suppression by conservative officials. At this writing, debates still rage over the specific vote counts in particular places, and over whether the result suggests the need for fundamental reform of how the United States elects its President. Nevertheless, Donald Trump and his transition team are busily assembling his Cabinet and he is preparing to take the oath of office as the forty-fifth president of the United States on January 20, 2017.
There have already been many attempts to divine the deeper meaning of Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency, as well to predict what he might end up accomplishing while in office. There will undoubtedly be many more. Even though the author has made his share of contributions of those genres, this essay is different. Its aim is to examine the possible reasons for Trump’s victory—not necessarily from looking deep into the American soul, but by trying to tease out the tangible political factors that made it possible for a celebrity billionaire with no government experience to be elected to the most powerful positon in the free world.
To start with the most obvious point, which nonetheless requires some explanation, Donald Trump has been elected president because he managed to collect a majority of votes in the Electoral College. This is true even though Hillary Clinton will likely finish with an overall lead of 2 million popular votes once all the ballots have been formally counted. This exposes what can most charitably called a constitutional particularity in the United States, one that is almost as confusing to Americans as it is to outsiders. We do not elect the president based on a straight popular vote (as they do in countries such as France). Rather, the presidential campaign ends up as fifty-one separate popular votes—in the fifty states and the District of Columbia. In each of those separate votes (with two minor exceptions in Nebraska and Maine) the winner of the state’s popular vote receives all of that state’s electoral votes. The total number of electoral votes in the Electoral College equals the total number of members of the House of Representatives (435) and the Senate (100), plus three for the District of Columbia—that is, 538. The candidate who wins enough states to earn 270 electoral votes becomes president.
The distribution of those votes is roughly according to population, but because every state is guaranteed at least two senators and one congressman, and the total number of seats in the house of representatives is limited to 435, the electoral vote spread between the most populous state (California, with 55 electoral votes) and the least (several states, from Rhode Island to Wyoming, have only 3) is not as great as it would be based on raw population numbers, which compresses the result and gives smaller states more weight than they otherwise would have.
Because of regional particularities and the relative strength of each major party in different states, most of the state results were not much of a surprise. The election thus came down to a handful of hotly contested “swing states,” concentrated in the industrial Midwest—Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) and the south (Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia). Trump ended up winning all of them except Virginia, surprising many pollsters who had Clinton ahead everywhere except Ohio. Trump won thirty states overall, worth a total of 316 electoral votes (depending upon the ongoing counting in Michigan). Because, however, Trump won many states narrowly while Clinton ran up large margins in populous states such as California and New York (where the Republicans have not been competitive in presidential elections for a generation), the total number of popular votes favors Clinton. Indeed, ironically enough, the last polls before election day, which had her ahead by about two percentage points nationally, turned out to be correct. Her problem was that her two-million-vote plurality was not distributed well enough to give her an electoral vote advantage.
The Electoral College System was designed in part to insulate the presidency from direct democracy, so in a sense a tension between the popular and electoral vote has been baked into the system all along. This is only the fifth time in American history that the person who won the most popular votes was not elected president, but the second time in the twenty-first century, which points to a worrisome and growing disconnect between the concentration of population (half of the total population of the United States today lives in 146 counties, mostly on the coasts and in a few inland cities) and the separation of powers between state and national authority foreseen by the Constitution. The current system preserves the influence of lightly populated rural areas and limits the electoral influence of the biggest cities, which may reflect the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, but is intensely irritating to contemporary progressives who live primarily in those coastal regions and larger cities. As a result, the last weeks have seen a wave of demands to reform the Electoral College or scrap it altogether and rely on the popular vote alone. That debate will not be resolved here. At the very least, however, the result indicates a closely divided country, and thus should make any observer careful about assuming that the result foretells any fundamental transformation of American society.
Nevertheless, Donald Trump’s election rewards examination on several levels, to understand what it says about the state of American and world politics today. We began with a discussion of the quirks of the American electoral system because this election has highlighted a real and growing divide between the coasts and the interior of the country. Based on the results of the last two presidential elections, won decisively by Barack Obama, Democratic strategists felt confident that demographic changes in American society favored them. The combination of a growing Latino population and the socially liberal younger millennial generation with already solid Democratic constituencies among African Americans and unmarried women appeared to give Democrats an edge over a Republican coalition that still relied heavily on aging white Americans in rural and suburban regions.
At least, that is what everyone thought before this November 8. But it was not meant to be. Hillary Clinton was not able to attract the same level of support from young people or African Americans as Obama, and Latinos voted in larger numbers for Trump than expected, while rural whites turned out in strength for him as well. The result was a series of losses for Clinton in states such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan, which had not gone Republican since 1988. This is not to say that the demographic trends prophesied before the election may not help Democrats into the future, but they are a strong reminder that demography is not destiny. Elections are won by those who show up to vote, and Clinton’s relative failure to generate turnout in crucial regions suggests that the Democrats may be losing their grip on Midwestern states even as they run up large margins on the coasts.
One can also add a further structural factor. It is simply not that easy for the same party to win three consecutive political presidential elections, no matter how popular the incumbent may be. The last time it happened was 1988, when Vice President George H. W. Bush succeeded his boss Ronald Reagan. Since then, we have seen the parties alternate at eight-year intervals. For all his personal popularity at home and abroad, President Obama has never had particularly long coattails. The Democrats did not do well in either of the mid-term elections of 2010 and 2014, so it is not a complete surprise that they didn’t win in 2016 either.
Any discussion of the election also has to grapple with the question of Hillary Clinton as presidential candidate. After nearly twenty-five years in the national spotlight, Clinton was already well known, but that name recognition was double-edged. Although she could boast of a resume as impressive as that of any recent nominee, and had the added appeal of being the first woman to have secured a major party nomination, Clinton struggled with a persistent enthusiasm gap. More established Democratic constituencies embraced her. Among younger Democrats, however, her years of experience and her connection to her husband’s successful two terms in office were reasons for suspicion rather than praise. Entranced by the radical antiestablishment rhetoric of former socialist senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont in the primaries, younger voters apparently had a hard time shaking their suspicion of Clinton and what she represented. Even when Sanders urged them to join him in supporting the former Secretary of State, they remained lukewarm.
The ambivalence of Democrats was nothing, however, in comparison to the intense negative feelings that Clinton aroused among Republicans and some Independent voters. For her critics, Clinton shared the guilt of her husband’s peccadilloes in office. Persistent press reports about Clinton’s alleged mishandling of her email and other classified documents while Secretary of State, or accusations of influence peddling by the Clinton Foundation haunted her especially with those voters, even as Democrats attempted vainly to dismiss them as insignificant. For many Republicans, even those who harbored significant reservations about Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton was simply unelectable. Fair or not, the reluctance of those Republican and Independent voters to pull the lever for Clinton may have been decisive in the states that mattered most.
Clinton’s struggles as a candidate and the self-inflicted wounds of the Clinton Foundation will no doubt produce many memoirs and scholarly analyses. The temptation to blame her for her own defeat is strong, both for those who opposed her in the first place and for those disappointed voters looking for the one big reason why it all went wrong. But that’s not completely fair to Secretary Clinton. After all, she did win the popular vote, which suggests that plenty of people liked what they saw. An election decided by a few hundred thousand votes (out of more than a hundred and twenty million total votes cast) in a handful of states can hardly be used as proof of disastrous campaigning by the losing side.
The reason why so many friendly and unfriendly commentators have nonetheless hewed to the “disaster” line is because of the nature of Secretary Clinton’s competition. To say that Donald Trump was an unconventional Republican presidential nominee is a gross understatement. From the beginning, he stood out from the crowded Republican field for his unconventional and irresponsible rhetoric, his combative relationship with the press, and his shambolic campaign organization. Early critics derided his campaign as merely “a billionaire with a private jet and a Twitter feed,” emphasizing how much it relied on the force of his celebrity and his personality. What few clear policy positions he took on issues such as trade or spending or foreign policy often clashed with Republican orthodoxy, when they were not untethered from factual arguments altogether. That led many leading Republican politicians and policy advisers to reject his candidacy. Prominent Republicans stayed away from the party’s national convention, and remained critical even during the final stages of the campaign. The attacks of Republicans and conservatives (who united under the #NeverTrump hashtag on Twitter) actually suited Trump’s purposes, proving that he was the anti-establishment candidate, but over the course of the summer added to the impression that Trump was a weak candidate, and faced a possibly catastrophic defeat.
As if those party-political factors were not enough, Trump’s freewheeling personality and his lack of discipline in speeches and on social media led him into a series of spectacular gaffes. Aside from displaying no detailed policy knowledge and a contempt for those who had it, Trump insulted debate moderator Megyn Kelly of Fox News (a generally conservative and Trump-friendly network), made inappropriate comments about Mexicans, mocked a disabled journalist, and exchanged Twitter insults with critics. During the general election, audio tape emerged from 2005 of him joking about forcing himself on women, which led to nearly a dozen women accusing him of inappropriate sexual advances and even sexual assault over three decades. Any one of those issues alone would have sunk a more conventional candidate, but Trump survived them all.
Thus, we return to the most basic question: why did more than sixty million people vote for Donald Trump? The simplest reason, hinted at above, is obvious: because he was the Republican nominee. No matter how many Republican leaders criticized or even rejected him, Donald Trump profited from the basic polarization of the American electorate. Despite speculation that his idiosyncratic policies and controversial personality would cost him votes within his own party, Trump still won nearly 90% of the votes of self-declared Republicans according to exit polls. That suggests that many Republicans effectively “came home” on election day, even if some may have toyed with alternatives. For many of those Republican voters, the name at the top of the ticket was less important than the name of the party, and they could not bring themselves to vote for Secretary Clinton. Many conventional Republicans no doubt hope that President Trump will also come home to traditional Republican positions on economic and foreign policy issues. His decision to name Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus White House Chief of Staff is comforting to those Republicans who hope for a general rapprochement between President Trump and the establishment he has spent the last eighteen months disparaging.
Nevertheless, we miss something essential if we do not admit that Trump’s victory rested on the outsider image Trump cultivated. Even if his policies defied rational categorization and one could question whether he meant everything (or anything) he said, the way that he said it won him a great many supporters. Analysts including billionaire investor Peter Thiel have claimed that Trump’s critics took him literally but not seriously while Trump’s supporters took him seriously but not literally. In other words, supporters embraced the general sentiment of “Make America Great Again” without worrying about exactly how he would do it, while critics focused on attacking the details of his proposals, hoping that such debunking would convince his supporters to abandon him. If the details are not important for his supporters, however, no amount of counterargument can prevail. Buoyed by the enthusiasm of adoring crowds, Trump rode a cultural wave into office. His victory depended on his ability to win over whites in smaller cities, suburbs, and rural areas—not a few of whom voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012. Obama promised change, and so did Trump. That the change in question is not nearly the same in its details is almost irrelevant, though it does raise uncomfortable questions about what his more enthusiastic supporters will think or do when his actions in office contrast too sharply with the implied promises of his fevered rallies.
Whether you celebrate his election as an anti-establishment triumph or decry the advent of “post-truth” politics, Trump is a phenomenon that required substantial analysis, and which is both quintessentially American and the American expression of larger global trends. Trump himself and his campaign staff tried to have it both ways. They presented Trump as a force to “Make America Great Again,” and emphasized kinship with other outsider political success stories, most often that of Ronald Reagan. At the same time, they linked Trump to other trends. Trump had praised the decision of British voters to embrace a more nationalist position in their vote to “Brexit” the European Union. On multiple occasions referred to himself as “Mr. Brexit,” by which he meant that his campaign would score a surprise victory over elite conventional wisdom similar to that of his political friend Nigel Farage. Since his election, Trump advisers such as Steve Bannon have attempted to deepen connections with nationalist and populist parties in France and Germany as well.
The connection to Brexit points to the global context for Trump’s victory. For that vote was only one of many examples of a populist-nationalist resurgence in the industrialized world. Some of those movements—such as Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain or the Five Star Movement in Italy—have been based primarily on the political left. Many more, however—such as the United Kingdom Independence Party, the Alternative for Germany, France’s Front National or Poland’s Law and Justice Party—are clearly movements of a nationalist, even nativist Right. With his opposition to immigration, his unrelenting criticism of the political establishment and the mainstream media, and his vague but insistent promises that he would put “America First,” Trump clearly fits within the right-wing populist narrative. As in those other countries, Trump appealed strongly to the people who felt victimized by the economic crisis of 2008-2009 and left behind by the anemic recovery that followed. His nationalism reflects a belief that globalization has only served to enrich the rich, just as his foreign policy expresses a desire for the United States to pull back from expensive and underappreciated adventures abroad. Pulling back, he promises, will protect those who feel dislocated by the changes wrought on society by globalization, and allow the alleged losers at last to win.
Trump fits not only within a broad global context but a deeper historical one as well. The idea of the tribune of the people emerging from the elite to promise fundamental change is as old as government itself. His lack of explicit ideology has led to a variety of comparisons, and is of a piece with his catch-all message. Is he another Alcibiades, Gracchus, Bonaparte, Peron, or Franco? Is he the new Mussolini, the next Berlusconi—or somebody else whose name is already being invoked with depressing regularity? He is any of them, all of them, none of them, and the lack of focus in his program is a source of comfort to some but worry to others. His message combines genuine grievances and scapegoating of outsiders, racist dog whistles and realist foreign policy tropes. He was elected by a coalition that includes both people who hope he meant exactly what he said and those who hope that the pragmatic businessman will cut deals and abandon his rhetorical excesses. It is difficult to imagine him being able to satisfy all of his supporters, and he may fail to satisfy any of them.
Most tribunes of the people end up failures, swept away by the sentiments they arouse and their inability to deliver concrete results to equal the rhetoric of their promises. Time will tell if Trump’s name will be added to that list. That, however, is a subject for future articles.
*Ronald J. Granieri is Executive Director of FPRI’s Center for the Study of America and the West, editor of FPRI’s The American Review of Books, Blogs, and Bull, and host of Geopolitics with Granieri, a monthly discussion program at FPRI.