trump victory

Awakening Fears

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Following Mr. Trump’s victory, the Democratic Party will be soul-searching and trying to figure out how a populist, sexist and racist opponent beat their candidate.

  • Facts


    • Mr. Trump benefited from Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts in the 1980s.
    • Since the 1980s Republicans have boosted the Pentagon’s budget by trillions of dollars.
    • Mr. Trump built his election platform on reversing job losses as a result of deindustrialization and globalization.
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Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan, prototype of the American populist election campaigner. Source: Getty Images

Democratic societies know various forms of hangover on the day after an election, depending on the political persuasion of the loser. Conservative parties mercilessly drop the losing candidate after a short period of mourning and immediately seek new a leader. The liberal or left-wing hangover is more analytically sophisticated, long-winded, more painful and also usually without political consequence – for years to come.

American commentators and Democratic Party strategists, who had been banking on Hillary Clinton for a good year, are asking themselves how they fell victim to an incredible misapprehension about the majority of Americans who were leaning towards Donald Trump. Was it self-hypnosis? How could they believe that a blend of lesbians, gays, Hispanics and African Americans, college kids and urban hipsters, would decide the election?

Why did Hillary Clinton lose sight of the millions of disenfranchised in impoverished Midwestern industrial towns and cities – simply because they had been faithful party voters in the past? Her election campaign was based on cold analysis of past voter behavior. She only took her campaign to places where there was a clear chance of victory. She was preaching to the converted. The arguments in her speeches made a lot of sense – they just lacked the convincing melody. Her husband would once throw himself into the crowd; she always appeared as if she were standing behind a glass wall. No baby kissing!

And she was playing opposite a star from reality TV, a provider of mass entertainment that sweeps the audience into an alternate reality where facts count for little. No American presidential candidate in recent history has lied as much as Mr. Trump.

Once the Democrats’ initial shock has passed and the Republicans have recovered from their own surprise, the cultural, historical and sociological explanations for the victory of a racist and extraordinarily uneducated real estate tycoon will fill the pages of the United States’ remaining quality newspapers and magazines.

The political origins of the gigantic redistribution of wealth in America from the bottom upward will be noted. Ronald Reagan’s “trickle-down” economics of the 1980s provided a boost by cutting taxes for the highest earners by 30 percent. The rich and super rich vanished forever from the average citizens’ circle of vision. The fact that a duped electorate voted for a beneficiary of this policy is part of the dialectic of how Mr. Trump presented himself. After all, he knows “the system” from the inside, he says, and only he can change it.

That he used the vulgar, sexist language of a 1950s docker didn’t seem to scare off his voters. On the contrary, they probably believed it would frighten the fine society of the elites.

That he used the vulgar, sexist language of a 1950s docker didn’t seem to scare off his voters. On the contrary, they probably believed it would frighten the fine society of the elites. Mr. Trump, the imagined proletarian from the marble palace in New York. He must have appeared to the American lower class male like a revolutionary who had changed sides.

The analysis will also address the total militarization of the U.S. national budget – over $600 billion annually for the armed forces. This is the very money needed to repair dilapidated roads, schools and bridges. But why do voters always hold the Democrats responsible for that? Since the 1980s Republicans have been responsible for the gargantuan trillion-dollar boost (yes, trillions!) in the Pentagon’s budget, and the wars that go with it.

There will be laments about crime in the ghettos, urban atrophy and urban sprawl. But how Donald Trump was able, with his exaggerated horror picture of America, to win votes in rural areas where there are no such symptoms will probably remain an enigma. It is the enigma of all populists. How are they able to repeatedly awaken fears and invent scapegoats?

Job losses as a result of deindustrialization and large areas of production shifting abroad are common themes in qthe uest to understand Mr. Trump’s victory. He built his wobbly election platform on these truisms. But he must be hardly likely to believe he can reverse the effects of capitalist globalization on the job market in coal-producing U.S. states.

In reality, Donald Trump is following directly in the footsteps of those outsiders, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, who are drawn to American politics because they have firm views about this or that, but above all because – with their pseudo-conservative arguments – they can focus the anger of society and the economy’s objective losers, and direct the blame at a distant “Washington.”

The prototype of this populist election campaigner was, without a doubt, Mr. Reagan. When in 1981 the former movie star tried to stop Congress running up debts, he ended up being responsible for exactly the opposite. On trips abroad, he prepared with 20-minute-long films provided by the C.I.A.

Mr. Trump will probably prefer not to fly abroad for the time being, except perhaps to Moscow, where he expects to find a kindred spirit on matters of political leadership. And perhaps he will return with some tips on how to get re-elected without the voters realizing whom they have actually voted for.


This story first appeared in Handelsblatt’s sister publication Tagesspiegel. To contact the author:

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