It was all but inevitable.
An upstart candidate, a celebrity to be sure, but with no track record in political office or other tangible experience to speak of, up against former first lady, senator, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, a marquee figure with international name recognition for the highest office in the land. Just a year ago, reputable media onlookers considered investment tycoon Donald J. Trump a long shot, even among the 17 challengers vying for the Republican presidential nomination, which included a cluster of distinguished senators (Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Marco Rubio of Florida, and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania) and numerous ex-governors (Jeb Bush of Florida, Chris Christie of New Jersey, Jim Gilmore of Virginia, Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, and John Kasich of Ohio.)
By May 4, however, after a decisive victory in the Indiana primary, Cruz excused himself, leaving Trump as the presumptive candidate. Even then, the road to the White House was considered an iffy proposition at best, with the fragmented GOP (Grand Old Party) “… perceived to be at its weakest since the 1930s” (http://2016.republican-candidates.org/).
By now, the truth is some two months old, and the nation (and world) is still struggling with the undeniable: an abrasive, narcissistic, thin-skinned (possibly latent) misanthrope with an apparent self-destructive streak is our 45th President of the United States. In this the week after his inauguration, with the help of several left coast African American political scientists we will further attempt to explain the unexplainable.
Trump’s campaign was distinguished by his willingness to insult virtually anyone as evidenced by a September 2004 interview, where Trump told radio shock jock Howard Stern that his daughter (Ivanka), who was 22 years old at the time, was beautiful.
“Can I say this?” asked (Howard) Stern. “A piece of a–?”
“Yeah,” the business mogul replied.
“What kind of man lets his daughter be degraded that way to millions!” asked staff writer Conor Friedersdorf in the Nov. 1, 2016 issue of The Atlantic. Friedersdorf went on to chronicle Trump’s ridiculous accusation that Cruz’ father helped engineer the JFK assassination; disparaging remarks about women; and a plethora of questionable business dealings indicating that Trump is not above “stiffing” the scores of employees who toil for him in his various enterprises around the globe.
Recoiling from shock
“… people in both camps thought—reasonably so—that Trump simply could not overcome his apparently abhorrent record with women, or his numerous gaffes, rants and tweet storms, or the constant dysfunction and turnover in his campaign team,” said Davin Phoenix, Assistant Professor of Political Science at U.C. Irvine
Political scientist Robert Smith at San Francisco State University was one of the few who considered the possibility of a Trump victory. He expressed this in an Our Weekly interview early last summer (“Rise of the Far Right, June 3, 2016). None-the-less, he was taken aback by the election results.
“I was actually astonished!”
Smith believes that there is generally “a period of retrenchment” in the wake of any significant progressive advancement. In other words, the pendulum swings in the opposite direction (towards the right) to compensate for the phase of liberalism (or leftist sentiment) that has transpired.
Conversely, conservative office holders might prompt liberal backlash in the wake of right-leaning policies they implement. In this most recent election, never have two political candidates so alienated broad swaths of the public.
This particular political development may thusly be the result of, in Smith’s words, a “…perception that Obama pushed things too far.”
Trump received help from his Republican brethren early in the campaign. GOP faithful, Smith points out kept the scandal of Hillary’s link to the Benghazi, Libya, massacre at an American consulate and alleged mishandling of classified emails in press headlines (and the public psyche).
Even after the former Secretary of State was cleared of wrongdoing, the implication that she was deceitful was firmly planted among eligible voters.
Smith summarizes that this solidified “… the underlying narrative that she was dishonest.”
His colleague across town at the University of San Francisco, James Lance Taylor voiced the same sentiment, about the pendulum swinging back referencing the rise of Ronald Reagan immediately after the gains in equality by the Civil Rights Movement.
“We’ve seen this before,” Taylor believes.
Dissatisfaction makes for a fertile environ for despots to flourish, believes Taylor.
“Demagogic, charismatic personalities are not uncommon in American political history,” he continues.
Taylor categorizes David Duke, Sarah Palin, Al Sharpton, Strom Thurman, and the immortal Huey Long in his list of notables, who could be considered demagogs like Trump.
Yet and still, all the tangible data pointed to another Clinton victory, in this case Hillary’s.
“But they missed at least two things,” chimes in Christopher Sebastian Parker of the University of Washington.
“First, they underestimated the extent to which many Whites were alarmed by the presence of a Black man in the White House. Second, they underestimated the degree to which the same constituency would reject a female commander-in-chief.”
“Let’s face it: the president is the face of the country, America personified,” he goes on.
“It was just too much for them to have a non-White male in the White House. Period.”
“I thought he (Trump) would lose by a fairly large margin,” Smith said, noting that landsides are virtually impossible in polarized elections such as the one waged between Hillary and Trump.
“In one sense, he did lose by three million (popular) votes,” Smith went on noting that this is not without precedent, as recent history shows. Al Gore won a half million more votes in his unsuccessful bid for the presidency against George W. Bush in 2000.
Building upon this, Phoenix at the University of California at Irvine, underscores the folly of depending on the formal methodology and barometers employed by “professional” prognosticators.
“Well, like many of us so-called experts, party insiders, pundits and journalists learned a valuable lesson about polls not being true indicators of who is actually going to turn out on Election Day,” he says.
“For example, the overwhelming support for Hillary over Trump among racial and ethnic minorities indicated by the polls doesn’t mean quite as much, if far fewer of those folks actually vote than they did four or eight years ago.”
Indeed. CNN reported a 20 percent drop in the voter turn out (a measly 55 percent of those eligible to vote did their civic duty) compared to the last election.
With this in mind, Phoenix highlights another flaw shared by Hillary and Trump.
“The widespread un-likeability of both candidates ensured this would be a low-turnout election, which introduced more volatility to the outcome. Add to that the presence of not one, but two third-party candidates with non-trivial followings, and Hillary’s apparent advantage became even less secure.”
Careful not to omit the racial component, Phoenix advised on how this impacted one specific demographic.
“I believe these factors all contributed to lower turnout among African Americans in particular and racial minorities more broadly,” he said.
Explaining the unexplainable
How then, could this happen against all odds? The answer may be accounted for by looking into the influence of our media-driven society. More specifically, consideration should be given to the cult of celebrity, which propelled a foreign weight lifter into a mega movie star and ultimately Governor of California. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s star power paved the way to two terms helming the state with the world’s sixth largest economy, Austrian accent not-with-standing (unsubstantiated rumors hold that he lost his accent decades ago, but maintained the façade because fans expect it, according to the United Kingdom’s Daily Mail newspaper, circa June 2015).
The “it” factor attached to a person’s charisma is such an intangible thing because it’s the person’s “self” that is the source of adoration.
Smith offers an academic explanation by citing the German economist/philosopher/sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920), who postulated that this appeal cannot be explained by anything except “I like him (or her).”
Smith points out the significant drop off of Black voters for Hillary—in spite of the wide popularity of her husband among that demographic. Trump may have used Bill Clinton’s well known sex scandals (which he withstood by virtue of his own charisma) as a way of neutralizing Trump’s own carnal misdeeds while simultaneously attacking Hillary.
(Smith is quick to point out that a Weber-style charismatic leader need not be a positive force, as evidenced by Adolf Hitler and scores of other magnetic despots who compelled the masses to commit mayhem. “They can be nasty and still be charismatic,” he said.)
Against the grain?
Trump’s master stroke may well have been identifying the wide spread resentment among a large portion of the voting public. Taylor takes this further by claiming that Trump’s “… support was an anti-Black effect.”
Another skillful ploy was going contrary to the (traditional) Republican position on free trade. Resentment against NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) has simmered since Bill Clinton signed it into law in 1994 (the actual “ground work” for this bill was begun in the Ronald Reagan era and finalized during the administration of George Herbert Bush, but it was left for Clinton to make it official, and thusly his is the name associated with it).
This is especially true in areas where unions hold sway, and it is telling that the “Rust Belt” states, a traditionally Democratic stronghold, failed to embrace Hillary.
“And that was certainly a difference maker in key states such as Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania,” said Phoenix.
Parker up at the University of Washington has low expectations about the prospects for African Americans in the new administration.
“He (Trump) doesn’t even know what to call us,” Parker said.
“Further, with Steve Bannon (an avowed White nationalist) in a key advisory role, Trump signaled his intent. So what if he met with Steve Harvey and Jim Brown? These are celebrities, ones he probably admires. What regard has he EVER shown the “average” Black person?”
As you read this, the commander-in-chief is finalizing his first week in office, pushing forward with the “wall” separating the United States and Mexico along with other provocative projects that highlighted his campaign. His swearing in was punctuated the following day by a mass protest amongst women (against him) in major cities across the country (including 750,000 alone in Los Angeles).
Virtually all of the talk show hosts of note have utilized him as the butt of jokes as they compete for broadcast ratings, while actor Alec Baldwin, having appropriated Trump as a staple of his comedic skit repertoire, has been given an entire episode of “Saturday Night Live” to showcase his presidential impersonations on Feb. 11.
Meanwhile, a Secret Service agent is under fire for suggesting she might hesitate in defending Trump in a Facebook post prior to the election (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/25/us/secret-service-agent-trump-facebook.html?_r=0).
Predicting the destiny—of the country or a single individual—is a hopeless task (Smith expects Trump to face heavy opposition from academics in higher education, the media, and the Hollywood liberal faction), but it is a safe bet that the Chief Executive will be a fixture in the national conversation in the foreseeable future. Whether it will be a positive or negative discussion is up in the air.