Sometimes election observers allow their personal preferences to interfere with how they read the signs of the times to predict the outcome of elections. For many, Donald Trump's outrageous racist and misogynistic utterances on the campaign trail disqualify him from holding arguably the most powerful political office on the planet; for others, it is his anti-free trade and anti-environmental positions that make him objectionable. Others just wanted a woman - good or bad - to become president. Yet Trump got enough votes on Tuesday to be on his way to become the 45th President of the United States, and many people just can't understand it.
The fundamental assumption behind scientific attempts to understand human behaviour is that Homo sapiens is a rational species; therefore, there is always rationality behind human behaviour, and the scientific task is to discover it to be able to understand it.
In my column of August 12, 'Trump did not nominate himself' I pointed out: "I feel the frustration of the mainstream US media during this present election campaign. What is supposed to happen is that when the foibles and foolishness of a candidate are exposed to the public, the popularity of the candidate is supposed to fall in the opinion polls ... .
"This has not been happening with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Over the last many months on the campaign trail, Trump has made outrageous and bigoted statements ridiculing women, ethnic minorities, the handicapped, and Muslims, yet his favourability ratings in the polls continued to increase. He has insulted journalists, threatened press freedom, stated an intention to pull out of NATO, and to cancel free trade agreements; he has characterised illegal immigrants travelling over the Mexican border into the USA as 'criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc.', and has made outlandish proposals to build a 'great wall' between the USA and Mexico - which, he claims, he will make Mexico pay for; yet his numbers continued to improve. He has contradicted himself, backtracked on earlier statements, and been caught in lies; in December 2015, Politifact named 'The many campaign misstatements of Donald Trump' as its '2015 Lie of the Year', noting at the time, that 76 per cent of Trump statements rated by the fact-checking website were rated 'Mostly False, False or Pants on Fire', more than any other politician; yet his numbers have increased all the more."
For me, something else was at work here. What was of interest was not Trump and his scandalous behaviour, but how the US electorate was responding to it as reflected by pollsters. In the primaries, Trump beat out 11 other candidates to become the Republican nominee, receiving the most primary votes of any Republican candidate in US history. I wrote: "I think the focus of the analysts is wholly misplaced: it should be on the behaviour of Republican voters and not on the behaviour of Trump himself.
"Clearly, the millions who faithfully support Donald Trump for president - despite his obvious deficiencies and dangerous personality flaws - feel seriously threatened by something. Their unrelenting support of Trump ... seems almost pathological. What could they be so angry about?"
The phenomenon deepened, with more egregious Trump sexism, and many sensible women coming to his defence. I realised something remarkable was about to happen. In my column of October 27, 'Voting for a change' I pointed out that "we in the Third World complain about how we are being disadvantaged by market fundamentalists, mostly in the USA; but over the years blue-collar workers in the USA have been suffering, too, from the Washington Consensus policies practised by their own government".
SENDING A MESSAGE
It was clear to me that, by supporting Trump, the underclass in the USA was trying to send mainstream Democrats and Republicans a message: a backlash against the Washington Consensus. They were hurting so bad, that they were prepared to look beyond the racist, misogynistic, and bigoted statements of Donald Trump, and focus on his anti-immigration, protectionist, and semi-isolationist policies which they perceived to be in their best interests.
I am currently in London, and I stayed up all Tuesday night watching the commentary and interviews on the BBC. A stream of US evangelical pastors and adherents declared in interviews that their support of Donald Trump was rooted in his anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage agenda. They were afraid that a Hilary Clinton presidency would appoint more pro-LGBT Supreme Court justices, who would deepen the implementation of the anti-Christian anti-traditional family LBGT agenda.
The extent to which the Trump electoral victory is due to a backlash against advances in the gay revolution is yet to be fully explored.
Please do not misunderstand me: I am not a Trump supporter. I expect to be unhappy with the Trump presidency; he is likely to be even more anti-environment than the pro-Goat Islands people. But social scientists must seek to understand the social and political phenomena around them.
- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and environmentalist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.