The 2016 U.S. Presidential Election

On October 18, 2016, CIRS hosted a Panel discussion on “The 2016 US Presidential Elections,” featuring Joshua Mitchell and Clyde Wilcox, professors in the Government Department at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, and world renowned authorities in their respective areas of expertise. Mitchell specializes in political theory and, among other topics, has written on religion and freedom in the United States. Wilcox has written extensively on interest groups, public opinion, electoral behavior, and campaign finance. The discussion was moderated by Mehran Kamrava, Director of the Center for International and Regional Studies.

Mitchell opened the debate by framing his speech around a central question: “Why did Trump so easily take the nomination?” He clarified that: “my task here…is not so much to defend Trump, but rather to explain him through the lens of the history of political thought.” Giving some background to the current political climate, Mitchell painted a picture of the United States as a nation sharply divided, stating that “there are two different Americas right now.” One America is reflected in the power and wealth of Washington, and other key urban centers, where property prices and incomes are soaring, while “the other America is an America of despair, drug addiction, suicide, low-paying jobs, and never-ending condescension toward ‘flyover’ country.”

Because of such sharp divisions between wealth and poverty, and indeed the growing rifts within US politics, a “populist uprising” in the form of an outlier candidate like Trump has been a long time coming. Examining key political moments to explain Trump’s success, he argued that during the Cold War, factions of “the Republican Party hung together not by virtue of internal coherence, but by virtue of what they were opposed to—namely, progressivism within, and the Cold War without.” After the end of the Cold War, Mitchell noted, there really was no reason for the party to be held together since their common interest was defeated, thus, “it was just a question of time before that party fell apart; if it wasn’t Trump, it was going be somebody else, sooner or later.”

In the aftermath of the Cold War, a new type of political thought was cultivated in young people who began defining their lives around issues of “globalization” and “identity,” which have become the central features of contemporary political engagement. These terms differ greatly to how politics was conceptualized in the past, revolving around notions of the sovereign state and the rational citizen, as outlined in the treaty of Westphalia in 1648 and Hobbes’ Leviathan in 1651. Today, sovereignty is no longer located in the state, but is located “above the state,” in global norms, international trade and laws, and transnational organizations, and “below the state,” in identity politics. “You have this tremendous paradox: the disembodied citizen who imagines his or her identity in relation to others, and politics as activism—not citizenship,” Mitchell explained.

Currently, the battle being waged in the US—as well as in Europe as seen in the Brexit vote—is whether the future of politics will continue along the lines of the post-1989 organizing principle of globalization and identity politics, or, whether someone with Trump’s ideals will dismantle the current political arrangement. Trump has enthralled his electorate by turning the tide on a world obsessed with globalization by offering fervent claims that borders matter, immigration policy matters, national rather than universal interests matter, entrepreneurship matters, decentralization matters, and, finally, that politically correct speech—an essential component of identity politics—does not matter. “When Trump says crass things,” for example, “the way he thinks through this problem is in terms, not of sin but, of error,” Mitchell argued. The counter reaction to Trump’s rogue behavior, with Hillary Clinton’s campaign being a chief proponent, is to utilize the old American religious tropes of “purity” and “stain.” Mitchell noted that this revival of a religious language is a deeply troubling development in which Trump and his supporters are tarnished as deplorable and irredeemable, further diving the country along political and racial lines. Especially because Hillary Clinton is white, he argued, her democratic campaign is even more driven to chastise the faults of white America, and its seeming penchant for racism.

These two sides of the divide fall along the historic conservative and left set up of US politics, which is anathema to, and leaves little sustenance for, the third alternative, which is a Liberal regime that has no interest in either of these types of divisive party politics. In conclusion, Mitchell argued that “the battle for the future is not over identity politics or the state. I think identity politics and globalization have lost. The question now before us is whether we are going to have a liberal state or an illiberal state.” As a final thought, Mitchell noted that, along with the current political impasse, there is yet another tremendous danger being instigated by the media who refuse to accept Trump—the officially nominated Republican Party candidate—as legitimate, thus fueling a growing crisis of authority.

Clyde Wilcox offered a different narrative to Mitchell’s historical political analysis by focusing on the current electoral contest and the likely outcome. Despite Trump’s many political liabilities, he remains close in many polls. The key question that needs to be answered, therefore, is “how can it be that a man who is catastrophically unprepared, and who is not trying, is still somewhat close” in the polls? Wilcox argued that the narrow gap in the poles is worrisome, because “Donald Trump is, let’s be honest, catastrophically unprepared to be president. He lacks the knowledge to be president, he lacks the curiosity to attain the knowledge…he is making no effort to appeal to the voters he would need to win, which include women and minorities.”

Wilcox noted that current polling and survey data are all indicating that Hillary Clinton will win the election. However, survey data have been wrong in the past, and there are reasons for why Trump might actually win. Elections have been traditionally predicted by consulting a series of abstract models that include a number of variables related to economic indicators, employment figures, and GDP rates. In this particular election, however, there is another key factor that is determined by what Wilcox termed “the 8 year itch,” where voters become disenchanted with the incumbent party and elect the alternative option in order to receive a fresh start. By this token, he argued, Republicans would normally be expected to win a close election, if the Democrats and Republicans nominated equally attractive candidates.

A key rallying cry for the Republicans has been that this is an election about the forgotten white people in impoverished small towns, “but when we look at survey data, we something slightly different: the people who support Trump are not the ones who have lost the jobs, those people are actually Hillary Clinton people. Trump’s people are actually slightly above average in income, not a whole lot, but slightly above average. The single best indicator of who supports Donald Trump right now is racial resentment,” with increasing numbers of confederate flags being raised as a symbol of this growing antagonism.

Another reason for the narrow gap in the polls is because Hillary Clinton has a number of obstacles stacked against her, including the very fact that she is one of the Clintons—a name synonymous with the political status quo for almost three decades—along with a number of scandals arising from some of her questionable acts. Despite “being the most admired woman in America when she was Secretary of State,” Clinton must also overcome the disadvantages of running as a female candidate, and the many sexist characterizations of her temperament, her decision-making skills, and her political will. “The Republicans have been bashing her consistently for the last six years,” Wilcox said. “She has the highest negatives of any presidential candidate in our history, except for one: Donald Trump.”

Although he admitted that Hillary Clinton is a much weaker candidate than the Democrats would normally have offered, Wilcox did not believe that these weaknesses necessarily translate into her being a bad president. He argued that the US is a polarized nation of partisans, with many people traditionally voting for the same party at every election. In this case, however, Trump has become such an unpredictable political liability that many staunch Republicans have publicly voiced their disappointment with the candidate, with many opting to vote for Hillary Clinton, thus further destabilizing the Republican Party.

In conclusion, Wilcox argued, while many of Trump’s supporters are outspoken and proud to vote for him, it is possible that many others who plan to vote for Trump are, in fact, too ashamed to say so publicly, thereby skewing the polling data. Donald Trump, meanwhile, has already predicted that the election is fraudulent if Clinton wins, and has encouraged his supporters to challenge Clinton supporters in the event that he loses the election. If Hillary Clinton does indeed win, Wilcox argued, it is very likely that the Republications will be holding hearings on impeachment within the year.  Either way, he concluded, “I come away with a rather pessimistic view of the future of American politics; it has been the ugliest election in my lifetime, and I hope that on their deathbeds my children will be able to say it was the ugliest in theirs.” 


Article by Suzi Mirgani, Manager and Editor for CIRS Publications.