Donald J. Trump’s Election Day upset defied polls and media expectations. Once the mud-stained curtain of innuendo and accusation is pulled aside, it becomes evident that the Republican candidate appealed to American voters on a diverse array of issues — some of which have been more pivotal than others. Here’s a closer look at how Trump managed to pull off the biggest Election Day surprise many Americans have witnessed.
Obamacare Backlash: Financial Life Support
Trump appealed to those who are grappling with Obamacare sticker shock. Despite the Obama Administration’s best-laid plans, very few cost-control provisions found their way into the Affordable Care Act. The ACA handed the health insurance industry more customers at the risk of levying tax penalties upon Americans who failed to purchase a policy. But the ACA did almost nothing to bring down the cost of prescription drugs, to limit triple-digit premium price hikes and to pare down the “administrative obesity” that has given rise to healthcare cost inflation in the first place. President Obama’s seeming indifference to the fact that the ACA would become increasingly less affordable in the waning days of his administration helped set the stage for a Republican victory. In this respect, candidate Trump didn’t undercut candidate Clinton’s chances of electoral success nearly as much as her presidential predecessor.
The American BREXIT: It’s the Economy, Stupid!
Trump appealed to Americans who have lost living-wage jobs. Trump also appealed to the trade-policy minded who recall then-presidential candidate Ross Perot’s 1992 predictions on NAFTA — which Perot famously characterized as a “giant sucking sound” of manufacturing jobs exiting U.S. borders. Despite the promise that “free trade” would be an economic growth engine for the United States, evidence suggests that corporations — not workers — reap the rewards of this and other trade deals that have pitted First World labor forces in the U.S. and abroad against Third World labor markets in which costs are a fraction of what they are domestically. With more than 20 years of hindsight, it has become increasingly apparent that while early efforts at globalization have indeed created more jobs on a global scale, offshoring has served to suppress wages, reduce the number of living wage jobs available to American workers and grow the national debt thanks to gargantuan trade deficits and the proliferation of corporate tax havens that are available to corporations that have offshored their finances in much the same way they have offshored jobs.
Never was the disconnect between the Establishment and the American people more painfully apparent, perhaps, then when President Barrack Obama squared off against a laid-off engineer’s wife on a videochat in 2012, during which the president’s support of H1-B (foreign) visa workers to fill science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) jobs came under question. President Obama, on the advice of Bill Gates and others, expressed a belief in a shortage of American STEM workers — even though universities in the U.S. turn out more STEM-grads than anywhere else in the world — and despite the fact that high rates of unemployment continued in the aftermath of the Great Recession. The videochat went viral and the dirty little secret known primarily within the tech industry was out: Employment opportunity isn’t merely a product of entering an in-demand field — it’s increasingly a matter of competing within one’s own country, even, against cheap imported foreign labor. In the wake of a widening public appreciation that being properly trained to thrive in the 21st Century American economy is no guarantee of employment stability or success, Hillary Clinton’s campaign promise to invest in retraining American workers, while relevant, failed to resonate — particularly among displaced blue-collar workers.
Drain the Swamp: No More Double Standards
Trump appealed to those who refused to settle for a double standard of justice — one standard of conduct under the law for low-level government employees and private citizens and a more forgiving standard for the well-connected Elite. Many Americans refused to accept as the “new normal” a system in which the taint of corruption are dismissed for the politically-connected with little more than a nod, a wink and a hasty FBI investigation — even as others spend their lives in exile or prison. Likewise, Trump appealed to voters who perceive the undo influence of special interests as a factor in an increasingly globally-oriented government. For these voters, a vote for Trump was a vote against corruption — whether the corruption of a single candidate who found herself under FBI investigation in the midst of a campaign or the corruption endemic to the status quo in Washington, D.C. at large.
White Populists: Not Demographically Dead — Yet
Trump’s off-the-cuff, take-no-prisoners talk — in defiance of the usual method of wooing voters with political doublespeak — brought out a contingent of voters that included biker gangs, white nationalists and assorted characters who typically do not show up at polls in support of conventional candidates. Trump’s election was the last “Hail Mary” of a dwindling white majority.
Mainstream Media Revolt: Enough of the Hyperbole
Trump’s run appealed to those who sympathize with underdogs who are not endorsed by — or beholden to — the Establishment. From the outset, the mainstream media decided that Trump’s run for the GOP nomination was essentially a joke — and again predicted that he would drop out just as soon as the going got tough. While Trump’s outspoken behavior on the campaign trail certainly didn’t make the task of covering Trump’s campaign easy, mainstream media and celebrity personalities alike worked overtime to portray Trump as the bogeyman to top all bogeymen. Trump came to embody every sin of the “isms”: racism, fascism, sexism, isolationism, nationalism — and then some. In hindsight, media efforts to undercut Trump’s campaign legs through a relentless underscoring of his shortcomings backfired. Many Americans, already cynical about the mainstream media, became indifferent to the constant drumbeat of fear. It didn’t help to restore confidence in America’s gatekeepers when an editorial in a leading newspaper posited a loaded question: Why should journalists make any attempt to be impartial given how so obviously evil Trump, the opposing candidate, is?
The 2016 presidential election, if nothing more, ought to serve as a wake-up call to members of the Fourth Estate: The more alarmist the tone and tenor of campaign news coverage, the more it risks alienating readers, listeners, viewers and voters who resent being told how to think. Overt attempts to paint a “Good” vs. “Evil” narrative, particularly when the narrative relies so heavily on subjective interpretations and stylistic criticisms above and beyond hard-news policy analysis — the latter of which took a backseat to high drama in this election — only raises suspicions of bias, if not accusations of baldfaced propaganda. For journalists, editors and publishers, the election of Donald Trump delivers a clear take-home message: Rightly or wrongly, Americans want to be treated as if they are intelligent enough to make decisions for themselves.
Backlash, if not social unrest, is the risk mainstream media runs in overplaying a negative message ad nauseam. If reporters and pundits do not wish to perpetuate a “Cry Wolf” revolt against the messenger, they must resist the impulse to play off of social media sensationalism or to strip the context from a statement as a means to amplify controversy. Dispassionate coverage — even if a candidate’s own behavior makes a case for sounding the alarm — is required for the messenger to avoid being tainted by the individual the coverage seeks to expose. Put another way, a transparent effort to stoke outrage towards a particular individual or issue makes the messenger’s role in the story newsworthy in its own right — if only for having lowered the bar. Democracy is not stronger for a Fourth Estate that slings as much mud as the candidates themselves. For media professionals, the 2016 presidential election must serve to reaffirm that the best course, while not sexy or even particularly morally satisfying, is the dispassionate approach.
The Antiwar Crossover Voter: Give Peace A Chance
Perhaps the least-appreciated contingent of voters candidate Trump appealed to were those whom the DNC underestimated. In working, as the DNC hack illustrated, to sideline the presidential hopes of the Democratic nominee with the most grassroots support — Sen. Bernie Sanders — the DNC left Sec. Clinton as the flip-flopping Establishment candidate in contrast to Trump, the “Change candidate”, on the ballot. On its own, that might not have been enough to compel a portion of disaffected Democrats and Independents to back Trump. But Clinton’s record as a War Hawk — who not only backed the Iraq war but pretty much every attempt at foreign intervention before or since — cast her foreign policy judgment in doubt.
Voters were urged by the Clinton campaign to fear Trump’s temperamental fitness with the nuclear codes. But at the end of the day, Clinton’s promise to do the very thing that could place the U.S. in a catastrophic situation in Syria also appears to have given voters pause. In Trump voters have an “unknown” who spoke of mending fences. In Clinton, voters have a “known” who renewed fears not only of a Cold War — what with all the talk of Russian interference in our Election — but renewed concerns on the part of Gorbachev and others for a hot war. For antiwar voters, speculation over what might go wrong under a Trump presidency failed to outweigh what is well documented about Clinton’s interventionist foreign policy aims. Clinton sealed her foreign policy fate when she pledged during the final presidential debate to back a No-Fly Zone in Syria despite testimony from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and others, that such an effort would be tantamount to a declaration of war on Russia.
Although any post-electoral analysis would be disingenuous to imply that president-elect Trump is appealing on all fronts — in reality, much of America finds him anything but — nearly half of those who turned out to vote found Trump grounded on enough fronts to cast a cautiously optimistic vote. With any luck, the candidate who came to embody the quintessential bogeyman will instead prove to be a leader ready, willing and able to promote the more positive aspects of Change Americans desire. For a Trump presidency to unite more so than it divides, Trump must promote a leadership style that demands higher expectations for the office. Trump must remain mindful from start to finish that defying the doom-and-gloom pronouncements by Establishment partisans in government and media requires him, to a greater degree than many of his predecessors, to inspire everyone around him to excellence so that the nation’s interests — the people’s interests — can be more visibly served. Do this, and the Trump legacy will not be that of the inexperienced, authoritarian disaster much of the electorate fears. Fail this, and Trump may go down among the worst presidential frauds in U.S. history.
President-elect Trump must hit the ground running in January 2017. He will need to work tirelessly to improve the economy. He will need to follow through on healthcare and tax reform on behalf of ordinary Americans — for whom the combined cost burden amounts to as much as 40-50 percent of wage earners’ annual household incomes. As president, Trump must deliver better care and treatment of America’s veterans. He must never lose sight of the needs of inner city residents and the needs of minorities. He must make good on American infrastructure improvements rather than falling back on feel-good, “shovel-ready” slogan-making. He must work to reduce the risk of domestic terrorism while improving the path to legal citizenship. In short, the work is just beginning for president-elect Trump. But if Donald J. Trump can hone his focus — and steer clear of bungling his way into still more ill-fated wars abroad — even his detractors may come around.
And united we may yet stand.