As the early results of the 2016 election came in, it looked like the United States was indeed about to have its first female President. The networks were calling the early reporting states on the East coast for Hillary Clinton. The talking heads on T.V. had some discussion about the margin of her lead being less than predicted, but things were panning out as expected. Then the swing states began to report. One by one, they were being called for Trump. When the networks called the election for Donald J. Trump, there was a sense of shock- at least in my house, and as I would discover the next day, in most of California. What had just happened?
One of the most common statements that I heard in the run-up to election day 2016 was, “How, out of a population of 350 million people, did we end up with these two candidates?” Two bad candidates was the general consensus of the conversations that I had. One candidate was a boorish, vulgar, sexist, racist, reality T.V. star who struggled with honesty and who had insulted his way to the Republican nomination. However, the other candidate had previously served as First Lady, had been a Senator for New York, and had served as Secretary of State in the Obama administration. Hillary seemed to be eminently qualified.
Despite this experience, Hillary had two significant problems facing her. One, she is a woman (misogyny played a role, many voters were not ready, even in 2016, to have a female as commander and chief) and two she was deeply, deeply unpopular with large sections of the population. Even in California, one could sense that Hillary was unloved. Certainly, there was a marked contrast between the reception that Michelle Obama received and the reaction of crowds to Mrs. Clinton. Republicans despised her liberal agenda, and they believed that she was corrupt. Whether it was the 30,000 emails or the Clinton Foundation or the Benghazi controversy Fox News and other right-wing media made sure that some mud stuck to Clinton.
On the other hand, the Trump campaign seemed like a bad joke. It has been suggested that Trump first ran for election to drill up support for a new T.V. channel. The “Donald” had been dropped as host from the NBC show “The Apprentice,” and he was looking to set up his own channel. At first, he was a novelty in the Republican primaries. However, Trump dominated media coverage of the nomination process. He has a real talent for controlling the news cycle, and he would use this talent very effectively throughout 2015 and 2016. One by one, he took out the Republican front runners such as “lying Ted Cruz” or “low energy Jeb Bush” through insults and name-calling. He had very simple, but effective slogans, “Make America Great Again,” “Build the Wall,” and “Drain the Swamp.” He would add “crooked Hillary,” and “lock her up” for the Presidential race.
Trump’s campaign became more and more obnoxious and absurd. He made overtly racist comments about Mexicans and Muslims. He insulted judges and Gold Star families and shockingly admitted on tape to sexually assaulting women. Yet he still dominated the media agenda, and he fired up his base at his public rallies. He was definitely striking a chord with a sizable portion of the population. The crowds were large, and they chanted his slogans loud and proud while wearing their red MAGA (Make America Great Again) hats. Despite the revelations of two extramarital affairs with porn stars, the evangelical Christian right rowed in behind him to give him their support.
Both the candidates had their weaknesses. Still, it appeared that one had a fantastic resume, experience, and the temperament for the job of leader of the free world and the other, at best, lacked basic decency, and, at worst, had committed crimes on the campaign trail. While Hillary’s “deplorable’s” comment insulted 30% of the population, it seemed that Trump’s sexism and racism would disqualify him from office in the minds of voters. Indeed, that’s the way the polls appeared to be pointing. Trump needed to win all the swing states, yet he was behind in the polls in all of the swing states. I was so confident that Clinton would win that a couple of days before the election, I sent a tweet predicting a landslide victory for Clinton.
Even now, three years into Trump’s Presidency, it is difficult to comprehend how he achieved his remarkable victory. The Republican voters, it seems, would vote for any candidate other than Clinton. Once Trump had secured the Republican nomination, he was sure to get the committed Republican vote in the Presidential election. Not only do the Republicans despise Hillary, but they are also very worried that the Democrats would interfere with their second amendment rights and try to take away their guns.
However, they were also very concerned with the appointment of vacancies to the Supreme Court. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, had refused to hold the confirmation hearings of Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland. So there was already one vacancy, and given the age profile of the Justices on the Supreme court, it was very likely that more vacancies would arise. Republicans saw the chance to shape the nature of the Supreme Court for years to come by having a Republican President appoint two or three judges to the court. A more conservative court would likely protect the second amendment rights they hold so dearly. It could also row back abortion rights by overturning Roe vs. Wade and could take a more traditional position on other social issues such as gay and transgender rights. Many on the right felt that the liberal agenda- the feminist movement, abortion rights, gay marriage, and transgender issues- were taking the United States in the wrong direction. The unity of the Republicans in their support of Trump was, in part, a backlash to the successes of the liberal agenda.
The more surprising thing about Trump’s success in the election was the fact that in some of the swing states, counties that had voted twice for Obama flipped and voted for Trump. These voters were crucial for his success because even a fully united Republican party could not secure him the Presidency. He needed to persuade independents, undecideds, and some Democrats to vote for him. It seems strange that significant numbers of voters who voted twice for Obama were now opting for Trump. One of the Santa Clara County Supervisors, Joe Simitian, decided to travel to some of these counties to try and figure out this conundrum. He spoke to over 100 people, some by appointment, and some in line at the grocery store or diner. One of the major factors he identified was the economic decline that these counties had suffered over the previous decade. People who had been employed in manufacturing on a salary of $60,000-$70,000 were now working in a service sector job earning less than $30,000. It seems that Trump’s plan to put “America First” and to bring manufacturing jobs back to these states struck a chord with these voters.
Trump also made immigration a centerpiece of the election. He attacked Mexicans, saying Mexico sends it’s worst people, calling them “bad hombres” and saying they were criminals and rapists. He accused Democrats of being in favor of open borders, and his simple slogan of “Build the Wall” gave the impression that he was tough on illegal immigration and forced the Democrats into defending their immigration policies. There is an old saying in politics that says, “when you are explaining you are losing.” Trump was forcing the democrats to explain their nuanced position on immigration, while Trumps’s message was clear and simple. It doesn’t matter that it was a crazy idea. It was easy to understand and allowed him to appear tough. This tough-guy image played well with racists who were concerned that the U.S. was becoming less white and who didn’t like it when people spoke in Spanish instead of English. Trump also attacked Muslims as being Unamerican.
Many wealthy Republican’s voted for Trump because of the tax breaks he promised for large corporations and millionaires. What is more surprising is the passion some poor rural folk have for the supposed billionaire New Yorker. These voters seemed to see Trump as the antidote to political correctness- a straight talker who tells it like it is. One guy I know said he would love to go on a night out with Trump because he felt he would be a lot of fun.
Also, Trump has the image of a very successful businessman, somebody who wins. It seems people bought into that- people like, and want, to be associated with success. It didn’t matter that many of Trump’s business enterprises had failed. It didn’t matter that he had been declared bankrupt. It didn’t matter that his first two marriages had failed and that he was a serial cheater on his third wife. The allegations of shady and corrupt business practices or his failure to produce his tax returns didn’t impact the image of him as a successful business in the eyes of his supporters. Trump developed a cult following- he said himself that he could “shoot somebody on fifth avenue,” and his base would not turn on him. He was offering “Hope and Change” (Obama’s slogan) to the people who had felt left behind during the previous eight (or maybe 20) years.
Those Americans who had been scared of, or disillusioned by, the Obama Presidency became easy pickings for Russian driven propaganda. Facebook was the perfect tool. Traditionally when an advertisement for one candidate or attacking another candidate appeared on tv, everyone saw it, and it could be fact-checked and rebutted effectively. However, the ads on facebook are tailored to the individuals’ tastes and preferences. Facebook knows what you have been searching for online. It recognizes the interests and hobbies of you and your friends. If you have several friends who like golf, then your Facebook feed will see lots of ads for golf. This is particularly true if you regularly interact with these friends. The Russians were able to target ads warning that Hillary was “coming for your guns” to people who were worried about the second amendment or videos and meme’s portraying Muslims or Mexicans in a bad light, were targeted at people concerned about immigration. Once people hit like or share on this propaganda, then their, often like-minded friends could also be outraged. Trump lost the popular vote. A relatively small number of votes (107,000) allowed him to win three crucial swing states. There is no doubt that Russian propaganda helped Donald Trump win the election.
Ultimately, Trump was elected because he successfully exploited the deep divisions in the United States. The depth of the division was not apparent before the election. Of course, there were obvious divisions between Democrats and Republicans, between rich and poor and between liberal and conservatives. The most glaring difference was along racial lines. But it still seemed that there was a robust center on both sides to temper the worst excesses of the extremists. Trump has exploded that moderate center.
The divisions have widened considerably since his victory. He has emboldened people to express views that many people believed had been consigned to history. People now felt braver to express racist, anti-migrant, and homophobic comments. White supremacists began organizing marches, and groups such as Antifa emerged to confront them. Since taking office, Trump has made well over 10,000 false statements. Despite this lowering of the bar- there have been so many shocking lies and contradictions- the Republican representatives and senators are becoming more entrenched in their support of him. The moral compass of the GOP seems to have died with the late Senator John McCain.
On a trip to Washington D.C., I remember seeing a young schoolgirl, maybe 16-18 years of age, wearing a Trump T-shirt with the following slogan: “I lived through eight years of Obama. Now you get to live through eight years of Trump.” After everything Trump had said about women, it blew my mind that a young girl could be supporting this President. The Democrats have begun the impeachment process, but it seems, at the moment, highly unlikely that at least 20 Republicans in the Senate will vote to remove him from office.
Imagine if the Senate doesn’t remove him, and he wins re-election in 2020. He will be a law on to himself. The system of checks and balances and the separation of powers, which are the foundation of the constitution, will be destroyed. He will be untouchable.