How the unfit triumphed over the uninspiring

Tuesday, Nov 8, 2016, 11:49 PM | Source: Pursuit

Timothy J. Lynch

I have never been able to listen to an entire Hillary Clinton speech or Lady Gaga song. I have gotten close a couple of times but can never quite pull it off. I don’t any longer have to try. She lost.

Hillary Clinton blended hectoring and sanctimony into a rhetorical style which has over decades made Americans react negatively to her. Her unfavourability ratings finally caught up with her.

In the election, which has now stunningly concluded, the apparently unfit sparred with the uninspiring and the former won. Amazing. Like Leicester City winning the English Premier League or the Western Bulldogs the AFL Grand Final, very few people saw this coming. So why did it? A few reasons are clear now.

A Donald Trump supporter wears a Hillary Clinton mask outside Trump Tower in New York City the morning after the election. Picture: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton was judged as too untrustworthy to be rewarded with the world’s most powerful office. She didn’t portend any real change. And she failed to energise the people who had grown weary of her progressive platitudes. She lost by being more dislikeable than her opponent.

Her gender failed to capture the American imagination. The election of female leaders no longer has the novelty it did when Margaret Thatcher became British PM in 1979. The US remains something of a laggard in achieving this milestone. And the result showed the United States is prepared to wait for a better female candidate to come along.

Argentina, Brazil, Germany, India, Israel, Malawi, Pakistan, and Australia, to name only a few, have all had women leaders. The far thicker glass ceiling was shattered in 2008 when a mixed-race man became US president. Voting for a woman carried little of the resonance and meaning that voting for an African American did. Only one per cent more women backed her than backed Obama in 2012. And young women did not show up for her.

Whilst neither candidate campaigned in poetry, Donald Trump clearly created a coherency of vision – ‘build the wall ... Make America great again ... Crooked Hillary’ – that Ms Clinton could not. She lost the presidency, contra Barack Obama eight years ago, because she had no catchphrase, no slogan, no vision.

Given her negatives, her lack of newness and her interminable speechifying her defeat might seem inevitable. This underplays the amazing performance of Donald Trump. He has defied political logic.

The theory was that in facing Donald Trump, Hillary would enjoy the enormous advantage of appearing sane and rational. Even Clinton-haters saw in her a known quantity. They knew what they hated. They had a clear sense of what she would do as president. But Trump? Who knew what he might be capable of saying or doing? The answer yesterday was that Americans wanted to find out.

What Clinton lacked in inspiration she was supposed to compensate for with predictability. Her presence in national politics has been routine for years. Her seat at the governing table had, we thought, been grudgingly conceded by American voters. Trump, on the other hand, wanted to upturn that table. His entire campaign was built around this creative destruction. Faith in that requires a much bigger leap than in the boring but tried and tested Hillary approach. And yet so many Americans have made that leap of faith.

Donald Trump supporters in New York City show their support on election night. Picture: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Trump’s mouth – whether used for sweet-talking Vladimir Putin or for bragging about assaulting women – should have turned off more people than did Hillary’s hectoring. “He has a dirty mouth,” was my Texan mother-in-law’s reason for not voting for him. But enough voters decided they did want Trump as their diplomat-in-chief.

Trump was supposed to come up against an insurmountable and rising demographic wall. Year-on-year, there are fewer white voters for Republicans to rely on. The white share of the electorate has fallen from 78 per cent in 2000 to 69 per cent today. Whites will be in a minority by mid-century. Democrats have traditionally hoovered up the increasing non-white vote.

The measure of his achievement lies in trumping this trend. Trump was able to get white, non-college-educated males (but not only them) to vote for him. There turned out to be enough of them for this strategy to work. Mitt Romney tried a version of it four years ago and failed but Trump’s authenticity, popularity, familiarity (probably a mixture of all three) made it work.

Clinton could not rely on the growing non-white electorate to carry her over the line. Some 10 million fewer people voted for her than for Obama four years ago. Trump had to hope every conservative-leaning white voter would vote for him – and enough of them did, especially in the small towns and rural areas of the mid-west. He even defied the experts by increasing his share of the African American, Asian, and Hispanic vote compared to 2012.

President Trump’s task will be to further extend his appeal to non-whites. There is no inexorable political logic that condemns Asians and Hispanics to be clients of the Democratic party. Where Trump is concerned there is very little logic at all. He has upended the table. He has humbled the experts.

Trump won an election he was never supposed to win. He is the towering political figure of his day. His opponent’s political career is over. Love him or loathe him, his achievement is truly, staggeringly astounding.

Banner image: Hillary Clinton concedes the presidential election at the New Yorker Hotel on November 9, 2016 in New York City. Picture: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

This article has been co-published with the University of Melbourne’s Election Watch and the Herald Sun.

University of Melbourne Researchers