Just like the bulk of political pundits and mainstream media commentators, opportunistic internet entrepreneurs were caught off guard by the shock result of Tuesday’s United States presidential election.
The day after Donald Trump became the 45th president of the United States it was still possible to find “Don’t blame me, I voted for Trump” T-shirts and hoodies online. But the full story of the shock sustained by America’s political system is told in silent eloquence by the stacked boxes of now useless merchandise cluttering up basements and garages across America.
Actually, the true entrepreneur – the type who might have impressed Donald Trump during his 14-season run as host of US TV show The Apprentice – will know what to do: take a thick red pen, cross out the “Don’t” – et voilà: “Blame me, I voted for Trump”.
But who would happily wear such a thing? Almost every time Trump opened his mouth over the past 18 months something came out that seemed calculated to offend, insult, terrify or otherwise generally alienate vast swaths of the electorate. So who, exactly, was the Trump voter?
At first glance, the answer would appear to be simple: the Trump voter is an economically and educationally underprivileged white working-class male, marooned somewhere in the 1970s in terms of his attitudes to women and minorities, not yet ready to see a woman in the top job, bitter at what he perceives to be the high-handed indifference of the smug, self-serving political elite and ready to blame all his woes on anyone who isn’t … well, a white working-class male.
Certainly, anyone analysing Trump’s rhetoric and behaviour before and during the election would be likely to conclude that the Trump voter was unlikely to be a woman or someone from an ethnic or religious minority.
Trump’s attitude to women has varied from patronising to insulting and offensive. A breastfeeding mother was “disgusting”, as was comedian Rosie O’Donnell, “a slob” with a “fat ugly face”. New York Times journalist Gail Collins was “a dog” and Arianna Huffington, editor of the Huffington Post, was “extremely unattractive … inside and out”. Fox News journalist Megyn Kelly, host of the first Republican presidential debate who confronted Trump over his treatment of women, was a “bimbo”.
Talking of Trump’s treatment of women, the campaign of any normal presidential candidate would have been blown clean out of the water by the infamous “when you’re a star, they let you do it” tape that emerged in October, not to mention all those allegations of sexual misconduct that surfaced during the contest.
So, the Trump voter is not likely to be a woman.
How about a Muslim, then, or one of America’s many other minority “others”? Not likely. Trump has repeatedly threatened to ban all members of the Islamic faith from entering the US. In July the father of a Muslim US army officer killed in Iraq spoke at the Democratic National Convention in July to condemn Trump’s divisive attacks on minorities. Trump’s response was to attack Khizr Khan’s wife, Ghazala, who had stood silent with grief beside her husband on the stage, to suggest she had been gagged by the demands of her faith. “She had nothing to say,” Trump sneered. “Maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say.”
Trump’s disrespect for the parents of an American war hero, a warrior who died saving his men from a truck bomb in Iraq in 2004 and lies buried in Arlington National Cemetery, was too much even for many staunch Republicans. Again, that should have been that – game over.
But Trump had been here before and survived the fallout. Back in 2015 Trump – a man who had managed to dodge military service back in the Sixties – said senator John McCain, a US navy pilot shot down and captured during the Vietnam war, was no war hero, because he had allowed himself to be captured.
So that, one would have thought, would have torpedoed the veterans vote.
As for Hispanics, well, Trump’s remarks about Mexicans coming to the US “bringing drugs [and] bringing crime” surely hadn’t endeared him to US Latin-American voters, any more than his plans to build a big wall down south to keep them out.
But the strange thing about this election, which suggests that something far more fundamental has been at work than the pros and cons of individual candidates, is that the Trump voter was not exactly who you would expect him, or her, to be.
Yes, the disenchanted working-class did turn out for Trump in larger numbers than they had for the Republican candidate in 2012. But, according to a wide-ranging survey of more than 25,000 voters at 350 polling stations across the country conducted by Edison Research for a consortium of media organisations, more than half the votes of those who earned less than US$50,000 (Dh183,600) a year went to Clinton. Above this cut-off, however, Trump took the lion’s share of the vote.
The Guardian was among the newspapers astonished to discover that, “far from being purely a revolt by poorer whites left behind by globalisation … Trump’s victory also relied on the support of the middle-class, the better-educated and the well-off”. Trump attracted more than half of the votes of those whose education went no farther than “high school or less” or “some college”. Remarkably, though, he also banked the support of 45 per cent of college graduates and over a third of postgraduates. So much for Trump turning out the “stupid” vote.
Edison revealed a number of other near inexplicable anomalies.
“White women,” in the words of current affairs magazine Slate, had “sold out the sisterhood and the world by voting for Trump”. Astonishingly, the Edison poll found that, far from alienating all right-thinking women in America, 53 per cent of white women had voted for Trump, a man “who bragged about committing sexual assault on tape [and] spent 30-plus years in the public eye reducing women to their sexual attributes”. Clinton attracted only 43 per cent of the white female vote.
Overall, 53 per cent of men and 42 per cent of women voted for Trump.
Likewise, the military refused to take offence at Trump the draft-dodger’s disrespect for those who had fought and died for their country. He claimed 61 per cent of the veterans’ vote, against 34 per cent who voted for Clinton.
Similarly, despite Trump’s offensive rhetoric about Mexicans, Hispanics could not be relied upon by Clinton. Yes, over 60 per cent of that community’s vote went her way, but still Trump secured 33 per cent of the male Latino vote, and 26 per cent of the female.
Drilling into the Edison survey reveals that the Trump supporter believes that the justice system treats blacks fairly, the fight against ISIL is going badly, international trade is taking US jobs, all illegal immigrants should be deported, the infamous wall on the border with Mexico should be built and that the most important issues facing the US are immigration and terrorism.
It is clear that Trump tapped into a general, non-specific unease about America and its politics. Crucially, more than 83 per cent of Trump’s supporters believed their candidate would bring about undefined “change”, compared with only 14 per cent of Clinton’s. Ill-defined disillusion – a kind of existential unease – was the central defining characteristic of the Trump voter. While 90 per cent of Clinton voters believed the country was heading in the “right direction”, this confidence was shared by only 8 per cent of Trump supporters, 69 per cent of whom believed the US was on “the wrong track”.
This malaise, this vague, general distrust of the status quo, is perhaps the inevitable consequence when the differences between the traditional opposing factions in western politics have become so indistinct that, in the eyes of many, it makes no real difference which candidate you vote for. In the US, this state of affairs has been exacerbated by the paralysing standoff between the White House and the Republican-controlled House and Senate, a gridlock that should at least now, for better or worse, be broken.
Faced with the smug stagnation of mutually mired middle-ground politics, people will take a chance on change for change’s sake, by way of a protest against the entire system. This was what happened in the United Kingdom in 2015 when a little-known left-wing MP was elected leader of the Labour Party against the wishes of most of its parliamentary members, in the process rendering it unelectable. The party’s rules allowed new members to vote in the contest, and tens of thousands of people signed up just to throw a spanner in the works by voting for Jeremy Corbyn, “the maddest person in the room”, in the recently revealed words of former US president Bill Clinton.
An even more momentous example of a “for better or worse” shake-up followed in June this year when, by a slender majority, the British electorate voted defiantly to drag the UK out of the European Union. Trump took this revolution of the frustrated to heart, even inviting Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, to address a campaign rally in Jackson, Mississippi, in August, and promising “Brexit-plus-plus-plus” for the American people.
In the 10 weeks before America’s first black president vacates the White House, perhaps the Trump voter, startled into protest by disenchantment and a fear of ill-defined shadows, will come to regret his or her impetuosity, as have many of those who voted for Brexit.
But it is, of course, already too late. If the “Blame me” T-shirt fits …