Hillary Clinton had portrayed the Trump campaign as divisive. Even she quoted Abraham Lincoln saying “A house divided against itself cannot stand”. But Trump is not the cause of the division within the American society rather a symptom of the division. Perhaps such erroneous perception and inability to figure out the real troubles of the American society played a role in Clinton’s defeat. This may help to understand why Clinton lost while the more puzzling and key question is what the secret of Trump’s victory is?
In order to discover the secret of Trump’s astounding victory, two crucial components of his campaign should be identified: who are the electorate that voted for him and how he had persuaded them. Data on voters clearly show that white Christian mainly working-class Americans with conservative views constituted the core of Trump’s electorate. The Clinton campaign had largely missed to consider this particular majority group of population as she had been much obsessed with minorities leading to disregarding hence alienating the majority. “Though Clinton’s platform was inarguably more progressive than Trump’s, she failed to communicate those policies to the voters who needed to hear it most. Instead, she focused on girl-power anthems and cultivated wealthy celebrity surrogates who were incapable of addressing the grievances that fuelled Trump’s campaign” says Sarah Jones from the New Republic.
In a way, election campaign is an intimate communication between voter and candidate. A voter identifies problems and figures out which candidate is likely to help solve them. Meanwhile the candidate identifies his/her potential target electorate and figures out how to persuade them. The Trump campaign skillfully caught up with the pulse of the time. Meanwhile Hillary Clinton built on her previous campaigning experience and failed to send a proper message to white working-class Americans. Hillary often referred back to her time as Secretary of State and cited her past successes while Trump’s backlash was “Hillary Has Experience, But It’s Bad Experience”. He lambasted her failures such as the Benghazi tragedy and email scandal. More importantly, Trump tapped into the veins of angry white Americans providing a ‘forward-looking’, often wishful and mesmerizing though, vision for the future to come.
Not various minorities such as Latinos, Muslims, women, Afro-Americans, LGBT communities but the majority white Christian Americans decided the outcome of the US election 2016. They had become fatigue of talks about both minorities and external problems and threats. They utterly needed a domestic focus. The Trump campaign caught the moment by emphasizing the domestic focus. However, Clinton got stuck in appeasing already attracted minorities and focusing on external issues to the apparent irritation of conservative white Americans, who were increasingly feeling minority with the domestic problems remaining unattended despite their factual majority. This portion of population is dissatisfied with demographic change, living standards, unemployment, and lack of social benefits, and feels frustrated by the previous administrations, which have let them down. "Trump has been able to appeal to a certain group of folks who feel left out or are worried about the rapidity of demographic change, social change, who, in some cases, have very legitimate concerns around the economy and are feeling left behind", Obama said. But the president maintained that these people do not make up "the majority of America". It appears that Democrats failed to properly assess the scale of folks, who had bought into Trump’s promises, and turned out to be crucial in the defeat of Hillary Clinton.
Trump’s electorate perceives Muslims and immigration as a threat to the socio- economic welfare and a threat to their identity. Trump came up with one solution for the two problems: his identity-based solution was to address both the threats to socio-economic welfare and to the identity. His radical proposals on banning Muslims’ entry to the US, deportation of illegal immigrants, and construction of the wall in the Mexican border were seen through the lens of white Christian Americans as a solution to the imminent threat to their identity, and ultimately as a solution to the socio-economic problems. Many Americans view immigrants as grabbing their jobs and sucking taxpayers’ money as social benefits. Yet drug trafficking and criminal activities are often associated with those of Latino background. And almost all presidential candidates had talked about and promised tackling the immigration issue. They all forgot their promises once the election campaign had ended.
In his first interview after the election victory Trump said that “We’re losing this country. That’s why I won the election. And by the way, won it easily”. Trump chose to play the identity card instead of lecturing on liberal values and detailing economic and other programs. He skillfully addressed the sentiments and emotions rather than the intelligence of potential voters. Trump’s identity-based policies represented a temptation to both those who are concerned over the identity threat and those who are concerned over socio-economic problems.
The previous US administrations had used identity politics to rally domestic support for external interventions in Muslim countries. Now trump played the same card but just for the election campaign. Moreover, the previous administrations and election campaigns had scapegoated Islamic extremism and immigration in particular from Mexico and other Latin American countries for problems and failures for nearly 15 years. Also media and opinion makers had depicted Muslims and Latino immigrants. Apparently, most voters for Trump genuinely perceive Muslims and immigrants as a major source of threat to their welfare and life-styles. “Muslims have become popular scapegoats in every election since George W. Bush became president” says Daniel Bush from PBS. But what Trump did differently from the previous campaigns is that he scapegoated the administrations and Washington establishment for failing to settle the problems regarding Muslims and immigrants, and offered radical solutions such as imposing total ban on Muslims’ entry into the United States, and deportation of millions of Mexican immigrants. In fact, Trump won primaries due to such radical statements, which boosted his popularity.
Interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq didn’t solve but amplified the problem. For around 15 years of the so-called war on terror, Americans felt fatigue of too much talk about Islamist extremism with little effect of counter-extremism policies and actions. The war on terror and interventions drew enormous amounts of funds and resources, which could be used for the well-being of American citizens. Yet these massive military campaigns failed to produce the intended outcomes. Instead, the US got stuck in the Middle East and elsewhere, and had to go through troubled times with Russia. “Trump, under the rubric of “America First ,” was critical of military interventions driven by a particular internationalist narrative such as the global war on terrorism or the responsibility to protect rather than interventions to advance traditional notions of national interests”. And here is another issue: amid growing tensions with Russia, the US allocates big funds to defense systems in Eastern Europe for NATO. Tensions with Russia over Ukraine and Syria, on-going turmoil in the Middle East, and related US and NATO efforts and actions have captured the focus of media and administrations hence diverting attention and resources from immediate socio-economic needs of Americans to outside problems.
Trump would seek to bring into reality some of his pre-election promises and could retreat from some others. Many checks-and-balances are in place in the US. So, the president alone is not able to implement significant portion of policies. Even if the president was able to make sure necessary support from proper authorities, just the practicalities wouldn’t allow for successful implementation. Just a few quick examples: how one can identify who is Muslim and who is not. If citizens of a whole Muslim-majority country is banned from entering in the US, what about non-Muslim citizens of that country? If all Muslims are banned, how they would identify Muslim citizens of non-Muslim countries? Yet alone there are so many economic, business and lots of other sorts of vital ties between the US and Muslims and Muslim countries, where Americans are utterly interested, and billions of dollars from Muslim countries are invested or deposited in the US. Another example is that how one can pack millions of illegal Latino immigrants into busses to send to their home countries. These are just a few very simplistic practicalities. In Trump ’s telling , “America’s problems are simple, self-inflicted and easily reversible, once the right man is sitting in the Oval Office”. Yet there are most complicated issues concerning NATO or free trade. NATO is not just about security and military alliance. The US is much dependent on global integration in general and transatlantic integration in particular. Revising the terms in NATO and free trade agreements is much easier said than done. Neither NATO nor free trade is American charity, and both are as much beneficial to the US as no less than that to other participants. Leaving trade agreements and increasing taxes and levies on imports into the US will trigger consequences. The United States’ trade counterparts like China, India, Brazil and others will seek retaliation and substitute for imported US goods and services. Yet one can imagine creation of jobs at home by bringing back US companies from China, India, Bangladesh, Cambodia and the likes, where salaries are incomparably lower than in the US, means rising costs at the domestic market and much less competitiveness abroad. Yet large portions of the American consumers perhaps many of who voted for Trump would encounter higher price US-manufactured goods at Walmart stores instead of Chinese-made cheap alternatives they have used to have. Many immigrants do such ‘dirty’ or low-paid jobs in the US many Americans wouldn’t. A white working-class American would feel the impact of his vote when he will have to pay much more to a white American nanny or nurse than the immigrant. Of course, this is not most Trump voters hope for. “History shows it can be hard to fulfill vows that sounded easier to make in front of cheering crowds on the campaign trail”.
One absolutely significant point is that some republicans opposed Trump not because of his statements, but just because they didn’t expect him to win. Even many republicans understood concerns of white Christian Americans but they either didn’t dare or didn’t want to do what Trump did. House Speaker Paul Ryan “repeatedly criticized Trump throughout the campaign, slamming his call to ban Muslims and at one point calling his attacks on a Mexican-American judge the "textbook definition of racism," only to embrace him in the election's closing days”. Ryan immediately congratulated Trump on “His Big Night” and also spoke with his running mate Mike Pence”.
“I think Trump has the idea that things move very quickly in his world, but his world is very different than the political world,” said Behrends Foster, a partner at Bluestone Strategies. But Trump is well-aware of that a big deal of his proposed solutions and policies are too unrealistic to be implemented due to a range of reasons. As a star reality showman, he is skilful in dealing and even playing with emotions and sentiments of people using the problems they face. Trump was lucky enough as he led the potential electorate to buying into his unrealistic promises. Trump’s electorate just ignored Clinton’s calling him ‘Putin’s puppet’, serial sexual misconduct accusations by women, and wider anti-Trump because he had already won their hearts. In order to bring his presidency ambition into reality, he made quite controversial statements and magnetic promises to appease angry white Christian working-class Americans with conservative views and mesmerized them into voting for him.
From the moment of Trump’s victory speech, he has started to show signs of retreatment from his previous statements. “He offered unusually warm words for Mrs. Clinton, who he has suggested should be in jail”. It is likely that his tone would increasingly change for more realistic and less emotional. Yet his first meeting with incumbent president Barack Obama is another sign of such a change in tone. Furthermore, much of his pre-election promises are missing in his plan for first 100 days. But that is not the change his voters expect. They expect him to deliver what he has staunchly and enthusiastically promised. Now it is not clear whether he would be able to deliver. What is clear at this point is that the history has repeatedly demonstrated leaders such as Trump quickly rising in the wave of high popular expectations is likely to end up face to face with frustration of those people in case of failure to deliver. Yet possible conflict of interests between Trump’s business and presidency is and will remain under the spotlight of media and public. Imagining the public frustration to be seen in the light of that conflict, it would just add more fuel to the anger and discontent.
A conclusion is that white Christian Americans feel that their identity and socio- economic wellbeing are threatened by Muslims and immigration. US administrations had scapegoated Muslims and immigration for many problems and failures for many years. Moreover, media and opinion-makers have played a significant role of demonization of Muslims and immigrants. In that context, many Americans view the Washington establishments as too incompetent to address those imminent problems. At this point, Donald Trump stepped in the election campaign 2016 with his anti-establishment agenda to play the identity card. He was courageous enough to be politically incorrect and offer unrealistic and drastic solutions and policies to win hearts and votes of Americans. Ultimately, he mesmerized white Christian Americans into voting for him to become the president of the United States of America. But it is too naïve to expect the Trump presidency to cause a drastic change in the US foreign policy. Trump would struggle between efforts to realize the expectations of his electorate and uniting the much divided America. Yet another challenging task is to do all that without harming vital US interests abroad. Furthermore, once he is in the Oval office, Trump will have access to absolutely confidential reports, which would probably soothe his defiant temperament and anti-establishment rhetoric. Anyway, the Trump presidency would definitely refresh both the foreign policy and the domestic policy. Whether that refreshment would turn out positive or negative is much dependent on Trump’s ability to deliver, which is anyone’s guess.