A friend who visited the campaign headquarters of the Clinton campaign in Brooklyn a few weeks ago was bemused by what he found. Everything seemed, ostensibly, to be in its proper place. There was the large social media operation and people aplenty. A big data outfit and the party’s superior ground game (street-level campaigning power) were spoken of confidently. All the components of a modern and professional campaign were in place, yet it somehow felt lifeless and unanimated. It was all there, apart from a candidate sufficient Americans wanted to vote for.
The overwhelming impression he formed was of arrogance and complacency, rooted in an assumption that because the leading Clinton staffers saw Trump as so obviously ill-equipped to be President then a clear majority of Americans in the individual states where it mattered would share that view. Too much time was spent on the transition to power team, on discussing who would do what after the seemingly inevitable victory that never came.
Only very late, when the Clinton campaign realised with a few days to go that Trump was in through the door in the state of Michigan, a place the Clinton team had thought banked, did they up the energy level, throwing President Obama, Bill Clinton, Michelle Obama and Hillary at it.
Michigan! The automaker state – that they had simply assumed would be grateful for the bailout delivered post-2008 – voted for Trump. Even Obama’s direct plea to auto-workers sounded arrogant, with shades of his warning to Britain in the EU referendum. It worked no better this time with the voters of Michigan.
Indeed, no result on Tuesday better illustrated the disconnect involving annoyed voters and the smug assumptions of liberal opinion than Michigan turning away from the modern Democratic party. It symbolises a bigger disaster for the Democratic party.
Why did it happen? The air is thick with recrimination, and in the US (where I spent election week) it is fashionable to say that the media who failed to see it coming are not worth listening to .
Perhaps, but this is not entirely fair. For all the talk that the media did not anticipate Trump’s triumph, in Britain – fresh from Brexit – most commentators tended to be more wary and circumspect. The consensus was definitely not that this could never happen. Before polling day it was more a case of the folowing. She looks like the most likely winner based on polling and the scale of her operation on the ground, but let’s report and analyse it and see. We live in crazy times so who the hell knows?
Not only was there masses of on the ground reporting that sought to explain the anger and anxiety of Trump voters. Most of the coverage and commentary to which Trump supporters object was rooted not in the idea that he stood no chance. The claim was that he should not be the next President.
That concern pushed many commentators (me included) into over the top declarations. With my Reaganite views I fell for it myself, overdoing it on the basis that Trump strikes me as completely unsuitable for the office of President. My concern on Trump was and is about manners, tone, temper, his ignorant boasting and his Russian connections.
But he won, and the reasons are not difficult to divine. His message on economic anxiety was perfectly pitched by accident or design to those in the states that he needed to win. They are not necessarily poor voters. Although many are moderately well-off, their concerns about pay, prospects and what is to come on automation and trade are deep and valid.
Incredibly, the Democratic party seems not to have paid their real concerns any attention, beyond thinking they could be scared into voting for Clinton. It was another arrogant assumption that meant liberals put almost no effort into thinking about economic insecurity or how to reshape the economy.
The Democrats cannot complain either about the inequity of the electoral college and say Clinton won the popular vote. They accepted the system and framed their entire campaign on winning on those terms. Yet in the places she needed to inspire and motivate more voters than Trump she failed. That goes for Florida, North Carolina, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin. Trump crushed her and the smug liberals who operated on the basis that his triumph there was unthinkable.
His victory was in large down to Clinton herself and her unsuitability as a candidate in an election that was about change. It seems to annoy her supporters when one points out that she was a terrible candidate (“stop saying it” I was told repeatedly on social media). A long list of jobs and experience was always trotted out by her fans, which only served to emphasise that she had been around too long and had had her chance.
Gordon Brown’s dictum – the seven year rule – is not flawless, but voter tolerance for a leader being on the TV screen policing the public debate tends not to stretch much beyond that. For a quarter of a century Clinton has been a prominent figure. People had had enough. Trump had been around as a celebrity even longer. But in politics he was a “clean skin”, an untried novelty act when voters were on the hunt for an explosive alternative.
That alone cannot explain it. Tuesday was above all a potentially decisive battle in the culture war. And Trump was merely the vehicle. The obsessions of the social justice warriors with their constant need to push boundaries, to castigate those who even want to talk about other more practical concerns, has pushed millions of mainstream voters in the key states beyond the limit of endurance. On Tuesday they spoke, and were heard.
Time and again one hears it and reads about this in the US. It is no good dismissing it all as racist and barbarous. One can believe that discrimination is appalling, that tolerance matters, and still be infuriated or weary about the way in which the radical left and ultra-liberals seem determined to destroy mainstream society and make constant war against the majority. Opinion polling can give you a sense of this unease, but only so much, and after last week pollsters are rightly on the run. So I offer two contributions from Americans who, in my view, express it well.
The first comes from Steve, a regular reader of Reaction from Ohio, which went for Trump. He runs a clothes shop and voted for Trump:
“The story is just how big this country is. It is so much more than Wall Street and Starbucks and Hollywood. It is made up of every day people who occupy the open spaces of this country. They do the dirty work. They work the factories, they farm the land… they fight our wars. And yesterday they righted a ship that they felt was losing its course. In fact they took ownership of that ship, and reminded everyone that at least for now, they still have power. Doubters beware…. ”
The second contribution comes from Nick, an American banker who offered his view at a bar in New York when I was grabbing a burger and a beer on the way out of New York. I scribbled down his view. He voted for Trump and his girlfriend voted for Clinton.
“I don’t like Trump, but look at what is happening in this country. People have had enough. Imagine you live in Michigan or Wisconsin, or Ohio, or Pennsylvania, or Florida, or North Carolina. You’re getting by ok but it’s fraught with worry and even the good months seem like a respite from it all going, what do you Brits say? tits up. One of you has two jobs. Your neighbour’s wife works at Walmart but that’s getting eaten alive by Amazon and delivery companies. What are your kids going to do for a living? College is expensive and then what? The companies they might work for won’t offer them anything like security. It’s tough out there. And what’s the biggest news story of the last year on TV here other than the election? Other than Black Live Matters protests.”
I shake my head. I don’t know.
“Transgender restrooms. Transgender bathrooms. All the time. Crazy protests on campus. All the time. Crazy, angry, entitled, spoilt people shouting on your TV about justice and trigger warnings and transgender stuff and hating America and how bad the country is when they’ve no idea what life is really about. While tens of millions of people in those states have real concerns about jobs, pay, about the economy, about their children. And this is the next battle that the radicals want to fight? Abolishing men and women? No. Equality yes. This crap? No. And eventually you think: what the hell is going on in this country? And you vote for the one guy that says enough.”
I don’t care for Trump, but that sounds pretty much spot on to me.