Thousands of articles have been written and many more will be written concerning the 2016 presidential election and the bizarre nature of the contest. Under normal circumstances and had the Republican candidate been anyone other than Trump, Clinton might have been able to secure the White House for the Democrats but the opposite is also true. An election between two political figures that had so many negatives going for them that the American voter was truly confused. The election is already behind us and Trump managed to win the presidency and hand the White House to the Republicans for the next four years. Researchers and political scientists alike will pour over the results to understand the outcome so as to draw lessons for the next round in the 2018 midterm election.
The electorate in the 2016 election was angry and frustrated due to an accumulation of economic pain and social dislocation. Trump, a totally unqualified outsider, met Clinton, the quintessential Washington insider in the year of the angry voter. The deep and generational anger was stoked and monetized into votes for Trump while sharpening attacks on Latino immigrants, African Americans, Muslims and a supposed Chinese conspiracy to undermine America’s economic competitiveness.
Trump and his campaign focused on the one issue that made a difference in the election: the failure of Washington’s political establishment in protecting working and middle-class whites. In here, important to notice the total erasure of African American and Latino working and middle-class pain and economic dislocation. “[H]ow little we know about their daily longings, their homely joys and sorrows, of their real shortcomings and the meaning of their crimes,” wrote Du Bois about African Americans – a remark which is quite valid today as it was at the time it was written and applies equally to Muslims, Latinos Asian Americans and Native Americans men and women in the contemporary postcolonial world.
The campaign focused on the economic pain and suffering present among working and middle-class whites in key battle states, which translated into a massive turn-out on election day. In the lead-up to the election, the Clinton campaign maintained the focus on Trump and made the election a referendum on his temperament and qualification, rather than focusing on the electorate that was sick and tired of being taken for granted. A vote for Trump was a vote against the establishment of both parties, which are more alike than different on key economic and foreign policy issues. At times, Trump managed to hit the needed populist chords to mobilize the disaffected voters to support his campaign, but just as frequently and sometimes in the same sentence, took a detour into racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia and misogyny. Trump was able to channel the anger across the country by pointing to the need to “drain the swamp” in Washington and bring about change.
Trump spoke of opposition to the Iraq War and continued U.S. spending on NATO and protection of countries that can afford to pay for their own security, which were themes that resonated with the disaffected working class whites. The election themes centered on the viability of continued intervention abroad, the destructive effects of the neoliberal economic order and globalization. The two candidates in the 2016 presidential election had one of the highest negative ratings in America’s political history, but voters opted to support an anti-establishment outsider rather than support a career politician. This was white backlash against the political order that started with the election of Obama, which for many symbolized America’s future horizons and the real shifts underway in the country. The anger was initially cultivated by the Tea Party and then was embraced by the Republican Party itself in the hope of defeating Obama. In this context, the angry white fringe has managed to take over the Republican Party.
Critically, the American electorate had considerable angst going into this election cycle with ghosts of failure on the domestic and foreign policy fronts casting a deep shadow on the country’s future. On the foreign policy front, the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq continues to haunt America’s political elite, which voted and supported a preemptive war based on false or fabricated pretexts. The Iraq invasion has cost the country dearly in blood and treasure with the consequences still unfolding daily. Who is responsible for dragging the country into war?
Often, the simple answer given is that it was George W. Bush who took the country to war, but in reality Washington’s political elite supported the Iraq invasion and regularly voted to provide the needed funding. The initial authorization that sanctioned the open-ended use of military force in the war on terrorism was only opposed by Congresswoman Barbara Lee, which meant both Democrats and Republicans supported this new military interventionist era. The neo-conservative wing of the Republicans pushed for the war and managed to secure the support of the Democratic party, including then-New York Senator Clinton. The Iraq War and America’s intervention and military deployment across the world have contributed to the massive debt and the ballooning of the federal deficit.
At the same time, the massive globalization, deregulations, neoliberal economics and outsourcing of jobs have caused massive disruption in cities and towns across America. Responsibility for this economic disaster is shared equally between both parties that acted in unison to support this pernicious and invasive capitalism. Certainly, NAFTA was passed during Bill Clinton’s presidency but the actual treaty and plans were developed in the last months of George Bush’s period. Responsibility falls equally on both parties that brought about the structural transformation of America’s economy and with it a massive loss of blue collar jobs. Shifting jobs overseas and destroying the manufacturing sector in the U.S. translated into prolonged and structural damage to the economy and created permanent unemployment among a large segment of the population. Again, the focus is on working and middle-class whites while African Americans and minorities in general are not included when economic pain and suffering are discussed.
The economic collapse of 2008 did not help matters either, and the rescue package given to corporate America and the banking sector left a deep scar in the minds of many people. Many across the country saw their life savings disappear and millions lost their homes and business, but the government rewarded the banks and corporations who caused the financial problem in the first place. Americans expected their government to protect them and not to reward those who acted irresponsibly, harmed the country and economy but alas it was not the case. The banks acted with malice in the financial sector and wrote loans and leveraged the economy in ways that the regular person had no capacity to understand, let alone being asked afterward to dig deeper to rescue these massive corporations. Too big to fail meant the regular person, the middle class and all tax payers had to carry the big and surely irresponsible banking industry. A trickle-up economic order was set in motion that rewarded irresponsible behavior in the market while millions of Americans were evicted from their homes and properties by the same banks and corporations.
Yes, jobs and the economy rebounded from the 2008 financial disaster but the growth and benefits again went to the top 1% and the bottom continued to experience stagnation, increased costs across the board and saddled with debt payments from the leveraged pre-collapse period. The combination of the foreign intervention and financial collapse are at the root of the current dissatisfaction with the government and the lack of trust of the political elite.
Yet, what was most problematic in Trump’s campaign is that he attacked the people that had no role in the crisis in the first place and left those responsible off the hock. Furthermore, the few advisors that worked with him belonged to the same camp that pressed for the Iraq War, pushed for deregulations and privatizations. He had a populist campaign that stoked white anger and directed it at minorities rather than those who actually caused the economic damage at home and intervention abroad.
The American voter anger is validly directed at the ruling class that continues to push for an open-ended military intervention and unrestrained support for corporate interests and banking industry. However, Trump’s campaign managed to package this anger into racist soundbites and maliciously directed a steady venom at minorities while fanning the flames of fear. Fear won the day in America’s election. Trump’s victory will stand as America’s Brexit moment where Islamophobia, anti-immigrant discourses, economic dislocation and nativist sentiments got masterfully mobilized to win an election. The coming four years are going to be very difficult for the American Muslim community and Islamophobia will be given an extended lease on life, which will be coming from the highest office in the land, directly from the White House. Trump’s victory requires an emboldened, proactive and sustained response from the Muslim community and all their allies. The election is over, the time to bring about change and work harder for a tolerant, inclusive and peaceful future horizon in the society is the order of business today. “Get-up, stand-up” and make the world that you would like to see a reality.