As the saying goes, victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan. In the case of Donald J. Trump’s election Tuesday as the 45th president of the United States, however, this may be simply be one (among many) aspects of conventional wisdom shattered in the past hours.
Despite the substantial efforts of the Democratic party, the opposition or indifference of a large majority of the Republican intellectual and political establishment, and despite the confident predictions of an army of political analysts (fom old-school cable talking heads to new-school “big data”-style forecasters like Nate Silver) Trump pulled off astonishing upset victory over Hillary Rodham Clinton.
So instead of looking to explain—and take credit for—the Hillary victory that most Estonians went to sleep expecting, all three groups—media, Democrats, and Republicans—are instead struggling to answer the simple question: why?
Despite the occasional warning that Brexit might serve as a cautionary tale, the vast majority of observers expected a Clinton victory. Even Republican columnists had already written elegies about how to recover from a dramatic Trump defeat in the days prior to the election; (perhaps most hubristically, defeated primary candidate John Kasich scheduled a press conference about the future of the Republican party…for Thursday; presumably that speech will no longer take place as intended.)
So the first reaction both in the US and around the world is “why couldn’t our experts predict this?” And for once—and unlike in the recent Estonian case—the Electoral College or other arcane features of the American election system can’t be blamed, given the size of Trump’s victory in the popular vote as well. The scale of the predictive failure shouldn’t be exaggerated—nearly all the national polls except for that of the LA Times got the result wrong, while Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight (which got the last two elections right) closed by predicting a 66% chance of a Clinton victory.
One compelling partial explanation that’s been suggested is an American manifestation of the so-called “Shy Tory” phenomenon in Britain, in which voters reluctant to tell pollsters about their support for controversial parties abandon that bashfulness when in the privacy of the polling booth.
Another, of course, is in the turnout predictions for key constituencies in each party were substantially off—whether in overstating that of millennial or ethnic minority voters in the Democrats’ case, or understating that of rural white voters for the Republicans.
Indeed, when Democrats ask “why,” one answer will also lie in turnout—specifically, their failure to mobilize their base to the extent that they had done in previous campaigns. Despite a superior “ground game” of volunteers (and paid consultants) on the ground in key states relative to those of the GOP, the level of enthusiasm for Hillary—weakened partially by the unexpectedly bitter primary battle with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders—was far lower among African-Americans and young people than predicted. While these groups did not flock to Trump as feared by some, the inherent lack of appeal in what many saw as a “lesser of two evils” candidate—one dogged by continuing allegations from mishandling classified information to shifting policy positions to simple “untrustworthiness”--undoubtedly discouraged many from heading to polling stations. Given Trump’s extremely controversial statements about Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, one would have expected his numbers to drop substantially among Latinos; however, with the exception of Florida (a state whose Cuban-American demographic has been historically becoming less Republican over time as the divisions of the Castro era fade), Trump actually exceeded Mitt Romney’s share of the Hispanic-American vote in other battleground states, notably Nevada.
A final nail in the Democratic coffin was the shift in what Michael Moore called the “Rust Belt Brexit” states of the Midwest—whose unemployed or underemployed factory workers were remarkably receptive to the message that Clinton and her entourage had become the party of Wall Street, not Main Street—a charge from which Sanders had also gained considerable advantage.
Despite Trump’s best efforts to portray the party as united at its convention in Cleveland in July, it was more notable for who did not attend than who did. All of the party’s former presidents and presidential nominees declined to attend, while both House Speaker Paul Ryan and primary runner-up Ted Cruz declined to offer full-throated endorsement of the nominee.
And despite the wave of Republican office-holders who refused (or retracted) endorsements of the New York businessman, Trump won without them. Again, the question is—why?
Ironically given the rhetoric of a campaign founded on “America first,” the answer may lie in its embrace of a remarkably global trend towards less American-style conservativism and more European-style populism. For decades, the Republican party has been a relative outlier in comparative politics, with its embrace of pro-corporate policies on taxation and trade, along with support for (legal) immigration and a robustly interventionist foreign policy. While the vast majority of the Republican-controlled Senate will continue to endorse these positions (an estimate today was that only 5 would back Trump’s proposed withdrawal from the North American Free Trade Agreement, for example), Trump voters do not—and they may well be joined by the anti-globalization constituency so effectively identified by Sanders as well.
In the days ahead, we’ll be looking at what this election means both for the United States and the world in which that country has played such a leading economic, military, and political role. As one wag on Twitter put it that “we now have a chance to test the theory that the world will come to an end if Trump is elected.”
For now, perhaps the most convincing argument that can be made against widespread pessimism is that a man known for his own considerable ego will be eager not just to have won an election, but to avoid going down in history as the leader who presided over utter disaster. As Trump himself declared in his acceptance speech, “the work is just beginning,” in taking concrete steps to show convincing world markets, global powers, and his own citizens that a larger defeat is not looming—a global political and economic crisis that no one, not even Trump himself, would be eager to claim credit for.