There is really no mystery why Donald Trump was elected President. He won a majority in the Rust Belt states and added these to the conservative, normally Republican, states in the South and the West, where he won easily. Almost certainly, no other Republican candidate would have won this election, or pursued what was surely the only winning strategy open to a successful Republican candidate — not Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, or anyone else. Had any of these been nominated as the GOP candidate, they would almost certainly have lost, probably as badly or worse as did Mitt Romney in 2012, and we would now be reading American pundits’ extensive obituaries about the terminal state of the Republican party, so badly out of touch with emerging America.
Trump has almost invariably been depicted as a grossly (if not grotesquely) offensive buffoon and ignoramus, and probably a crook to boot. Viewed in light of his stunning upset, however, he emerges as a political strategist of the highest order. This acumen was given insufficient attention, but Trump’s game plan also entailed ditching significant components of the traditional and accepted Republican strategy of laissez-faire and limited government, especially in regard to international free trade. In particular, Trump advocated repealing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which abolished tariffs on goods made or produced in Mexico (and Canada), and the China Bilateral Investment Treaty. These and similar agreements with other countries have proven to be utterly disastrous for US-based manufacturers and blue-collar workers, especially in Rust Belt states such as Michigan, which he carried against the punditocracy’s expectation.
In 2014, the most recent year for which there are statistics, the US ran a trade deficit with China of $343 billion, with Mexico of $54 billion, and with Japan of $67 billion. Overall, America’s trade deficit was an incredible $505 billion, hence the devastation of manufacturing jobs. According to one study, between 2000 and 2016 the US lost five million manufacturing jobs — a downward trend likely to accelerate — as in the recent notorious case of Carrier Air Conditioning. This long-established and successful company recently shuttered its US factories , sacked its workers, and moved lock, stock, and barrel to Mexico, where wages are a fraction of those in the US. This was done to take advantage of the NAFTA free trade agreement signed into law in 1994 by Bill Clinton, who said at the time that “NAFTA means jobs, American jobs … If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t support the agreement.” America’s peak trade union body, the AFL-CIO, normally 100% supportive of Democratic presidents and candidates, disagrees. According to its research, NAFTA has resulted in a staggering 700,000 American jobs being relocated to Mexico.
Free trade agreements virtually invite — indeed, command — American employers to move their factories to low-wage countries, and who can blame them? In exchange, the US has gained virtually nothing whatsoever, other than a plethora of cheap imports. Donald Trump understood this and made it a central plank in his campaign program, although this was little noted by the media. So, too, from the opposite extreme, came Bernie Sanders with a very similar critique. The unapologetic socialist an class warrior might have won the Democratic nomination if the Clinton machine had not rigged the primary system to his considerable disadvantage. His message was studiously ignored by Hillary Clinton, who lost a virtually un-losable election as a direct consequence of failing to take note of the obvious.
Trump has mooted replacing these free trade agreements with hefty tariffs on foreign manufactured goods. If this were enacted, it would mark a return to the Republican party’s traditional policy. Although today this is hardly appreciated, even by historians, the fact remains that from the Civil War until the New Deal the most important policy difference separating the two US parties was the Republicans’ advocacy of high tariffs and the Democrats’ low tariffs. High tariffs to encourage American industry were especially associated with William McKinley, who was elected president in 1896 on a platform devoted to the protection of for American jobs. His victory was what historians term a “realigning election”, and it gave the GOP a normal electoral majority for nearly forty years. Behind high tariff walls the US became the world’s economic superpower, the “Smokestack America” of U.S. Steel, Standard Oil, Westinghouse, Ford, DuPont, and hundreds of other corporations employing millions of workers. These tariff barriers have been systematically removed since the 1930s, and have fallen out of favour with both the Democrats and also the pro-laissez-faire contemporary Republicans. Trump attacked this consensus head-on and won the election. By contrast, Hillary Clinton studiously avoided addressing any appeal to Rust Belt voters or, indeed, framing any solution to their problems.
Clinton and her advisers counted on winning the election through demographic change (as well as hostility to Trump by women and minorities), especially the relative decline in the numbers of white, non-college voters, plus liberal-minded women. Together, these were supposed to make her a shoo-in, building on automatic majorities in California, New York, Massachusetts, and other liberal states.
Needless to say, this plan didn’t work — and it didn’t work because it doesn’t reflect reality. In 2010, 12.6% of the American population was black; in 1970, the figure was 11.1%, virtually identical, especially as the large contingent of blacks in prison or former convicts cannot vote. The number of Hispanics has indeed risen significantly, but Hispanics are a notional category — people who speak Spanish or whose ancestors did. They come from many different cultures and countries. True, this time as usual, a mjority did vote for Clinton, but not in the numbers her strategists anticipated and on which their plans depended. The largest growth among ethnic minorities has occurred among Asian-Americans – another meaningless category, lumping together Chinese surgeons, Indian computer programmers, Korean shopkeepers, and Filipino nurses. Many, perhaps most, are socially conservative and economically successful: natural Republicans, in other words.
A more pertinent breakdown of America’s diverse population might be drawn from looking at languages spoken at home. On 2014, 79% of the U.S. population spoke only English at home, 13% Spanish. Chinese was spoken by one per cent of the population, but no other language was spoken by more than 0.5 per cent of the total. Other minorities? In 2013, only 1.6% of American adults described themselves as “gay,” 98% as “straight.”
Hillary Clinton and her advisers, in other words, were relying on a warped and distorted depiction of the American population in order to win. Crucial to her plans were the votes of women, whom she was centrally relying upon for victory. Sadly for her, they voted in a manner similar American men: 53% of white women voted for Trump, crude misogynist or not, while a majority of non-whites (95% in the case of Afro-American women) voted for Clinton. Once again, the Clinton forces, for all their sophistication and money, didn’t have a clue, while the buffoon proved to be worthy of a Nobel Prize for political savvy.