Dad, political sociologist, local councillor, drummer from Malta

Monday, November 14, 2016

Dissecting Trump's victory

Times of Malta 14 November 2016
Most social-scientific polls were predicting a victory for Hillary Clinton. Yet Donald Trump won and will now be the 45th president of the United States.
This is not the first time that such polls went wrong or that historic moments were not predicted. It was not a survey that explained the collapse of the Soviet Union, and few would have predicted that Libya and Tunisia would witness dramatic changes in the recent past.
Along the lines of the rising narrative of the insular populist right, the Brexit referendum was another case in point.
This is not to say that surveys or predictions should be confined to the dustbin of analysis. The subject matter of social science comprises the complexities of possibilities of human behaviour which can be analysed through various research methods, yet which are very difficult to reduce to simple predictions. Rationality, reflexivity, social influence and emotions are all entangled in the web of society. And various analyses are wiser ‘after the event’.
Society also comprises patterns. In the case of Donald Trump’s victory, it was clear that he was the preferred choice of white working-class voters, especially if they formed part of the older age cohorts. On the other hand, Clinton underperformed among respective middle-class, black and Hispanic voters especially in key battleground states. Clinton was favoured among voters under 40 years of age, but a considerable amount of such voters (around eight/nine per cent) chose small parties.
Various Republican elites have already expressed disagreement with Trump on a number of issues. Paradoxically, they might save Trump from himself
Trump’s victory seems to follow the wave of populist successes around the world. Social theorists Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe have written volumes about this type of strategy. It comprises a charismatic form of leadership which speaks an accessible language that has broad appeal across the social spectrum.  This discourse attempts to unite a broad ‘us’ against a ‘them’, thus constructing a strong sense of identity. A diverse spectrum of politicians including Chavez, Tsipras, Orban and Farage exemplified such strategies in different electoral campaigns.
In the case of Trump, the ‘them’ comprised of his views on Mexicans, Muslims, the ‘establishment’, the climate change ‘Chinese conspiracy’, the ‘rigged’ media, and others who were depicted as a ‘threat’ to the ‘American’ way of life. His language and behaviour were politically incorrect, yet he was seen by many as being more authentic than his challenger in tackling issues dividing the nation such as economic inequality and migration. Within this strategy, Clinton’s depiction as ‘the establishment’ was more appealing than her own narrative of experience, safe hands and liberal values.
Yet, electoral victories represent just one dimension of successful statesmanship. It has to be seen whether Trump will actually carry out what he promised. This includes the construction of a wall between the US and Mexico, the vetting or temporary banning of Muslims from entering the country, the deporting of undocumented migrants, and the removal of the Obamacare reforms. He has also promised a range of other changes as from his first days in office.
I would suggest that the real world of policymaking cannot be reduced to one person’s rhetoric, even if he happens to be President of the United States. Proposals interact with a complex web of networks, interests, influence, personalities, ideas, resources, force majeures and unpredicted consequences. And the United States happens to have one of the most established systems of checks and balances in the world, thus often resulting in a long process of negotiations before policies are implemented.
Will fellow Republicans simply rubberstamp all his proposals within his cabinet, senate and congress? I am not so sure. Indeed, various Republican elites have already expressed disagreement with Trump on a number of issues. Paradoxically, they might save Trump from himself.
On the other end of the political spectrum, Democrats are likely to their best to defend the Obama legacy. They might even move to the left by exploiting a window of opportunity for left populism à la Bernie Sanders.
As the US is entering unchartered territory, the world is watching. From a European cosmopolitan perspective, I feel that the EU has a massive responsibility to defend and promote the values of pluralism, tolerance, solidarity and sustainability.

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