As the victory of Donald J Trump in the 2016 US Presidential elections sinks into our collective conscious, Brexit vote seems to be a ripple compared to the electoral tsunami that has swept the US. It is important, nonetheless, to understand that the people and the forces that brought Trump to power are dissimilar from those that brought about the Brexit.
The Exit Voting explain much of how Trump presidency became a living reality. The forgotten hurting working class that played a pivotal role in the Brexit is not what ensured Donald Trump’s victory. Far from being a revolt by the poor whites displaced by globalisation, we learn that 54% of white college educated men and a substantial, 45% of white college educated women voted for Trump according to representative Exit Polls conducted by Edison Research for National Election that surveyed about 25 thousand voters across the US. Of the one in three Americans who earn less than US$50,000 a year, only 42% of them voted for Trump while the majority voted for Clinton. Among the poorest, as measured by lowest income bracket of less than US$30,000 a year, Clinton was even more popular where Trump won only 41% of the vote. Similarly, US counties that saw the largest fall in unemployment rate voted heavily in favour of Trump. It was the wealthy, educated and the middle-class Americans that steered Trump to victory.
While, this might explain the “how” Trump presidency became a reality but it does not explain the “why”. As popular myths of the hurting poor working class stand shattered we must look at other factors. It might be an uncomfortable reality but also the one that we can dodge no more. The fault line drawn in this election was one of race: Donald Trump won 58% of the white votes. Hilary Clinton on the other hand, managed to ‘only’ woo non-white voters: winning 88% of Black voters and 65% of Latino and Asian voters. It was the white middle class and wealthy majority in America that has brought Trump to the White House. People unconvinced about the substantial role race played in this election should ask themselves: why the Blacks and Latinos, who form the most economically deprived segment of the society voted for Hilary in large numbers? Where was their ‘protest’ vote?
While, ethnic fractionalisation, discrimination or racial divide is something we like to relegate to the ‘third world’, however, it would be a mistake to forget man’s primal nature stamped into our genes through evolution by natural selection; the innate desire to discriminate against an out-group relative to the in-group, to discount the interest of other tribe’s over our own is a force to reckon with. Our move through the bumpy road of moral progress, as we ploughed through slavery and the denial of women suffrage, has always been met with a countervailing force, the dark side of human nature: our irrational desire to favour people who look more like us.
Donald Trump clearly understood this more than Hilary Clinton. It was clear from the context and surrounding rhetoric of Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again” was really “Make America White Again”. The ‘Great Wall’ was to keep the outgroup out, to preserve the purity of the in-group. While, conversely, Clinton’s slogan “Stronger Together” was an appeal to safeguard the interests of the out-group: the Blacks, the Latinos and the Muslims.
Throughout history, we have managed to expand our moral circle not by ignoring our in-group mentality but by overcoming it. This has been especially true in America, a country founded by immigrants, where ironically, there has always been a strong nativist tradition. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s greatly influential anti-slavery novel, galvanized the abolitionist movement not because it condemned slavery or pronounced slave-owners as lesser people but because it enabled white Americans to take the viewpoint of black slaves. Stowe narrates a harrowing episode where mothers are separated from children and the heroic protagonist, Tom, is beaten to death for refusing to flog other slaves. Harriet Beecher transcended the in-group/out-group mentality by persuading white Americans to take the perspective of ‘others’. Hilary Clinton was defeated because she could not.
By Sultan Mehmood
The writer is a doctoral candidate in political economy in Paris, former advisor to the Dutch government on public policy and a researcher affiliated with Institute for Research on Development (IRD) and Centre for Studies of African Economies (CSAE) at Oxford University. He tweets @mrsultan713
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