Most of the pundits and my liberal friends did not think that Donald Trump could become the president of the United States. One may say that he is even an illegitimately elected president, because he received over 300,000 fewer votes than Hillary Clinton, which implies that she won her states with bigger margins than Trump won his. But that does not matter, because our Electoral College system privileges the majority within the Electoral College. All the electoral votes in a state go to the candidate with the plurality of the votes in that state rather than proportionally according to the relative vote. But Clinton has already conceded defeat, and Trump gave his brief victory speech, where he did not outline any policy but merely promised to heal the “divided” nation, whatever that means.
There are two pertinent questions which arise: (1) why did Donald Trump win the election? and (2) what kind of policies and policy environment can we expect under a Trump administration?
Why Donald Trump Won the Election?
The first question is undoubtedly easier to answer than the second, but I shall venture on my guesses. Let’s begin on the first. I will briefly say something about explanations, I don’t find convincing: I reject the claim that third party voters spoiled the vote in favor of Trump, because the overall support for the third parties was rather negligible. I also don’t think that misogyny kept Clinton from the White House, in the same manner that racism didn’t keep out Obama in 2008. I will also reject the claim that half of Americans are racist. There is no doubt a sizable number of racists and secret racists in the country, and they have backed Trump, but not every Trump voter is a racist.
(a) Hillary Clinton represents the hated establishment, which many people don’t like. During previous election cycles, few people would have cared whether the leading candidate belonged to the establishment. I have argued previously that screwing working people with stagnant wages, rising health care and education costs and growing economic insecurity will create electoral backlash. The establishment had no interest in the plight of those working people, and thought it was more convenient to do big fundraisers with the 1%. Clinton epitomizes the establishment, because she has been part of the national Democratic Party for 25 years if you count the time with her husband. She was mired in a cloud of scandals, which the news media fired up, and she lacked the charisma to communicate to people why they should support her (very much unlike her very charismatic husband). Because of her establishment connections, it didn’t even matter that her policies were more to the left than her husband’s 25 years ago (mainly due to the Bernie Sanders effect). What matters is the public perception of mistrust. It also did not help that the president and the previous presidents and other Republican establishment figures were backing her, because that lowered her credibility among establishment skeptics.
Trump was not part of the establishment, even though he was a businessman getting rich off that corrupt campaign finance system, which he even admitted in his rallies. He vowed to fix it, though not how, which suggests he has no serious policy ideas, but what matters are not the sanity of policy proposals, but the sentiment of the anti-establishment spirit, which he embodied. The media and the liberal public was chastising him for his sexism and bigotry, but that actually increased the appeal of Trump among his supporters. They felt the political incorrectness was a breath of fresh air. Political correctness for the Trump supporters is really a way to silence their grievances, which they think they have a right to air, and Trump was the figure, who was never shaken by any scandal directed against him. In fact, he deflected any scandal against him, and threw spoonful of allegations back against Clinton. That made him the decisive anti-establishment figure.
(b) The angry white working class around the rustbelt turned out in larger numbers. Clinton clearly won a vast majority of the black, Latino, Asian and female vote, so there wasn’t much false consciousness among the different demographic groups that Trump derided. But their groups are still a minority and if their turnout is low, because of lack of enthusiasm for Clinton, then the very enthusiastic Trump supporters sway the elections. Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida all went to Trump. With the exception of Florida, these are all rustbelt states, which heavily relied on steel, car and manufacturing plants for employment. They have been the losers of globalization, automation and the motions of capitalism. Opioid addiction, alcohol addiction, suicide, early death, unemployment are all problems there. Almost all of the income gains are concentrated in the top 1% of the population.
The Trump supporters are the most angry about the Clintons having sold them down the drain in the 1990s with the free trade agreements, which had bipartisan consensus. Even though Clinton later backtracked on the free trade agreements (for electoral reasons, because I think she would have negotiated the TPP once elected to “assert American interests”, like Obama has) and her tax and job initiative policies would have helped the white working class men more than any shady initiative by Trump, it didn’t help her. The optics were so much turned against her. Trump, however, championed these voters in the many well-attended rallies he had, because he promised them that jobs would come back when he rips up trade agreements and imposes tariff barriers on foreign imported goods. It was all a hoax because the tariffs won’t bring the jobs back, and I don’t think he will rip up the trade agreements because of his close ties to business people, but that didn’t matter, it’s the optics that mattered, and people need something to hold onto.
(c) The left-wing crowd was not enthusiastic about Clinton. This point does not need much elaboration. One of the reasons why Bernie supporters are correctly saying that he would have received more independent votes than Clinton is because the left and many in the center would have strongly supported his policy positions. He would have been competitive in some Republican states in a way that Clinton could never dream about. It is true that most Sanders backers swung around to vote for Clinton, but the enthusiasm gap for Clinton has cost her some votes, probably in the form of abstention. Another interesting detail was that the African American vote now was smaller than in 2008 and 2012, which would suggest that the Obama-boost, as first African-American president, cannot be completely denied. But a Trump-Sanders showdown would have been fantastic for the dynamics in US elections, because both do not represent the establishment and would have galvanized both of their bases, while the actual election galvanized the Trump voters but not the Clinton voters, who had the best advisers, campaign funding and canvassing strategy, but no general enthusiasm.
(d) Trump has charisma. Charisma, according to Max Weber, is a mythical, magical quality in a leader, which inspires followers to support this leader. His charisma is in part cultivated with his experience as TV host and as businessman, negotiating contracts and getting “good” deals. It does not even matter what the results are, because he had lost a lot of money in lawsuits and failed investments and his policy proposals are flimsy and superficial. Only experts can uncover Trump as a charlatan, but that is not what most people want to hear. I have people in my family and among some friends, who are devotionally inspired by the Trump campaign, because he blurts out what he thinks, even if what he says is not deep at all. Clinton desperately tried to hammer Trump on his sexism, racism and bigotry, and the low-point of the Trump campaign according to mainstream media and the politically correct sectors of the country (like Ivy League universities) was reached, when he made approving comments of grabbing women by their genitals. But that racism and sexism framework being bad (e.g. trigger warnings) only works in parts of the country.
The white working class turnout, which was decisive for his victory (ironically, a shrinking part of the electorate, which implies that future Republican candidates have to increase mobilization even further if they want to be competitive in future elections), reflects not the direct approval of Trump’s bigotry, but the liking of his authenticity. He says what he thinks, which is very much unlike the establishment, which has to formulate very sweet words. The more outrageous things that Trump said, the more authentic he became in the eyes of his ardent supporters. Trump by marking himself as against the establishment could take the liberty of pushing the boundaries of what can be said.
With Clinton the opposite impression is true. If you watched her during the debates you will see her very well thought-out and careful statements, every word having been spin-doctored and rehearsed. There wasn’t any emotional touch that she could create with her audience. This outward appearance is not relevant to policy wonks like myself, who are only interested in what policies the candidates had to present. In fact, if policy content was the only thing that mattered, then Clinton would have won the elections. But the country does not consist of policy experts, so we need to have the charismatic leader. People need leaders, who can inspire them, even if the policy content is fake. If you consider the Republican primary debates, all of the candidates were actually very much alike on the policy content, but you could also see the wooden tone and the artificiality of the other politicians, who have experience as politicians. All that Trump had to do to gain more popularity was to show that he was outwardly different from them, that he was a businessman non-establishment candidate, who can shake things up from the outside.
What Policies Can We Expect from a Trump Administration?
What Trump’s victory boils down to is massive discontent against the establishment, because it has not delivered on the needs of the working class, who were sold out by their leaders and the capitalist economy, which pumps profits for the bosses rather than take care of their needs. If that is the case, then the question arises what it means for the country politically. Will Trump be able to deliver on his promises to (1) rip up the trade agreements, (2) revoke environmental and business regulations (“red tape”), (3) reform the tax code (i.e. give tax breaks to the rich), (4) build the wall with Mexico and deport illegal immigrants, (5) repeal Obamacare, (6) appoint conservative Supreme Court Justices?
On a policy-level all of these proposals are very concerning, and I have no doubt that the “little guy”, who has put him into power, will not benefit from any of these policies. Trump is intent on doubling down on trickle-down economics, a slap in the face for his white working-class supporters. Trump is after all a member of the billionaire class, and he had a natural indifference to the people below him, which is evidenced by his refusal to pay of contractors and workers in his businesses. There is no reason to assume that simply because he called out the corruption and he is above the campaign-cash (which turned out not to be true: he got money from some rich people) that he will not serve the people of his own class.
The best predictor of his economic policy will be the kinds of people he will appoint to his cabinet. The Financial Times circulates the names of high-level Wall Street bankers and investors. Steve Mnuchin (former Goldman executive) and Wilbur Ross (distressed asset investor) as Treasury secretary. Other economic advisers include Lawrence Kudlow, former chief economist at Bear Stearns, and Steve Moore, conservative Heritage Foundation economist (Fleming and Donnan 2016). The entire anti-establishment sentiment is directed against Wall Street, but Wall Street will be the fox guard the hen house.
The policy proposals are visible too: Trump will work closely with the Republican Congress to massively slash taxes on the rich, who are supposed to get an average tax deduction of 13% as opposed to 4% for the general public (Rubin 2016). Before people are jumping up and down for the lower taxes they now have to pay to the government, they should consider that people also rely on social programs like Medicare and Social Security, which are also on the chopping block on a Republican administration. The Republican Congress will likely also work together with Trump on reducing the power of the EPA, and perhaps even phasing it out. They will want to benefit the coal, gas and oil industry and accelerate climate change, which Trump considered to be a hoax. He does not care about any externalities to business activity, and we should race headlong into a warmer future without doing anything about and defunding any scientists, who do serious climate research.
It is questionable whether Trump will deliver on his plans to build the wall, but what is for certain is that doubling down on deporting illegal immigrants is actually not such a great departure from the status quo. Obama had the double-faced policy of massively expanding deportations while protecting under-age undocumented residents in school from deportation. Trump wanted to give a huge boost to the prison and law enforcement agencies anyway, so deportations are a natural method of getting there. Being tough on immigration is politically one of the easiest things to do, because the frightened natives can quell their subjective fears while the veto power is relatively small, as non-citizens have not entitlement to vote and punish the current leaders.
Ripping up trade agreements will be much more complicated. He might derail the TPP or TTIP if he does not actively promote these agreements. Drift will result in policy failure. On the other hand, his commitment to destroy NAFTA, PNTR with China and CAFTA is more difficult to accomplish. It is easier to say no to what will come than to destroy what is already there and has vested interests in support. Trump prided himself to be independent from the lobbyists in the business community, but given that he will appoint people from the business community, he is signaling policy continuity to that business community, which does not want an end to the trade agreement. The Republican Congress is unlikely to back him on retreating on the previous trade agreements, because the entire party is owned by the business class. But the trade agreements are a centerpiece of Trump’s campaign, though he will know how to sell himself and weasel his way out of it.
Repealing Obamacare is a genuine possibility and it is possible to attack the fragile law by upending cost-sharing (which subsidizes high-risk insurance plans, i.e. plans with many sick patients) or repealing the mandate, which would reduce the number of insurers on the exchange, because they are banking on everyone paying the penalty or signing up for their insurance plans, and repealing the mandate would remove such impetus. But the difficult calculation for Trump will be that if he repeals Obamacare, it will immediately remove 20 million people from health insurance, which could create a massive political backlash because it is easier to prevent new benefits than to remove benefits on which people already rely on. This might be a risk that Trump is willing to take given that he is not a natural politician and would treat one or two terms in power as equally satisfying.
The Supreme Court will become substantially more conservative. The Republicans have blocked the appointment of a new Justice for almost a year after the death of Antonin Scalia. Trump has signaled that he will appoint the anti-abortion, pro-corporate Justices, and there is no doubt that he will be successful here. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 83, Stephen Breyer is 78 and Anthony Kennedy is 80, which means that within 10 years there will be three new Supreme Court Justices (unless they each live until 100). Ginsburg and Breyer were both liberal Clinton appointees, while Kennedy is considered a moderate conservative. If we add the three more conservative judges to that there could be six out of nine justices that are right-wing justices.
Does the Trump presidency offer any positive prospect for the country? Slavoj Zizek thinks that even as Trump is a horrendous candidate for power, he will move forward the dialectics. The reasoning here is rather simple: it has to get worse before it gets better. The German Communists were happy that the economy descended into chaos in the 1920s, because that would make it easier for the communists to succeed. But will that really happen? Hitler came first and imprisoned the communists. Communism succeeded in East Germany under the direction of the Soviet Union, but crumbled under its internal contradictions in 1990. But there is no genuine reason to believe that history will have such a dialectical movement. Where are the forces of revolution to emerge out of the carnage? And even if it were true, I find it ethically questionable to tolerate a deterioration of the current reality for people.
But, of course, I get it. Let us not forget that this was not a pro-Trump, but an anti-establishment election. The costs that are attached to a Clinton presidency would perhaps be economically smaller (Clinton would not have been as progressive as Sanders, but she was fairly close at that stage), but politically it would be bigger. Her win would have suggested that the elites can continue celebrating the party among themselves, and maybe hand just one or two extra crumbs to the crowds. Let us not forget that an essential part of the Clinton strategy was to give big speeches in the big banks, do fundraisers with Hollywood actors, cozy up with big industries and lobbyists, and hire the pollsters, the pundits, the campaign shenanigans. Her victory would have sanctioned the status quo, and none of the voters want that. The fact that we still have the institution of democracy means that people will resort to the protest vote until their situation gets objectively better, whether that’s the Greek bailout referendum, the Dutch referendum on the EU-Ukraine association agreement, the Brexit referendum or the Trump victory. As it turns out, Trump is following his class instincts, and I expect him to change less about the status quo than his supporters would have hoped for, but that does not change his voters’ views of Clinton.
What it all boils down to is that Trump is a marketing genius, who in his businessman manner was capable of selling his white working class a dream about a better economic situation, but has to sell them out in practice. We are in for some exciting times, though this is not meant in a positive way.