09/11/2016, by CLAS

The 2016 Election: A Seismic Shift to the Right

The stunning upset victory of Donald J. Trump over Hillary Clinton in the U.S. presidential election signifies a seismic shift to the right in American politics.

After January, when the family of Barack Obama cedes the White House to the Republican billionaire, Republicans will also control both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court.

It is a party that has moved substantially to the right in the past eight years, since the advent of the Tea Party. Trump’s “America First” hard-right nationalist campaign has been propelled by scepticism of free trade and American interventionism abroad, in marked departure from the Republican orthodoxy practiced since Ronald Reagan.

Trump’s core demographic everywhere was white and male.  His mocking of the disabled, put-downs of women, and baiting of Mexicans and Muslims signal ominous, troubling developments for the political culture, playing to prejudices many thought marginal or dormant.

His most spectacular victory was wrested in the rust-belt states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, states that have not gone Republican since the 1980s.  There the issue of trade played well. Small towns, rural areas, and working-class and small-business demographics interpreted “Make America Great Again” as a promise to restore high-paid manufacturing jobs lost after passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994—a signature measure of Bill Clinton.

Media accounts blaming working people for this defeat, however, should be tempered by exit poll data collected by CNN.  These show that those making more than $50,000 voted for him, while those below did not.  The key to the outcome was race, gender, education, and age, with those older than older than 45, men, and those without a college degree voting for him marginally.  By far the most significant variable was race, with white people voting for him by 58%.  These data indicate that wealthy whites are as much to blame as working-class ones for this turn of events, even if the loss of the working-class white vote was critical.

Hillary Clinton ran on experience, competence, and policy expertise, but it proved no match for the bruising reality-TV style of Donald Trump. He understood that the medium is the message, that more Americans get their sense of the world from Fox News, an ultra-right-wing channel, than the newspapers that almost unanimously editorialized against Trump.

Most importantly, Hillary Clinton showed the weakness she has always had as a candidate for public office, her lack of a rationale, a vision that could persuade ordinary Americans she would improve their pay and lives. Her Wall Street speeches, her secretive e-mail practices, and the dubious fundraising practices of the Clinton Foundation all reinforced the impression that the Democrats, under Franklin Delano Roosevelt seen to be the party of working people, had lost their way.

That sounds a populist note, but in picking a billionaire as their tribune, white working people have almost surely miscalculated.  What Trump is most likely to pass is not high tariffs on foreign goods but massive new tax cuts that will disproportionately benefit the richest Americans. His policies will be a disaster environmentally, letting loose the fossil-fuel industry at precisely the moment the planet hangs in the balance.

By admiring (or at least overlooking) his most bigoted utterances, his supporters have brought America’s darkest currents to the surface.  The demographics point toward the eventuality of a nation a majority people-of-colour nation—Asian, Latino, and African American—but for the moment a revanchist whiteness is in the saddle, coarsening the political culture.

There is no way to sugar-coat this result:  it is catastrophic.  One might even be tempted to call it deplorable.


Christopher Phelps – Associate Professor of American History, Department of American and Canadian Studies


Posted in American and Canadian StudiesUncategorized