In discussions of the 2016 election, I think people vacillate between two somewhat, though not absolutely, contradictory opinions: That the country is more racist and sexist than we thought, and that Clinton really won. Or at least that Clinton would have won in a country with more straightforward voting. Some would say fairer, but first past the post voting isn’t all that fair to begin with. There isn’t a problem with the two arguments in isolation, but they cloud some important considerations. The most important of which is that Trump represents a new normal.
First of all, too much is being made of Clinton’s popular vote lead, which is by percentage ~2.4%. Some people go by absolute number and compare them to previous vote numbers. This is totally statistically meaningless. Please bear in mind: Clinton was running against a reality television show star with zero competence and no experience. Her 2.4% lead must be interpreted in the light of that information. People compare Trump to Reagan, who was a B-list actor, but Reagan actually had real, non-trivial political experience before he was elected president. He had more or about the same political experience as Barack Obama when he was elected in 2004, depending on how you count it. Trump is the least competent person to fill the role in the 21st and 20th century bar none. Even if Hillary’s popular vote translated to an Electoral College win, Trump was competitive, and she beat him with an appallingly thin margin, considering who he is.
Going purely by popular vote totals, when Obama won in 2012, he was at ~4% against someone with experience as governor. He got 7% against a veteran, and a highly respected senator in 2008. For comparison, George W. Bush won a second term against Kerry in 2004 with a margin much closer to Clinton’s at ~3%. That level of support isn’t great, and at the time the left was rightly decrying the Republican claim that Bush now had a mandate.
By any standard, Trump’s performance, win or lose, was on par for any Republican presidential candidate in the United States in the past 16 years. It would be 20 years if Perot hadn’t split Dole’s vote in 1996 in a way that would make the Green party blush. Trump also trounced his more experienced Republican brethren. Trump did well. In terms of his performance during the election, he was extraordinarily competitive, considering who he is.
This is a new normal, and that’s a real problem for Clinton and the Democrats, regardless of whether they won the popular vote. Every analysis that specifically took into account the electoral college had Trump at a high chance of losing. Nate Silver is getting a lot of heat for being “wrong,” but his models are very good and the fact of the matter is that a 30% chance of winning (which was about where Silver pegged Trump before the elction) is better than your chances of rolling a specific number on a typical six-sided die.
All these numbers are fine, but what does this mean? It means that Democrats need figure out not just what happened, but what they can do about it. Part of that analysis needs to look very critically at the theory that Trump was propelled to power by a deeply racist country. That this country is deeply racist is absolutely true, though one must concede that “deeply” is a relative term. That Trump was endorsed heavily by racists and homophobes is undeniable. But how relevant was it to this election? This is a difficult question to answer. The best kinds of statistics are impossible to obtain this late after the election, and asking voters if they’re racist is not a good way to survey the role of racism in the election.
Looking to demographics reveals that Trump’s support was very white, but most Republican candidates see similar demographic support. How is this new? It might identify substratum racial bias, but substratum racial bias isn’t new to this election. There was overt racism on the part of Trump supporters, but this really isn’t new either. Romney and McCain had the decency to condemn racist rhetoric, but it was an undeniable part of their runs for president.
The primary difference is that Trump was more overt about his racism. Of course, all candidates are racist to some degree, even Obama, though not in the way that many of his critics on the right would argue, against whites. People treat being a racist as a binary switch, when the reality is that racism is a function of degree. This blog is racist. The only question is how racist it is. The question is therefore, was his racism the overriding factor in his large support base?
It certainly had some impact, and very obviously won him the support of organized white supremacists like the KKK and the Alt-Right. But the number of people in these groups isn’t that high. How much support overt racism brought him can only really be determined through prospective correlational studies that are impossible now. People arguing absolute knowledge that it was a major factor are often arguing from their own lens. Race was an important issue to them, but that doesn’t make it an important issue to the people who voted for Trump. This lack of concern for racism is, of course, a form of racism–but it’s a sign of unconscious bias or substratum racism, rather than an overt approval of racist rhetoric. In other words, the new normal Trump represents is not an increase in racism. That racism was always latent. That is the old normal.
Instead, let’s consider the issues most frequently raised during debates and policy discussions that were not related to the candidates’ character. Policing was not a frequently raised issue, but one that is highly pertinent to racial issues right now. Affirmative action, voting rights, and other salient issues took no priority. Instead most of what was discussed was related to economic issues. Even one of Trump’s most central racist policy ideas, the Wall, expresses a form of racism deeply tied to economic issues. It doesn’t matter that many Americans are wrong about Mexicans and the Chinese taking their jobs (automation is a bigger culprit), they perceive a cause of their economic woes to be immigration. But at its core, it’s based on economic concerns. The racism is of course inseparable, but it doesn’t abrogate other elements of the sentiment.
This is what makes the argument that race was THE major differential factor responsible for Trump’s success so dangerous: Not that it’s wrong, but that it’s right enough to get us to ignore other important issues and to maintain a simplistic view of the election. The worst part about such a simplistic view is that it focuses on the issue to which the Democrats are least adaptable: Racism. Democrats cannot end racism tomorrow. In fact it could be argued that any political party can only ultimately play a secondary role in the fight against racism. Democrats cannot find common ground with overt racists (or at least the left should refuse to allow it to do so.) This is terrain that is difficult to change. Meanwhile moving the party in a more populist economic direction, and appealing to Americans on economic issues, is entirely doable. This should be a pillar on which Democrats build a platform in large part because it’s likely to be another major reason for Trump’s popular support. Many voters were clearly desperate enough to vote in an incompetent outsider based on a desire to shake up the system. There was a more competent left wing analogue in Sanders, and this is the new normal: Voters who are dissatisfied in inarticulate ways with the economic systems of our liberal democracy.
Trump does represent, at least on some level, a reaction to the opaque and troubling trends in the American economy. His lack of competence to cure them is immaterial, only the perception that he can sufficiently shake up the system for something to change. Racism certainly played its role in this election, but we cannot attribute the entirety of Trump’s success to it. Racism is also a more inherently difficult problem to navigate and it is unlikely that electoral policy changes will have any direct impact. Certainly battling racism is a fight that must and will continue, but identifying and emphasizing the problem doesn’t actually solve it. It must be worked around as much as against, yet without compromise. This is no mean feat. The battles ahead will be difficult.