With Donald Trump having just become president-elect of the United States, many people are searching for explanations.
At time of writing, the count showed more than 59 million Americans cast their vote for Trump. There is a palpable sense of shock.
There are two explanations below, chosen because in conversations about the Trump phenomenon, these have stuck with me. They’re from people who closely follow public sentiment, and the stories or “evidence”, if you like, lean on the views of voters.
1. Burning down the house
This is an excerpt from a column published on Business Insider by Australian pollster Mark Textor a few weeks ago:
… a US polling colleague told me about a focus group of (swing) Trump supporters he’d recently witnessed.
These people were Middle America: hardworking, reasonable folk on modest incomes. Many were volunteers, some worked for government.
When he asked these Trump supporters to describe him, many were far from complimentary, describing him as “probably dishonest”, “a bit sleazy” and “not very Presidential”
Flummoxed, my colleague asked, given such unenthusiastic descriptions, why were they still considering turning out to vote for him? He said one voter in particular, a military veteran, summed Trump up for him this way:
“Well, we don’t have, can’t have American revolutions with guns any more, and DC is a corrupt, diseased town, so I figure sometimes ‘to save the village you gotta burn that village’ and Trump is the nearest flaming torch.”
Line this up with Trump’s election-eve TV ad, which you can watch below.
Trump had been exposed as a serial liar throughout the campaign, including grossly mischaracterising the treatment of one of his supporters by Barack Obama at a Clinton rally hours before the election. Economists and foreign policy experts lined up to condemn him. He was caught using vile language about women and was accused of being a sexual predator. He broke with a long-standing tradition of presidential candidacy by not disclosing his tax returns, so we do not – and may never – really know his contribution to the running of government services that he is now about to take charge of.
In traditional terms his political credibility was demolished.
But he was the “flaming torch”.
In his last-ditch ad, aired over a final weekend in campaigning when he repeatedly hammered the message that “the system is rigged”, he was brutal in his encouragement of rejecting establishment power.
“Our movement,” the ad begins, “is about replacing a failed, and corrupt, political establishment with a new government controlled by you, the American people.” It features footage of famed investor George Soros, so-called “family photo” group shots of leaders of global governments, and CEOs of major companies.
Here it is:
When you put that ad together with the view that voters were ready to “burn down the village”, there is a powerful connection.
Low interest rates and heavy government regulation make life hard
This example is less blunt and piercing than the above. It’s from an interview with veteran political reporter and satirist P.J. O’Rourke back in July, when Trump had secured the Republican nomination but a victory was highly unlikely, probably even to the Trump campaign.
Here’s O’Rourke (with emphasis added, and some editing for brevity. You can read the full interview here):
There are people uncomfortable with the way the United States is changing, and not uncomfortable with the bad ways the United States is changing, which for me would be the phenomenal growth of national debt, our huge budget deficit, and some central bank policy that doesn’t make any sense to me whatsoever…
But I don’t think that’s the core of Trump’s support … Underlying support, and what will actually get him the votes that he will get, is just an overall frustration with the size and scope and intrusiveness of government. When I interviewed Trump supporters in New Hampshire, they went almost immediately to things like local permitting, which the President of the United States has actually zero effect on. Some guy who owned a gas station talking about his inability to get the permits to replace his old tanks, or put new tanks in. He couldn’t do anything.
Somebody else was talking about – and this comes closer to the presidential election – such things like Obamacare. He says nobody in government, when they think up these programs, thinks about that load of paperwork that lands on my desk. He said: “It’s me and my wife. I don’t have an HR department. I don’t have a services department. I don’t have any of that. It’s time away from my business. I’ve got to sit there and figure it out.”
And this guy, he owned a tow-truck operation. Not a paperwork sort of guy.
The fury is partly about the weight and intrusiveness of government just being felt everywhere. … you build this bigger and bigger and bigger government that’s in charge of more and more and more things, so there are more ways for it to disappoint you.
At time of writing, many hours into the election count, Donald Trump was ever-so-slightly ahead (by around 300 votes) in New Hampshire, a state most people thought he could never win.
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