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Trump’s Victory: Some Lessons for European Progressives

Mario Del Pero
Professor of International History

Trump’s unexpected victory has sent shockwaves across Europe. It’s a sort of Brexit on steroids, both for what it symbolizes and for its potential repercussions on Europe’s politics and the transatlantic relationship itself.

Trying to imagine what Trump’s foreign policy will look like is a complex, perhaps at this stage futile (and vertigo-inducing) exercise. Were he to implement just a portion of what he has promised, the world would be facing rapid implosion. But that will not happen, and on foreign policy – more than domestic issues – the Trump administration could end up being less radical (and destabilizing) than what we fear.

Examining and interpreting Trump’s victory, identifying its main drivers, is instead a useful exercise that offers some important lessons to European progressive forces. The common interpretation is that of a radical break with the past, catalysed by widespread economic insecurity that Trump and the Republicans effectively exploited. This reading – according to which the “losers of globalization” have propelled Trump to the White House – is at best partial and at worst erroneous, and risks obfuscating more than clarifying. In a nutshell:

  • Trump got more or less the same votes as Romney in 2012 (and he will probably lose the popular vote).
  • Clinton failed to mobilize the broad, multifaceted democratic coalition of 2008 and 2012. Despite that, the vote confirmed the rigid biparti- san divide existing today in the United States, the high level of polarization and the diminishing mobility between two increasingly impermeable camps.
  • A clear factor was turnout, particularly in some decisive counties of the de-industrialized Midwest, where Trump built his success.
  • According to exit polls, the gap in the white vote has been broad (21 points, 58% went to Trump, 37% to Clinton), more or less at the same level of 2012 (20), but much larger than 2008 (12). Can it be the “Obama effect” – i.e.: the convergence of the unimaginable, and often vicious, reaction of parts of America to his election and the disillusionment of many electors with Obama? Highly probable, although more data are needed.
  • Trump did better than Romney or McCain among low-income voters (under $30,000), but still lost 41 to 53 to Clinton. The two were more or less even among high or super-high incomes. Trump built his victory, therefore, by outpolling Clinton among voters with median, or slightly higher, incomes (between 50,000 and 100,000 dollars).

Economic factors alone, then, do not explain Trump’s success. Voters chose him, and his radical, nativist message, for a plurality of other reasons: party affiliation (there was no Republican diaspora as hoped and predicted); identity – in this case racial-identity – politics; mistrust of the opponent, in an election where the negativity ratings of the two candidates were unprecedented.

Lessons for Europe

Are there lessons for Europe, and for Progressive forces in Europe, aside from avoiding mono-causal, and often consolatory, explanations of a more complex – and, in part, peculiarly American phenomenon? Three quick answers can be offered. The first is to avoid engaging the other side on its own territory and accepting a degraded and insubstantial poli- tical conversation. When it comes to demagoguery, a real demagogue will invariably outsmart a converted one.

Lesson two: address a sense of insecurity that is pervasive and real. And which is not to be found only in downtrodden neighbourhoods of former steel towns in northwest Indiana or in some oxycodone-infested rural community in Kentucky. Last but not least, choose better candidates, aware that the current populist and anti-political mood will not disappear soon and it’s the least propitious for figures that can be identified with the establishment. Like it or not, for what she was and represented, way more than for what she said and proposed, in this specific historical juncture there was no worse candidate than Hillary Clinton.

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