Where did it all go wrong for Hillary?

Where did it all go wrong for Hillary?
5 min read
10 Nov, 2016
Comment: Laith Saud unpicks the identity politics of a campaign that carried Trump to the White House, and another that failed to inspire a divided electorate.
Hillary Clinton makes her concession speech after being defeated by Republican president-elect Donald Trump [AFP]

Aftermath. We are living in the aftermath of what is surely the most shocking election win in modern history.

And as analysts try to figure out how Trump pulled off the upset, there are a few facts that are being overlooked.

More African-American and Latinos voted for Trump than expected. Personally, I would not be surprised if more Arab-Americans than expected, did as well. In addition, Clinton, the first female candidate, did not inspire the same kind of enthusiasm as our first African-American candidate. 

This begs the question of why Trump won over more minorities than expected. It is because the identity politics of America is not in the interests of minority Americans, a fact realised too late, if realised at all.

What the statistics say

Donald Trump won 29 percent of the Latino vote - nearly one third. He also won 8 percent of the black vote, which though not large, is certainly surprising. Among young people under 30, Clinton's support dropped from that of President Obama four years ago. It is, however, worth noting this comparison refers to the Obama campaign of 2012, not 2008, when Americans were tired of Republicans and enthusiasm for our first black president was high. 

But no, Clinton's support could not even sustain numbers from four years ago. Meanwhile, Trump's support among young people sustained numbers for Republican support from 2012. Finally, Trump won independents, 47 percent to Clinton's 42 percent. 

These failures on the part of the Clinton campaign were more than enough to doom her bid for president

One could go further, but in a country of 330 million where an election is decided by only a couple of hundred thousand votes, these failures on the part of the Clinton campaign were more than enough to doom her bid for president. 

But the question remains, why did support for Clinton drop and why did Trump do better than expected amongst minorities, especially when his rhetoric was so exclusionary at times? And also, why did so many pundits get it wrong?

The perils of linear thinking

For the record, many knew this election would be much closer than first thought, and pointed out media failures in predicting primary results. Personally, some of my writings are replete with arguments that he might very well win. 

But what was obvious was the lack of systematic thinking.  Pundits treated the process in a very linear fashion. Each time President-elect (wow) Trump made a bone-headed remark, pundits interpreted it as diminishing his support base, most likely because he managed to say something offensive to everyone. 

Each time the media assured the public that this election was over, complacency set in for Clinton supporters

But elections, societies and people do not operate in a two directional schema where movement is either up or down, rather it is systematic; all things are related.

What happened was more comprehensive and to some extent analogous to Brexit (which some commentators feared); though other factors contributed to his decisive victory. 

First, like Brexit, each time the media assured the public that this election was over, complacency set in for Clinton supporters. They simply did not come out with the same enthusiasm, thus in the same numbers as Trump supporters did. A relationship existed between media confidence in a Clinton victory and her actual defeat. 

Secondly, more unique to this election, popular culture, quite simply, made Trump voters angry. They were consistently reviled as "bigots" and "idiots". Sometimes, insulting people for the choices they make does not force them to think about such choices critically, but produces reverse psychology. 

Trump supporters simply doubled-down and committed themselves to voting

Trump supporters simply doubled-down and committed themselves to voting. I have argued elsewhere, that Trump supporters are outside the "media mental-loop," and actually revel in "disproving" the media. Clinton supporters were not similarly provoked nor did they feel similarly threatened.

Finally, there was the total inability to convince Bernie Sanders' supporters that Clinton was committed to a truly progressive economic project. Plagued by scandals, Sanders' endorsement of her never seemed exciting. 

Sanders supporters were likewise shamed by popular media - if you did not vote for Clinton, you were considered "part of the problem," or else "stupid" (see figures such as Bill Maher). Again, this approach hardly inspired Sanders supporters to go and vote, I think it actually provoked the "go f**k yourselves" response.

The dynamics of identity politics

This linear form of thinking contributed to the great malaise that was the Clinton national strategy. Trump's message was simple and powerful: Make America great again. This was a mythical throwback to a time when America was more "white" and "Christian".

Make America great again. This was a mythical throwback to a time when America was more 'white' and 'Christian'

But identity politics is actually advantageous when this is the demographic one appeals to; White-Christians have a more coherent worldview amongst themselves. They belong to the same churches, charity groups and country clubs.  They play golf together. In other words, they form a community, in possession of the ability to galvanise action.

The Clinton base, on the other hand, never possessed the same kind of homogeneity and integration among its members. This is something the Clinton camp never understood, interrogated, let alone resolved. 

Again, the thinking was linear, not systematic; since Trump was the White-Christian candidate, non-whites or non-Christians naturally should have voted for Clinton. But Clinton could never appeal to such an eclectic collection of potential supporters with the same clarity, focus and depth that figures on the right can. 

As we see in the statistics above, more minorities voted for Trump than Romney. They found his anti-establishment rhetoric more appealing than Clinton's rhetoric that she "was not Trump". As we begin to reflect on the latest turn of the political page, commentators need to keep in mind that identity politics has, more often than not, been at the service of the majority, not the minority. 

If the Democratic Party wants to represent minorities in the future, it must do so on a platform of economic equality, not cultural kumbaya.           

Laith Saud is a writer and scholar. He is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University and co-author of An Introduction to Islam for the 21st Century (Wiley-Blackwell). Follow him on Twitter: @laithsaud

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.