The 2016 US Election – Some Implications

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Thursday, November 17th, 2016

Jeremy Rosner, GQR Executive Vice President and Principal, expands on his earlier article: “The 2016 US Election – Explaining the Results”. 

Our earlier note laid out 5 key explanations for the historic result of the November 8 US election:

  1. A strong, angry backlash from lower-educated, non-urban white voters overwhelmed the weakly-motivated “cosmopolitan” electorate that twice elected Barack Obama and supported Hillary Clinton.
  2. Clinton mostly ran a “continuity” election in a year when 62% wanted change, and did not give sufficient voice to the need for economic change that most voters wanted. 
  3. FBI director James Comey’s unethical intervention on October 28 arrested Clinton’s momentum and depressed her vote enough to account for the outcome. 
  4. Attacks on Donald Trump’s unsuitability for the presidency were broadly credible, but not a sufficient reason for many voters to support Clinton. 
  5. The polls got some things right – including the prediction Clinton would win more votes – but missed a lot of the story, due to factors like bad expectations on who would vote.

5 Implications
This note lays out some implications, which are becoming clearer day by day. The consequences of this historic election will reverberate across America and the world for years and decades to come, but five implications already loom large:
1. The decline of major American institutions. Donald Trump is without question the most unqualified person to win the presidency in modern American history. That is not simply a partisan view; it is something many Republican as well as Democratic voices note. He has never run for public office. He has no real grounding in major policy issues. The fact that he is about to occupy the Oval Office raises major questions about the strength and soundness of major American institutions.
It represents, in the first instance, a failure of the Republican Party, which largely acquiesced to Trump’s populist-fueled rise. While some important Republican voices stepped forward to denounce him, most did not, and the party is now largely rallying behind him after his victory. The first responsibility for his rise, election, and presidency lies with his Party, and its long history of flirting with the populist rage that fueled his vote.
But theirs is not the only institutional failure. As noted, the FBI and its director defied long-standing policies to intervene in the election during the last weeks of the campaign, in a manner that predictably had a huge impact, and arguably determined the outcome.
And there is an institutional failure of sorts among the Democrats as well. The bulk of the party paid too little attention to the frustrations of working class voters, and underestimated their rage. Clinton offered many serious economic proposals, and many were laudable; but they mostly were relatively modest in scope and did not add up to a prescription for the kind of changes that might transform those lacking opportunities and mobility in America’s Rust Belt, inner cities, and hard-pressed rural communities.
The world is rightly impressed with the fact that, despite this contentious campaign and unexpected outcome, America is now proceeding with a peaceful and orderly transfer of power. The sturdiness of that American institution remains remarkable. But with the presidency and both branches of Congress now moving into Republican hands, and with Trump certain to install a Republican-appointed majority onto the Supreme Court, there is real reason to worry that we have only begun to see the erosion of key American institutions.
2. Polarization heading toward a new extreme. America has been becoming more politically polarized for decades, with each party’s members in Congress moving further apart, and with voters increasingly segregating themselves into more politically homogeneous physical and media communities. But the 2016 election took American politics to new and toxic lows, and threatens to usher in new kinds of polarization that are potentially very dangerous.
Particularly worrisome is the sense that it is acceptable for political partisans to prosecute and even physically attack political opponents. The Trump campaign seemed to legitimate threats of violence against its critics, and egged on chants of “lock her up” against Clinton. Threats by leading Republicans to continue investigations of Clinton even after the election outcome raise the specter of a new political culture in which the state becomes a permanent institution of political vendettas.
In many other countries, the result of that approach is a culture of “rule or ruin” – in which electoral losers must flee the country to protect themselves – and which in turn leads rulers to cling to power at all costs, through any means, to protect themselves. This political culture is common in various developing countries, but it is horrific to think we could be seeing it take hold in the United States.
3. Worrisome implications for national security. Even with the White House, the Senate, the House, and potentially the Supreme Court in Republican hands, the United States generally still retains institutional checks and balances on what any president can do. But that is far less true in the realm of national security, and that is cause for great concern.
It may be that Mr. Trump will surround himself by seasoned national security hands, listen to their counsel, and show subtlety and skill in the exercise of American power. But there is little in his record to support that, and the initial steps by Trump’s transition team to purge many moderate national security advisers are deeply troubling. The affinity that Trump and some on his team have shown for Vladimir Putin and other global authoritarians, and the active support the Kremlin provided for the Trump campaign, raise questions of the highest order about American sovereignty and security – and about the long-term safety of our allies in Europe and other countries around Russia’s perimeter. 
4. A big boost for the “Populist International.” The Trump victory is our “Amer-exit” – the US equivalent of the UK’s “Brexit” vote to leave the European Union. It is part of the rise across the West of populist, nationalist, usually authoritarian leaders, parties, and regimes. This includes the Britain’s UK Independence Party, Geert Wilders and the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands; Marine Le Pen and the National Front in France; Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Hungary; and many others.
Trump’s win provides a big boost of validation and momentum for all these movements. Like Trump, most of them draw their energy from outrage against globalization, migration, ethnic mixing, and tolerance on issues of gender, sexual identity, and religion. Like Trump, many of them have received open support from Vladimir Putin and his regime.
The columnist Anne Applebaum has aptly dubbed this movement “the Populist International.” Donald Trump now becomes its unofficial global leader.
Until now, the United States has been the voice for the opposing view, “liberal democracy”: belief in limited government, universal human rights, protection of the rights of ethnic, racial, and religious minorities, and a rational, fact-based, scientifically-grounded deliberation of policy. The fight between liberal democracy and “the Populist International” is the most important fight of this generation.  There is no clear leader for the liberal democracy side of the fight. One will emerge, but for the first time, it will not be America’s president.
5. The retreat of objective news. Finally, Trump’s victory has worrying implications for the future of the media, how people get their news, and the quality of America’s political debates. Trump partly won because he emerged as the master of a new media technology. Franklin Roosevelt succeeded partly because of his intuitive mastery of the new media of radio. John Kennedy succeeded partly because of his intuitive mastery of the new media of television. Donald Trump has succeeded partly because of his intuitive mastery of the new media of reality TV and social media. As one writer put it, Trump was the “comments section” running for president.
But there are real reasons to worry about the impact of a political culture built around reality TV and social media. This election saw the ascendancy of fake news sites and fake news feeds, which helped give cover for Trump’s many blatantly false assertions (e.g., that he opposed the Iraq war). The decline of mainstream, curated, edited media has made it harder to define a body of accepted facts. The result is a Gresham’s Law of political discourse, with false and flimsy information crowding out the verified and validated.  This week’s steps by Facebook and Google to restrict fake news sites are encouraging, but do not go nearly far enough.
With the majority of younger voters getting most of their news from social media, and with more Americans tuning in to news sources that align with their own ideological views, there is a real danger that the political debate becomes stuck in two parallel universes, each with their own insistent impression of reality. All this seems to favor the “Populist International,” which relies on the dominance of rage over reasoned discourse. One of the great challenges surfaced by the Trump victory will be to find ways to make this new media environment hospitable for liberal democracy.