It is a good exercise for my mental health to try to answer this question. I am going to try to do this briefly, though, because I am swamped.
Like most events, there were a lot of factors in play, some very large and long-term, others smaller and more ephemeral. But you have to start by realizing that Clinton won the popular vote, and in just about any other electoral system that would have been enough. Our electoral system means that people who live in less populated states effectively count more, and that always hurts the Democratic Party, sometime fatally as in this case.
The most important thing the election shows is that American political culture continues to effectively deflect economic problems away from questions of class by arguing that they are really racial. This has been going on since the advent of mass politics in the 1820s, and it is always about emphasizing the entitlement of whites, especially white males. The surprise is that it still worked in a changing United States, one that was more diverse and more educated, and one where women vote. Here there are certain more recent developments that helped Trump very dramatically. First of all, the fact that the US is changing demographically actually increased racial fears, prompting people who thought this way to vote in larger numbers. Second, the Internet and to a lesser extent the proliferation of cable news networks has fractured the way people get information. Anyone can claim to be an expert and reach thousands or even millions of readers or viewers, because there are no infrastructure costs to getting the word out. You don’t need a printing press, trucks, or even advertisers, and you sure as hell don’t need gatekeepers who check what you say against empirical reality. People just choose the brand of “news” or “information” that fits their ideology.
Yet there is another really interesting thing that has happened. Unfortunately, the advocates of trade agreements have completely oversold how beneficial they are, and that has made most people think that the agreements have a large effect on employment in the United States. From the 1970s even the mainstream media has consistently explained the loss of solid manufacturing jobs by saying that we instead now buy manufactured products from foreigners, and that this shift is driven by free trade policies. This sees economics as a zero sum game, and it is dramatically out of step with empirically observed realities. Yes, there is much more foreign trade, but free trade policies explain only a fraction of that increase. A much larger part is attributable to the rather incredible decline of transportation costs that came from the containerization of shipping. The only US government policy that could rein that in would be sending the Navy to sink container ships. (I am not sure I would put that past Trump…) Even then, we have to understand that the increase of world trade has not actually led to decreased manufacturing in the US. We make more stuff now than we ever did. Yet there are fewer manufacturing jobs, mostly due to mechanization and computerization. This has had a far larger effect on employment than trade has. And those manufacturing jobs we do have pay less, because politicians and employers have used a variety of strategies to undermine organized labor.
Coming back to the election, it is striking that Sanders and Trump both argued that trade agreements hurt workers and that restricting trade can increase employment in the US. I think they both believe it, but that says more about how American political discourse about the economy has become divorced from economic realities than it does about what can be done about income inequality in the US. We need to come up with more realistic policies, and more compelling ways to explain them to people.
Arguing that trade agreements were what was causing that inequality and declining incomes for much of the American population racialized the problem, because it meant that Trump could claim that undeserving racial others, whether Chinese or Mexican, were taking jobs that rightfully belonged to Americans. This is of course what Trump also argued about immigration, another public policy issue for which the inclination of American politicians is to not fight back against the empirically untrue but emotionally powerful argument that immigrants take jobs that rightfully belong to Americans.
Racial rhetoric always sees the world as a zero sum game: if the other is doing better it must be at our expense. And it always involves ugly racial stereotypes. Mexicans or African Americans are prone to crime, the just want to live off welfare, they are cheating, they are gaming the system, if they are poor it is because they don’t work hard enough, they don’t want to be American…and Trump played this to the hilt, adding even more ugliness about Muslim refugees prone to terrorism or imposing sharia law…ugliness facilitated by our endless, bumbling involvement in the Middle East.
This racism still wouldn’t have been enough, but the trend toward partisanship in this country has progressed to the point where Republicans who think Trump is an immoral liar and disagree with Trump on trade, possibly on immigration, and certainly on foreign policy generally still felt like they had to vote for him simply because they want a Republican to appoint the next few Supreme Court justices. This was really striking. Of course the reasons these people have for treasuring control of the Supreme Court vary. Some believe that the Supreme Court should subordinate women’s right to control their bodies because they believe that abortion is murder, some believe that preventing same sex marriage will somehow preserve a fictitious past of nurturing traditional families, and some just want to make sure carbon pollution is not regulated. But generally it was the desire to have leverage over the Court that held the fractious Republican electorate together in this election.
Those are the big factors, to sum up, the racialization of economic problems, the Internet, and the amazing degree of partisanship. But you also have to understand that the election was very close, so some small factors also made a difference. One was that the Trump people took away his Twitter account two weeks before the election. Trump’s Twitter account was Clinton’s most powerful electoral tool, because his outrageous middle of the night statements were driving people who did not like Clinton toward her. Another was that Trump actually stuck to his teleprompter for the last ten days of the campaign-staying away from off the cuff, outrageous statements. But another factor that made a difference was the FBI director’s very partisan decision to announce ten days before the election that they had discovered more e-mails. This diverted news attention from Trump and gave the non mainstream “news” outlets something to harp on. In a system in which a few thousand or even a few hundred votes in a swing state can be crucial this was very powerful. But it also shows something long term. The e-mail scandal was a manufactured scandal, the latest in a long series of manufactured scandals aimed at the Clintons. None of them actually amounted to anything, but cumulatively they painted Clinton in a way that was capable of swaying some thousands of votes: votes that were not determined in any way by either candidate’s policy positions about the economy or anything else.
In the end, it was close, and many things contributed to the result. Now we have to see what happens next. What is interesting is that Trump cannot deliver on what he promised. Protectionism cannot bring back those jobs, although it might lead to American manufacturers buying a few more robots. Actually, the Republicans in Congress will not let him do it anyway. They also won’t appropriate enough money to build the fabled wall or to round up all of those immigrants. Republicans in Congress will probably do things that actually increase income inequality, especially by reducing taxes on the very wealthy. The only thing they might give him is funds for infrastructure projects, which might actually help with income inequality. Where does that leave them when they face these same voters in four years? We’ll see.
In the meantime we have a lot of work to do. We need to work with minorities, including Muslims, African-Americans, and Latinos, to face the real threats of gun-fueled crime, brutal, fear-driven policing, immigration roundups, and violence directed at them by deluded people who think that they can improve their lives by hating others. We need to work to protect women’s right to control their bodies, and the right of all people to build loving families. We need to fight for a living wage and for an educational system that gives everyone a chance to learn what they need to reach economic stability and upward mobility. We need to end environmental racism with threats it poses to health in places Flint, MI and East Chicago, IN. Now that we have lost the tools of federal policy we need to work urgently to reduce carbon emissions by educating individuals and pressuring corporations.
And, in the long term we need to seriously address the economic anxieties that drove so many people to vote for Trump, developing policy proposals that address income inequality and fighting the powerful idea that they lost their jobs to foreigners and minorities. The world is not a zero sum game, and the best way to show Trump voters this is to extend them our hands and offer them policies that can actually help them. The antidotes to fear, prejudice and hatred are hope, respect and love.
Everyone roll up their sleeves.