We should all have seen it coming. After the Tories’ win in last year’s UK election, and Britain’s unexpected Brexit vote earlier this year, at least those of us on this side of the pond should have viewed the numerous projections and predictions made by a seemingly endless number of ‘expert’ websites and pollsters with a healthy, hefty pinch of salt.
Instead we awoke to outpourings of shock, rage, sadness and – yes – joy as Donald Trump confounded nearly all professional opinion and found a path to The White House.
It’s difficult to meet someone who doesn’t have an opinion on America’s new President-elect and it’s even more difficult to meet someone who’s prepared to change their mind about him, so it would be somewhat less than pointless to add another hatchet job to the already extensive reading list. Besides, this particular horse has already bolted.
What is intriguing – whether you see this as the darkest day in modern American history, or the silent majority’s long-overdue battle cry of freedom – is how the Trump candidacy defied all logic and political wisdom to overcome what always seemed insurmountable odds.
The answer is likely to be deeply uncomfortable for middle class liberals like me, as the parallels between Trump’s victory and Brexit run much further than polling errors.
The 2016 US election has long been seen as a ‘Cry Of Rage’ from forgotten America in a similar way to how the Brexit victory is seen by some as a silent revolt by those marginalised and taken for granted here in the UK.
I believe there’s more than a grain of truth to both interpretations.
In Britain the liberal left have long taken working class support for granted. Any mention of immigration from large swaths of the electorate has never prompted an open, honest debate about its benefits to our economy. Instead, liberal/left politicians have sniffed about working class ‘racism’ and ‘bigotry’ and declined to engage.
This patronising approach to the country’s own citizens has left a vacuum to be filled by the fear of foreigners espoused by the likes of UKIP, Britain First and even sections of the Tory Party. Given this dereliction of duty and refusal to listen to real people, Brexit was actually no surprise. When a large group of people who are poorer than they were, more marginalised than ever and largely ignored by “the establishment” were given the opportunity to give those who think they know better a good kicking, what did we think would happen?
It’s a similar story in 2016 America. Large expanses of the United States, particularly away from the major cities, have struggled with globalisation and the growth of technology. Many communities are poorer now than they have been in decades as their industries have declined and nothing has been done to replace them. Add to this the fact that there are many rural values in America that are directly the opposite of the ‘metropolitan liberal elite’ – religion, gun ownership, abortion and so on – and it’s not so difficult to see the beginnings of a political tinder box. The traditional Democratic and Republican parties have had little or nothing of substance to say to these communities beyond patronising platitudes and so, just like Brexit, a vacuum has formed.
It was within this landscape that the metropolitan billionaire Donald Trump was somehow able to portray himself as an outsider, while Hillary Clinton, aiming to break the glass ceiling and become America’s first woman president, somehow ended up as the establishment figure.
Trump’s message to disaffected America was a very simple one: I hear you, and no one else does. Many Trump supporters were well aware of his reputation and his temperament. They could clearly see the narcissism, the chauvinism (both gender and racial) and probably never believed for a minute that he would build a wall on the border with Mexico (Trump’s £350m pledge?) but here was a man promising to kick the establishment’s door down. When everything else has failed and you feel angry and ignored it’s not too difficult to see how that message becomes attractive.
The result was a stunning change in American politics in which the Republican Party became a right wing party of the poor pitted against the Democrats who became seen as a left wing party of the rich. Clinton’s link to Wall Street and the like only helped confirm these perceptions.
Will a Trump presidency really be as terrifying as “we” seem to think? I think it’s unlikely, although there’s no doubt we will have to watch much of it through our fingers. As Toby Zeigler says in the West Wing: “You campaign in poetry but you govern in prose”. Trump’s campaign was never poetry of the most beautiful kind but his governing agenda will surely need to be more prosaic due to the US constitution’s checks and balances.
What is clear is that he will be surrounded by some very clever tacticians who will already be working towards re-election in 2020. What is less clear is what condition the Democratic Party will be in in four years.
The Democrats have re-invented themselves in the past – they used to be the party of Southern slaveholder privilege – but do they have it within them to do so again? The first thing they’ll need to do is start listening to the communities across America who clearly felt Donald Trump was a better bet.