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Racism, Xenophobia, and Trump’s Win

A political scientist offers some preliminary thoughts on why the election results surprised pretty much everyone.
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In attempting to process the shocking — and, to many people, disturbing — results of Tuesday’s election, Melissa Michelson, professor of political science at Menlo College, recalled the famous “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline in the Chicago Tribune, which prematurely called the winner of the 1948 race.

“They didn’t have good polling then,” she says, “and we really don’t have good polling now.”

Michelson was as surprised as anyone by the results. But she offered some preliminary thoughts about the outcome and its ramifications as she bicycled her way to class on Wednesday morning.


What happened last night? What does it tell us that states thought of as sure bets for Hillary Clinton, such as Pennsylvania, in the end went narrowly for Donald Trump?

I suspect it’s a combination of things. There is economic anxiety in these areas, which are linked to fears of immigrants — of “losing their country.” They don’t recognize their country anymore. There are more and more immigrants, more and more people of color, and it’s making people feel uncomfortable. So it’s economic anxiety mixed with racism and xenophobia.

The country is really divided along racial lines, which is really sad. Maybe America is not ready for a woman president. Maybe eight years of a black president, followed by the prospect of a woman president, was too much, too fast, for America. But we need to really dig down into the exit poll data to find out what America was telling us.

But racial resentment can’t be the sole explanation.

There are also people who voted for Trump just because he was the Republican. They may not be particularly racist or sexist, but they strongly identify as Republican. If that’s the guy the party picks, that’s who they’re going to vote for. There are also single-issue pro-life voters, who want to make sure the president choosing the next Supreme Court justice is going to be pro-life.

How did all the experts miss this?

All the polls, and most of the models, told us that Trump would lose. I live in a bubble in Silicon Valley. Everyone I know voted for Clinton. We’re not out in rural Pennsylvania feeling the real pulse of the country. So we trusted the data. Nate Silver told us it was going to be OK! Every single pollster told us Clinton was going to win. Well, the polls were wrong. We need better data.

Greg Sargent in the Washington Post this morning said the results are evidence we are in “a cultural civil war.” Is that fair, or overstated?

It’s a cultural civil war in the sense that white rural America is freaking out about the demographic changes the country is experiencing. The people who turned out most enthusiastically for Trump lived in white, rural, mostly Christian America. They feel what’s happening and they’re kind of freaking out. I don’t know if it’s as much a culture war as it is a fear [of demographic change]. Trump promised to keep them safe.

But most of what he promised them is not going to happen.

Not to the degree he said it would, but some of it is going to happen. I don’t think we’re getting a wall [on the Mexican border], but he can do something about deporting people who work here who are undocumented. The executive orders for undocumented immigrants that Barack Obama issued [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans] will be repealed. The degree to which Immigration and Customs Enforcement works on internal enforcement, vs. border enforcement, is pretty much at the discretion of the executive branch. So is the vetting of refugees.

How easy, or difficult, will it be for the Republican establishment to reconcile its ideas with those of Trump?

It depends on which Republican establishment ideas we’re talking about. The Growth and Opportunity Project in 2012 laid out two possible paths for the party: reform — making the party more inclusive — or retrenchment, which meant doubling down on white America, and increasing turnout among those voters. Trump went with the retrenchment path, and it worked. The party won all three elected branches! So they’re probably going to go with retrenchment for a while.

What about the policy differences between Congressional Republicans and President Trump? Who sets the agenda?

I think Trump gets to decide. The victory is credited to Trump. His voters allowed Republicans to retain control of the Senate and minimize their losses in the House. So I think they’re going to follow his lead. His strategy won, and if that’s what keeps them winning, they’re going to keep following it.

If he has a compliant Congress, what will he prioritize? His policy proposals were awfully vague.

I have no idea. He did not run on a very clear platform. His priority seems to be undoing what Obama did — tearing up trade agreements, tearing up Obamacare. Last night he did talk about infrastructure projects, but I don’t know if he was elected on that.

What happens to the Democratic party at this point? Do you see an internal battle as leaders argue about why they lost?

Democrats will do what they can to stop Trump from imposing policies they see as hostile to the communities they represent. They will try to come up with a candidate in four years who will be seen in a more positive light. Maybe the party establishment will learn its lesson in terms of not engaging in behind-the-scenes shenanigans to make sure their preferred candidate gets the nomination.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.