Victor of bitter campaign faces ugly aftermath
It has been a truly tempestuous election, whose bitterness and bile will have repercussions for years. There is more than a little irony in what has happened: A different Republican candidate could have beaten Hillary Clinton and a different Democratic candidate could have had an easier time with Donald Trump.
But it is, as they say, what it is. Canadians have watched events unfolding with a sense of trepidation that has no parallel in our history. As I write, before the results are known, I can only hope that Hillary Clinton is successful, but it is still important to understand that Donald Trump has fundamentally changed politics in America and the world, and not for the better.
In her recent Massey Lectures, Jennifer Welsh rightly pointed out that the issue of inequality is now starkly at the centre of democratic politics. The post-Second World War prosperity that, in John Kennedy’s words, “lifted all boats” has in the last two decades failed to address the widening gap between those able to take advantage of the digital economy and those left to fend for themselves in a world of precarious work and diminished opportunity. There is less mobility than there once was, more division and a bigger gap between elites and “the people.”
When this happened in the years between 1920 and 1940, European democracy was shattered by a growing, angry populism that then led to war and destruction. In the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt took politics in a different direction — they took the path of hope and used the force of better public policies to increase solidarity and opportunity.
As with the Brexit vote in Britain recently, it was initially difficult for “the chattering classes” to appreciate the full force of unhappiness with what had happened to their economy and society.
Trump broke through a field of Republican candidates with his force of personality, his rhetoric and with arguments on immigration, security, the economy, trade deals and “elite corruption” that overpowered his opponents. His tactics were crude, his language was incendiary and the emotions he aroused were often dark and deeply divisive.
On the Democratic side, Clinton’s race for the nomination was not the walk in the park she and her supporters had been hoping for. Bernie Sanders initially seemed an implausible challenger, but he also tapped into a profound sense in the Democratic base that its world was not unfolding as it should.
The success of his campaign, the deep enthusiasm it aroused among his supporters and the force of his criticism of Clinton did not help her campaign get into gear and it also meant that the “anti-trade” message drove some of his former supporters to the Trump camp when he was defeated.
In my book, What’s Happened to Politics, I described how the world of political communication and organization has changed over the last decades. In her prepared speeches, the carefully crafted and often repeated messages and the meticulous attention to detail of her campaign organization, Clinton has been the ultimate professional. There is not an ounce of populism in her. But as dangerous as an explosion of populism can be, a healthy dose of it is an essential asset to any successful politician.
As Justin Trudeau has shown, liking people and showing it brings with it a huge advantage. The private Clinton is far warmer and more spontaneous than what’s on offer to the general public, but her inability to break through has not helped her make the emotional connection to the electorate that is so essential to lasting success.
Trump’s use of messaging has taken populist politics to the dark side. He has become the conspiracy theorist without match, with all the ugliness this always brings.
A cab driver told me he liked Trump because “he tells us what he thinks and feels,” to which I replied, “Yeah, and there’s the problem — what he’s thinking and feeling.”
He speaks to insecurities and fears about work, opportunity, race and gender. The mess he ran into with the infamous tapes about his attitudes and behaviour with women has created a deeper divide on the issue of respect and equality for women that has for too long been under the surface of public discourse, and is now exposed for all to see and talk about.
He is also a phoney populist — if he were to win, he would immediately disappoint and would only end up creating more fury from those who feel the institutions and programs of government have let them down.
So, it’s been politics in the raw, unvarnished, harsh and unforgiving. It will take extraordinary skill and imagination to bind these wounds. President Clinton will have broken through a glass ceiling, but it will take every ounce of effort to bridge the chasm between the red and the blue.