On November 9th, I awoke to an America whose President-elect defined his campaign with the promise to deport tens of millions of undocumented immigrants out of sheer hatred, to kill the families of suspected terrorists, and to ban all Muslim immigration to the United States. When I awoke to this America, it redefined how I view other disturbing facts about our country. I awoke to an America in which the Chicago police department systematically tortured black men into erroneously confessing crimes simply to lock them away—without firing many of the offending officers. I awoke to the America that increasingly overuses solitary confinement and prefers to execute prisoners by firing squad than not at all. I awoke to the America in which self-segregated, white St. Louis suburbanites harangued a public meeting over the busing of students from a nearby, mostly-black school that had lost its accreditation.
I knew this history prior to November 9th, but I never believed that it represented the true America. I had an anachronistically unironic love for my country that was rooted in the belief that, for all of our faults, Americans would, as Vice President Biden put it in his 2016 DNC address, “never, ever, ever, let their country down.” I believed that, in the aggregate, we would strive to uphold the principles of freedom and tolerance. I am not naïve; I was well aware of the many people with abhorrent views that actively promote bigotry and hatred, who harass, assault, and intimidate those with vulnerable identities. Every country has those people, I thought. They don’t have the power here that they have elsewhere. That, I believed, is what makes America exceptional.
On the morning of November 9th, I realized that I was wrong. I was wrong for believing that the values of tolerance and personal freedom are baked into our society. They are not static values, but ideals that must be fought for by each generation, and they can be compromised by decades of propaganda that is designed to foment suspicion, hatred, and resentment among white people who, like the rest of us, are not naturally comfortable with the inevitable uncertainty of a changing world.
The Blowout that Wasn’t
In the days following the election, Democratic Party post-mortems flooded the media about how Democrats have “lost touch with the working class”. These are usually written by white progressives, talking to other white progressives. Others, like Joe Scarborough, hold up figures like Michael Moore for calling Trump’s victory in advance and claim that people like Moore have their thumb on the pulse of the working class in a way that coastal liberals like Clinton do not (Scarborough was curiously mum about Moore after the 2012 election, which Moore predicted Romney winning due to the Obama coalition’s civic apathy). This coverage suffers from the availability heuristic and confirmation bias: most of the journalists hand-waving about the coastal elitist bubble are, themselves, coastal elites living in New York City and Washington, D.C. People like Joe Scarborough regularly lament partisans’ and mainstream journalists’ ignorance of “middle America” and claim that they are out of touch. The election of Donald Trump via upsets in the heartland confirms the hypothesis they had formed prior to the election, and their coverage will emphasize that point. Unfortunately for them, the data scarcely supports this hypothesis.
First of all, a majority of the “working class” did not, in fact, support Trump, because nearly half of the working class is nonwhite, and white voters were the sole racial demographic won by Trump, according to this year’s exit poll data. This data also showed that voters with incomes under $50,000 broke for Clinton by an 11-point margin. Second, Donald Trump underperformed his predecessors in liberal regions such as California, where he underperformed Mitt Romney by 1.8 million votes, and conservative ones such as Texas, where Clinton outperformed President Obama by over half a million votes. In all, Donald Trump received fewer votes than Mitt Romney did four years ago and only beat John McCain by 380,000 votes, even though the voter-eligible population grew by 20 million from 2008 to 2016.
In the Midwest, Donald Trump only marginally outperformed his predecessors. In Wisconsin, he received a smaller share of the voter eligible population (VEP) than noted firebrand populist Mitt Romney. Hillary Clinton did not personally visit Wisconsin throughout the entire general election campaign, while Barack Obama visited three different cities and Joe Biden stumped in many of the smaller ones. These visits matter: campaign rallies are meant to galvanize turnout rather than persuade voters, and we now know that Hillary Clinton would have likely won the state with 2012 turnout. It is hard to imagine a universe in which the Clinton campaign devotes as much attention to Wisconsin as the Obama campaign—perhaps recognizing Iowa as a goner and shifting its staff and campaign spending to the Midwestern firewall states—and loses the state.
The key to Donald Trump’s success was low turnout. Since high turnout is usually driven by Democrats, it is no surprise that this year’s turnout was closest to 2000 than any other election since. There is no doubt that the Democratic Party largely fails to connect with rural voters, and there is clear evidence of disenchantment with the Democratic politics (or Hillary Clinton in particular) in the Midwest and elsewhere. However, there is little evidence that Donald Trump’s election reflects a fundamental change in the American public that did not exist in 2008 and 2012. The news generated by the flip of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania is simply not consistent with the underlying political reality.
Over half of Trump’s voters reported voting against Clinton rather than for him. They are also less likely to live in trade-exposed areas, so any benefits from his anti-trade message accrue from voters who simply oppose trade on ideology. On November 9th, we did not learn that the country hates Washington, globalism, or the establishment any more than they did before. We witnessed, instead, the power of partisanship intersecting with a lack of Democratic enthusiasm. The Republican electorate, in general, dislikes the Democratic Party enough to elect somebody that many of them view as dangerous and unqualified. It’s doubtful that the Democratic Party would react differently if the situation were reversed: more Democrats than Republicans report being “afraid” of the opposing party.
The Rhymes of History
It is important to note here how consequential this election will likely be, and how bad things can get if candidate Trump is to be believed and the Congress does not provide an effective check on his President Trump’s executive power. I truly hope that President Trump will be successful and that he attempts to unite our divided country. I hope that he takes the role of President more seriously than he did as a candidate. However, the White House has been shown to intensify its occupant’s faults, and it would be foolish to hold out hope that a 70-year-old man whose public persona has been static for the past 30 years is going to have a positive change of heart when handed the most powerful public office in the world.
This election was unprecedented in many ways. Our President-elect is the first to have been elected without any prior public or military experience. However, as the adage that’s often misattributed to Mark Twain goes, “history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” Trump’s candidacy and election seem to rhyme most closely with that of Andrew Jackson, a comparison not lost on mainstream news outlets like BBC and the New York Times or on Trump supporters.
Andrew Jackson receives a lot of heavily deserved criticism for the Trail of Tears. He also receives historical emphasis for upsetting the political system by rallying the newly-franchised common man. However, the parallels I see between Jackson and Donald Trump lie with something subtler: they both share a complete disregard (and, arguably, disdain) for the role of institutions and expert opinion. Jackson downright refused to enforce a Supreme Court ruling with which he disagreed, and his 1824 campaign included the (pro-Jackson!) slogan of “[This is] Between J. Q. Adams, who can write / And Andy Jackson, who can fight.”
And fight, he did. When the charter of the Bank of the United States came up for renewal under Jackson’s Presidency, he was quoted saying to his Vice President, “The Bank is trying to kill me, Sir, but I shall kill it!” He had no concern for the Bank’s—crucial—role in the economy, but merely for the fact that its renewal was being used as a political tool against him. He feared that Congress was attempting to force him into the approval of something his populist supporters opposed, so he went all-out on his opposition to the bank. As Charles Sellers, an economic historian, wrote, “[Jackson] and his anti-bank coterie launched a class appeal over the heads of the politicians. Jackson newspapers took up the hard-money polemic against a paper aristocracy trumpeted by Blair and Kendall in the Globe and Benton in the Senate.”
“Paper aristocracy” echoes the anti-press rhetoric employed by Donald Trump against the “failing” New York Times and “dishonest” network television shows. In response to widespread riots in the days after his election, he blamed the media for “inciting” the protestors. He has called for “opening up” libel laws (we don’t currently have any) so that public figures can sue journalists for penning articles that they believe are misleading.
Jackson’s conspiratorial suspicion of the power of federal banking led him to shift the power of lending and currency issuance to state banks, which caused rampant speculation in the economy, particularly using land. Rather than recognize his poor monetary policies as the cause, Jackson used the heavy hand of executive authority to require that all land be purchased using silver and gold. The prior instability of the U.S. financial system, compounded with a weak global economy and land illiquidity, ended up plunging the U.S. economy into the Panic of 1837, which at the time was the worst recession in the nation’s history (which begs the question: how did he end up on our currency, of all things?).
Donald Trump’s pervasive anti-elitism rhymes with the tough-talking demeanor of Andrew Jackson. There is a real risk that his conspiratorial bent and hot-headedness will lead him to make decisions that were as consequential as Jackson’s. The alternative possibilities are not much better.
The Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Follow-Through
Throughout the campaign, much was made of the catastrophic risks of a Trump Presidency. To be sure, the tail risks of such events are greater under our current President-elect than his predecessors, but institutional checks and balances keep the probability small. What concerns me about the next four to (please, God, no) eight years is that President Trump will, at best, keep his promises and, at worst, treat his new powers like he treated his old: dismissing external obligations for personal gain, surrounding himself with sycophants, and acting without concern for feedback consequences.
During the campaign, Donald Trump vowed to violate international law by torturing suspected terrorists and killing their innocent families. Taken in a vacuum, this is appalling. Viewed through the broader scope of our fight against violent extremism, it will lead to greater power for extremist groups, increased terrorism against the United States and our allies, and a validation of the extremists’ theory of a grand, sectarian war. Candidate Trump, on different occasions, supported the gold standard as well as “low interest rate” and tight-money monetary policy. The only position he has not taken is that the Federal Reserve’s independence must be respected. It is plausible that he would appoint a Fed chairperson—let’s be honest, chairman—who acts as a political tool. This was last done by Richard Nixon, who pressured his chairman into unnecessary monetary stimulus in the run-up to the 1972 election, contributing to stagflation during the second half of the decade.
President Trump is all but certain to scrap the Obama Administration’s greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction commitments from the Paris agreement. At best, this could cause global GHG emissions to decrease by less than they otherwise would have. At the worst, this could unravel the entire agreement and push the world past the point of no return on the atmosphere’s GHG concentration levels. The Paris agreement was non-binding: like NATO, signatories maintain their commitments because they believe others will, as well. If the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases decides to pollute, unabated, then why would anybody else keep their commitments? This environmental debt, compounded by the fiscal debt that Trump’s tax cuts and refusal to reform entitlements, will inevitably damage the generations that will be left long after the President-elect is buried in a fabulous, top-of-the-line coffin in only the best cemetery.
Toward a Factless Future
Among the rubble of the election, national media are discovering a reality that was already clear to anybody with right-wing family and friends: candidates like Donald Trump are successful because many voters simply operate under a different set of assumptions. Fake news, shared on Facebook, likely helped Trump win the election with article headlines such as “FBI AGENT SUSPECTED IN HILLARY EMAIL LEAKS FOUND DEAD IN APPARENT MURDER-SUICIDE,” which was reportedly published by a newspaper that does not exist. What the coverage of the influence of fake news misses is why such absurd and easily falsifiable headlines can influence voters in the first place.
In a recent episode of his podcast, This American Life, Ira Glass records a phone conversation with his conservative uncle in which Ira asks him how he feels about President Obama. Among other things, Ira’s uncle describes how Barack Obama never wrote an article despite “claiming” to have been the president of the Harvard Law Review (you can find his articles from the Review online), that he played more golf in office than any preceding President (Eisenhower played four times as much), and that he’s a secret Muslim who is trying to turn Canada, the United States, and Mexico into a single country (unverifiable, but doubtful). At one point, Ira’s uncle asserts that nobody from Barack Obama’s graduating class at Harvard remembers him. Ira stops his uncle to explain that a personal friend of his knew Barack Obama from law school. Ira’s uncle, rather than conceding or questioning his assumptions, simply replies, “that’s the first person I’ve ever heard of that knew him in law school.” When Ira corrects his uncle’s statements on President Obama’s failure to enforce immigration laws by referencing the administration’s record on deportations, his uncle retorts that he does not “believe it for one minute.”
This attitude is standard fare for consumers of right-wing media. In the summer of 2014, I interned for a prominent Democratic Senator. For several hours a week, I would answer constituent calls. That summer, the Democratic caucus brought Senate Joint Resolution 19 up for a vote. SJR 19’s first article made its intention clear: Congress should be able to set campaign spending limits.
“To advance democratic self-government and political equality, and to protect the integrity of government and the electoral process, Congress and the States may regulate and set reasonable limits on the raising and spending of money by candidates and others to influence elections.”
However, the angry constituents who called the office read something else. The vast majority called to oppose Harry Reid’s efforts to “amend the first amendment” and “ban pro-gun speech.” I tried to engage these callers, reading them the text of the resolution. All but one of them told me, flat out, that they did not believe me. One woman put it simply: “if that’s true, then why would this article from the Conservative Tribune say differently?” It did not occur to her that a source titled the Conservative Tribune would intentionally deceive her.
The ideological Balkanization of media consumption has led to a world where many members of the two major political parties in the United States live in one country under parallel realities. One Trump supporter, for example, was baffled when an interviewer told him that no city in the United States lives under Sharia Law. 59% of the President-elect’s supporters believe President Obama is a Muslim, and he was supported heavily by viewers of radio hosts such as Alex Jones, who speculated that a 2013 tornado in Oklahoma was created by the federal government, that the government is turning children homosexual with chemicals on the inside of juice boxes, and that FEMA exploits government-made disasters to kill and imprison troublesome Americans. Fact-checking can do nothing to reverse this trend: Rush Limbaugh, for example, recently harangued his listeners about the “political journalism” of Snopes and Politifact, asserting that they merely operate under the guise of analytical objectivity in order to seem credible while they push propaganda.
Our President-elect is, I suspect, the first of many successful candidates who eschew baseline facts in favor of conspiratorial rhetoric. He will not be the first to question the validity of government statistics. Gone are the days of the GOP nominee correcting supporters about the legitimacy of his Democratic opponent, as John McCain did in 2008. Gone are the days of “Islam is peace” from a Republican President. Subscribers to grand conspiracy theories previously lacked a legitimizing leader, but they now have a kindred spirit in the White House. If and until partisans fundamentally change how they consume information and communicate with one another, our candidates will increasingly reflect the worst fears and suspicions of our society.
Forgive me if I sound pessimistic, but that sort of habitual change does not happen overnight.