Trumpocalypse: it's not what you think

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  • Picture of Abi Stephenson
    Abi Stephenson
    Senior Events and Animations Producer (Sabbatical)
  • Global
  • Leadership

I’m no expert political analyst, but the mood seems to have turned decidedly against experts recently. Michael Gove raised the spectre of this ‘anti-expert’ sentiment pre-Brexit, and no matter how passionately we disagree with the content of the feeling (or Gove in particular); the phenomenon looks undeniable and increasingly powerful.

If there is one thing these protest voters (because I’m convinced this ‘anti’ feeling is stronger than its counterpart – policy-free Trump won on a platform of not-being everything else rather than being something) emphatically do not want, it is politics as usual – no matter what the alternative looks like. The twinned Brexit-Trumpocalypses have seen us embrace a suicidal jump into an unknown that somehow holds more promise than the security and inevitability of the status quo. But why are we rushing off our cliffs so eagerly?

Pollsters, pundits, academics, wonks and the media in their vast experience and insight have failed to predict the mood of two nations – twice. The oracles in their ivory towers and glass-walled consultancies missed the financial crash too, and the voter hasn’t forgotten it. No amount of rational persuasion that the expert still has a significant offer regarding knowledge and experience is holding water – people are fed up. The rebellion against the expertise and ‘elitism’ of the metropolitan progressive class couldn’t have more momentum, and yet here we are again, calling for insights from our own echo chamber.

I, along with most of the RSA’s wider circle, responded to the result with understandable anxiety, disappointment and outright fear. I read the opinion pieces and commentary about sexism, racism, inequality, globalisation and de-industrialisation, and cried foul into the collective bubble like everyone else.

But as the demographic break-downs trickled through, it became clear that our strident cries of ‘Sexism is more deeply-rooted than we thought’ and ‘anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise’ and ‘the majority view is a racist one’ have missed a more salient truth in exactly the way we missed it the first time.

It’s not (just) sexism, or racism, or ignorance. Those hatreds and prejudices are undoubtedly captured in the vote, but they are not its entire character. Trump is undeniably a racist, sexist, predatory demagogue – but I think it would be a mistake to assume all his supporters are.

 There is also a huge, untapped, unexplored kamikaze scream of ‘ANYTHING BUT THIS’

Because it’s not what you think: 

It’s not (just) men who hate women: 45% of white, college-educated women voted Trump

It’s not the uneducated: Trump votes matched Clinton votes amongst those with college degrees

It’s not the disenfranchised working classes: Bottom-income earners predominantly voted Clinton

It’s not (just) racism/anti-Mexican sentiment: Almost 30% of the Hispanic vote went to Trump – a large proportion considering his repulsive commentary during the election.

It’s not the super-rich: Clinton won over billionaires by as many as 20-1

It’s not conservative oldies who haven’t got with the programme: Just over half of under 35s voted Hilary – what of the other almost 50%?

So who is it?

Exit interviews suggest a lot of people voted for Trump because he ‘isn’t a politician’. Anything but them.  His incompetence, inexperience, lack of polish and unsuitability were, paradoxically, hugely in his favour. So he could fail miserably at debate after debate and still win – because success wasn’t the measure they were looking for.

Like the foul-mouthed cartoon bear Waldo in dystopian TV series Black Mirror, Trump represents what a silent majority of people are clamouring for: an anti-politics. An expletive bellowed at the establishment, no matter what the cost. And if we ignore that rage and desire for change and attribute it (solely) to bigotry and ignorance, I believe we will only see this huge societal rift widen ever further. We have to try to understand why ‘politics as usual’ is dead in the water, and what must replace it. Because very, very bad things are going to happen if we keep selecting incompetent, bigoted, violent cartoon bears as our only outlets and leaders.

But I must stress - I’m not an expert...  

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  • Nicely put, Abi.  Refreshing to see a dispassionate analysis based on data.

    I have found Nassim Taleb's take on experts to be particularly useful: he argues, essentially, that social systems are 'complex': nobody can be an expert in the same way someone might be an expert in, say, dentistry.

    • Thanks, Gregory - that's kind of you to say! 

      Excellent point re: Taleb, and important to make the distinction between different 'types' of expert. We actually had him speak a couple of years back - do check out the video if you missed it 

  • Still not quite convinced that "anything but this" is a very apt way to make political decisions. It also shows that those "college graduates," who are incidentally supposed to have more finely tuned critical thinking skills, do not necessarily have the intellectual competence to refrain from protest-voting their way to social disaster. Are we (here in France) next to elect the most ill-suited leaders this spring just because the marginally competent ones couldn't govern us (as if anyone could) ?

    Just because he 'isn't a politician' is a pretty flimsy bit of reasoning. Serve me tomato-basil spaghetti for sixty years and I would get pretty tired of it. Not quite tired of it to order a nice steaming bowl of tar, though. Doctors charge too much and never quite get around to making us immortal ? Why not get our medical care from a burger bar ? Just because something 'isn't' what we don't bother learning enough about to know whether it 'is' or 'isn't' what 'we' (sort of) don't want is courting catastrophe.

    But what would I know ... ? I'm not an expert either (thank the gods !).

    • I totally agree, Benjamin-Alexandre - it's a terrible way to make political decisions! Completely self-destructive. I so hope you will be luckier in France this spring - we can't have a Le Pen victory to trump (sorry!) it all! 

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