The idea of a President Donald Trump is met with a mixture of anxiety and confusion in Britain. It is safe to say that if this election had been held in the UK, with the same two candidates and their same policy platforms, Clinton would have won a landslide.
The wilder and more surprising pronouncements that Trump has made during this campaign have been widely and breathlessly reported in this country, with many policies that would never be considered by political leaders in the UK. These have included advocating torture, suggesting the carpet bombing of ISIS and targeting their family members, banning people from the country on the basis of their religion and starting a trade war with China, among others. That is why most people in the UK could not see any other result than a safe Hillary Clinton win, and now cannot understand why anyone would vote for a man advocating these policies.
But when we view this election through the prism of hindsight, it becomes clear that its result was a classic case of “it’s the economy, stupid” and a desire for change, as swathes of the traditionally Democrat voting areas of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan turned red. We’ve heard regularly in the last few days about the ‘left behind’ voters in the Rust Belt, and we will hear more about them as analysts delve deeper into the data, but the reality is a simple one. These voters grew up in factory towns, where the local steel mill or car plant has provided solid, steady and skilled employment for generations, but have now been shut down. They haven’t seen the owners go bankrupt or the companies go out of business: instead, they just hear about new factories opening up in Mexico.
They then hear various Governments and politicians over a number of years, including Clinton, talking about the benefits of free trade, and they have seen only the downside. The reality is that free trade does provide huge national benefits, but it is no argument to someone who has lost their job and 100 per cent of their income, that this has helped national GDP growth move along at two or three per cent. Trump came along as a politician who offered them something new: he claimed he would rip up trade deals like NAFTA and the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership Deal. He is now rumoured to be planning the largest economic stimulus in American history.
If you’re one of these workers, why wouldn’t you vote for the candidate offering that opportunity? If you’re working in a minimum wage job after years of skilled, well paid labour, or if you’ve been unemployed for years, then why not give it a chance? As Trump himself said: “What the hell do you have to lose?” Arguments that his disruption of free trade, or inexperienced management of the economy will only make things worse, are much less convincing to those who already believe they have lost it all.
The desire for change also spread to the middle classes, too, with the poor implementation of Obamacare, and Trumps has promised to change the system. Many workers saw their insurance premiums going through the roof, and in some cases have experienced a decrease in service too. Even those who previously considered themselves financially comfortable have suddenly found themselves struggling to get by, or have been willing to risk a fine rather than pay the insurance premium.
The overall policy is the right one, and much needed; but its poor implementation has undermined its popularity. Importantly, Trump has now suggested he will maintain important sections of Obamacare, including banning insurance companies from refusing applicants with pre-existing health conditions. It remains to be seen how it will be possible to remove the bad parts of Obamacare while preserving the beneficial aspects, but once again Americans wanted to vote for the candidate who promised to give it a go.
Voter in the U.S, like their counterparts in the UK, are concerned about immigration. However, just as over here, it is not the most important issue. For the most part people want to have control over the rules of immigration, and they want these rules to be stuck to – if they are not, after all, then that undermines the whole immigration system. This is where the desire for more border security comes from in America. In 2012, the Department for Homeland Security estimated that there were 11.4 unauthorised migrants in the country. In 2014, the Border Patrol reported apprehending 486,651 ‘inadmissible non citizens’, with 99 per cent of these cases occurring on the south-west border with Mexico.
It is easy to write these concerns off as racism (as Matthew Parris among others has done), and indeed there will be racists taking advantage – but many of those who switched to Trump had previously voted for Obama. The majority of voters just want control of the numbers of people who enter the country, and want to decide on the criteria they must match. When hundreds of thousands of people are trying to get into the country outside of the legal structures in place, you can understand why many desire better and more permanent physical obstructions. Again, the giant cost and engineering difficulty of Trump’s wall will, most likely, cause his vision to be compromised, but voters want action to be taken. He offered that action.
Clinton, perhaps inevitably, became the continuity candidate – always a risk in any election. Not just because she was a Democrat following Obama, but because she was a career politician saying broadly what politicians from both parties have been saying on these subjects for decades. Her traditional approach made an ever-starker contrast with the unorthodoxy of Trump, and she came to rely on support from Barack and Michelle Obama to provide more personality on the campaign train. It wasn’t enough.
This is not about ‘elites’ versus a man of the people. This is about understanding the real impacts on communities and what they want, rather than just listening to those who say a policy is working – the question has to be: work for who?
Trump spoke to these voters who have suffered economic pain, who had become frustrated with Government policy and who have been taken for granted for too long, and said: why not vote for me? Whatever your view of Trump’s campaign and the policies he advocated, it is welcome to see him adopting a more pragmatic and consensual approach now that he stands on the threshold of office. And now that he’s won our Government is right to set about building bridges, working together and strengthening the ties between our two countries. He is the President of the United States, so we must work together and create a new special relationship. I hope we will.