“How could this happen?” goes the common lament.
It’s an understandable refrain, given we’ve so consistently been told how unlikely the prospect of a Trump presidency would be.
Here, after all, is an unashamed bigot – spouting rhetoric at times casually racist and sexist, at other times vehemently so – conclusively winning the world’s biggest popularity contest.
So how could this happen?
The tone of the question to which the world’s media institutions are today giving voice suggests a hijack, a coup, a revolution.
But, putting aside James Comey’s 11th hour intervention (as Hans Gruber said in Die Hard, “you ask for miracles, I give you the F.B.I.”), it was none of those things.
This happened because 120 million people cast their democratic vote and, under the system of government in which they not only believe but celebrate, the candidate with the overwhelming majority of the electoral college vote won.
And let’s be clear, amidst the cries of the death of the two-party system and, more shrilly still, the republic: this wasn’t some independent candidate taking on the establishment.
Donald Trump, billionaire businessman and reality-TV star, ran as the endorsed Republican Party nominee, after a candidate selection process arguably more transparent and rigorous than any in the world.
So why should we be surprised?
And moreover, why should we be shocked?
The broad response to yesterday’s events, as harnessed by mainstream media, is akin to waking up after a major natural disaster. ‘What next?’ we ask. ‘Where do we go from here?’
Given the more strident rhetoric of the Trump campaign, and his evident predisposition to creating, both literally and figuratively, a Fortress America, these are reasonable questions to ponder.
But we should also ponder why the outcome of a democratic election in which 120 million Americans cast their vote should leave the world so shell-shocked.
There is a narrative that Trump’s victory was built on anger: the anger that he tapped into, the rage of the disaffected white lower and middle class.
But the numbers tell us something different. Indeed, they tell us the same story they have been telling us whenever broad disillusion sets in. That this was a victory not of rage, but of apathy.
Not only was Clinton’s vote down on Obama’s in 2012, but Trump’s was lower than that of Mitt Romney – who was trounced in the electoral college.
Clinton, it seemed, did not want Trump’s voters. She was happy to preach to her faithful, but she could not inspire them to vote in enough numbers.
In essence, the conversation between the liberal elite and the electorate boiled down to something like this:
LIBERAL ELITE: Wow, isn’t it great that we’re gonna have our first female president on Tuesday?
US VOTER: Um, hang on… don’t I get a say in that?
LE: Oh, sure you do! But the only alternative is a boorish bigot, a racist, sexist imbecile. You wouldn’t be dumb enough to vote for him! Just fill out your ballot paper properly and let’s start sweeping up what’s left of the glass ceiling, ok? (Pats voter on head condescendingly.)
USV: (Extends middle finger)
Obama was probably right when he said that Clinton was the most qualified person ever to become president… and therein lies the problem.
She was the epitome of the establishment candidate.
As her rival for the Democrat nomination, Bernie Sanders, said today: “Donald Trump tapped into the anger of a declining middle class that is sick and tired of establishment economics, establishment politics and the establishment media.”
Did they turn out to vote for Trump in fresh droves? No. But neither were they inspired to vote for the alternative.
And who could blame them?
The broad tone of the media coverage was that of a lofty sneer.
Trump, we were told, was a joke of a candidate who would never win the nomination.
Then when he won the nomination – with ease – we were told this would ensure a Clinton presidency… even as she struggled to convince her own party she was the best candidate.
Here in Australia, Trump’s campaign – even in the generally right-leaning News Corp stable – was routinely relayed as a series of gaffes and own-goals, under headlines akin to “You won’t believe what he’s done this time!”
Trump brilliantly painted himself as an outsider, somehow convincing residents in areas marginalised by industrial decline that he was one of them, despite the fact he was rich enough to bankroll his entire campaign.
And the media’s complicity in playing to his outsider status helped propel him to the White House.
We shouldn’t be surprised. This result has antecedents both recent and distant.
Voter disengagement from the political establishment was cited as a factor in the rise of Pauline Hanson and One Nation back in the mid-1990s, at a time when nationalist populism was on the rise throughout much of the world.
Trump, after all his campaign poison, actually delivered an acceptance speech far more gracious, humble and unifying than Malcolm Turnbull managed on election night
We saw voters in Britain embrace a path they were broadly told was foolhardy in this year’s vote to secede from Europe, a referendum that cost PM David Cameron his job.
Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn, the uber-left Labour leader who has overseen the biggest party split since the Tony Benn era, not only kept his job but was handsomely re-endorsed with a thumping grassroots majority.
Even here in SA, the result of this week’s citizens’ jury betrays a concerning disconnect between the political machine and broader public opinion.
Australia went to the polls in July on the pretext of clearing out its Senate riff-raff, only to broaden the crossbench representation and confirm the re-emergence of Hanson.
And yet the Australian media continues to treat One Nation as a somewhat ludicrous distraction.
Last week, divisive senator Malcolm Roberts called a media conference to espouse his views on climate change and why it’s basically a CSIRO conspiracy. The media covering the event didn’t even bother to disguise their disdain.
Around the same time, his colleague Rod Culleton was facing heat about the viability of his election, given his conviction for stealing a tow-truck key.
Culleton had helpfully fronted up to media to answer some questions, which he did with a certain unvarnished charm. This was, again, reported with a distinct air of ‘let’s all have a laugh at the redneck buffoon’.
One media outlet even published a ‘listicle’ entitled: “Decoding 15 quotes from One Nation senator Rod Culleton’s hilarious press conference”.
Sure, some of the quotes were pretty funny, but 15 seemed a stretch. The article even made fun of him for trying to wrap things up before acquiescing to answer several more questions – something major party politicians do routinely.
The tenor of this coverage eerily echoes that of the Trump campaign.
One pre-election viral video that found its way onto my social media timeline mocked the now-president-elect’s vocabulary, pillorying him for inventing words such as “bigly” and “braggadocious”. Only trouble is, the latter is actually a word, and one whose origin (according to one dictionary) probably goes back to a character in Spenser’s Faerie Queene, published in 1590.
But herein lies the point. There is a liberal impulse to sneer at political extremists, at the expense of proper analysis.
If the country’s media appears stunned today at the events of the past 24 hours, it is because the country’s media tends to operate in a vacuum whereby its outlook reflects its own agenda.
Reporters write for an audience of their peers, an audience that already sees the world through the same prism.
And I’m not exonerating myself here either.
On my extensive Twitter feed yesterday, I barely saw a single post celebrating Trump’s victory. Now, I haven’t made a point of following just left-wingers: if anything, I use the medium as a sort of news feed. But yesterday, the tone was universal: this was a disaster.
There was no jubilation: even most conservatives could muster little more than a tone of sardonic consolation at the left’s malaise.
Isn’t this odd after the biggest event in western democracy?
It was the same on my Facebook feed, where people were variously relaying their tearful disbelief or sharing David Remnick’s breathless lament at An American Tragedy.
And meanwhile Liberal MP Luke Howarth was calling on Bill Shorten to resign – ironically, for doing exactly what Donald Trump did throughout his campaign and speaking with blunt directness – while conveniently forgetting all of those in his own party who warned against a Trump victory.
Then there was the awkward fact that Trump, after all his campaign poison, actually delivered an acceptance speech far more gracious, humble and unifying than Malcolm Turnbull managed on election night.
It may not have been a masterpiece of dignified political oratory, but by God, after the campaign that preceded it, it sure felt like it.
Trump’s election has certainly sent the world hurtling into the unknown, but perhaps it is a chance for the world’s media to reassess its standing.
The fact is, we are all part of the establishment.
If there was a time that people viewed the media as an arbiter of dissent and accountability, that time has passed.
People don’t like being told what to think.
And they certainly don’t like being talked down to, and labeled as “deplorables”, nor “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic” – or indeed un-American.
Clinton’s rhetoric found its echo in much of the media, which almost universally endorsed her as the only possible choice.
The public begged to differ.
There is a tendency to see this election as part of the Great Disruption that is shaking up the establishment, with Trump as the ultimate disrupter.
But it was also a fairly conventional election: an almost 50-50 split along traditional party lines, with more Republicans voting in the right places than Democrats.
And perhaps that is why, in the end, a man who only weeks ago was universally denounced and politically doomed for his braggadocious boast that he could “grab ’em by the p***y” is now the next president of the United States.
“When you’re a star, they let you do it,” he said in the leaked 2005 video.
“You can do anything.”
How could this happen? Perhaps it was always going to.
But we let him do it.
Tom Richardson is a senior reporter at InDaily.
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