When dealing with the uncoordinated activities of several tens of millions of voters, it’s somewhat foolhardy to offer grand theories. So everything below should be read in light of the lack of precision inherent to the problem. That is, at most it’s a general theory, supported by evidence, but incapable of falsification or replication. While less than ideal, this epistemological obstacle applies to me, Nate Silver, the Washington Post, Bill Kristol, and everyone else talking about complex human affairs. But, by contrast to all of them, I happened to be right on my predictions.
Trump won. He barely won, but he pulled it off. He was supposed to lose, and lose big, so anything less than that is noteworthy. He won battleground states like Florida and North Carolina, and he won big in the Midwest, pulling off surprise wins in Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Ohio, and also Pennsylvania.
Many of these states had long been Democratic strongholds historically and included many working class people suspicious of the GOP and its reputation as the party of the Fat Cats. They are sometimes called Rust Belt states, as they represent the most battered cohort of legacy America: shattered cities, formerly anchored by manufacturers, where hard-working folks of average IQ could create a middle class lifestyle for themselves and their families until about 30 years ago. They’ve suffered ever since, as many jobs were destroyed by foreign competition within and outside our borders, as well as a shift towards a “knowledge economy” that offers fewer rewards to those folks who simply want a job and are willing to work hard. While traditionally less “red” than the South, the Midwest is something of a trailing indicator of larger national trends. The small “c” conservatism of its German inhabitants is less small goernment and more law and order than, say, Southern Republicans, and this particular election cycle presented that in high relief.
As a descriptive matter, Trump won because he consolidated the white vote. That is, a majority of whites voted for him. College and non-college. Young and old. Men and women. Notably, Trump even did better on a percentage basis than Romney with blacks, Asians, and Hispanics, but whites gave him the biggest gains, particularly those in the Midwest.
While whites are becoming a minority, this is trailing in the electorate, due to fact that many new citizens are children of newcomers, legal and illegal, and this non-voting group make up a greater proportion of the immigrant population. Steve Sailer nearly 15 years ago explained how the Republicans can do better not by alienating millions of their natural supporters (and betraying their interest) by reaching out to liberal-leaning Hispanics and other immigrants through amnesty, but instead by consolidating the white vote. Trump did that. A Rubio, Jeb, or Cruz almost certainly would not have done this nearly as well, not least because they don’t really believe in it, and they run scared at the first media charge of being racist, even though such accusations are inevitable when one fights against liberals.
Trump also benefited from a gender gap of his own. While Hillary appealed to Team Women ad nauseum through a crude campaign of negative insinuation, Trump barely trailed Romney with white women, winning about 53% of them nationwide, and won 63% of white men and a remarkable 72% of non-college educated white men. With regard to Hillary’s strategy, it’s not clear how men are supposed to be jazzed by the “first female president” sold as such. Men compete for women in jobs and social status, and many, particularly in the working classes, have seen special accommodations made to push lesser qualified women and minorities ahead of them in police departments, in the military, and in other endeavors. She reminded them of this ill treatment.
Whites did give Obama a chance, perhaps hoping to expiate the ghost or racism, but rather than buying peace, Obama is widely perceived to have made race relations worse, who does not hesitate to suggest all manner of criticism is insidious racism returning to the fore. Hillary similarly suggested her campaign troubles and much of the criticism she endured originated in sexism, and asking men to sign up to four years of that kind of hectoring is a pretty tough sell. Apparently they–and a majority of their wives, moms, and sisters–agreed.
Obama’s Failures Made Whites Cynical About Pervasive Guilt-Tripping
Obama’s presidency and the cultural trends of the last eight years have much to do with Trump’s win. Explicitly anti-white propaganda, and implicitly anti-white policies have grown worse. Affirmative action is promoted openly in government and in every large company in America. Diversity is insultingly touted as a strength, even in light of the mass murders carried out by Muslim immigrants and as whites whisper to trusted confidantes about the unspoken burdens of diversity. Obama and Hillary both sided with the anti-police movement Black Lives Matter, shrugged at riots and disorder in Ferguson and Baltimore, and refused to understand the frustration of middle class people at the hand-wringing and excuse-making for 1960s style disorder and violence. While Obama said if he had a son he would look like Trayvon, whites saw themselves in George Zimmerman, a young first-time homeowner and gun owner, beaten nearly to death while investigating a suspicious person in his neighborhood, who then had to endure a malicious prosecution that he barely escaped from.
In addition, as the county maps have shown since 2000, there is a rural and urban divide, which expresses itself in the contempt for “Wal-Mart people” expressed in a bipartisan way in large cities everywhere. The national population is fluid to some extent. The elite on college campuses and in places like New York and DC often consist of talented people who wanted nothing more than to run away from their provincial towns. What is missing from this elite, however, is a sense of noblesse oblige. Instead, under the current doctrine of multiculturalism, the destruction of the jobs, culture, and ways of life in those small towns has been, until now, met with “price of progress” shrugs by Republicans and glee by Democrats, who equate those places and those people with retrograde racism, sexism, and other sins. Trump said in an unmistakable way that he was going to fight for this group, and they got the message. And Hillary and her surrogates reinforced the message by referring to his supporters as “deplorables,” which they embraced as a badge of honor.
Thus, the nostalgic slogan “Make America Great Again” was indeed a dog whistle. It was conservative and even reactionary in the sense that it upheld as honorable the older America, in which those people had pride of place, opportunity, and a greater say in the direction of the country. It was an America in which heroes like Washington, Lincoln, Patton, Neil Armstrong, and the like could be honored, without embarrassment and shame or reminders that “well, back then, things weren’t so great for [insert Democratic Party constituency].”
Trump Fought Everyone and Gave Legacy Americans Hope
Trump had a certain degree of authenticity in his solidarity with the working class and other legacy Americans. Being rich and a member of the establishment, this may seem a puzzle. After all, isn’t this a class thing? But, like George W. Bush (or even F.D.R. for that matter), he had some credibility by adopting a style and series of positions that made him something of a “traitor to his class.” He knows the elite–indeed, he knows them well enough to mock and troll them relentlessly–but he has repeatedly and throughout his life shown a sense of comfort and solidarity with the working class. The rough and tumble folks he encountered in the construction business no doubt played some part in this. But his persuasiveness depended most upon his personal style. And it was reinforced by the daily vitriol aimed at him for daring to deviate from the manners and assumptions of the elite.
Trump talked like the people he was purporting to defend. Even with his money, he acted and spent like a guy who won the lottery, rather than the son of a millionaire. The very things that the traditional GOP leadership was either uncomfortable with or apoplectic regarding turned out to be strengths: his jokes, his vulgarity, his plain talk, and his contempt for all manner of political correctness.
The critics did not see it coming either in the primary or afterwards. And the reason is plain, and discussed at length in Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: they mostly have little sympathy for and experience with this Other America. And the things they criticized and the manner of their criticism strengthened his “anti-fragile” message, inasmuch, as his supporters felt it was an attack upon themselves and the things they either valued or at least possessed in some degree. He talked and thought like them, and he was attacked for talking and thinking like them. These attacks brought Trump and his supporters closer together. They all paid a price, and they all saw the bared teeth of their opponents.
Hillary Was A Standard-Issue Democrat, Who Was Also Corrupt and Unlikeable
Hillary was not a destined loser. Let’s not forget, this was a close election. A few small changes in turn-out, and the result may have been reversed. Hillary largely did manage to consolidate the core Democratic Party constituencies: childless urban young people, government dependents, minorities, single moms, sophisticated urban professionals, and the like. But she did not excite them so much. They did not come out in the same numbers as 2012 for Obama, and there were notable reductions in loyalty among Hispanics, Asians, and working class whites. And working class whites are, in spite of our “new electorate,” the chief swing constituency in America where most of the other demographics are locked up in one party or the other.
This failure to excite even her core supporters probably has something to do with her reputation for corruption and her undeniable status as the status quo candidate. None of these things helped on the margins, and the Benghazi and Email scandals were classic Clinton.
In addition, I should think her status as a Clinton has some impact on her failure to connect sufficiently with feminist-leading white women, whom most of her ads were aimed at. Like George W. Bush, it’s hard to believe she would be where she was, wielding as much power as she did, if her husband was not a former president. If a woman is to be the president, might it not have some more punch if she got there through her own talents? After all even Pakistan had a female leader related to a previous male leader. Similarly, (I hope) no one thought W. was the best and most qualified person in 2000. Alternating Bush and Clinton presidencies since 1988 with only the Obama interregnum leaves Americans of a democratic bent understandably uneasy.
Her problem was not merely her reputation and status, but also that her economic and policy message was vague. As presaged by the Bernie Sanders phenomenon, there is a great deal of fear and loathing among many Americans regarding the perceived chummy nature of Wall Street and Washington DC, evidenced by the near absence of any prosecution of bad actors following the 2008 economic crisis, as well as the sweetheart TARP loans that saved Goldman, AIG, and others from the consequences of their gambling with other people’s money. Having given numerous $250K a pop speeches to these groups, it was hard to believe she would do anything to reign them and their power in.
Finally, her personal style, in contrast to Trump’s, was icy and entitled. Videos of her angrily asking “Why she’s not 50 points ahead?” or “What difference does it make?” were not easily forgotten. These personal flaws were coupled with her apparent lack of enthusiasm, infrequent speeches, poorly attended rallies, robotic and staged demeanor, and, most important, an absence of message other than “Trump is a bad man” and “she’ll be the first woman president.” What she would do for the people hurting economically and what she would do to make the country safer, in light of her professed globalism, were never well articulated.
Trump Had a Sensible Policy Message
Trump’s campaign was, irony of ironies, one of policy. Trump had a clear policy message for anyone paying attention. It was communicated far more articulately than the aspirational themes of Hillary and Obama, the latter of whom ran, we can’t forget, on the gauzy slogan “Hope and Change.”
Trump ran as a pragmatist with a nationalist edge. He said we should reduce immigration and enforce our laws in order to benefit native-born Americans. We should negotiate trade deals, not as an exercise in fidelity to abstract principles, but in the manner of a businessman seeking the best deal for his boss, in this case, the American people. And in foreign policy, America First must be the watchword of the day, which Trump articulated through skepticism of idealistic campaigns like the war in Syria. His opposition to Iraq, which turned out to be a dead end, reinforced this reluctance to get involved in military action when the American people do not directly benefit.
Hillary and the neoconservatives who supported her amplified Trump’s message with their frequent war-mongering regarding Russia, which is not a natural enemy of our country. The establishment’s consensus on intermediate foreign policy objectives –NATO expansion, human rights promotion, and elusive stability–turned out to be a hard sell for Hillary. Periodic terrorist atrocities based on our national leadership’s failure to use border control to protect ourselves from Muslim terrorism highlighted Trump’s message.
While Trump and the media’s relentless attacks on Trump exposed his flaws and likely cost him some votes, Hillary never said very clearly what she was going to do and how the things she has already done would benefit and protect the lives and livelihoods of ordinary Americans.
Other issues like Obamacare and gun control undoubtedly helped out Trump in consolidating the Republican base, but his biggest achievement was deemphasizing divisive social issues like gay marriage or abortion in favor of controversial but, on net, popular positions on immigration, trade, and foreign policy. The vocal opposition of establishment figures in both parties only highlighted that he was–love him or hate him–the change candidate in spite of the “historic” nature of Hillary’s run.
What Went Wrong With Polls?
Trump’s success occurred in spite of repeated, very certain predictions on how he would definitely lose. These predictions were made by very smart people, who have long been political observers, pollsters, media figures, or otherwise political professionals. No doubt polling is a difficult business, as the raw data requires some massaging, because it all comes down to who is going to vote. Anyone can answer a polling question. But actually voting requires a certain amount of effort, planning, and interest. It’s hard to know who will actually do that.
That said, the scale and uniformity of their wrongness is reminiscent of the 2008 Economic Crisis. All the experts were wrong, and they were cocksure right to the very end. Models have inherent uncertainty. Data only measures what it can measure. And common sense–that inchoate bundle of lived experience, historical knowledge, and self-doubt–was in short supply on both occasions.
Data is not just “numbers.” Data is information, which requires analysis and evaluation to be rendered into useful knowledge. What all the polls seemed to miss is that in swing states and traditional Democratic strongholds, Trump could fill an arena with two or three days notice. He could do this repeatedly across the nation several times a day. There was undoubtedly an enthusiasm gap, which mattered more than in past cycles because it was magnified by the increasing prominence of social media.
For each of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who attended a Trump rally, there would be 10 times that number in friends, relatives, coworkers, and acquaintances informed of the event via social media. This was Trump’s ground game: his army of enthusiastic MAGA-Hat wearing fans, who would proselytize for free on Facebook, Twitter, and in person to everyone they knew. I know, because I was one of them.
And as Trump becomes not the ogre of Hillary’s ads, but the person that your trusted friend, uncle, son, or coworker defends, it becomes a bit more acceptable to vote for him yourself. Obama benefited from the same phenomenon, particularly among young people, but nowadays grandma is on Facebook too. By contrast, I cannot recall meeting a single enthusiastic Hillary supporter this go around.
Trump Disrupts the System
Trump’s victory is enormous. It represents a repudiation of conventional wisdom on campaigning and on policy that was shared by both parties. It shows the value of conviction, authenticity, and the simple power of listening to voters and their concerns. It shows how not dancing to the tune of the media–which encourages weakness and self-doubt–allows one to reframe the debate and show courage of conviction at the same time. It exposes the fragility of political correctness and the “smart fools” who make up our media and political elite. And, most important, it shows that a great many legacy Americans are going to go down fighting rather than accept the bipartisan and destructive policies of open borders, free trade, and “idealistic” war that have characterized American life since the end of the Cold War.