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A Manifestation of the Inevitable?

A Manifestation of the Inevitable?

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Guest editorial by Jeffrey Carroll, Ph.D.,
Assistant Professor of Political Science

History may one day remember the election of President Donald J. Trump as a manifestation of the inevitable. The Cliff Notes version of the United States' early 21st century will recall September 11 and the War on Terror, the election of the first African-American president, recovery from the Great Recession and expansion of the social net through "Obamacare" and the social movements built around racial, gender and economic inequality. The early 21st century, too, will be remembered for the American public's sustained distrust of government, its prolonged skepticism of globalization, and its deep-seated uneasiness of the country's demographic changes. The 2016 presidential election will be seen as a response to these changes and dissatisfaction in a world marked by national populism and a rebuke for everyday, establishment politics. Was Donald Trump's election predestined? For many observers (including me), it was not.

Scholars, political pundits and pollsters leading up to the November 8 election were confronted with many unknowns that made the election difficult to predict. Political scientists were finding that the usual standards of previous presidential campaigns and elections were not holding in 2016. There were things that I got right about the election. There were things that I got wrong.  For most of the election season, I grappled with an X-factor in the election that in the end, I was terribly wrong about. I will do my best to explain it.

The electorate has been unaccepting of behavior that crosses a line. We do not tolerate corruption, and that is paramount (something that certainly worked against Hillary Clinton). In the modern history of the presidency (post-FDR), the American public has been less and less tolerant of candidates who resort to blaming, shaming and ridiculing segments of American society. Campaign disaster usually ensues when this behavior is coupled with something that the electorate usually does not tend to accept, an inability to be articulate on important policy matters. This was not so with Donald Trump. Despite his fierce and sometimes very offensive language and his fumbling over issues, Trump only gained momentum over time. Let us recall that we are not long removed from the Howard Dean scream, a passionate outburst at a rally that derailed his entire candidacy. Voters thought Rick Perry was unfit for office when he could only remember two of the three bureaucratic departments he wished to eliminate during a debate. We have seen endless candidates like Herman Cain who were forced to suspend their campaigns over sexual scandal.

It was clear before the election that the 2016 political climate would reward the non-establishment outsider. In the same way that non-establishment enthusiasm benefited Bernie Sanders’ Political Revolution, so, too, did Donald Trump benefit in his Let's Make America Great Again campaign.

Can America elect a candidate who would go so far as to single out entire portions of American society and place blame for the nation's feeling of dissatisfaction that has been building for 20 years? The results from the election reflect a nation which, to a large extent, was willing to excuse most of Trump's inflammatory messaging. In ways that I did not anticipate, party identification, (defined as the loyalty to a political party that one identifies) is stronger than I could have ever imagined. The American electorate would have surely punished previous presidential candidates from engaging in such behavior. The X-factor question: how deep would Donald Trump’s drop-off be given his incendiary messaging? The X-factor answer: there was none.

The first indications of how well Trump was faring on election night were from early returns in states on the Eastern seaboard. By the time returns from the Midwestern states were churning in, Trump had built a sizable lead by winning Florida, Ohio and North Carolina and was well positioned to win the presidency. Scholars, pundits and pollsters were correct that there would be historic turnout in rural and suburban counties, but could not predict the degree to which Trump would outperform the two previous Republican candidates, Mitt Romney and John McCain, which he did handily. The biggest surprise of the election, however, is the demise of the once indestructible Blue Wall (Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin) that was a crucial component to the Obama coalition. The margins of victory in these key states suggest that many voters who were formerly inactive and had not voted in the last presidential elections were getting to the polls. Anecdotal evidence from polls in various rural and suburban counties confirmed this, some waiting for three hours to cast their vote.

At the time of this writing, however, Hillary Clinton is winning the popular vote by 2.5 million votes and counting. According to a recent article in The Atlantic, Hillary Clinton's vote margin at this time is larger than Bush in 2000, Carter in 1976, JFK in 1960 and four elections in the 1880s. The idea that HRC did not gain enough support to win the presidency seems empirically wrong. The question moving forward is how do we square this with the legitimacy of our election process? Please expect scholars and the general public at large to reinvigorate the debate about the Electoral College. 

Where do we go from here? It will take a great deal of time to fully understand the implications of the 2016 presidential election. For some, Trump's victory was inevitable and marks a period in which America was brave enough to engage in a great experiment wherein the complexity of today's challenges need an unorthodox leader with unorthodox approaches. To others, Trump's victory is a tremendous step backwards from progress made since President Barack Obama’s election in 2008, particularly for those passionate about progressive social causes. For all, however, it is a time for healing.

Is President-elect Trump sincere about "binding our wounds?"  It is time to hang on those words even if we are deeply skeptical. Luckily, our country has prided itself in its peaceful transition of power. I am hopeful for American democracy. The energy of the election proves that despite our differences, we are making a sincere attempt to be aware and engaged. The election, too, has exposed imperfections in the political process. Can the energy from the election be harnessed positively to improve our democratic system?  If we can create spaces for learning and dialogue and grasp the complexities of today’s new, high-tech information environment, I am hopeful that we can improve the ways in which American citizens have a voice in the functioning of government. Perhaps we might even solve some difficult problems along the way.

The first and most important step to our healing, however, is to utilize all the tools at our collective disposal to ensure that all citizens — regardless of their race, creed and ethnic background — have a voice in our society.  The rhetoric of the election has led to ostracism and has left many segments of our society feeling that their voices have been silenced. To what extent can we restore these voices? Are we in need of restoring our collective voice? Without tackling these difficult questions, we cannot submit to the hard work in repairing the flaws of American democracy. Let’s heal and get to work, shall we?

This editorial originally appeared in the December 2016 issue of Connections. To read more from that issue, click here.

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