To say that post mortems/analyses of the recent US election are thick on the ground is like saying that throwing a penny at the moon is unlikely to move it — a bit of an understatement. But that’s not going to stop me from wading in as well.
Like many, I have lots of thoughts on the whole thing, many of which are contradictory. I’m not nearly as surprised as some, nor particularly peeved at FiveThirtyEight.com (which I’ve read religiously the past months, and which predicted a Clinton win — but only at odds that gave her a 2 out of 3 or so chance of winning; in other words, a highly plausible forecast that still seems plausible from here!). But I am surprised. And while I felt like I could make some sense of the results, and support for Trump to a certain extent (e.g. “Why the impulse to vote for “That dude/tte I can have a beer with” makes sense: a progressive perspective“), there was some element of it I still couldn’t get. Why, no matter how “un-PC” he was, was Trump seen as a dogged, consistent truth-teller when his points were obviously improv’ed to calculatingly give himself whatever advantage? Why were his every vacillation allowed for, even while others were hammered for straying from their past stances and promises? Why was his obvious mendacity for his own ends not seen as reason to doubt that he was out “for the little guy”? And how could his sales pitch of bringing help to Whites feeling downtrodden work when they were also seemingly deeply skeptical of elites, when not only is he an elite, but his mantra is obviously “screw ’em if it suits me”?
Part of all of this, to be sure, is the difference in perception, media consumption, background, values, and attention between me and many of his supporters. But something more fundamental and, with regards to specific political issues, inchoate may be going on, something that comes out in this Guardian article, among many other pieces. That is simply this:
Humans have a deep-seated tendency and drive to punish breaches of community contracts, and are often willing to pay rather steep costs just to punish those they see as having transgressed and in danger of getting away with it.
In other words, we deeply want the “bad guys” to get it in the end.
Grandson: Who kills Prince Humperdinck? At the end. Somebody’s got to do it. Is it Inigo, who?
Grandfather: Nobody. Nobody kills him. He lives.
Grandson: You mean he wins? Jesus, Grandpa, what did you read me this thing for?
The Princess Bride (1987)
While many on the Left might immediately associate Trump with Humperdinck, before his run brought all the attention his way (which is obviously his favorite thing ever and always), many on the Left and Right could continue to agree that Much Was Broken in Washington, D.C., if not U.S. democracy more broadly. Trump, who is the most hated major party candidate (and now President-elect) in the history of modern polling, managed to beat out Hillary Clinton, who is the second-most hated major party candidate in the history of modern polling. While I do believe some portion of the hate for her is misogyny, there is also much to detest within her own record (though I personally rated the verdammt emails pretty far down on that list, waaaaay after, say, her partial responsibility for the assassination of Honduran activists as a result of US support the Honduran coup during her tenure at State).
Without getting further into the details: beyond Sanders and Trump, there was plenty of evidence that many, many people are fed up with the political system as is, with business as usual, with the paralysis in many elements in our national government (leaving aside the source of this), with the perception (and reality) of corruption, special interests, rampant lobbying and cronyism, and lack of direct accountability.
Something like a quarter of his own voters reportedly viewed Trump as unqualified and of questionable temperament, and 17% of his voters said they were concerned or scared at the prospect of him as President. Further,
“The majority of voters had unfavorable impressions of both. Twelve percent of Clinton voters and 20 percent of Trump voters had an unfavorable opinion of the candidate for whom they opted. So despite their misgivings about the candidates, something still compelled them to support one of them.
Both candidates were seen as not being honest or trustworthy by more than 6 out of 10 voters. However, among white voters, 57 percent said Trump was not honest and trustworthy while fully 70 percent said the same of Clinton. Almost 3 in 10 white voters said neither candidate was honest and trustworthy. Among this group, Trump won 52 percent to Clinton’s 32 percent.”
Trump, in other words, won decisively among white voters who thought both choices were dubious.
Prominent institutional economists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis wrote, nearly two decades ago, that
It is little surprise that people are more generous than economics textbooks allow; more remarkable is that they are equally unselfish in seeking to punish, often at great cost to themselves, those who have done harm to them and others…
…[people] are willing to incur a cost to punish those whom they perceive to have treated them, or a group to which they belong, badly. In everyday life, we see people consumed with the desire for revenge against those who have harmed them or their families, even where no material gain can be expected…
…the self-serving behavior of [a] minority… when it goes unpunished, unravels initial generosity and cooperation
The perceptions that some groups–minorities, immigrants, wealthy elites, and political power-brokers and politicians–have been the beneficiaries of self-serving policies and identity politics is powerful, persistent, and hard to counter, especially with the profound social distance (lack of contact with differing sociocultural communities) often observed in the U.S. Without direct, and perhaps sustained, social contact, it is hard to convince someone who thinks they’re being fleeced for others’ benefit that the “others” have not gotten undeserved consideration.
So while a lot is going on, and we’re still learning and understanding a lot of it, it seems to me that the narrative of “I’m going to punish Washington/politicians/undeserving Others” is an important part of it, and the lack of understanding on the part of some doesn’t just stem from being out of touch, but from the fact that human psychology tends towards over-active punishment impulses; impulses that may go beyond what is proportionate; are exacerbated by the sense someone “continues to get away with it”; are difficult to modify with evidence; are increased when leveled against an abstract “Them”; and may be undertaken even when risking costs outweighing benefits. In such a context, the apoplexy and disbelief of The Establishment on “both sides” is a feature, not a bug; and the fact that “their candidate” (Trump) may not even be dependable to bring benefits poses little obstacle if a big part of the point, alongside “shaking things up,” is to punish those who are perceived to have benefitted from resisting all attempted shake-ups before.