I know, I know… I’ve heard this from all my friends and readers: How is it possible that Donald Trump would get elected President of the Greatest Nation in the World? (OK, the part about the Greatest Nation in the World is my addition.)
There is a technical reason: despite getting more than two million votes more than Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton didn’t have her votes distributed in a geographically diverse enough way. America is a federation, and as such the constituent states have a say in government. In theory, the winner of the presidential election would need a majority of both states and people, but that could easily lead to a situation where (like in this year’s case) the majority of the states doesn’t want the same as the majority of the people.
To make elections easier and faster, the Constitution settled on a numerical formula that is a brilliant compromise: each state gets as many votes in the election of the president as it has Senators and Members of the House. The Senate is composed of two Senators per state (so that part translates to one vote per state), while each state has a number of Members of the House proportional to its population (so theoretically, that should translate to a majority of the people).
The Constitution settled on another odd compromise: each state would send voters (called electors) to Washington, and these electors decide who’s going to be president and who vice-president. Over time, the electors were specifically selected for allegiance to one particular candidate, and some states even punish those electors that don’t vote for the presidential candidate for whom they were sent.
So, it could happen that a narrow win in three states sent Donald Trump into the White House, while he didn’t have a majority of the vote. The formula chosen favors Republicans in general, because central states were drawn to be of manageable size, and so a lot of the rural states in the middle of the country have small to tiny populations. Wyoming, for instance (a gorgeous place!) has only 1.5% of the population of the most populous state, California. In fact, the USA has 31 cities that have more inhabitants than all of Wyoming, but have none of the electors (3) that Wyoming has.
After this civics lesson, the political angle. Hillary Clinton was reviled. Part of it was that the media wanted to make the contest more interesting by tearing down the front runner. Part of it was blatant misogyny. Part of it seems to have been manipulation by foreign powers, especially Russia, which seems to have fed information to WikiLeaks. it didn’t help that the founder of WikiLeaks had an ax to grind with Ms Clinton – maybe a remnant of the days he had to hide in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.
Europeans have a prototype for both Clinton and Trump: Clinton resembles Angela Merkel the most, while Trump is closest to Silvio Berlusconi. Clinton is a technocrat, what Americans call a wonk. She knows everything, has an answer that is detailed, accurate, and insightful to any question, and she frequently fails to inspire because she has a hard time getting out of the morass of detail. She is also caring (like Mutti) and a fighter (although she has been remarkably silent since the election).
Trump is like Berlusconi: rich, flashy, and gripped in that odd combination of sense of entitlement and self-doubt that are the feeding force of narcissism. Both of them are great at making people look up to them, more than like them. Both make promises they cannot possibly fulfill, one of the reasons they are liked. Both have a genuinely remarkable sense of what people want to hear – in both cases possibly a result of a life of salesmanship.
If you ask a European which one they’d like to have, Berlusconi or Merkel, I don’t think many would have a doubt. Merkel turned Germany into a powerful force for good in the world. She made her country the rock onto which all others have to rest when things turn rough – and she managed to do so (after the Greek component of the Euro crisis) without having to make Germany look too bad.
Berlusconi, on the other hand, turned Italy into a basket case. Part of it were the attempts to fulfill the promises, part of it the corruption that came raining down from on high, part of it his genuine incompetence and his preoccupation with anything but the business of running a country.
From America’s perspective, Clinton resembles Obama the most in a political sense (not in personality), while Trump is most like Bush. Clinton promised a continuation of the Obama policies for good and for bad. Much of her strategy seems to have been a conscious attempt to copy what Obama did (to her, and then to John McCain) in 2008.
Trump, on the other hand, has promised policies that are startlingly similar to Bush’s policies in 2004. Law and order, an end to immigration, tax cuts for everyone, but concentrated at the top, and a giant program of fiscal expansion. More military spending, and a destruction of Islamic terrorism. Their social policies on gays and abortion could be carbon copies of each other. Both favor an expansion and deregulation of carbon polluting industries.
As a European, if you told me I had to choose between neo-Obama and neo-Bush I would, again, not have a whole lot of doubt. If for no other reason than the fact that Bush was a calamity of global proportions (causing the Euro crisis indirectly). But that’s not America.
What we really need to discuss to understand the victory of Donald Trump (or even his ascent) is the social fabric of America.
I was puzzled when I moved here, because there seem to be two Americas: one is the country that invents all the cool stuff, that almost defines scientific advance, that has all the famous artists, that is the beacon of freedom and democracy in the world. It’s the country my parents thought of when their eyes swooned, the country I came to live in and love.
The other America is almost a weird mirror image of the first one. It is backwards, conservative, bigoted, and (for lack of another term) uncool. Its idea of science is that it’s something politically charged, its idea of arts has not evolved in 50 years, it is obsessed with an unfathomably simplistic sense of religion, and it is afraid of the world and needs to subjugate it.
These two Americas are growing increasingly separate. The first, liberal America is concentrated in its cities, big and small. It is no coincidence that for the first time in its history, now the majority of America’s population lives in cities. This majority (the majority that voted for Clinton, to be simplistic) is more cosmopolitan, diverse, open, curious, engaged.
The other almost half seems to have increasingly lost touch with the rest of the world. It has done so not just by simple lack of interaction, but as some point by choice. It is the part of the country that recoils in horror when a Supreme Court Justice mentions what other countries do around the world in a legal opinion, because what the rest of the world does cannot possibly have any bearing on what America does.
When I first heard that, I thought it was a symptom of the sense of supremacy that comes with being American. Everything in this country is better, so how could the law of any other place have anything to offer? But now I see it with more nuance: it’s not just about this, it’s even more about the lack of relevance of the rest of the world, in general.
This cultural isolation is startlingly complete. The things that come out of this America are so outlandish, they defy belief. There really are people here that believe this planet is some 6000 years old. There are people that have no doubt whatsoever that dinosaurs roamed the earth side-by-side with humans. People that believe such disprovable hogwash will believe anything – and they really do.
This America met the guy that promises them everything, and they have no choice but to believe it, doesn’t matter how stupid it is. This same America will also believe anything about his opponent, no matter how stupid.
I am simplifying. In fact, this second America is not just rural: the unquestioning repeating of stupid stuff was a hallmark of the Bernie revolution, too. Why, just the other day I was a witness to a Facebook conversation between Bernie Bros (one of them a now ex-Facebook friend) that still claimed it was not their problem (or fault) that Trump won. They dug up every single old story about that race, including the fact Bernie Sanders (a very respectable man, by the way) had had his life threatened by the Clinton camp if he didn’t join them. That was patently false before this election – but after Clinton conceded without a murmur of protest to Trump, it should have been clear she was not the thug the Bernie Bros made her out to be.
Lack of education is a large part of the underbelly of this second America. This is not just a sociological comment, but an observation from experience: Trump voters (as well as many Bernie Bros) have an incredibly hard time with simple grammar and spelling. It is rare that you’ll find a coherent sentence in a pro-Trump post on Facebook.
America has a huge problem with education. It is so huge, in fact, that it is three separate problems, all happening at the same time. The first problem is that simply not enough people attend higher education. This is mostly an economic problem, as there just aren’t a whole lot of good jobs for people without college degrees. Also, the world moves forward thanks to science and technology, but scientific and technological literacy is falling by the wayside rapidly.
The second problem with American education is the narrow type of instruction. Most of the education is geared towards specific goals and not the advancement of the individual. The consequence is that few people have sufficient knowledge of critical skills like … critical thinking, or philosophy, or history, because they simply are not directly required by any position or degree.
Finally, American education is simply catastrophic at teaching. That has been going on for a very long while: I remember when watching American high school shows in high school (stuff like 90210) and wondering how these kids had time for all these social functions, where we learned most of the time. My typical day in school consisted in terror in the morning and early afternoon, always caught between tests and questioning by the teacher, and homework in the afternoon and evening. These TV kids spent most of the school day socializing (and bullying each other) and the afternoons and evenings going to parties of doing fun stuff. “When do they actually learn?”
They don’t. The reason American kids complain about bullying so much is that social interaction between kids is vastly more important in a universe where education isn’t. Conversely, (White) American families resent those that place a higher value on education, like Jewish or Asian families.
This is an enormous problem on many fronts. The first and most important from America’s own perspective is that its status as superpower is based on primacy in science and technology. Having the country run by people that believe in the importance of neither is dangerous – to America.
In the end, Trump is not the biggest problem. He’s already walking back many of the craziest promises he’s made, even conceding that global warming is real and man-made (he claimed the opposite previously). He started walking back the crazy talk before the election, even, when he admitted that Obama was in fact born in the United States. He’s a panderer to the worst instincts, but he’s not gripped by those.
The biggest problem is that the Second America, that people of narrow, bigoted views, with little contact to the world at large and fearful of what it doesn’t know in it, is going to run this country again. And that, my friends, terrifies me, because this country almost collapsed eight years ago because of them.
[Incidentally, they are in denial about it, of course, and blame everyone under the sun but themselves and their chosen representatives for the economic collapse. Par for the course.]