Looking at the key states that lost Clinton the election, we find traditional Democratic strongholds like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania – states that no polls expected Trump to win. In one narrative, we find a white voting base that has been made viscerally aware of its decreasing majority due to demographic changes. Here, we are tempted to reach for the racial explanation: that America simply was not as progressive as we had imagined it to be. The danger of this crutch is that it trivializes much deeper problems. Even if racial bigotry were playing a crucial role here, one must then ask what is it that made these sentiments so central to this particular election when a black man won all of those states in both 2008 and 2012? I think a more satisfying explanation is needed.
In my opinion the key to understanding Trump’s victory is to look at it through the lens of more than a decade of rising nationalism across the Western world. From the National Front in France to Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland, Donald Trump’s campaign draws from a well-established generation of nationalist movements that had grown increasingly prominent over the past decade. These movements universally share a desire to strengthen national identity and reintroduce immigration barriers, from the Brexit movement’s goal of independent border control to Trump’s proverbial wall. It is the nature of their nationalist message that these movements attract racists and bigots and for that reason they are readily dismissed by the mainstream as fringe and deplorable. Yes, race is an issue, especially in America where the historical baggage is heavy. There are real racists, including the Ku Klux Klan, who support Trump for those easily-understood reasons. But at its core, the nationalist message is really about the rejection of globalization and that is a message that is readily heard by regular people who can plainly see that their lives have not become better even as the stock markets hit record highs.
There is an age-old adage that correlation is not causation. The caveat to that is that it may very well be. We as humans are incredibly good at making spurious correlations between things we observe. That ability evolved when we lived in caves and hearing the sound of snapping twigs could mean the presence of an unseen predator, and lives on in Alexander Fleming when he discovered penicillin by observing that bacteria did not grow near a blob of mold on a petri dish. It is responsible for both our worst superstitions and prejudices and our best scientific achievements and creativity.
Imagine you are a blue-collar worker in Michigan and you think of yourself as a good person. Over the course of twenty years, you watch the community around you disintegrate and the post-war promise of the American Dream broken as the local economy disappears around you. You work harder and harder but your income remains stagnant. At the same time, you observe rising prosperity in China where the manufacturing jobs went and new unfamiliar immigrant communities start showing up around you. Trump tells you that globalization, the immigrants it brings, and the resulting dilution of the culture (racial or otherwise) that made America once great, are the cause of your problems. You are not a racist. You do not want to be seen as a racist, but it takes a great deal of perspective to not agree with him.
Now imagine you are a white-collar worker in San Francisco – Who am I kidding, you probably are – and you too think of yourself as a good person. Over the course of twenty years, you watch communities around you prosper. You work harder and your income grows. At the same time, you see a diverse population growing around you. You have many friends who are from different cultural backgrounds from you. You think that global companies are rewarded for being diverse, at least in nationality if not in gender or race, because it fosters creativity and competition. After all, improvements in the well-being of people around you have always come hand-in-hand with a welcoming immigrant society. You reject the picture that Trump paints and feel that it is your moral duty as a self-professed good person to oppose all that he stands for.
Take the same human being with all his goodness and imperfections and place him in each of the two situations. Racism and bigotry just seems so unsatisfactory an answer to the divergent outcomes we see today. What we have is an extremely inequitable economy that failed to fairly distribute the gains from globalization and automation and as a result created entirely different outcomes for ordinary people. Some of us benefited and draw one conclusion about globalization, the rest of us draw another. Robert Shiller, an economics professor from Yale, and Bernie Sanders both pointed out this trend in their pre-election articles.
In light of this larger global tide, Hillary Clinton was probably the worst candidate that the Democrats could have chosen. She was selected by the consensuses of the party establishment, had an obvious direct link to the pro-globalization wing of the cosmopolitan Democratic future instead of its blue-collar union past, and lacked a satisfying answer to a real problem. It is hard to imagine that Bernie or Biden would have lost Michigan or Wisconsin to Trump.
For as long as I remember growing up, globalization had been a force for good. It raised billions of people out of poverty, created lasting peace for the majority of the planet, and inspired an inclusive and progressive picture of the future of the human race. It is hard to look back at the antagonistic nation states of the early 20th century and the two great wars that they wrought and make a good case for why global unity is the wrong long-term goal for humans to work towards. But with all our human ingenuity, we have managed to do it – we turned globalization into a demon.
History books will look back at 2016 as the year in which anti-globalization sentiments come to a boiling point. Let us hope that this is a peak from which we will recover and not the start of a march back two hundred years to isolationism and war.