Why did people vote for Trump? There are several reasons, some of which are regrettable, all are important to learn from. But apart perhaps from the dubious intervention of the FBI, his victory is not a perversion of democracy as some would like to claim. And his supporters may have been duped, but they are not fools.
First, it has to be admitted that Trump judged his audience to perfection and played relentlessly to their prejudices and fears, in a way few “professional” (read “cautious”) politicians could, or indeed did. It may be highly regrettable that so many white American voters like guns and dislike immigrants, Muslims, foreigners , ethnic minorities etc. and that is something to ponder and try to change. But that was the reality and that was one of the feelings he connected with. You don’t choose your electorate.
Second, he allowed and licensed people to feel the anger they already felt. He made it OK to be angry. This is the truly dangerous aspect of his success, the way populist agitators from either end of the traditional political spectrum nearly always work their mischief. Professional politicains are again cautious about doing this because they know anger is hard to control and the mob can turn on its heroes. They may yet turn on Trump. But it is no use telling angry folk that they should calm down and learn acceptance. The best way to combat anger may be not to create it in the first place, but next best is to acknowledge it and promise to do something about it – certainly not to deny it.
Third, the election was fought with a breathtaking disregard for truth. It did not matter whether charges levelled at other candidates at different stages were true or false. All that mattered was to provide a story that people could invest in, as if the whole thing was a movie – or a reality show? Drama mattered, truth did not, which is perhaps why revelations which would have felled any professional politician slid harmlessly off candidate Trump. As with the flawed hero of a detective story or a thriller, people just shrugged and said, “Yes, but will he get the bad guys?”
So we come to the most important aspect of the election. The story being sold by Trump at every stage was that professional politicians lie and cannot be trusted. Whatever else was said or not said, this was something they could relate to, in fact something they believed passionately and not without foundation.
People have been assured for years that more free trade, more globalisation, lower taxes for the rich, less regulation of business and capital, more trust in the power of markets would lead to greater prosperity for everyone. It was all lies. It doesn’t, it hasn’t. People know this from their own joblessness or deskilled, menial employment or at best their stagnating living standards. But politicians assure them that they must be mistaken, that if they are worse off the fault is in some way theirs. So people are frustrated, angry, bewildered, feel patronised. They want things to be as they were, for “America to be great again” which for them is judged first by their own living standards.
It’s not just a question of theory not working out in practice, as if comparative advantage had an unsuspected flaw. It is more that a fundamental economic change has taken place and is continuing to unfold. The high relative wealth of the developed world is slowly levelling off with that of the rest of the planet, helped by the free movement of goods and capital which allows corporations to manufacture where labour is cheapest. The result is cheaper goods and higher profits, but fewer higher paid manufacturing jobs and greater personal indebtedness in the traditional manufacturing countries. Indeed, everyone wants cheap goods but few understand the real price. The elite international class, the Davos class as Naomi Klein aptly calls them, understand although they may care little about cheap goods anyway. Indeed it is not a secret although like bad news in families it is not much discussed. But the Davos class are insulated from the effects. The blue collar workers of Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania are not.
There is thus a disconnection between the patriotism which people still feel towards their nation state and the reality of a globalised economy in which the price of labour, not its location, is all that matters to producers. People may be patriotic, firms and markets are not. It is a recipe for disillusion, anger and frustration. President-elect Trump is himself one of the elite and is as unlikely to solve the problem as any other politician, so his voters are highly likely to be disappointed. Neither would Sanders have succeeded, the only Democratic candidate to recognise the anger of the people and thus the only candidate likely to have beaten Trump had the Davos Democratic establishment not been so scared of his outdated socialism as to bend the rules against him.
It is the most dangerous conflict of expectations we face. Desperate people may again turn as they did in the nineteen thirties, indeed may already have done in this election, to the promise of “strong leadership”, trading their political freedom unwittingly for the promise of returned prosperity. The social contract of recent decades, if there ever was one, is broken. The “-isms” of the twentieth century are all discredited except for opportunism. A new covenant between states, people and capital is needed. And there may not be much time.