It’s been a whirlwind 24 hours, and many of us are still coming to terms with the news that Donald Trump has taken the White House. Watching the coverage on CNN last night, it wasn’t clear to me whether Trump’s aides even believed that they could win. Many seemed to agree that Trump failing to clear Florida would make Trump’s task insurmountable, but thought that Trump would clear Florida.
As polls closed at 7PM ET, there were early signs that it might be a good night for Clinton. The networks weren’t able to call South Carolina right away, which was thought to be bad for Trump in Georgia and North Carolina. The first sign of trouble, however, came soon after, when Virginia didn’t appear to be leaning Democrat to anywhere near the extent predicted. This was just the beginning. By the time that polls closed in 17 states at 8PM, it was clear that Clinton was facing an electoral fight like nothing she would have imagined.
And let’s be clear: this wasn’t a battle that Hillary Clinton was expecting she was expecting to lose. The stage was set, quite literally, for Clinton to break the “highest, hardest glass ceiling.” The choice of venue, with its vaulted glass ceiling, was rich with symbolism. There was a clear sense of expectation that, after eight years of Barack Obama, the coronation of Hillary Clinton was upon us. This event was to set fair Hillary’s America.
Instead, what we have is Brexit-the-second. On June 23rd, many wondered if Brexit was a peculiarly British one off. There was good reason to suppose it would be. No-one saw Brexit coming, least of all the people that argued for it, and within two weeks it had taken with it the political careers of the top tier of Britain’s political class. Brexit was written off as the British working class blowing off steam (and possibly regretting it afterwards), and while the wounds in British society will take a long time to heal Brexit was not thought to come with any particular ramifications for anywhere else.
With Trump’s election, that assumption has been blown to bits. Trump is no Boris Johnson. During the course of his campaign, Trump was racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic, transphobic, rude and aggressive. He openly courted the alt-right. He his idea of an immigration policy is to build a large wall, and his foreign policy to reject international alliances and cosy up to Putin. He’s the antithesis of what we look for in a politician.
Yet, he won, and won handily. Trump even managed to increase his share of the vote amongst almost every minority group compared to Obama. The only group that voted consistently against Trump was Millennials (and Hillary failed to turn those out in numbers). The same population that had elected Obama in 2008 and 2012 on a tidal wave of hope and emotion made the decision to elect Donald Trump.
It’s easy to look for excuses. Was it the fault of people who voted for a third party libertarian candidate in Florida – even though libertarians do not tend to break in great numbers for politicians like Hillary Clinton? Probably not. Are a large part of the population actually closet racists who identified with Donald Trump’s nativist ideology? Possibly, but this same population elected Obama just four years earlier, so it’s not an easy argument to make. Did Hillary Clinton have profound character flaws of her own which would have made it difficult to identify with white working class voters in places like Scranton, PA? Undoubtedly.
But this isn’t the whole story. I know it isn’t the whole story. Interracial marriage, often thought to be a good proxy for attitudes toward race in general, has grown steadily with each successive year. Even in the relatively conservative Midwest, where Clinton struggled so much, interracial marriage has an 86% approval rating. And having grown up in a former industrial town I know that while life can be bleak, the people are often not unpleasant. The Midwest isn’t teeming with Trumps.
Instead, what we are seeing is a case of globalisation and its discontents. Globalisation, the information age, the technology age or whatever you want to call it has brought a number of benefits. Data is revolutionising industries, advances in robotics are increasing efficiency, advances in health technology mean that we are living longer, more of us have Internet access than ever before. But, there is a but.
The value produced by globalisation isn’t evenly distributed. It’s not even close to being evenly distributed. Many of the savings that robots make do not filter back to the workers, but go straight into the pocket of the bosses. As the world becomes borderless, shipping jobs to the cheapest, most efficient place becomes a strategic necessity if companies want to stay in business. It means distributing resources from people who have paid into the taxation system for their whole lives, and giving resources to young people with big ideas.
This kind of economics doesn’t work for people in places like the northern Midwest. With some justification, they see it as an attempt by economic elites to impose a self-reinforcing borderless utopia by force, with ordinary workers left holding to pick up the pieces. Any criticism of this project is dismissed as racist, bigoted, or “on the wrong side of history.” They don’t consider Trump to be perfect by any means, but they saw him as a way to hit pause on this line of thinking.
People have also seen their communities and cultures changed by high levels of immigration. The left has been too quick to jump to the conclusion that people impacted by immigration are racist or bigoted, when, in many cases, they simply wish to protect their culture. This really was the election that 40% of the population decided to vote like a minority.
For years now, the left has failed to offer a serious political alternative. The American middle-class are left with a choice between a center-right left – the left of Twitter echo chambers, vaccuous and self-interested political strategists, Hillary and Huma, and a general culture of optics over outcomes – and the far-right. There was no “smoking gun” evidence of corruption in the Podesta emails, but there was a sense that outcomes for middle-class people played second fiddle to being seen to do the right thing. Or, that having a cosy relationship with bankers is fine as long as no-one finds out about it.
A radical reconfiguration of left-wing thinking is needed. The left has become too cosy with powerful interests, and out of touch with the needs of ordinary working people. The left does have a tendency to use soaring rhetoric about unity and hope as a substitute for positive action. The left does have a problem with uncritically accepting the verdict of economists, the bond market, and the invisible hand. It is the job of the left to represent change, and in this election and the EU referendum, the only change on offer was from the right.
If this trend holds, it will soon be felt in France and other European countries. Yet a depressing number of liberals on Twitter this morning had reverted to blaming the voters: playing into the hands of right-wing populists. Brexit and Trump should serve as an urgent wake up call to the left to start developing policies and ideas that ensure that the benefits of globalisation are felt more equally, and that makes losers eventually become winners. If not, the world will see ever more Trumps.