So what happened?
We’ve all got our hot take, our insight that is more hindsight, out attempt to retroactively explain why why we were, mostly, wrong.
But let’s try some facts. Clinton looks like she’ll win the popular vote but lose the election — a similar fate to Al Gore, another stolid Establishment candidate (though Gore in fact won the Electoral College race too but was robbed by the Supreme Court, but anyway). However, Clinton failed to get Democrats to turn out in the same numbers as Obama did — Trump has won with about the same vote as Mitt Romney in 2012. And if Democrats wouldn’t turn out for Clinton against an openly racist, misogynist bully, then it says much about Clinton, her much-vaunted ground game, and her capacity to alienate voters. She failed to achieve the same voting levels among women, young people, African-Americans and Hispanic voters as Obama did.
A chunk of that can be put down to successful, and long-running, GOP attempts to prevent minority voters from registering to vote or voting — which the media gave approximately 1% of coverage compared to Clinton’s emails — but the bulk of the problem, clearly, was Clinton herself.
The other fact is that the US economy has actually been performing well. From a peak of 10% in October 2009, unemployment under Barack Obama has fallen to 4.9%; the economy has grown in real terms by nearly 14% in that period. And it’s been low-inflation growth, meaning despite relatively weak wage growth — it’s fallen from around 5% in 2014 and 2015 to 4% this year — real incomes have been growing.
This raises real problem for the narrative that Trump’s election is a reaction against “neoliberalism” or whatever the preferred term is for liberal economics at the moment. This is a view widespread on the hard left but also shared, oddly, by some in the business community. Take Broadspectrum (formerly Transfield) chair Diane Smith-Gander — who oversees the Manus Island and Nauru “facilities” — in her reaction Trump’s victory, when she warned that “we need to get the message across that without business performing well we cannot grow national wealth, we cannot create the capacity to provide support for our more-vulnerable citizens, we won’t create the opportunity to put more Australians into the ‘have’ group. And it’s these ‘have not’ people … who voted for Brexit and who seem to embrace enthusiastically the divisive rhetoric of Donald Trump.”
There are, plainly, competing agendas here. On the hard left, hopes of a mass reaction against capitalism, led by a Corbyn/Sanders type figure, drive the focus on “neoliberalism”, and a variant, those who actually welcome the triumph of Trump as an ideal catalyst for a permanent breakdown of capitalism (sorry, folks, it just means someone like Trump is in power and you’re not). But business figures like Smith-Gander see the challenge as primarily about communicating more effectively the achievements of market economics and corporations — a view even more delusional than the utopian Trotskyite fantasy of Trump provoking a revolution.
If the election were in a European country, the neoliberalism analysis would apply: European voters have laboured under actual austerity policies that have left unemployment above 10% across the EU for most of the last five years. But the US economy — which has enjoyed massive deficit spending that remains above 3% of GDP right now — has performed far better than Europe. As, for that matter, has the UK economy. There, Brexit is attributed to neoliberalism and austerity. In fact, despite the constant attacks on Tory “austerity”, the UK economy has benefited from the Tories pumping an average of over 6% of GDP per annum in deficit spending into it since 2011, and the unemployment rate there, like in the US, is at 4.9%. Strange that no one one blames very stimulatory fiscal policy and low unemployment for Brexit and Trump.
Also problematic for that narrative is that the worst victims of US neoliberalism, if we’re using that word, turned out strongly for Clinton, not Trump. They’re only exit polls, but they have some fairly solid sample sizes, and they give us a good idea of who voted how. The two lowest income groups in the US electorate turned out strongly for Clinton, around 52%-42%. It was Americans earning more than $50,000 a year who were more likely to vote for Trump. This was not a working-class triumph for Trump.
What it was, of course, was a white triumph for Trump. Trump beat Clinton among white voters by more than 20 points; white female voters, notably, gave Trump a 10-point lead over Clinton despite his vicious misogyny. Trump won every white demographic except white college graduate women, among whom Clinton had a six-point lead; Clinton didn’t even win among white under-30s. And if you look at the issues voters nominated as important, immigration and terrorism loom large for Trump voters. That result is a vindication of Trump’s bigotry-based campaign, in which he demonised Latinos, African-Americans and Muslims and promised punitive measures against them.
In that sense, Trump’s victory is hardly novel — it’s a well-established political tactic of, particularly, the right, to invoke racial fear among white voters. The same approach was deployed in the Brexit referendum, where immigrants were relentlessly targeted. It appears that such tactics are most effective when deployed by members of the wealthy elite who portray themselves as outsiders, like Trump, Boris Johnson or the Le Pens in France, who cast themselves as inconvenient truth tellers when they’re simply pandering to racist sentiment within the electorate.
And for Trump, there wasn’t even an economic basis to this: white workers in the US have maintained a persistent pay gap ahead of African-American and Latino workers in recent years — if anything, white workers have done better than African-Americans. But there’s another peculiar intersection of interests between the left and business on that issue. While the industrial left objects to immigration as a threat to jobs and wages, progressives and business both favour open borders — the former because of a naive “let them all come” sentiment about asylum seekers, the latter because higher immigration and visa programs like 457 allow the importation of labour, either to address actual skill shortages or simply force wages down.
As Brexit and Trump have shown, however, voters have a heightened suspicion of immigration if they believe it is out of control — in the UK case, from EU immigrants and more nebulous concerns about unchecked illegal immigration from Africa and refugee flows from the Middle East; in the US case, illegal immigration from Mexico. Even during periods of relatively low unemployment, job insecurity and low wages growth — both preferred by business as necessary to keep costs down — fears of uncontrolled immigration can resonate in electorates and become amplified into overt race hatred.
Progressives might have to accept something John Howard worked out — voter perceptions of control and sovereignty are crucial. There’s a reason why his much-derided line about determining “the circumstances in which they come” resonated — it spoke to concerns about control. In fact, immigration soared under Howard — but it stopped being an electoral issue because he was perceived as being in control of it.
The role of economics is thus vastly more complicated than simplistic attempts to blame “neoliberalism” for Trump. The poorest Americans back Clinton. And, plainly, economics was at least partly refracted through the prisms of race and control.