By Larissa Schober
As Donald Trump’s inauguration finally happens today, and with world politics trying to adapt to this new reality, many are left wondering how we got here. I found myself amongst them, and I tend to think back a lot on my trip to the US last summer. In the peak of the election campaign, I drove from New York City to Portland, through less travelled places like Indiana and South Dakota.
Before I began my trip and after I returned to Europe, I often heard people saying that we were going to be fine, that Trump just couldn’t be elected. Clinton is not a great candidate, but she will win anyway. Americans are not that stupid.
While I hoped they were right, I did not share their optimism. Perhaps my negativity was based on my post-Brexit trauma and the fact that 2016 had been an insane year, but two things bothered me: the way media reported on the election campaign and the conversations I had with Americans throughout my trip.
First of all, media coverage projected a Clinton victory. There was a great deal of certainty and a significant amount of arrogance in the reporting. The media seemed to believe, that after Trump’s ‘grab them by the pussy’ comments, Clinton had secured the election. This puzzled me. Why did they expect people, who had already openly supported a guy who is clearly a misogynist, to turn away from the same man when he makes another (albeit disgusting) misogynist comment? The media’s coverage seemed based on the principle that because it shouldn’t happen, it won’t happen. Therefore, instead of seriously analysing the political situation in the US, media reports concentrated on either demonizing Donald Trump or treating him as a joke.
This assumption, in turn, helped the Trump campaign. When analysts now argue that the arrogance displayed by the Democrats towards a large share of the US population made Trump’s victory possible in the first place, this is also very much true for the arrogance (or ignorance) of the mainstream media. By assuming that Clinton will win anyway, they added fuel to the flames, as it hardened the idea of an out-of-touch and arrogant establishment, which the Trump campaign was so successfully playing on. This very likely pushed people to vote for Trump, since they felt like they had not been taken seriously. And somehow, they were right.
On the other hand, it is a common phenomenon that people tend not to vote when they feel that there isn’t too much at risk. Since the media (and most polling) projected a Clinton victory, a lot of people who would have only voted for Clinton in order to prevent Trump probably just stayed home on Election Day. This is particularly the case for many Sanders supporters, who could barely convince themselves to vote for Clinton.
While there is a lot of talk about the post-truth attitude in social media and platforms of the alt-right like Breitbart right now, it is also necessary to point out a similar development within mainstream media before the election. In both cases, one can detect a strong refusal to accept reality, albeit on different grounds. Regarding the alt-right, the motivation is that people want to believe everything that adds to their pre-existing opinions. In the case of mainstream media, one option in the election was declared unthinkable, and it could therefore not be seriously considered. Declaring the election of a man accused of displaying hateful attitudes towards minorities (as well as sexual harassment) as President of the United States of America is understandable, it was evidently inaccurate. Uncomfortable facts do not change if one ignores them. Instead, doing so can contribute to the emergence of even more uncomfortable reality, and this is what happened with media coverage of the election.
I reflected this during my road trip, and came to the conclusion that the unfounded optimism that Trump had no chance to win was naive. I talked to people, mostly in bars, and found many of them being fed up with politics and a significant share willing to vote for Trump. Most of them had different and many coherent arguments for behind their reasoning.
In Detroit, there was Lucas, 28 and working in a popular bar where all drinks cost three dollars. He told me ‘this is Detroit, man, people don’t have money but wanna have fun anyway”.
Lucas said that he didn’t care about the election and that, as no candidate cared about Detroit, he wouldn’t vote. Although Lucas said he felt that he was a political person, he had given up on politics, or at least on big politics. Lucas was one of the Detroit residents who could not afford to leave the city when it went bankrupt. Although he was forced to remain, he said he would not want to leave now. In his opinion, Detroit is still in a sad state, but the demise had some very positive consequences. When big politics failed, people started organizing themselves and in some cases realised that they didn’t need the government. In fact, they wanted to be left alone from it. Why then would they care about voting for it?
In Plankinton, South Dakota, I shared whiskey with 32-year-old Michael, who told me he was going to vote for Trump because of ‘the Mexicans,’ and because he hated Clinton. In his opinion, she didn’t have the slightest idea about life as a farmer in the countryside. He wouldn’t argue that Trump had any more of an idea, but at least he did not declare people like him as stupid, which he believed that Clinton did.
In Pendelton, Oregon, I got served whiskey by Summers, a strong young woman who managed to assert her authority over a bar full of drunk rodeo fans. Summers told me that she would be voting for Trump, although she said it was more because she wanted to vote for the Republican Party. She liked the slogan ‘Make America Great Again’ but other than that she just wanted to vote for ‘traditional values’.
Finally, Tom, a 30-year-old student and barkeeper living in Portland said that he hadn’t decided who he was going to vote for yet. He would have preferred Sanders or Rubio as candidates, which at first seemed like a strange combination to me. However, Tom explained that he was fed up with the political system in the US, in particular with the Electoral College, as it does not represent the people in an appropriate way and that most politics was not actively trying to find solutions to people’s problems. He liked Sanders and Rubio, since they in his opinion, represented the anti-establishment movement. For the same reason, Trump was, therefore, an option for him.
These are just a few examples of the conversations I had on my trip. All the people I talked to were more or less my age, and they were young and mostly educated. Most of them gave off the impression that they had genuinely thought about their choice in the election.
While I often wouldn’t draw the same conclusions, all of their arguments (except the one about ‘the Mexicans’) seemed informed and comprehensible to me. They clearly weren’t the ‘stupid white male’ cliché of Trump voters which especially German media likes to present. Some were racist, but most weren’t. Except for some people in New York City, none of them said he or she would definitely vote for Clinton.
What linked nearly all of them, even though they were so different as individuals, was that they were all fed up with the system. Not exactly with all politics in general but with the way today’s political system in the US works. Related to this, none were enthusiastic about the two candidates. Furthermore, most of them had a vague feeling of somehow having been left behind. Tom, the Portland barkeeper, in particular, worried me. He was a young, slightly hipster student in one of the most liberal cities in the US. If he was seriously considering Trump as an option, then who else was? Apparently, a lot of people, as it turned out.
In conclusion, I was not shocked when Trump won the election. And while the state of despair and paralysis has eased a little over the last two months, fear sticks with me. Geoff Moore has named quite a few reasons for that fear in his article on this blog. Thinking back on that road trip, I found myself confronted with an additional reason.
I can relate to the feeling of being fed up with the political system. However, I do not understand how this leads people to vote for a person as dangerous as Trump. People seemed have stopped caring whether or not a policy improves their own situation as long as this policy harms the howsoever defined ‘other’. As if the most important thing is that there is always someone inferior to you. While being fed up with the system can also facilitate an emancipatory movement, it right now looks very much like it promotes the opposite. Not having an answer to why that happens scares the hell out of me.