So Trump won – but how?

Dr Harry Bennett writes:

President Elect Donald Trump

President Elect Donald Trump

In simple, and very obvious, terms the provisional results show that Donald Trump won the presidency because of the vagaries of the American political system. It meant that the majority could vote for Clinton (60,116,240 for Trump as opposed to 60,556,142), while the Electoral College system (306 to 232 voters) handed victory to Trump.

But drill down a little further into the result and your eye might be attracted to the role of third party candidates in critical swing states. For example, the Libertarian candidate’s share of the poll in Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan (65 electoral college votes) was more than Trump’s margin of victory in those states.  And low turnout (around 57% – up 2% from 2012) played a further role in Trump’s road to the White House.

This election will provide talking points for my colleagues in election studies for the next four years. They will be especially exercised by the fact that hundreds of pre-election opinion polls consistently under-estimated the strength of the Trump vote. Historians need those experts to do their work before they can satisfactorily begin to talk about why the Trump victory happened, but there are perhaps other disciplines we can turn to for an explanation of America Decides 2016.

Elsewhere in these blogs, I wrote about Trump’s affinity for professional wrestling as sport, as performance and as a way into the psyche of America.  One element underpins professional wrestling: suspension of disbelief.

Rationally, an audience knows that two wrestlers in the ring are not really trying to kill each other and that they have already agreed who will win and who will lose.  The audience, however, prefers to suspend their disbelief, to accept at face value what the performers in the ring are presenting them with, to believe that one character is genuinely evil and willing to stoop to any low in order to win in a contest the outcome of which is completely open.  The audience chooses to believe and to interpret things in a particular way.  They switch off their rationality out of choice.

In this election few doubted that Donald J. Trump had a personality that is problematic, a personal history that is controversial, an approach towards politics and issues that is outspoken and inconsistent.  That’s not to mention attitudes towards women, Mexicans and a host of others that just plain suck.

For one part of the electorate Trump was their candidate because he is a Republican (and party allegiance matters). For others, he voiced the unpleasant prejudices that in a politically correct world they weren’t supposed to have, and certainly weren’t allowed to voice. But for another part, he became the candidate for whom they were prepared to suspend their disbelief.

For them the American dream has turned sour as globalism has resulted in a flight of jobs to economies where the price of labour is cheap.  They see an entrenched East coast elite remote from their world and their lives in small town and urban America.  They see that elite self-replicating (the Clintons, the Bush family, the worlds of politics, Hollywood and business merging) and they feel left behind by an America moving away from what they see as traditional values.

Some of those Americans could see what Donald Trump is, but preferred to suspend disbelief and vote with the hope that he might mean political, social and economic change. Many considered Clinton to be the embodiment of the establishment and Donald Trump, whatever his faults, had to be better than that.

Others would accept Trump’s accusations that the election was being rigged and that stories and criticism of him were the product of a biased “liberal media”. Others again might convince themselves that men really do talk to each other in boastful ways using sexually aggressive language: “It’s just guy talk.”

Some of the campaign gaffs and more outlandish statements might be seen as evidence of his outsider status, and as “campaign rhetoric” to be toned down to statesmanlike policy once in the White House.  For a significant minority of electors Trump was a concern, but they were prepared to suspend their disbelief in the candidate in the interests of hope.

When asked about their voting intentions by pollsters they were too embarrassed to reveal how they were feeling and how they thought they might vote.  On Election Day, and in the privacy of a secret ballot, disbelief was suspended and the vote for Trump cast.

Trump’s cleverness lay in creating the media noise to lead them to believe that he was an outsider, that his opponent was an arch-insider, that he would bring change and that the accusations against him could be dismissed.

On the face of it, as Mr Spock would say in the context of the polls and a poor campaign, Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 was “highly illogical”.  Trump’s skill was in finding a way to turn the illogical into a means to victory and to get a slice of the electorate to suspend their rational faculties.

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