David C. Unger
Adjunct professor, The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, Bologna
Reflections on the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election
Few polls or pundits predicted Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton. Trump won anyway, or at least he won the electoral vote, despite polling more than two million fewer votes than Clinton in the nationwide popular vote. Trump won because he appealed to a half of America that lies mostly hidden from media gaze, an America that lives in declining rustbelt cities and towns that used to be thrived factory centers, a more rural, small town America that feels deeply estranged from the increasing ethnic diversity it sees encroaching on its more traditional world, an America’ that feels left behind by the new financialized economy that has brought oases of gentrification and affluence to cities like Boston, New York, Washington, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle. Those cities are all found on America’s east and west coasts. Trump’s victory margin was built in the interior states where votes are weighted more heavily by the peculiarities of the American electoral system. Yet Barack Obama twice won many of these same interior states handily, in 2008 and 2012. They went to Trump this time because the Democrats ran a candidate without Obama’s popular appeal, a candidate perceived as standing for the status quo in a year the voters wanted change. They wanted change not so much because economic conditions in America were getting worse. They weren’t. But this was the election cycle in which the American electorate concluded that the end of the Great Recession was not going to mean an end to the new economy of precarious jobs, increasing health care costs and stagnant earnings. They were not looking for technocrats who knew how to manage the new economy. They were looking for a wrecking crew to smash the new economy in the hope that the old economy would then come back.