Three facts are striking about the US presidential election:
- Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, though she lost the Electoral College, which decides the presidency.
- Voter turnout was much lower than initially expected, and this meant that especially Black voters – who overwhelmingly backed Clinton – came out in smaller numbers.
- The pollsters got it wrong, and they especially got it wrong in places where the people who live there are most unlike themselves. And those people overwhelmingly voted for Trump. They’ve been called ‘silent voters’ in this election. Richard Nixon, following a rather similarly surprising victory in 1968, famously called them the ‘silent majority’.
This doesn’t look to me like populism but a loss of faith in democracy. And here perhaps the most brilliant move of the Trump campaign was to declare that the vote was rigged before most of the votes had even been cast. This effectively discouraged the people who had most relied on the ballot box as their means to salvation from casting their vote. It also added to the cynical ‘politics as usual’ attitude that Trump had sown by portraying Clinton as standing for everything that’s wrong with the federal government. However, the people who supported Trump weren’t necessarily great believers in democracy, given their high tolerance for Trump’s anti-democratic statements (even if eventually modified or reversed). What Trump’s supporters liked about their man was his resolve – and his seeming ability – to get things done, by whatever means it takes.
The moral of the 2016 election then is that democracy itself – especially in the complex representational form that it takes in the United States – is the big loser. Like Brexit, the Trump phenomenon was made possible by a rage that doesn’t add up to a positive plan of action. But much more explicitly than Brexit, which actually was brought about by an opening up of democratic processes (through the use of referendum), the 2016 US presidential election was a vote against the democratic system itself – both in terms of who voted and who didn’t vote.
The pollsters got all this wrong perhaps because they mistakenly presumed that the voters shared their own and the political class’s belief that their problems can in principle be solved at the ballot box. It will be interesting to see just how much Trump is tempted to fiddle with the US Constitution. Watch out especially for his Supreme Court nominees, who are capable of doing the most long-term damage to the system. In any case, it should give pause to those of us who still believe in democratic processes about whether much is to be gained by staging mass protests saying ‘Trump is not my president!’ and promising endless resistance to whatever Trump does. It seems to me that this will only reinforce the view of Trump supporters that democracy is a broken system and requires still more radical remedies. But it is not at all clear how true believers in democracy go from there.