Trump Triumphs – How Did It Happen?
On Wednesday morning, November 9, The New York Times headline in double-sized print read “Trump Triumphs.” Brazil and the rest of the world woke up to an unbelievable catastrophe. The loud-mouthed presidential candidate with the crazy hair had been elected as president of the United States over Hillary Clinton. The reaction from Hillary supporters was utter devastation. One journalist called it, “the greatest political shock of our lifetimes.” Now everyone is asking: How did it happen?
This election will be analyzed by historians for many years to come because, as one American political columnist said, “I haven’t felt this way since the nuns told our second-grade class that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated.” There are a multitude of complex reasons why Trump won, but I will focus on the five most obvious. Other forces were interacting as well, some we may never know, to allow for this surprising event to occur, which culminated in the favored candidate winning the total vote count but losing the election.
Change is Inevitable
All democracies, like the US and Brazil, thrive on development. Everyone seeks to improve his quality of life, and a better government means a better future for us all. The freedom of democracy grants citizens the power to guide their fate and change their lives. President Obama was elected in 2008 for precisely this reason. He campaigned on the promise of change, and he was elected because Americans were sick of George Bush’s disastrous leadership, two terms that included two wars he initiated. Bush was extremely unpopular when the elections rolled around, and Americans chose change, a liberal Democrat, Obama, to replace a conservative Republican.
While outside observers heralded a victory over racism in the election of America’s first Black president, the world misunderstood the meaning of Obama’s victory. Americans didn’t vote for Obama because he was Black; they voted for him to keep another Republican (Senator John McCain) out of the White House.
This year, Donald Trump capitalized on the same emotions – campaigning for change. With no political experience at all, he had a clear avenue to express his difference from Hillary, a former senator and Secretary of State under Obama. He told Americans their lives should be better but Hillary would continue Obama’s policies. Hillary’s campaign did little to alter that perception, with Obama campaigning frequently for Hillary.
While Obama’s approval ratings were better than Bush’s, still half the country opted for change, choosing a Republican for the White House for a new direction, which was not surprising. In American politics, this is known as the “pendulum effect” whereby voters seek change. Since there are only two political parties currently in the US capable of winning the White House, the change that arises can only go one of two ways – Democrat or Republican – like the pendulum on a grandfather clock.
Hillary’s Failed Campaign Strategy
Obama’s victory in 2008 centered on his message of change. However, it took more than that to win the election. First, there was some blind good luck in the form of his opponent’s foolish choice for vice presidential candidate (Sarah Palin). The poor choice made McCain look weak and spontaneous, a direct contradiction to the traits of strength and dependability that were the foundation of his campaign.
Second and most important to Obama’s win was his overall campaigning. He needed to be masterful in order to not only beat Hillary in the primary elections, but to get to the White House as the first Black president. Racism plays a larger factor in American history than it does in Brazil, so reaching the White House, particularly with a Muslim name (after 9/11), exhibited Obama’s tremendous resources of intelligence and a brilliant campaign.
Thanks to his campaign strategy, Obama was able to defeat Hillary and gain the Democratic nomination when Hillary was even stronger than she was this year, before she was saddled with the negative publicity surrounding her personal server emails and their scrutiny by the FBI and CIA. This election, Hillary was not as skillful a campaigner as Obama was in 2008. For example, she neglected to campaign at all in Wisconsin because she believed the state would vote Democratic. Wisconsin went for Trump.
Another Hillary campaign error: She was encouraged by the experienced campaigner and former president, Bill Clinton, to spend more time chasing the votes of rural Americans and the white working class in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida, where Trump was strongest. Instead, Hillary’s campaign manager accepted that Hillary would lose those votes to Trump, and those are exactly the group of voters that carried Trump to his victory.
Like Obama’s quest to be the first Black US president, Hillary sought to make history by becoming the first female US president, and she faced an equal hurdle in this challenge. To defeat a natural hesitancy of voters toward a woman in the White House, Hillary needed to run a flawless campaign, but she didn’t. She had more money to spend than Trump, but it wasn’t used to her best advantage.
Also, Hillary was advised she would be viewed negatively as a woman if she got excited or showed anger in her debates with Trump, but that’s exactly what she should have done to combat Trump’s sexism and bigotry. (One can only imagine the fiery debate that would have occurred between Trump and Bernie Sanders.) As one Democratic political consultant said after the election, “Class anger won. More money, more consultants, more polling and more of a campaign based on what we [Democrats] thought we knew rather than what the electorate felt.”
Republican Dirty Tricks
Trump had far less money to use for his campaign than Hillary did, which is another mystery surrounding his victory. It could be a sign for future campaigns that his Twitter account was as effective as Hillary’s expensive TV ads. He had promised his supporters to donate as much as U$100 million of his personal money to pay for his campaign, but he never did. Instead he relied on bravado and intimidation and dirty tactics that the Republican party has been using for years against Democratic opponents.
For example, several Republican state governments passed laws requiring voter IDs be presented on election day. While this is the law in Brazil for every election, it’s never done in the US. Americans do not have a título de eleitor or a national ID system like the RG. The only picture ID that Americans have is a driver’s license. However, there are some Americans who don’t have drivers’ licenses, making it impossible for them to vote in cities requiring a photo ID.
The Supreme Court declared these states’ photo ID requirements to be unconstitutional, but on election day there were still polling sites that had signs out front saying a photo ID was required. Last summer, federal appeals courts found that state laws in North Carolina and Texas discriminated against minorities, but voters, poll workers, and government officials were confused on election day about what the current rules were. Trump won in both North Carolina and Texas.
Republicans also cut early voting hours and Sunday voting, and they closed polling places in minority communities, despite significant public opposition. In North Carolina on the day before the election, the state’s Republican Party issued a news release boasting that cutbacks in early voting hours reduced Black turnout by 8.5 percent below 2012 levels, even as the number of White early voters increased by 22.5 percent. Blacks traditionally vote for Democratic candidates.
In Texas, the number of voting locations was reduced by more than 400. In Arizona, nearly every county closed at least one voting location. These reductions were often made in areas where minorities are the primary voters.
Republican state governments also made it more difficult for minority voters to register to vote. Before anyone can vote in the US, they must first register at City Hall. Voting isn’t obligatory in the US, thus registration adds an additional task, especially for people who work and cannot reach City Hall during business hours. Therefore, there are millions of citizens in the US who are not registered and cannot vote on election day.
Democrats have attempted to pass laws that make voter registration automatic, i.e. without a visit to City Hall, but Republicans have stopped these efforts because it primarily benefits minorities and Democrats. Also, many states have begun offering early voting, allowing registered voters to arrive before election day. Since elections are always held on Tuesdays not Sundays as in Brazil, it can be difficult for people who are working all day to vote. Early voting is extremely helpful for attracting more voters, providing greater ease and convenience. Again, Republicans did their best to stop early voting.
While voter ID laws and restrictions on early voting were hurdles that hindered voter turnout, another factor was the number of minorities who can’t vote because they have served time in prison. Anyone who is convicted of a federal crime is forbidden from voting for the rest of his life, which equals millions of potential votes lost for the Democrats. (For those who complete their prison terms, it would be a civic reward for staying out of trouble to allow them to vote.)
Americans Don’t Vote
In my opinion, the biggest factor in Trump’s triumph was the overall lack of voting. Since voting is voluntary in the US and there are absolutely no penalties if you don’t vote, it’s a personal choice to make the effort to stand on line and exercise your citizen’s duty. In this year’s election, about 125 million votes were cast for president, but there are 300 million people living in the US. Of course, there are millions of people who cannot vote because they aren’t US citizens or they are under 18 years old, but that still leaves about 230 million eligible voters, some of whom are not registered to vote. Therefore, only about 54 percent of the US population voted in this election.
Some of this absenteeism was due to laziness or a lack of interest, but for others it was a statement, a way of expressing their dislike for both candidates, similar to the nulo vote in Brazil. Additionally, many people neglected to vote because they were repeatedly informed by trustworthy sources that Hillary Clinton couldn’t lose. For a month leading up to the election, all the polls showed that while the popular vote could be close, Hillary would easily win the Electoral College, which in US presidential elections is the voting system that ultimately decides the winner.
A week before the election, The New York Times printed their assessment that Hillary had a 93 percent chance of winning. On the day before the election, they said her chance of winning was at 84 percent. (A similar situation occurred with polling errors in England this year when the country was shocked to wake up the morning after an election and find itself in the midst of Brexit.) Clearly, there needs to be some changes in the polling systems.
Voters who may have voted for Hillary in large states such as Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania could therefore justify their staying home and not voting, believing Hillary would win without their votes. Certainly, those 100 million or so people who didn’t vote could have changed the results this year.
In the end, Hillary won 47.8% of the popular vote and Trump won 47.0%, with Clinton earning nearly two million more votes than Trump. This makes it another bizarre example of the disastrous and antiquated system known as the Electoral College, which allows for the possibility that a candidate can win the total vote and lose the Electoral College. The same thing happened in 2000, when Al Gore won the vote but lost to Bush because of the Electoral College structure. Hillary’s loss marks the fifth time this has happened in US history.
Hillary and many other politicians called for abandoning or altering the Electoral College back in 2000, but the process of changing the law is politically time-consuming, requiring a Constitutional Amendment. The push to eliminate the Electoral College, which has been in effect since 1787, was then forgotten when Bush and Obama won both the popular vote and the Electoral College in 2004, 2008, and 2012.
The Lies They Tell
Finally, and this is the most difficult to reveal, I believe Trump was elected because he told the masses what they wanted to hear. As the expression goes, “People hear what they want to hear.” His statements on foreign relations were confusing and, at times, contradictory. His supporters ignored his bigotry that bordered on racism. Whatever the populace complained about – illegal immigrants, global trade, terrorism – Trump provided the easy answer: “I’m going to fix that. Trust me.”
Additionally, besides neglecting to offer any concrete plans for solving the country’s problems, when Trump was caught in compromising situations, like accusations from women he had fondled, he simply denied them. He knew that lying and denying was much easier than telling the truth, that he’s a sexual predator, even when a dozen different women came forward to accuse him of unwanted sexual advances. There was an audio tape recording of Trump bragging to Billy Bush, a TV host, about grabbing any woman he wanted. (Bush is the cousin of the former president.) Billy Bush lost his job because of that tape, but Trump’s supporters heard only what they wanted to hear – the sexual confidence of a rich, macho man.
When a disturbing tax document was uncovered, Trump confessed that he had used tax loopholes, which are possibly illegal and certainly unethical, to avoid paying taxes on his billions of assets. He offered to build a wall between the US and Mexico even though the idea is practically impossible. Trump never told his supporters that illegal immigration from Mexico reversed after the 2008 recession. More Mexicans are returning to Mexico than arriving in the US, driven by the economics of finding work. (When illegal immigrants do find work, they often take the jobs Americans don’t want, such as maids or washing dishes in a restaurant.)
Demagogues like Trump win with lies. Hitler and Mussolini lied frequently and got elected. When confronted about his lies by the Democrats or the media, Trump would respond that he had been joking. Trump lied and his supporters bought the lies, thereby lying to themselves. However, it was no joke on Tuesday, November 8, when a xenophobic sexist was elected the next US president.
Everyone, Brazilians and Americans alike, is nervous about what comes next, except perhaps Mr. Putin, the leader of Russia, who has expressed his admiration for The Donald, as he was known on his reality TV show. What effect will the Trump presidency have on Brazil? At this early stage, it’s impossible to predict. With the US as Brazil’s second largest trading partner, it’s safe to say that the best route for everyone will be to maintain the status quo. For now, Brazilians are relieved to learn that they’re not the only country that makes bad choices on election day.
However, I believe there is some hope. I think pretend-billionaire Trump will realize, after taking office on January 20, that being president is much harder than he expected. It’s far more complicated to run a country than to run a reality TV show or build a golf course. After six months or a year, Trump will resign and leave the White House to his vice president, Governor Mike Pence, a politician who spent ten years as a congressman in Washington before becoming a governor. Pence has a lot more experience than Mr. Trump, the first man ever elected to the White House who wasn’t either a politician or a general.
Trump will quickly miss the fun he had making big business deals from his Trump Tower penthouse in Manhattan. He will depart the White House without an apology to the American people for his cowardice and lack of stamina. As a true demagogue, he will never confess his lack of governing expertise or intellectual abilities. Instead, he will complain that he wasn’t able to fulfill his promises because the Washington “game” was rigged against him. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that I’m right.
B. Michael Rubin is an American living in Curitiba.