Like most of the rest of the world, I woke up to the news that Trump had taken the White House in the US presidential elections with a sense of shock. It is self-evidently true that the full effect of this is, as with Brexit, yet to be perceived, but a couple of points arise in the immediate aftermath:
1. at the time of writing (almost one week after the election) we have results from 99.5% of voting districts (follow the link to ‘Results in full’) and, as a result, two states – Michigan and New Hampshire – are yet to declare. The ‘result’ is not in doubt (see also below) – but what are they waiting for? With a turnout of 57%, it’s not as though polling stations were overwhelmed by an unpredicted and unprecedented rush of voters…
2. With some results yet to come, it looks obvious that Clinton will have secured more votes than Trump – currently, some 670,000 more. On this poll of even registered voters, of just shy of 128m people, this is not a small margin – it amounts to some 0.5% of all votes cast and Trump will have won the White House, in a more or less two-horse race, with 47.3% of voters. Leaving aside several issues – including: the low turnout (Trump has the expressed support of only fractionally more than one-quarter of the US electorate who are registered to vote (Clinton, indeed, got only fractionally more)); the percentage of Democrat voters who stayed at home (the level of Democrat support is some 8.5m votes down on President Obama’s 2008 result, while the Republican vote is only around some 400,000 higher); and the role of ‘third’ candidates (who have attracted much more support than they did in 2004, 2008 and 2012 – again, see the BBC graphic) – this is a unique expression of democracy. It is clear that this is not an unprecedented result, and that the US electoral college system (well-explained by my friend Roger Darlington here) has a lot to answer for, while the vagaries of the the US voting system (specifically, turnout and the number of people who are unregistered as voters) were well explored by the great Gil Scott-Heron back in 1981 (whose analysis is well worth repeating this week) – but ‘the National Popular Vote’ – is, in these circumstances, a singularly mis-named phenomenon.
3. It is for the losers to complain about the results of elections and the anti-democratic nature of the rules but, despite the lack of a popular mandate for his populist revolution, Trump has wasted no time in appointing some unsavoury characters to his kitchen cabinet – acting, perhaps, as if he had indeed won a landslide. To those who thought that the realities of office might make Trump act differently, it seems pretty clear that he won’t be. It might be an expression of liberal angst, but it seems evident that what the US needs is healing, not a further jump rightwards. Furthermore, electoral justification for this is scant but, more than that, in the case of the US presidential elections, it is particularly clear that this is actually not what US people, collectively, voted for last week.
Here the comparison to Brexit Britain is, aside of the ridiculously self-aggrandising Nigel Farage, pretty strong; as indeed is the association between the ‘2-3m illegal immigrants‘ in the US now to be deported and the assumption that UK voters wanting out of the EU want restrictions on the free movement of people. We might well wonder precisely from where this association between populism and a policy response which entrenches a fear of ‘the other’ comes from, but it is clear that the political scene in the post-election US and the post-Brexit UK has several features in common.
Those of us who didn’t vote for either Trump or Brexit – on both sides of the channel – might be able to learn from each other (and also work together) in terms of developing and articulating a response to this assumption of power by absolutist, right-wing hegemonists.