Trump’s America: Why Clueless Candidates Can Win - Connor Aberle
A mistake liberals frequently made in the last campaign was thinking that Republicans were voting for Donald Trump because they were less educated. Aside from being elitist and classist, this argument fails to explain why the some of the same “less educated” people voted for Obama in the previous two elections. Instead, these voters appear to vote based on who they believe has their best interests in mind. In 2008, Obama represented a departure from the economic downturn of George W. Bush. Trump similarly represents a pivot away from neoliberalism in favor of populist isolationism. But why Trump?
Why did America select a man with shockingly little knowledge of American politics? And why did Democrats choose neoliberal Hillary Clinton over populist Bernie Sanders?
Donald Trump is here to stay because so much of the United States is shockingly ill informed. Ignorant American voters populate the entire political spectrum, which allows populist candidates with no political acumen to succeed.
Complex American political arguments have been reduced to simple slogans and rallying cries, allowing people to follow arguments with very little information. “Trumped-up trickle down;” “Law and order;” “my body, my choice;” “bring our jobs back;” and “protect the second amendment” are recent examples of catchy slogans that simplify complex issues. These four-word arguments are not all bad; voters who do not have the time to focus on politics can attain a good understanding of the candidates. But, these soundbite arguments pave the way for people like Donald Trump, who fail to understand American and international politics beyond slogans.
A perfect example of low-information issues during the campaign was the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). Both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders railed against all trade deals, including TPP, in a populist defense against globalization. Ironically, the entire point of TPP was to shift economic power away from China. Additionally, TPP had mechanisms of enforcement to prevent countries from violating the trade agreement. The details of the TPP or the complexity of the Chinese-United States relationship were never explored during this election. Rather, all candidates—even Hillary Clinton—rejected the trade deal completely.
In the minds of many voters, all free trade is bad. But can they explain America’s free trade policies? Do they know the details of NAFTA or TPP? According to a Harvard-Politico poll in September of 2016, most Americans had never heard of the Trans Pacific Partnership. Of those who had heard of it, the majority thought China was a member country, which it is not. The TPP should not be reduced to a simple issue of free trade. In reality, there are no straightforward issues: there are complex problems to which politicians provide simplistic, incomplete solutions.
Simplicity perfectly describes this election’s populist candidates. The messages of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders were easy to follow and painted a simple reality. In their view, the people of the United States are at war with the establishment elites. For Bernie, taking down the “one percent” was the path to prosperity. For Trump, “making America great again” meant isolationism and trade renegotiation. Both of these visions are highly simplified versions of reality, but as Sanders would argue, they tap into a populist anger of the middle class with globalization and stagnant wages.
Why then did Democrats nominate a neoliberal over a populist? Democrats remain elitist while Republicans are increasingly anti-elitist. In fact, Democrats presented Hillary Clinton’s elite attributes as her presidential qualifications during the campaign. And they have a point.
Of all the people eligible to run for president, Hillary Clinton may have been the most intimately familiar with the office. President Obama frequently said she was the “most qualified” presidential candidate in history. She has been involved in high-profile politics for the last thirty years, and she is no doubt more experienced in diplomacy, legislating, and negotiating than the President-elect. Ironically, all of her work and familiarity with political power is the exact aspect of her identity that makes her the elite establishment.
Even the democratic socialist who sparked a “political revolution” was a Washington elite. Bernie Sanders is a University of Chicago-educated politician who served as both a Representative and a Senator for over twenty-five years. If anything, his resume indicates that he is a political insider. Sanders’ ideology is not in line with Democrats, but he is still a political and intellectual elite.
The Democratic faith in the elite is the barrier to success of Trump-type leaders. While elitism comes with its prejudices, it ensures that only a talented, select few can seek the most powerful job in the country. The conservative rejection of elitism this election comes at a steep price: the President-elect has no idea what he is doing. Trump is a true outsider and anti-elitist in the sense that he has no experience in politics whatsoever. (Although, an Ivy-educated billionaire is not exactly a man of the people.) And even he is looking to party veterans like Reince Priebus, Newt Gingrich, and Rudy Giuliani to lead his cabinet. Like Democrats, Trump too puts his faith in elite party members to run his administration.
Unless the nature of American politics changes, more Trumps will be elected from both parties. Populism has won the day, and politicians will need to be populists in the future. But the complexity of American politics needs to be explored in political discourse. In addition to populists, the United States needs critical thinking politicians who understand the intricacy of the political world. If United States politicians continue to reduce complex viewpoints into simple arguments, they enable simplistic people to seek the presidency.