The short arc that led to Donald Trump

My father came to America from India in 1967, and my mother came soon after in 1972. America was different then. These were the early days of American immigration, as President Lyndon B. Johnson had opened the America’s “gates” to foreigners in 1965. Yes, there was discrimination, but there was also a sense of opportunity. Growing up in America, my brother and I were taught to believe that if we studied and worked hard enough, we would do well for ourselves. Unlike India, with its rigid caste system, or Western Europe, with its entrenched bourgeoisie, anyone could make it in America.

Indian-Americans, making full use of these opportunities, soon became the wealthiest and most-educated social group in America. But it wasn’t just economic success for immigrants and for the country as a whole, this period of enhanced American immigration led to a cultural efflorescence that would brand American pre-eminence in terms of openness and diversity. Yet, little did we realise there was growing resentment against people like us that, decades later, would culminate in the election of Republican Donald Trump.

Neelanjan Sircar

Unlike Goldwater

This wasn’t the first time America was faced with a Trump-like candidate. In 1964, Barry Goldwater emerged from the multi-cornered primaries as the Republican nominee, defeating, among others, the more moderate Nelson Rockefeller. Goldwater's coalition included members from the paranoid, anti-communist organisation John Birch Society that opposed civil rights legislation (for the equal treatment of black Americans) on the grounds that it was aimed at creating a “Soviet Negro Republic” in the American South. Much as in this election, moderate Republican leaders baulked at supporting such an extremist candidate.

A significant share of Republican Party members defected and voted for Goldwater’s opponent, Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson. Goldwater’s electoral coalition crumbled; he garnered just 38 per cent of the vote, compared to Johnson’s 61 per cent, while winning only six out of the 50 states. Emboldened by a major electoral mandate, President Johnson introduced the “Great Society” civil rights legislation to address racial discrimination, as well the immigration reforms that would allow my parents to come to America.

Faced with a paranoid, racist social force in the 1960s, the American electorate responded to keep the country on the path of liberty and equality. In this election, Donald Trump had open associations with white supremacist groups and wrapped the banks, the President, and the media into one large conspiracy narrative. But this time American democracy failed, and we are left seeking answers as to why. When my parents immigrated, America was building its Great Society; today they face the prospect of seeing it unravel in front of their eyes.

The decisive voter

To understand this outcome, one must begin with America’s electoral system, which structures the set of viable political appeals. In this system, (in all but two states) the candidate who receives the support of a plurality of voters in the state wins all of that state’s “electoral votes.” The candidate who receives a majority of these electoral votes (270) wins the election. If a voter resides in a state in which one of the candidates will likely receive a plurality, his/her vote is effectively useless.

For instance, in California, where it was certain that Hillary Clinton would win a plurality, an extra vote for either Ms. Clinton or Mr. Trump would have had zero marginal impact on the candidates’ electoral fortunes. Accordingly, candidates and parties focus on winning the support of voters in a small set of “swing states” that are not committed to either candidate. This further implies that the optimal political appeal to win an election is driven exclusively by the demographics and issues in the swing states, like Michigan and Pennsylvania, as opposed to the preferences of the entire American electorate.

American voters now exhibit severe party polarisation. Even in an election that saw Bernie Sanders split the Democratic Party, and several key Republican leaders abandon Mr. Trump, most members of the Democratic and Republican parties fell into line. The CNN exit poll shows that about 90 per cent of each of Democrats and Republicans voted for their party’s candidate in this election; by contrast, a Gallup exit poll found that 20 per cent of Republicans defected from the party to vote for Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. Furthermore, about 70 per cent of the American electorate is registered with either the Democratic or Republican Party. The decisive voters are thus the small number of uncommitted voters in a few swing states.

Nativism in the swing states

Many have termed Donald Trump’s victory as a revenge of the working-class white voter, as the Rust Belt swing states of Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, with large working-class white populations, all swung toward Mr. Trump in this election. The Rust Belt was once the manufacturing hub of the U.S., but these jobs gradually disappeared due to the pressures of globalisation and job automation. Indeed, the proportion of the U.S. workforce in manufacturing had declined from about one in four in 1960 to about one in 10 in 2010. But a simple narrative of those affected by globalisation voting for Trump due to economic grievance does not fit the empirical facts well.

According to CNN’s exit poll, Ms. Clinton posted an 11 percentage point lead for voters with annual salaries less than $50,000, while Mr. Trump led with voters who made more than $50,000 a year. This pattern also holds in the Rust Belt states that Mr. Trump won. For instance, in the swing state of Pennsylvania, Ms. Clinton held a 12 percentage point lead among voters making less than $50,000 a year, but Mr. Trump held an 11 percentage point lead among voters with annual salaries above $50,000. Furthermore, if this was about economic loss, one would have expected these voters to support higher taxes, more redistributive policy, and stronger social programmes. In fact, Mr. Trump is promising the opposite: severe tax cuts and a repeal of nationalised healthcare.

The economic grievance narrative is appealing to those who have a commitment to class struggle as an organising principle of politics. Much of this is a post-World War II construction that voter preferences are primarily driven by economic instrumentality. As the World War II generation, and those who fought for civil rights in America, have largely passed on, we have lost our ability to understand that politics in the West need not only be about economic issues, it can also be about identity, ethnicity, and race, and it can be ugly.

In my previous piece (‘ > Why Donald Trump has already won’, The Hindu, October 29), I explained that the rise of Mr. Trump was directly linked to the rise of “nativism,” an aggressive reaction by white Americans to take back the country’s institutions. This isn’t just conjecture; Nigel Farage, who championed Britain’s exit from the European Union (Brexit), was a guest at the Republican National Convention and hit the campaign trail with Mr. Trump. This was a powerful message in the largely white Rust Belt, where decades of job loss had precipitated a loss of “importance” and “prestige” for those living in these states. Outside of the mainstream, the nativist movement created a world of conspiracy-spouting, fear-mongering talk show hosts and blogs in the “alt-right” media that none of us took seriously enough. Much like the John Birch Society decades before, this was a paranoid, angry reaction by white Americans fuelled by racial tensions to take back American institutions. Except this time the movement was successful.

This narrative of severe racial polarisation in this election is borne out in the data. The CNN exit poll data show that Mr. Trump had a 21 percentage point lead, 58 per cent to 37 per cent, among white voters, the largest gap seen among white voters in a long time. Even the pollsters failed to pick up the level of racial polarisation in the electorate, which led most of them to wrongly predict Ms. Clinton to win the election. The last CNN/ORC poll released just before the election had Mr. Trump winning white voters in Pennsylvania by 9 percentage points, 50 per cent to 41 per cent. The CNN exit poll for Pennsylvania showed that Mr. Trump carried white voters by 16 percentage points, 56 to 40 per cent. Given that 80 per cent of Pennsylvania’s voters are white, this difference alone predicted a 5-6 per cent shift in the vote towards Mr. Trump from the pre-election poll.

A bleak future

It will get worse before it gets better. Mr. Trump’s electoral mandate is to “take back” American institutions, and, as a populist, he is expected to do it. His promises include filing charges and jailing Ms. Clinton, banning Muslim immigration, nominating ultra-conservative Supreme Court judges, and, most of all, imposing nativist control over the country’s institutions. There is little incentive for him to moderate his positions now.

I now live in India. On Wednesday morning, I woke up at 5.30 a.m. to find out about the election results in America. I found out that I am no longer welcome in the country in which I was born and raised because of the colour of my skin.

Neelanjan Sircar is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research.

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