In a stunning conclusion to the 2016 US General Election, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton — who had been enthusiastically predicted by pollsters, including Nate Silver’s celebrated FiveThirtyEight forecast, to be the winner — pulled defeat from the jaws of victory and lost to her Republican rival Donald Trump. Trump’s win was especially shocking given that almost the entire pundit class and mass media in the US, and more importantly, the plutocrats of Wall Street and Silicon Valley, with their generous donations to the Clinton campaign, had, by the end of the campaign season, closed ranks around Clinton and publicly displayed their united opposition to Trump. Trump hadn’t helped himself with his history of sexually improper behavior having come into sharp public focus in the final weeks of the campaign. This, together with negative media reports recounting his xenophobic statements against undocumented immigrants and Muslims, convinced the Clinton campaign and its supporters that their candidate would easily win over women and racial minorities and seal her electoral win. The shock of Trump’s victory hence exceeds the shock of the earlier Brexit referendum in the UK, where the referendum result similarly took the pollsters by surprise.
The blatant pro-Clinton partisanship of the US mass media and punditocracy during the 2016 electoral campaign had in fact triggered a backlash, with US audiences’ “trust and confidence in the mass media ‘to report the news fully, accurately and fairly’” collapsing “to its lowest level in Gallup polling history.” Those outside of the Clinton camp had long grown suspicious of the election polls, which, as probability expert Nicholas Nassim Taleb warned of Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight methodology, are founded on faulty mathematics. Apart from the polls’ underestimation of uncertainty, their samples failed to account for “shy” Trump voters who were wary about announcing their political preferences in the anti-Trump popular culture that had been created by the pro-Clinton mass media. The pollsters’ belief that shy Trump voters did not exist turned out to be spectacularly wrong, when groups that had hitherto been predicted to be pro-Clinton, including college-educated white men and non-college-educated white women, turned out instead to be Trump supporters.
One reason for this lies with the concept of intersectionality, which states that the different registers of our identity — race, gender identity, and so on — intersect in different ways, giving rise to a divergence of interests. For example, the interests of an African-American transwoman may be different from those of a white transwoman because of their different racial positionalities. While Clinton herself was familiar with the concept of intersectionality, her campaign failed to recognize how intersectionality would complicate the voting behavior of different groups in the electorate.
The Latino surge during the early voting period of the election, for example, had been celebrated by pundits as having delivered an unequivocal wall of votes against Trump, which “could be enough to overcome Mr. Trump’s strength among white-working class voters” and win the election for Clinton. However, class interests within the Latino community overcame their racial solidarity, creating significant votes for Trump. Many Latinos, for example, defied the pundits’ expectations that they would oppose Trump because of his rhetoric against undocumented immigration, including his promise of building a wall on the US-Mexico border. As it turned out, these Latinos felt that Trump’s policies would protect their hard-won economic and social gains from the challenges posed by undocumented immigrants. 51 percent of Latinos felt that “too little” has been done to “enforce immigration laws,” while 49 percent “support a policy causing illegal immigrants to return home by enforcing the law.”
Similarly, many Cuban-Americans, a key Latino constituency in the swing state of Florida, turned to Trump as a form of protest against the Obama administration’s détente with the communist Castro regime in Cuba. Within the Asian-American community, class interests had also created support for Trump, despite polls that indicated Asian-Americans to be a pro-Clinton constituency. Many Chinese-Americans, for example, supported Trump due to their opposition to affirmative action programs at US universities which they believe systemically discriminate against Chinese-American applicants in favor of applicants from other minority groups.
In the 2016 US General Election, the immiserated and humiliated working class that was destroyed by globalization has spoken up for itself at the ballot box.
Religion and value systems are other registers of identity that give rise to intersectionality, and many conservative persons of color— including Asian- and African-Americans — became Trump supporters due to their opposition to the progressive gains made by LGBT groups under the Obama administration, even though pundits had expected them to be pro-Clinton due to their racial minority status. In longer-term perspective, this reflects the strategic error of the pursuit of LGBT rights through legislation — including marriage equality and the right of transgender individuals to use bathrooms that reflect their gender identity — in that these legal rights were won without corresponding challenges to the lingering homophobia and transphobia in society, creating significant groups of voters who felt morally opposed to Clinton’s candidacy.
Clinton herself did her candidacy no favors when she publicly described “half of Trump supporters” as a “basket of deplorables” which includes those who are “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic, you name it.” While she later expressed regret for making that statement, the damage was already done. By giving this disparate group of individuals a catchy name to rally themselves around, Clinton unwittingly energized Trump’s growing pool of supporters, especially on social media where many of his supporters appended “Deplorable” to their Facebook and Twitter nicknames, proudly identifying their affiliation and politics to their social media followers.
However, it was the failure of the Obama administration to reverse the economic damage done to the working class caused by globalization that most energized class-based support for Trump. As former president Bill Clinton himself highlighted last year:
“Middle-aged, non-college-educated white Americans’ life expectancy is going down and is now lower than Hispanics, even though they make less money. And the gap between African Americans and whites is closing, but unfortunately not because the death rate among African Americans is dropping but because the death rate among white Americans is rising. Why? Because they don’t have anything to look forward to when they get up in the morning. Because their lives are sort of stuck in neutral.”
Little wonder that exit polls conducted during the election found that “four in 10 voters said they were hungry for change … 7 in 10 voters said they were unhappy with the way the government is working, including a quarter who said they were outright angry,” and “six in 10 voters said the country is on the wrong track.”
What’s next? Fears that the US political system will be gripped in gridlock after the election are likely to be unfounded, as the Republican Party has captured not just the presidency, but also retained control of the House of Representatives and the Senate. This trifecta will likely allow the Trump administration to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court left by the death of Antonin Scalia with its preferred candidate, along with the vacancies that will come with the expected retirements of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.
Internationally, world leaders have congratulated President-elect Trump and stated their resolve to work with his incoming administration. Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted:
“Many will celebrate this result, while others will understandably be surprised and disappointed. But like the Brexit referendum in June, Mr Trump’s victory is part of a broader pattern in developed countries — reflecting a deep frustration with the way things are, and a strong wish to reassert a sense of identity, and somehow to change the status quo.”
It is indeed reflective of this “broader pattern” that among the world leaders who congratulated Trump were Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right National Front, Geert Wilders, the leader of the Netherland’s far-right Freedom Party, and Nigel Farage, the far-right leader of the UK Independence Party who led the successful Brexit campaign. The excitement of the European far-right is understandable as Trump’s success will energize their movements in the elections that are scheduled over the next 12 months, with these far-right parties seeking “to follow Britain’s lead and quit the European Union.” These challenges will begin next month, on December 4 with an election in Austria and a referendum in Italy, followed by elections next year in the Netherlands, France, and Germany.
In her celebrated essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” the postcolonial theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak famously concluded that the subaltern cannot speak, and that someone else has to serve as an interlocutor on her behalf. In the 2016 US General Election, the immiserated and humiliated working class that was destroyed by globalization has spoken up for itself at the ballot box. Democratic challenges to established authorities had taken place earlier this year in the Philippines, with the election of the anti-establishment leader Rodrigo Duterte, and in the UK with the Brexit referendum. Together with the election of the Trump presidency, these mark the turn of the zeitgeist away from globalization into a new and reactionary direction.