For several weeks I have been trying to record my thoughts about the victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 US presidential election. I've made reference to Trump in some other posts and written about what we should expect from a Trump administration in something for the Huffington Post, but otherwise I've not really addressed the election, the declaration of the winner or why Trump won.
I was not a particularly keen follower of American politics in school - I couldn't tell the difference between the Democrats and the Republicans, even during the 2012 campaign and election - but coming to university I was introduced more to politics through my independent studies of economics. There's far more to what I read and discovered, but, in a nutshell, I read about capitalism, Marxian economics, neoliberalism and the financial crash of 2007/2008. I came across various schools of thought, many promoting Reaganomics and austerity, and heard economists such as Milton Friedman and Paul Krugman make their cases for how we should do economics. Relating to Friedman's kind of economics was the very American attachment to individualism and liberty, which I interpreted from a philosophical angle.
When the 2016 candidates came forward and started debating, my interest in American politics grew. When Trump started making his bizarre and outrageous comments, a lot of us thought it was all over for him and expected him to bow out of the race after a great loss of support. However, Trump started rising to the top of the polls and winning caucuses. Trump made the headlines again and again for his off-colour remarks, misbehaviour and insults. I followed the election a little more than before as the other Republicans bit the dust. One of The Yorker's writers keenly covered the elections, meaning that I was reading a lot about caucus results as I edited his work. I started writing about Trump over summer, voicing my concerns about the emergence of the 'post-truth world' (which seems only to be getting worse) and thinking about Trump's relationship with his own party.
Since Trump won in November, I've lost track of the number of articles I've read about him, his campaign, his potential government and reasons for his victory, as well as why Hillary Clinton lost. I wish that I could contribute something about it myself, but I can never write beyond a paragraph or two about it.
There are so many things to consider when it comes to answering the question, why did Trump win the election? Some people say his personal conduct was irrelevant: as a total outsider challenging a highly-disliked political establishment, he received the support of countless disenchanted, disenfranchised Americans, black and white, male and female. Others say that misinformation and bias within the media ensured Trump's victory, either by making sure that Trump's problems were never bigger than Clinton's, or giving Trump such an unfair hearing that people lost trust in the media and made up their own minds on their own experiences. Now that the news concerning Russian involvement has broken, we might hear more about that perspective over the next few weeks. Some people think that this was simply a response to an unpopular president whose did not deliver on his promises of change and had not recovered economic stability, making a Republican success inevitable. Others say it goes further than Obama: Trump's victory is a rejection of decades of social and cultural liberalism and a resurgence of religious fervour, social conservatism and petty nationalism.
I'm still undecided as to whether Trump is the greatest political mastermind of the generation or an extremely fortunate idiot. Either Trump was a clever politician-to-be, responding to the prejudices and anger of disenchanted Americans with bluster and bravado, manipulating the media coverage to dominate the headlines and broadcast his 'Make America Great Again' slogan across televisions around the country; or Trump is a rambling, clumsy, ignorant and impolite "man-child" whose victory rested on reasons irrelevant to his incompetence. Did Trump really believe all the things he was saying? The same options as before exist: either Trump was a scheming opportunist, promising the things he knew would gain him votes, playing on prejudices, fears and bad sentiment to create common enemies and pander to our general ignorance; or Trump was and is a foul ignoramus with no sense of decency or subtlety, triumphing by being so outspoken with his unpolished thoughts.
Plenty of people see Trump's victory as a rejection - but of what? The answer often relates to the commentator's political persuasion. Dependent on who you ask, the American public rejected globalisation; political correctness; a corrupt elite; feminism and other socio-cultural movements of the last few decades; the detested establishment... People voted for Trump in response to something - even if it was a vote for someone who "isn't as bad as Clinton." Mike Pence, Trump's Vice-President, defended Trump when he said that Clinton's "deplorables" comment was so much worse than what Trump had said before; plenty of Americans would agree. Trump might be bad, but Clinton was worse.
I also wonder sometimes if the accusations against Trump stack up: the descriptions of him as a racist, a misogynist, a sexist, a xenophobe and so on. I don't for a moment think that the things he has said are actually acceptable or reasonable, but the frequency with which Trump changes his mind about important principles and policy and how he simply says whatever comes into his head make me doubt that he believes any of it at all. Look at his conduct on Twitter - if you tick him off, he'll denounce you. Even if a company has been rising or improving, he'll Tweet about how your ratings are down, or your business is failing, or, if you're part of the media, you're a "fake news" outlet. Countless videos and statements that show Trump holding contradictory positions exist online - only the other day I was shown a video in which, a few years ago, Trump expressed his admiration for Bill and Hillary Clinton. He said that things had been good in Bill's presidency and that Hillary had put up with a lot of unfair criticism throughout. Contrast that with his suggestions that, under a Trump presidency, Hillary Clinton, the "most corrupt candidate ever," would be behind bars. The fact that so much of what Trump says contradicts itself makes me wonder if anything he says is from the heart. All of those insensitive comments about women and minorities might just be ill-thought-out ramblings.
It will take a while for me to come to a definite answer about why Trump won and how we should remember the 2016 campaigning, but the next questions concern the future. What kind of presidency will exist in America from 2016 - 2020? Who will benefit and who will lose out? Trump posed as a candidate of radical change, putting forward policies in response to the last few decades of governance that resemble protectionism, or putting "America first." From that description, you'd expect a sort of neo-Keynesian, nationalist economic policy. But Trump's cabinet is filling up with top businessmen and CEOs from the richest corporations in the USA, alongside Republican bigwigs whose views are to the right of the conventional Republican ideology (Mike Pence is a good example). Even though the Tea Party candidates failed to get the nomination, Trump's unexpected success might be the opportunity for the Republican Party to realise its dreams - repeal ObamaCare, reduce taxes, defund Planned Parenthood, cut government spending, reduce gun control, reduce regulation, maybe even repeal the legislation on same-sex marriage. If Trump is just a lackwit whose job is just to sign into legislation whatever Republican bills come before him, all of his radical promises were meaningless.
Donald Trump is an enigma. As each news story comes through and I continue to read opinion pieces from a number of newspapers and publications, I still find it hard to express confident thoughts about how we should interpret him. A genuine manifestation of hostility and distrust of mainstream political economy? The appearance and legitimisation of the alt-right? The astonishing realisation of Tea Party values combined with nationalist rhetoric? A rejection of progressive values, feminism and the cultural developments of the last decade? A desperate appeal for radical change in the face of economic devastation and globalism? Or a loser who got lucky by pandering to the prejudices and fears that for too long we pretended had died out?