Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Trump Election

A number of friends in Asia have asked me about the 2016 US presidential election, so let me make some comments.

First, on the polls that were wrong. There has been some gloating by people who do not understand math, claiming that polling does not work. That would put into question well over half of social science research! I think the more intelligent position is to try to understand why the polls were wrong, and that will take time. But I do want to point out that Nate Silver and the team did a very good job of emphasizing the uncertainty of the presidential race (see article here). They do not run polls themselves, but they noted that because the polls were so close, and because there were so many “undecided,” they had Clinton only at about 65% chance of winning in the days before the election, and at 71% at midnight Monday night, when their model issued its final answer. The New York Times and many others had Clinton at over 90% in the week before the election (and Huffington Post was at 98.2% on election day), but Silver had warned that though Clinton had many paths to victory (i.e. states she could win, and was likely to win, to get to 270 electoral college votes), because the polls were so close and because states would vary together, she was far from sure to win. In other words, if she did poorly in Florida, it was also likely she would do poorly in North Carolina and other states. And so it was.

Second, on why Clinton lost. There will be many explanations, but I think the issue of branding and symbolic thinking is one that has an anthropological angle. On election day (so before we knew the results), the Washington University in St Louis PR newsletter published a story in which Raphael Thomadsen, associate professor of marketing, noted that

“Clinton’s camp failed to rise to the branding challenge: Instead of giving her a clear, consistent message, it provided messages that were muddled and scattered. Thomadsen contrasted that with Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan, noting his campaign material constantly backs up that slogan.”

Clinton raised a number of criticisms against Trump, from his treatment of women to his bankruptcies, to his not releasing his taxes, to his temperament. While these all added up to showing Trump as unfit for the presidency for those who decide things “rationally” and for those Democratic partisans who already favored Clinton’s proposals, they did not provide a convincing case for the swing voters.

“Ultimately, Hillary Clinton didn’t effectively brand herself, so Trump did it for her,” Thomadsen continued. “Trump’s ‘Crooked Hillary’ terminology is ubiquitous. In the absence of any coordinated message against this, that brand has stuck.”

This rang true when the day after the election, I heard a voter on NPR say he did not really like Trump but voted for him because Hillary Clinton is the most corrupt politician the US has ever had in Washington. This is an absurd statement, at least in its literal sense. Trump had four business bankruptcies, used questionable methods to avoid paying income taxes, stiffed contractors, changed his positions on issues, had no fixed views andcontradicted himself, was judged by to be lying 68% of the time (19% mostly false, 34% false, and 17% pants on fire) compared to 26% for Hillary Clinton (14% mostly false, 10% false, and 2% pants on fire), and made statements like “Obama founded ISIS” ( ). Clinton’s “scandals” pale in comparison to the adultery (his open affair with Marla Maples), sexual assault, and failure to release his tax returns. The “crooked” person was, from one point of view, Donald Trump, but he somehow managed to get that label attached Hillary Clinton. That is branding at its best (or worst).

This weakness in branding was noted during the campaign; “Bill Clinton complained throughout that [campaign manager Robby] Mook was too focused on the ground game and not enough on driving a message-based campaign,” a Politico article notes, adding that there was no chief strategist like David Axelrod. 

I am among the majority of Americans who did not vote for Trump, and I am among those who like David Remnick, are horrified and worried about what damage he will do to the world, the country, and to general civility. But I’m also upset that I did not see his appeal. I do not know any Trump supporters, because in America, most people avoid talking about religion and politics in polite society. Obviously, many people I have had dinner with or met in casual encounters were Trump supporters (though they are fewer in the city). Still, I have heard them speaking on the radio, and I understand that most of them are actually decent and good people (the few hotheads and disgraceful types seem to be overrepresented on TV, because they make for a good show).

Clinton appealed to me because she understood that problems are complicated and require careful thinking and balancing different interests. If some people are hurt by free trade, but the nation as a whole benefits, assistance programs need to be made available. Most problems do not have simple answers, or they would have been solved by now. She "won" all three debates, by most measures, and yet that was not enough.

Trump appealed to magical thinking. He claimed to be the only person who can solve the nation’s problems. He portrayed himself as the savior. (Hm, that was true of Obama 8 years ago too.) He blamed economic problems on illegal immigrants, and demonized Muslims. As American Anthropological Association President Alisse Waterston put it in an email to members, “Strong, divisive language gained the most public attention, sometimes escaping the orbit of facts and launching into some parallel universe.”

Part of that “parallel universe” was created by Facebook and Twitter, and there are already questions about what can be done to prevent the segregation and formation of echo chambers that social media create, and also questions about how to deal with false news (see Bloomberg article here). Trump supporters widely forwarded stories that the Pope endorsed Trump and that Huma Abedin could be a terrorist agent, though they are both false.

Some people feel that the media, especially social media, did not do a good enough job of exposing Trump’s flaws (here is one example). But the information was there; Trump supporters chose not to act on it. We need to ask why facts that seem so important to Democrats and people on the two coasts were not important to Trump supporters. It turns out that Trump was a good communicator; he knew how to use symbolic speech. Part of it was the reprehensible scapegoating of illegal aliens (economists do not agree that they “steal jobs” because they do work that native Americans will not do). But what seemed to me to be simply repeating the lie was “staying on message” and building a brand.

That “parallel universe” Trump supporters created is the symbolic thinking we see in every culture. It is clearest in what we label religion, but it shows up in any area where identity and core values are at state. An excellent article on Politico notes that in a change year, it was impossible for Hillary to claim to be a change agent. The Clinton camp thought her age would be the main problem of her campaign, as well as the fatigue that sets in against the incumbent party. Age was not an issue, since Sanders and Trump were both older than her, but they both opponents tapped anger at the “rigged economy and government” which seemed to be used in a literal sense by Trump, but was more symbolically understood by supporters as a system tipped in favor of those with money and power. The problems with the Clinton Foundation (even though no explicit quid pro quo was found) and Podesta’s emails (which mostly just showed the wheeling and dealing of governing, and nothing illegal), fit into the narrative that Hillary was an insider. It was in this sense that she was “corrupt.” She tried to use the argument that Trump was temperamentally unfit to be president, and that her experience was valuable, but she obviously did not convince enough voters. Even mobilizing voters on the ground turned out not to be enough.

To educated people and intellectuals, the truth matters. I respect Obama’s and Clinton’s calm, cerebral approach. They believe in science, and do not deny climate change. Unfortunately, many saw Obama’s cautious and deliberative approach as weakness. I doubt foreign leaders saw it that way. But in Trumpworld, Clinton and Obama were traitors (see here and here, though it is upsetting to read). 

Anthropologists often study people who make fantastical claims. (When it is a foreign culture, we can do so with respect; when it is our own culture, it is often offensive.) Some people we study claim to speak to deities, some say they are able to see ghosts, others claim to have been abducted by aliens. Anthropologists know that often such statements are not literally true, but are understood metaphorically, or express larger truths. Evans Pritchard said the Azande understood witchcraft as a language for speaking of tensions in social relations. And most of Trump’s supporters do not expect him to actually build a wall, let alone to have Mexico pay for it. They understand that as symbolizing his hostility to globalization. Today, NPR’s All Things Considered interviewed people who voted for him in Ohio, and one said that even if he does just 10% of what he promised it will be enough, because at least it will be progress. That shows they did not take his words literally. Voters select based on symbols and images, ideals, hopes and fears. They are not rational philosophers carefully weighing the issues, as intellectuals often imagine and want to believe.

This is not the first time that American voters turn their back on the smarter and more cerebral candidate in favor of a popular personality: Adlai Stevenson II ran for president in 1952 and 1956 against Dwight Eisenhower, losing badly in both elections. He was known as a gifted speaker, and the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. said that “to the United States and the world he was the voice of a reasonable, civilized, and elevated America.” Yet, he was dismissed as an egghead. Eisenhower, a war hero with no political experience, won the elections.

Even if Trump had lost, we would need to explain how a vulgar, bombastic, lying, isolationist, racist, misogynistic and thin-skinned candidate could get close to half the votes. It is hard to understand how the leader of the "birther" movement, who then shamelessly blamed it on Clinton, could be taken seriously but millions of Americans. In addition to the power of symbols, there is also the power of celebrity. Just as he can force himself on women and get away with it, he is assumed by many to have power and mana. We do not rationally know whether he actually has billions of dollars, but through celebrity and fame, he has power. 

Now that he has won, there are going to be major changes to US policy that contradict bipartisan consensus. As an Atlantic article from the day before the election shows, Trump has been consistent over almost 30 years in his 1) opposition to U.S. alliances; 2) opposition to free trade; and 3) support for authoritarianism. And I’d really like to understand why Republican voters supported him even though he wants to create a huge $500 billion infrastructure investment program, something Obama tried to do but was blocked by the Republican Congress.

In the end, I agree with Obama that government as incremental. Fortunately, no one person can cause that much damage. Already, it is clear that to rule, Trump has to pick from the Republican talent pool, and hopefully they will moderate some of his dangerous ideas. Plus, he will need to rule through Congress, which even though Republican controlled, has very different ideas about the role of government. (Hopefully they will simplify the tax code.)

I am more worried about the country’s institutions being destroyed by his authoritarian tendencies, not by the country going in the “wrong” decision (deciding the “right” direction is what democracy is all about, after all). I’m worried his isolationism, and his need to show that he is “strong,” will cause unintended disasters. My fear is that Trump’s ignorance and short attention span will weaken or destroy American institutions, but hopefully, the institutions are strong enough to withstand any mischief he might commit. We will soon find out.

1 comment:

Bill Watkins said...

Great post, Joe. You probably have seen the statement that the media took Trump literally, but not seriously, while Trump's supporters took him seriously but not literally.