Donald Trump’s stunning victory over Hillary Clinton has thrown traditional political analysis into fits of frenzied confusion. Although it is just beginning, analysis is already marked by high levels of fear and anger on the left, and of enthusiasm and excitement on the right. Analysis begins predictably, on familiar turf: It was very close. Trump got more than the necessary 270 electoral votes (306, to 232 for Clinton) while Clinton carried the popular vote by a very slim margin. Turnout was extremely low, down from 2012, and alternative “third party” candidates attracted 7% of the votes, up from 1% in 2012.
It had been an ugly and contentious campaign season, marked by much turmoil within both major political parties. Almost everyone expected a Clinton victory: She had finished strong in the polling over the previous two months, and using historical polling error margins, two weeks before the election the probability of a Clinton victory was estimated as high as 90% (the Data Team, The Economist, 10/24/2016, here). On the morning of election day, a Clinton victory still seemed quite likely, but as the returns came in that expectation quickly faded. Suddenly, an election expected to gravely damage the Republican Party turned into the virtual collapse of the Democratic Party.
Ironically, even as it greatly enhanced Republican control of the national government, this election failed to provide a mandate on any major issue. Media coverage for months had focused far more on perceptions of the perceived character and fitness of the candidates than on any of the vital issues of governance. Clinton was eminently experienced, but Trump had no experience whatsoever in government, and he displayed a haughty indifference, as well as ignorance, on many important issues.
How, then, did this improbable result take place? And what does the election of Donald Trump to the presidency portend for the future?
Overview of the Election
This was a contest between two unpopular candidates: Both Trump and Clinton “have been dogged by extremely low favorability ratings,” and “are more strongly disliked than any presidential nominee in the past 10 election cycles” (Abigail Abrams, International Business Times, 06/08/2016, here). Trump is a showman who, during the GOP primaries, displayed contempt for all rivals. Bottomed on his popularity with disaffected white males, his campaign systematically wiped out all opposition from more than twenty other GOP contenders. His raucous, arrogant and evasive behavior didn’t seem to matter to voters, however, even as leading GOP politicians declared their displeasure and promised not to endorse him. Trump prevailed with the GOP under-class, and ultimately in the election, by posing as a champion for alienated voters and claiming that he would “make America great again.”
Democratic and Republican voters alike have for years become increasingly disenchanted with the Washington establishment. Many under-class Republican voters, hurting financially, felt betrayed by the GOP’s failure to serve their interests. They wanted a change of direction, and Trump promised them he would provide that. Similarly, there was a high level of distrust of Hillary Clinton among progressive Democratic voters, who saw her as too conservative and tied to big business interests, and who responded enthusiastically in the primaries to the revolutionary Bernie Sanders campaign which took a strong stand against growing economic inequality and economic and social injustice.
Sanders came in a close second in the primaries, and Clinton shifted her platform to the left to accommodate Sanders and his supporters. The Democratic platform was the most progressive in decades. Still, a great many staunch Sanders supporters felt that the primaries had been rigged in favor of Hillary Clinton. Hence, many disenchanted Democrats and Independents apparently opted not to vote in the general election, or submitted protest votes for an alternative candidate, despite Sanders’ personal efforts on Clinton’s behalf. Many progressives defected to the Green Party candidacy of Jill Stein. It remains unclear how third party candidacies affected the final electoral vote tally, however, especially since Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson provided an outlet for Republicans who could not support Trump.
Despite all of that, even as the early election returns were being reported, the Clinton campaign still expected victory. But when key states like Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania began to fall to Trump, it became clear that the low voter turnout had cost her dearly. When Michigan went to Trump, the Clinton campaign suddenly – and shockingly – was over. Why had she lost? Among the early theories for this sudden reversal of fortune were that the polls had been drastically wrong. Another significant theory is that FBI Director James Comey, a Republican, had seriously damaged her chances by his by renewed investigation into whether her private e-mails while she was Secretary of State had improperly exposed classified information. As reported by CNN (Carrie Johnson, 11/14/2016, here):
The FBI had all but cleared Clinton in July, only to notify Congress it had renewed investigative steps 11 days before the election. The FBI acted despite Justice Department traditions that direct investigators to steer clear of actions that could influence the outcome of an election.
Two days before Election Day, Comey ultimately concluded that a newly discovered cache of emails did not change the earlier result — no criminal charges for Clinton, the former secretary of state. But in a call with top donors last Saturday, Clinton’s team blamed him for her loss.
During the campaign Trump had boisterously proclaimed his intention to prosecute “Crooked Hillary” as soon as he assumed the presidency. Comey added fuel to the firestorm created by that belligerent move by renewing his investigation, only to announce two days before the election that the agency hasn’t changed its conclusion that that there was no basis for criminal charges against Hillary Clinton. Trump is now considering dismissing Comey, and will likely do so: Comey’s actions served the purpose of distracting attention, in the waning days of the campaign, from allegations of Trump’s sexual misconduct, his refusal to reveal his income tax records, and allegations of fraud and business misconduct, so suspicions of Trump campaign complicity in any of this must now be discouraged.
Few people in the media seemed to care very much about any of this. In the final weeks before the election, the media busied itself with keeping track of public opinion, neglected to probe Trump’s fitness for the presidency in any depth, and seemed indifferent even to assessing what Trump intended to do as president: He was rarely even challenged on his evasive answers in debates. Widespread public ignorance about truly important issues, chief among them the economic malaise that had disrupted politics on both the left and right, remained effectively undisturbed
The Big Con
I was moved and inspired by Eugene Robinson’s article “America will be put to the test,” published in numerous newspapers including my local newspaper the Albany Times Union (11/9/2016, here). Robinson’s optimism appears shattered:
I wouldn’t be honest if I pretended, at this point, to be hopeful. My fear is that the man we saw on the campaign trail is the same man we will see in the White House.
There will be plenty of time for postmortems about the failures of the Clinton campaign. * * * There will also be time for an autopsy of the Democratic Party, which is at a modern-era low. Republicans will control the White House, both chambers of Congress, most governorships and most state legislatures. The Democrats need new blood and new ideas – and they need to figure out how the GOP became the party of the working class.
And he concluded with this:
The old political order lies in rubble. Donald Trump is going to be president. The strength and resilience of the American experiment are about to be tested.
There is bitter irony in this assessment: Of course, the idea that Donald Trump floated that he was a populist candidate, or will ever be a champion of working-class interests, should have been rejected by all Americans, every step of the way, as absurd. Trump will indeed be the same man we saw on the campaign trail, and have always seen: a man who acts only in his own self-interest, a self-interest inspired by his wealth, craving publicity and attention. That means he will betray the trust of the voters who supported him.
It was the job of the media to fully vet this man’s character. After all, he was running for the most powerful job in the world! Instead, the media granted him far too much deference once he had won the GOP nomination. This allowed him to perpetrate his big con. No one seemed to notice that it is the same con that the Republican Party has been running since before the Reagan Administration, namely, the lie that the interests of the corporations and big wealth are somehow aligned with the interests of working and poor people.
Rex Smith, the editor of the Albany Times Union, quickly rose to the defense of journalism in an important editorial that everyone should read (“Journalists did their job. So did voters,” Editor’s Angle, 10/11/2016, here). He complained that the press is now being pilloried from the right, and defended his newspaper for exposing widespread criticism of the president-elect. He argued that in his youth he made a conscious decision to channel his idealism into journalism:
Laugh, if you wish, at the notion that journalism is a worthy vessel of idealism. We’re “phony and dishonest,” the president-elect has said. And incompetent, some critics now add — either because we failed to recognize the breadth of Donald Trump’s appeal to voters, or because we never figured out how to cover his eccentric political style. * *
So hear this, Republicans and Democrats and “nones” alike: I feel no shame. The choice my 20-year-old self made — to pursue a career devoted to truth-telling rather than one focused on acquiring power — still makes me proud. You may not like the verdict of the electorate, or you may not appreciate what you read about your candidate during the campaign, but journalism didn’t fail America in 2016.
Certainly there were flaws in campaign journalism. I wish cable networks hadn’t turned over their airwaves during primary season to campaign rallies. I wish reporters had grasped earlier the depth of the economic fears and political alienation of vast swaths of America, fueling the Trump candidacy. I wish some interviewers had asked better questions.
But by and large, journalists pursued their responsibilities ably. Reporters accurately and even bravely covered what happened on the trail, despite hectoring by candidates and threats from voters. Fact-checking revealed distortions and lies. Editorialists and columnists advanced arguments for and against candidates.
Perhaps most importantly, reporters fulfilled their watchdog role, exposing flaws in the records of both major party candidates. Mind you, a lot of voters clearly didn’t care. Don’t call that a failure of the media, though; it’s a choice of the electorate.
The editorial in the Times Union the following day (“Now, channel that anger,” 11/12/2016, here) urged Americans to suck it up and adjust to the reality of the election results. Citing the rebellious protests that instantly materialized all over the nation, the editorial argued:
It’s as if many want a do-over. But that’s not how our democracy works. To deny the legitimacy of Mr. Trump’s presidency is to stoop to the tactics he himself engaged in when he questioned President Barack Obama’s Citizenship. * * *
That’s not to say peaceful protests can’t send a powerful message to counter the nativist, bigoted rhetoric Mr. Trump embraced in his campaign. And they’re altogether proper in a nation that protects and cherishes free speech.
It’s not his presidency that ought to be the target of protests, though, but what he is setting out to do. For example: As Mr. Trump and Republicans in Congress look to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, they must be urged not to harm the roughly 20 million Americans who now have health care coverage because of the Affordable Care Act’s state marketplaces and Medicaid expansions. They must be reminded that while, yes, premiums have recently climbed, Obamacare has slowed the rise in health care costs. Since Election Day, record numbers have signed up. And the case should be made for moving to a single payer, “Medicare for all” system — ultimately the best solution.
Too, those devastated by the realization that for the second time in 16 years a candidate won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College could urge more states to join the National Popular Vote movement, whose goal is to ensure that the Electoral College reflects the will of the majority of voters.
Finally, protesters and politicians sympathetic to their cause can’t dismiss the lingering pain felt by many working-class Americans whose futures have been dimmed by the loss of manufacturing jobs, compounded by the Great Recession, and whose fortunes have not returned with those of Wall Street.
It was their frustration that helped elect Mr. Trump. Any movement must seek to include them.
I know Rex Smith, and having a dedicated, principled editor like him in New York’s capital city is a blessing. But at this juncture, I submit, we all should to reflect more deeply on the intersection between idealism and realism:
- Rex Smith should recognize that the progressive goals he supports have been frustrated at every turn in the road by the interests of wealth, and have been ever since Dwight Eisenhower warned America in his farewell address some 55 years ago about the dangers posed by the military-industrial complex. Class warfare is a reality, but both responsible mainstream journalism and polite politics throughout the country have consistently taken the “high road” by ignoring or denying it;
- Donald Trump, within hours of his election, began the process of aligning himself with Paul Ryan and the Republican establishment he castigated during the primaries so as to take advantage of the agony and frustration of Americans victimized by our declining economy. Importantly, they are now poised to renew the very Republican policies that created these problems, as discussed below, evidently with Trump’s support. Smith seems naively to presume that Trump was not merely posturing during the campaign, and that somehow the victorious Republican Party can be persuaded to back away from any aspect of its draconian agenda.
I wish all journalists were motivated by Rex Smith’s level of idealism and integrity, but they are not. Fox News and the Wall Street Journal scrupulously represent one side of this class warfare. Others, like Chris Matthews, may have once had lofty ideals, but now seem content to role play and revel in their celebrity. Opinions of such journalists are consequently often far too shallow. Recently Matthews suggested that “this guy” Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump had tapped into the same reservoir of troubled voters, but that is simply untrue. Responsible journalism owes it to the public to explain the essential difference between the Sanders/Clinton proposal to raise taxes at the top and Trump’s proposal to significantly cut those taxes, as Republicans have done since the Reagan administration. This is voodoo, trickle-down economics, consistently disproved over the entire 20th Century. Still, much of the mainstream media, notably the New York Times, has studiously avoided addressing the taxation issue, a major component of the Clinton campaign, with any clarity.
Rex Smith would likely agree that the appearance of objectivity that most reputable media sources strive to maintain is not the same, in this complex world, as true objectivity. There can be no true objectivity when editorial constraints imposed by the billionaire owners of media sources like MSNBC and the New York Times unduly control what we all learn, and how we vote.
So, no, the media did not do its job in this campaign cycle. In fact, it failed miserably. Truly crucial issues like Wall Street reform, international trade agreements, and global warming got short shrift, as attention was focused on what voters are perceived to believe or to find more interesting. News flash – Most voters tend to believe whatever the media tells them.
“It’s the economy, Stupid”
This famous phrase, coined by James Carville during Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, is certainly applicable to the 2016 election. Economic concerns were a major, driving force this election’s outcome. In the end, enough voters placed their faith in Donald Trump’s empty promise to make life better for Americans to tip the scales in his favor. But increasingly, voters distrust the GOP trickle-down myth and Trump himself, as they should.
Much can be learned about voter perceptions from the exits polls.
The ABC News Exit Poll
One of the major national polls was conducted by ABC News. Its very early initial report (“Election 2016 National Exit Poll Results and Analysis,” by ABC News Analysis Desk and Paul Blake, November 9, 2016, 2:10 a.m., here), contained these data on economic issues:
Percentage of voters who considered themselves to be worse off financially than in 2012: urban – 20%; suburban – 28%; rural – 36%;
Percentage that rated the economy negatively: urban – 57%; suburban – 63%; rural – 72%;
Which candidate voters say they trust to handle the economy: urban – 57%C/37%T; suburban – 44%C/49%T; rural – 33%C/63%T
The greater trust in Hillary Clinton on economic issues urban areas (a 20% gap over Trump) but deficit in rural areas (30% higher trust in Trump) is extremely significant. As the election returns came in, Clinton prevailed only in urban and suburban areas of the swing states.
In a period of ostensible recovery from the 2008 financial crisis and recession, the percentage of voters considering themselves worse off than in 2012 probably reflects the declining income growth we know is occurring. We have no income breakdowns in this data, but a significantly higher percentage of rural voters than urban voters both considered themselves worse off than four years ago and rated the economy negatively. These are areas where Trump usually prevailed.
The New York Times Analysis
The New York Times analysis of a range of exit polls (ABC News, Associated Press, CBS News, CNN, Fox News and NBC News), Election 2016, November 9, 2016, “Exit Polls Confirm Stark Divisions Along Racial, Gender and Economic Lines,” by several authors, here, adds more depth to this perspective:
Voters expressed deep misgivings about both candidates, but close to four in 10 said they would be scared if Mr. Trump were elected.
These results were drawn from the early analysis of Edison research surveys of thousands of voters leaving the polls, and of telephone interviews with some of the roughly 47 million Americans who voted early.
Anxiety was widespread. Americans expressed concern about their financial well-being, their children’s futures and the fitness and trustworthiness of their leaders.
Three in five voters said the country was seriously on the wrong track and about the same number said the economy was either not good or poor. Two-thirds said their personal financial situation was either worse or the same as it was four years ago. About one in three voters said they expected life to be worse for the next generation.
This article also provides a cross-sectional breakdown of the indicated votes of poled voters by voter groupings and issues. For example, Trump carried the male voters 50%-41% (47% of all respondents) and Clinton carried the female voters 54%-40% (53% of respondents). This data, though hardly precise, does provide some interesting insights: On the question of “most important issue,” the economy headed the list of the top four categories:
The economy – 53%; Foreign policy – 13%; Immigration – 12%; Terrorism – 18%.
Clinton won the votes of those whose top concern was the economy (52%-39%) and foreign policy (61%-32%), While Trump won the votes of those whose top concern was immigration (63%-33%) and terrorism (56%-40%). Voters with higher levels of education generally favored Clinton, and (this seems surprising) Clinton was favored by low income groups ($50,000 annual income or less) and, narrowly, by higher income groups (all incomes over $100,000 annually). The middle income group ($50,000-$99,999), about 30% of those polled, split for Trump, 48%-46%.
It appears that Clinton’s experience and expertise in government more greatly affected the preferences of more educated voters, and despite his claim that his business experience would be valuable, voters generally discounted Trump’s claim to have an edge in fixing the economy.
Of course, the exit polls tell us nothing about the views of potential voters who elected to stay home. Those who did vote for Trump, however, apparently did so in significant numbers for reasons other than a perception that he would do the best job on the economic issues of greatest importance to them.
The Impact of Fraud and Voter Suppression
The GOP has long realized that consistently winning elections and gaining control of the national government is a difficult proposition when it primarily represents the interests of the top 1%. It has advanced the old myth of neoclassical economics that what is good for the rich is also good for everybody else. As that myth has become more and more obviously untrue, it has resorted to lies an innuendo to mislead people into rejecting candidates they otherwise might well have favored. Having obtained the supremely anti-democratic decision from the Supreme Court in Citizens United v. FEC, 558 U.S. 310 (2010), billionaires have poured millions of dollars into election advertising, tipping the scales in favor of candidates they favor.
Today’s Times Union features a sobering commentary by Zephyr Teachout (“Overturn Citizens United, get rid of SuperPAC donors,” 11/15/2016, here):
People throughout the country passed laws that banned unlimited outside spending in elections. Then the Supreme Court overturned those laws in 2010, in a case called Citizens United.
The result? You saw too many negative ads in our congressional race. You couldn’t watch “Jeopardy!” without seeing ads. You couldn’t use Pandora without what felt like an infestation of ads. You couldn’t read a local paper online without a forced pop-up, or watch YouTube without having to see an ad.
Some of the ads were mine, and some John Faso’s, but the majority of the ads you saw were illegal six years ago, because they were not ads from either Faso or myself, but from SuperPACs. What could have been a positive engagement about two candidates with different ideas turned into something distasteful, misleading and unpleasant.
The ads took clips out of context and ran them over and over. In one ad, the SuperPACs found someone who looked like me and then had this body double doing things I never do.
Teachout was running for Congress in New York’s 19th Congressional District, adjacent to the 20th District in which I live. I witnessed this advertising barrage in the local media, and found the ads I saw, which featured the slogan “just too dangerous,” to be grossly dishonest and misleading. Voters who were unfamiliar with her were indeed being misled:
You wanted the election to end. You wanted me to stop running those ads. You wanted Faso to stop running those ads. You may not have known how many of them were not our own ads.
Ten million dollars worth of ads didn’t come from me or Faso, but from secret big dollar donors with no connection to this district. These donors had a stake in who won not because of any connection to the district, but because they wanted power over the people in it. Also, big SuperPAC donors usually aren’t like the rest of us — they often want tax breaks for the rich, they don’t like funding infrastructure, and they like offshoring jobs. The SuperPAC spending was particularly bad in this race, but it is happening all over the country, and the difference is Citizens United.
I hope at this point the Times Union editorial board regrets endorsing the Republican, John Faso, on the lame ground that he would provide balance and compromise in a divided Congress. Watch him over the next two years to see how often, if ever, he breaks ranks with the Republican majority. The important point here is that the electoral process in this country has become so one-sided and unfair that we no longer have a functional democratic process.
A close race for the presidency was all the GOP could reasonably expect this year, and certainly not victory, after offering one of the most unpopular, unqualified, and unprepared candidates in U.S. history. Frankly, it appears that its voter suppression initiatives must also have paid dividends. Just after the election, Greg Palast (who writes for Rolling Stone), reported on the Crosscheck system (here):
Starting in 2013 – just as the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act – a coterie of Trump operatives, under the direction of Kris Kobach, Kansas Secretary of State, created a system to purge 1.1 million Americans of color from the voter rolls of GOP–controlled states.
The system, called Crosscheck, is detailed in my Rolling Stone report,
“The GOP’s Stealth War on Voters,” 8/24/2016.
In his latest post, Palast compared the Crosscheck purge list in Michigan, Arizona, and North Carolina with the Trump margin of victory in those states:
Crosscheck in action:
Trump victory margin in Michigan: 13,107
Michigan Crosscheck purge list: 449,922
Trump victory margin in Arizona: 85,257
Arizona Crosscheck purge list: 270,824
Trump victory margin in North Carolina: 177,008
North Carolina Crosscheck purge list: 589,393
This stunning report, although its implications remain unclear, clearly deserves our attention — for if there was improper voter suppression in these three states, it is possible that the overall election was compromised, eclipsing the Florida circumstances underlying the Supreme Court’s decision in Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98 (2000) that awarded the presidency to GW Bush over another candidate who had won a majority of the popular vote.
Voter purges are sought by conservatives on the ground that people who move could effectively vote twice. However, if their names are simply removed from the voter roles, they are disenfranchised.
So far I have found some additional evidence of a massive voter purge in North Carolina (Sean Holstege, Carnegie-Knight News21, “Do Voter Purges Discriminate Against the Poor and Minorities?”, NBC News, 08/24/2016, here). Here is the chart presented of the 2014 North Carolina purge:
This chart shows that less than a third of the voters were registered Republicans, and that over 40% were registered Democrats. More than 70% of the purged voters were either registered Democratic or Independent. Therefore, given that the Crosscheck number of purges was 589,393, the rough indication is that over 400,000 Independents and Democrats were purged, significantly more than the 177,000-vote Trump margin of victory in that state. We will never know whether Trump would have carried that state absent the purge. Nor will we ever know how accurate the North Carolina voter rolls were at the time of the 2016 election. The magnitude and one-sidedness of the purge, however, raise serious questions.
There is an organization dedicated to monitoring voter rolls that appears to be more impartial than Crosscheck called the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC). Eric has 21 member states, as of July 2016, and its mission is “ensuring the efficiency and integrity of America’s voter rolls.” North Carolina, Michigan, and Arizona are not among its membership. Its website (http://www.ericstates.org/) reports:
The states were inspired to create ERIC due to the challenges in maintaining the accuracy of voter registration records. While most private industry, and many government agencies, have updated their systems to take advantage of modern technology, voter registration systems remain largely based on 19th century tools, such as handwriting on paper forms and postal mail. The inherent inefficiencies in the system result in unnecessarily high costs, and make it difficult to keep voter rolls clean throughout the country. For example, 1 in 8 voter registration records in America contain a serious error. In addition, more than 51 million citizens, or 25 percent, remain unregistered to vote.
I’m not yet prepared to agree with Palast that voter registration purges are proof that Trump “stole” this election, but clearly they helped him win. But we need to recognize that our elections in this country are not administered impartially, and are significantly tilted in the favor of the wealthy.
The integrity of American democracy has been extensively compromised. Although interpretations of the voting data in 2016 will differ, one thing is clear: There is no clear mandate in the 2016 election, especially since many (if not most) of those who voted for Trump may have actually believed his purported populism. Nonetheless, Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House, reacted immediately, claiming that the election of Donald Trump is a mandate to fulfill the traditional GOP agenda. Trump’s transition planning so far shows no reason to believe that Trump disagrees.
It is tempting to accept the inference that voters whose incomes and financial well-being have been declining have rejected the claims by the Obama administration that the economy has been improving on his watch, and decided to turn back to the GOP candidate in their frustration. However, the exit polls belie this perspective: Clinton was the favored candidate on economic issues across broad segments of the voting population, and she campaigned on the basis of Obama’s legacy.
Regardless, for anyone to credit Trump with either the ability or the intention to accomplish the progressive results that Sanders, and Clinton campaigned for – an economy that works for everyone, not just the top 1% — would be an enormous leap of faith. The GOP represents only wealthy interests, and its radicalism has not abated. Now, Trump’s transition planning reveal and Trump’s comments reveal that he will almost certainly betray the promises he implicitly made when he pledged himself to be a president for “all Americans.” The Trump candidacy will turn out to have been a Trojan Horse, secreting Republicans into four years of uncontested power.
Americans, so greatly concerned about the future of our economy and our world, justifiably feel cheated and repulsed by this result. There is nothing new in these deceptions. We might regard these lyrics as a prophetic eulogy for democracy:
“I’ve seen the nations rise and fall/ I’ve heard their stories, heard them all/But love’s the only engine of survival.” – The Future, by Leonard Cohen ( 9/21/1934 – 11/7/2106)
In Part II of this post, we will take a look at how much economic harm will likely result from the Trump presidency. Stay tuned.
JMH – 11/15/2016