“I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all of Americans.” – Donald Trump, President-Elect
“This is painful and it will be for a long time.” – Hillary Clinton
In the most divisive presidential election in US history, the 2016 season ended in a totally unprecedented, completely unexpected way. Very few would have predicted Donald John Trump’s victory.
I was one of them. Three months ago, I predicted that he would win, to the chagrin of many of my friends. Many well-meaning and educated friends rejected my thesis vehemently and incredulously—but it came to pass. Here’s what I shared with them privately:
An amygdala hijack effect; people voted out of anger and fear
Trump’s message tapped into the very real fears and pain points of the American public. In a way, it made people react with the flight/fight/freeze response controlled by the amygdala—the most ancient part of the brain—not the reasoning of the cerebrum. Their gut response was founded on fear, besides rationality and logic.
Emotion entered into the picture; many were angry at the government the way it was established, and Clinton represented the establishment. This was accentuated on the last week when the FBI cleared her twice of criminal charges for using her personal email account to handle State Department material; people believed she was bring treated as above the law. Clinton herself suggests that the eleventh-hour announcement that the FBI was re-opening the investigation probably turned her voters off, and cost her the election.
Many feel that lobbyists, Wall Street plutocrats and established politicians have rigged the political system, and ordinary people are angry and genuinely frustrated that they cannot pay their bills “in a quicksand of everyday affordability.”[i] Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has opined, “They want a government that runs for the people. That’s what I think this election is about.”[ii]
Professor Glen Altschuler, an American political expert at Cornell University, is right when he says:
If in 2008, President Barack Obama won a slogan of hope and change. Trump has won on a slogan of anger and change, and that anger is aimed especially at working-class white males, it involves some scapegoating of minority groups and tapping the anti-establishment anger of these voters.[iii]
Finally, non-college-educated white voters, especially in originally Democratic states like Ohio and Pennsylvania turned out in droves to vote for Trump—fearing that the ‘establishment’s’ Clinton might really win the election.
A tribal effect; people chose nationalism over globalism
Globalization has flattened our world. Every city has its malls stocked with outlets of the same big businesses—Gucci, BMW, McDonald’s, Starbucks, H&M, Uniqlo and others. As the world becomes more global, communities all over the world have become more protective of their unique identities. We see this in an increasing focus on one’s own tribe, nationality or race.
Tribalism promotes nationalism and self-preservation in communities. It provides a clear distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’, and makes people in indigenous groups more assertive in promoting and protecting their identities and rights. This global phenomenon has resulted in Brexit, nationalistic feelings across Europe in rejecting foreigners or refugees, and Trump’s rhetoric on ‘America First’.
An outlier effect; people chose an extreme message over a moderate one
While Clinton’s moderation on a number of issues made her sound weak and compromising, Trump’s more extreme ones, rightly or wrongly, made him sound stronger and more courageous. Unfortunately, today a simple extremist position beats a nuanced, moderate one.
[i] Gerald Seib. Interview with Kellyanne Conway. The Message at the Core of the Election. The Wall Street Journal. B4. Nov 22, 2016.
[ii] Gerald Seib interview with Elizabeth Warren. The Message for the Democrats. The Wall Street Journal. B5. Nov 22, 2016.
[iii] Jeremy Au Yong. Storm of factors sank Clinton’s prospects. The Straits Times. Nov 20, 2016. A3. SPH Publishing.