Dr Paul Sagar is Junior Research Fellow in Politics and International Relations in King’s College, University of Cambridge. His research interests include intellectual history and the History of Political Thought, centering on David Hume in the context of the work of Hobbes and Adam Smith. He is a regular guest panellist on our debates, having previously spoken at our talk on the question ‘Does Trump have a point?’
Do not misunderstand me. I am both distraught and terrified by the outcome of the US Presidential Election. Donald Trump is not only an incompetent political neophyte, but (as we all know by now) is on record boasting about sexual assault, has described not paying his taxes as ‘smart’, has advocated forced mass deportations, has proposed a ban on Muslims entering the USA, wants to build a wall across the Mexican border, has called into doubt the US’s commitment to NATO, admires Vladimir Putin, and in general lacks not only the ability to form a coherent political vision, but to speak in coherent sentences. And he is going to be President of the United States of America.
I did not see it coming. I did not want to see it coming. But now that it has happened, I want to suggest – against my own deep dispositional pessimism – that perhaps this is the least-worst outcome that was available, given where things were at by November 2016. How can this be? The answer lies in taking a wider view of the background situation. This takes a little time, so bear with me.
What we discovered last week was that large sections of the white population of America – most especially those slightly better off than the already poor, who have been ravaged by economic decline since the mid-1970s – are deeply dissatisfied with the status quo. Some of them, undoubtedly, are racists, homophobes, bigots and misogynists (in many cases consciously so, in yet more, unconsciously, dispositionally, and unreflectively). Many appear nostalgic for a perceived lost past in which their parents (or grandparents) possessed economic stability and prosperity, as well as the moral certainties of an established social order where gays were in hiding, women and minorities knew their place, and aggressive white men confidently called the shots. Like it or not, many millions of American voters (including women) want to live in such a world. The election results showed us this, at the very least.
Part of Trump’s appeal to this particular demographic was that he represented (paradoxically) both change, and also the end to change. The change he offered was an incoherent and impossible, but emotionally powerful, promise to go back to a mythical vision of the 1980s or 1950s, when America was (in the minds of many) ‘great’. In order to ‘Make America Great Again’, however, those groups who have been doing well, or rather are perceived as doing well (even if this is not in fact so) at the expense of the white rural and ex-urban populations, would have to go back into their position of lesser economic security and social status. In this sense, politics has once again been revealed as a battle of competing interests, this time envisioned as zero-sum. For many white American voters perceived that if they were to stop losing (as they see it), others were going to have to lose instead. These white voters – especially those who are not themselves doing quite so badly, but are threatened by what they see as the imminent prospect of losing what they have – have voted to look after themselves and their own. To them, it was a fight over who got to be on top – and they wanted to stay, or get back, on top. What they would likely say – and really mean – is that they want equality and fairness; to stop being passed over for those who have pushed in line. Worried that even if they are OK now, they soon won’t be (this, perhaps, covers the college-educated whites who by a small margin backed Trump). Wouldn’t you say and feel that, if you lived where they do, went to the churches that they do, watched the TV news shows they do, only knew other angry white people who are struggling or set to struggle, like they do? (If you think that the answer is ‘no’, how can you be so sure?)
For many of the people who voted for Trump, things are perceived as being so bad right now (economically and socially), and so likely to get worse in the near future, that any change away from this will do. Electing into office an incompetent buffoon is worth it, because this buffoon might actually do something different. ‘Whatever it is, it has to be better than this!’ was, if exit polling is to be believed, a more common outlook than ‘I hate blacks and gays and women, so I’m electing the bigot’. Many Trump voters supported him whilst holding their noses: 60% thought him dishonest and untrustworthy, and yet voted for him. More crucially, of the 4 in 10 voters who cited the need for change as a paramount issue in this election, 80% voted Trump. That is going to be decisive in virtually any election, and especially one as tight as this ended up being.
Which brings us to Trump’s opponent. Hilary Clinton, like Trump, suffered from a c.60% belief in her dishonesty, and her approval ratings stank from before the Primaries, consistently up until the General, when she was the second most unpopular candidate in history, after Trump. (If you want to blame anybody for the Trump presidency, blame the Democratic Party for allowing a terrible candidate, unsuited to effective campaigning, widely despised by much of the electorate, to have the nomination stitched up for her because it was ‘her turn’, and it also promoted the interests of affiliated party hacks.) Crucially, America voters perceived – correctly – that a Clinton presidency would bring no substantial change to the direction of American politics and society.
For many on the left, of course, ‘no substantial change’ was largely a desirable thing, on both social and economic issues. Personally, I would vastly prefer somebody like Clinton to be in the White House than Trump, all other things being equal. She would have upheld Obamacare, defended abortion rights, protected homosexuals, supported Planned Parenthood, and been (albeit a late convert) sympathetic to the plight suffered by African Americans in an age of increasing police brutality, continuing Obama’s economic efforts to reduce unemployment and lift the worst-off Americans out of abject poverty. But the point is that to millions of Americans, all other things were not equal. For many, many voters, what Clinton represented was crooked politics as usual. The continuation of an elite political system that lines its own pockets with the help of Wall Street, coupled with a haughty evasiveness and dishonesty, and the imposition of a socially liberal worldview that many white Americans do not share, and have only seemed to share because they have found it easier to keep their mouths shut in public, before rejecting the apparent liberal victory in the culture wars at the ballot box, when nobody was watching.
To significant numbers of these people, Clinton looks like as much of a threat to American values, their personal prosperity, and therefore their children’s futures, as Trump looks to those on the liberal left and (especially) Muslims, Hispanics, Blacks, Jews and other traditionally marginalized groups that were targeted overtly by his white nativist campaign. This is an important reason why those who weren’t dyed-in-the-wool bigots nonetheless held their noses and plumbed for the candidate they perceived as the least worst option. The one who might actually bring change, of some sort, whatever it may be. Not just more of what they already believed wasn’t working. As South Park has put it, they opted for a Giant Douche over a Turd Sandwich.
Do not misunderstand me: I am not saying that these perceived equivalences are in fact correct. For the record, I do not believe that Hilary Clinton is a comparable threat to the prospects and the values of many White Americans that Trump is to the lives and liberties of millions of vulnerable people. But this is politics, and what matters on the ground is not truth, but perception of truth. The perception went the way it did, and whoever is to blame for that (I’m dubious that it’s primarily the ‘liberal elites’; I’ve listened to American talk radio enough to get a sense of the distorted reality many voters live in), it is what it now is.
So that’s the context of the November 8th election results. Now do a thought experiment. Imagine that Hilary Clinton had flipped the 1-in-every-100 voters she needed in order to have squeezed through to victory in the swing states of Florida, North Carolina, and Michigan. Imagine four years of Clinton rule, where nothing much changes, except perhaps there is an economic crisis in which the prospects of White America (not just those who have already lost out, but crucially those who fear they are about to lose out) get a whole lot worse. A world in which leftist liberals like myself believe that the culture wars are over because there is legalized gay marriage, and even though it was imposed by judicial fiat everybody must nonetheless be happy with it. A world in which Black Lives Matter continues (rightly!) to get airtime, whilst the opioid crisis devastating rural and ex-urban white communities goes relatively ignored. Fill in the rest of the vast social and economic issues accordingly. If you think White America went berserk in 2016, just imagine what it might have done after four years of the already widely despised Hillary Clinton in the White House.
Here are some facts about Trump. He has chanced his way to the White House by hijacking an established political party (the leadership of which still despises him; expect bitter conflict on Capitol Hill). What he has not done is set up a new political party, one that wholesale rejects democracy and, for example, has its own symbols and flags and uniforms. He is an imbecile, with no experience of governing, and the attention span of a three year old. A Republican congress will either manipulate him, or block him, and will likely do so easily. To say that he will likely be an ineffective president is an understatement. He is a billionaire, with a lot to lose from the system imploding (unless he corruptly ensures his own businesses profit regardless – which likely requires more acumen than he appears to possess). This is an insider playing outsider, not a genuine opponent of the American system. Furthermore he is a conspicuous fraud, yet is now going to have to offer more than vague promises couched in nonsensical rhetorical bluster. When you’re in power, there is nobody to blame but you. (That holds even when it’s not actually your fault when things go wrong, as Obama found out when the Republicans wrecked his first term, and yet managed to focus all of the popular discontent on him.) The angry people who wanted change and voted for Trump are not going to get the change that they hoped for. If the Democratic Party is even minimally competent by the 2018 midterms, they might to be able to wrest back control of the House of Representatives – although given the Republican majority and the extent of gerrymandering and voter disenfranchisement, this may not come to pass. (It is a little remarked fact that Democrats won the popular vote in both the Presidential and the House elections, and yet gained control of neither.) It is possible, however, that we only have to survive about 18-24 months of a Trump Presidency. The rest can be ridden out in gridlock.
Imagine, by contrast, the election in 2020 following four years of Clinton. Imagine somebody who rises to power off the back of even greater white anger and resentment than we currently see, with an even more demented online and radio media behind them. Somebody who is not an incompetent. Somebody who is not an insider playing at being an outsider. A genuine outsider who really wants to tear it all down. And a population that doesn’t just want change, it wants complete destruction of the establishment, in the name of a new order.
Of course, this could still happen anyway. Perhaps we are witnessing the first cycle in the death spiral of American democracy. Perhaps Trump will turn out to be a competent authoritarian, who succeeds in terminally damaging American’s democratic institutions. A Mussolini, rather than the (incompetent) Berlusconi he resembles at present. Perversely, however, it may be that the full nightmare scenario – treating the present one as only a partial nightmare by comparison – would be more likely if it was Clinton who had won.
The hope, therefore, is that the Trump phenomenon can be contained by US institutional structures and its relatively deep democratic norms, and that Trumpism is rapidly exposed as a busted flush. A semi-competent Democratic Party then moves in to restabilize the republic. If that’s the hope, it may be considerably more achievable in the 2020 we’re going to get, than it would have been in the 2024 that would have been downstream of a Hilary Clinton presidency.
All of which, however, assumes that the global order does not collapse first. In many ways Trump’s incompetence, his temperament, his naivety, his ignorance, and his petty need for domination and immediate retaliation against any perceived slight, are most terrifying in the realm of foreign policy. If he could win an election through Twitter, why not start #WWIII? This is the truly disturbing thought, that no amount of optimistic thinking I can muster can get past. That we are now at the mercy of something much worse than luck. But if we can nonetheless get lucky enough, perhaps we need not despair for the fate of the republic in its entirety.
Which doesn’t change the fact that for those millions who are going to suffer under a Trump presidency, despair will be the least of it. As I said, I’m not happy about where we are at. I’m outright terrified. But if there is any hope to be taken, it may lie in the possibility that the boil has been lanced before the infection is terminal. It’s not much, but, perhaps, it’s something.