Now that we’ve had a little bit of time to process the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, I hope I can share some honest thoughts: if you still do not understand how Donald J. Trump managed to win this election, then you are part of the reason why he won.
Yes, believe me, I know how hard it can be to fathom how a man who has espoused such hurtful, hateful, disgusting vitriol throughout the entirety of his campaign can still capture the vote of almost half the U.S. population. As an immigrant, a woman, and a person of colour with family in the United States, I was also wounded deeply many times by his polarizing remarks throughout this bitter election season.
For almost ten hours, I watched CNN project results for states from coast to coast, followed polls on the New York Times and Nate Silver’s “FiveThirtyEight”, and saw how the rigorously designed algorithms of election trackers began to swing the other way. Like many in Canada, I was devastated by the reality that was beginning to unfold before my eyes for our neighbours to the south.
If you still do not understand how Donald J. Trump managed to win this election, then you are part of the reason why he won.
I sat at the edge of my seat, from when the polls closed in New England, to the horrifying moment Donald J. Trump made an appearance at a hotel in New York City to congratulate himself and his team for winning this election.
Later though, slowly, the picture became clearer. Instead of decrying Trump’s supporters for being xenophobes, bigots, racists, misogynists, maybe we should look at the events that helped precipitate this outcome. Why did he win?
He won because of states like Iowa, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. He won because he invested his campaigning into a social tier that feels forgotten and betrayed by the progressivism of the last two decades: Rust Belt workers who feel marginalized by society because some of them still hold onto values that we now denounce as being outdated and offensive, in addition to falling to the bottom rungs of the economic ladder because the prosperity promised by free trade agreements such as NAFTA never materialized.
What have we as a so-called enlightened, progressive society done? We have excluded them from the growing conversation on race relations, gender equality, and the direction of our economy by censuring their voices because it doesn’t align with our political agendas.
This has not helped bridge our bitter political divide – it has pushed us further apart.
This election was a failure on the part of the wealthy elite, the neo-liberal Democrat politicians who have run the U.S. government for the last eight years. This was a massive failure on the part of many political journalists who write for mainstream media outlets. This was a failure on the part of our ignorance, as individuals who live our lives in isolated, egocentric bubbles of progressive neo-liberalist ideology, who indulge in the same failures of the liberal media bubble whose readership is constituted of like-minded individuals, who also feed off the reinforcement of our own social media echo chambers. This was collective, a failure of “us.”
…but thinking globally
That being said, I think there is a bigger global context that we all failed to account for when we were reading headlines leading up to this election. How did our mainstream press fail us so miserably?
This has not helped bridge our bitter political divide – it has pushed us further apart.
They weren’t wrong to criticize the Trump campaign – he pushed forward some horrible, nationalistic, Islamophobic, racist sentiments that have underscored some of the ugliest moments in our history. However, if liberal media voices really wanted the general vote to sway away from Trump and towards supporting Clinton, they unquestionably failed in doing so.
Vox published an article featuring the findings of a Gallup poll conducted in September, that measures the frequency of keywords heard by general Americans. For Clinton, it was overwhelmingly focused on the unfolding investigation into her email scandal. For Trump? There was nothing in particular that stood out. This is problematic because if you want your journalism to influence the public opinion on one candidate, there needs to be some sort of distinguishable, coherent narrative formed by the stories that are published.
What happened instead was that every time Trump made an outrageous comment or campaign move (which was all the time), media sources sought to capitalize on that headline as “Breaking News.” The negative press, which really did provide insight into some very questionable trends that we should’ve explored further, simply became noise to the ears of everyday Americans.
Hindsight is 20/20: it is impossible now to predict whether the U.S. media could’ve actually swayed the vote away from Trump. However, journalists have power over the collective consciousness of our societies, and by failing to tap into the popular sentiments of the working middle class that pushed Trump to the presidency, they also failed to place Trump’s campaign into the greater global context, which is far more disturbing than the 2016 U.S. presidential election alone.
Our mass media failed us by themselves failing to connect the dots – they painted Trump’s campaign as one that at its core was solely about racism, hatred, and violence. These were not the issues central to his platform that actually garnered him so much popularity. It was a platform that focused on issues such as the detriment of globalization and free trade, economic stability, immigration, and a strong united national identity, issues that then perpetuated the hateful and offensive sentiments he later became known for.
The negative press, which really did provide insight into some very questionable trends that we should’ve explored further, simply became noise to the ears of everyday Americans.
Do you know what his campaign sounds like? It sounds exactly like what has already been happening for two decades in many countries within the European Union (EU). And if any of us were actually paying attention to what was happening on the other side of the pond, maybe we would’ve seen that the rise of far-right nationalism is not an absurdist, unrealistic, xenophobic nightmare – it is real, it is appealing, and most importantly, it is spreading.
The voices of Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and many more nationalist, populist leaders, are resonating loud and clear within the hearts of millions of voters, young and old alike. Do you know what their voices sound like? They sound almost exactly like the hateful, racist rhetoric that we’ve been hearing from Trump for the past year and a half.
The core of far right nationalism is anti-immigration, isolationism, and protection of cultural identity. It is very much about closing borders to Muslims and refugees, backing out of free trade agreements, limiting immigrants, and returning to the nostalgia of older and better days.
This platform sounds exactly like that of the Trump’s campaign, doesn’t it? It also sounds exactly like the campaigns of many other far right nationalist party leaders who have been on the rise in the EU. If we had paid any attention to our global politics, how did we not see this election coming?
Too many questions, too few answers
Like many reading this, I have too many questions, and too few answers. It’s possible that the comparison that is slowly coming to light of the nationalistic Trump campaign and EU nationalism is one that is much more paranoid than based on empirical realities. Trump has already begun to change many of his stances that he held during the election season – removing promises to ban Muslims on his website, agreeing now to work with South Korea to keep their own borders strong against the North.
If we had paid any attention to our global politics, how did we not see this election coming?
Only time will tell, but it is completely possible that his campaign was run on right wing nationalist grandiloquence to capture votes, and Trump himself was merely an opportunist who knew how to play the game better than any of the other seasoned politicians he was running against. It may be too early to start panicking about a violent, fascist reality for America and Trump, but one thing is clear – there is a disenfranchised middle class who has fallen apart at the hands of globalization and immigration, and they have spoken.
I hope for all of us, the many individuals in my own social circle who have reinforced and contributed to the progressivity that I now adhere to, that we begin to ask questions from the other side, rather than patronize with our paternalistic explanations. Maybe the first step to bridging this horribly painful and bitter divide is by taking the courage to actually cross it and see what the view is like from the other side. We would probably realize then that the other side looks a lot more like ours than we originally imagined.