Wednesday, December 7, 2016

(No. 300) Trump & the Black Swan election

Donald Trump and the Black Swan Election


Alastair Rickard

I wrote my previous column ("Donald Trump: media consensus & the echo chamber", No. 299) a few days before the U.S. presidential election; this one a few weeks after.

While I did not opine (unlike most of the American and Canadian media's chattering class) that a Trump victory was impossible, I did say I thought it was "unlikely". His victory should be regarded as something of a black swan, that is something that seemed (to nearly all pundits and pollsters) impossible but turned out to be real.

I was unsympathetic to Trump in my column but sceptical about the quality of the media's coverage and commentary pre-election. I am a Canadian who, had I possessed a vote in the American election, would have cast it reluctantly for Hillary Clinton. Like many of the Americans who did vote for her I did not regard her as a superior candidate but one to be preferred to Mr. Trump.

Since the election I have read and heard more unconvincing and emotional media commentary about the Trump victory than I would have thought possible. It becomes more extensive by the day without becoming more coherent.

Much of it seems to have been written in a passion of anti-Trump exasperation, the sort which leaves no straw man standing. In terms of thoughtful analysis a great deal of the opinion is as substantial as the smile of Lewis Carroll's Cheshire cat.

There have been exceptions of course, including here in Canada. Although the Globe and Mail and the Star (both of Toronto) have been examples to rival the most ardent anti-Trump organs in the U.S. occasionally a columnist has offered perceptive pre-and-post-election comments; for example John Doyle in the Globe and Thomas Walkom in the Star.

In terms of the absence -- both pre-and post-election -- of almost any favourable comment about Trump in the Canadian media a rare exception to be noted is Conrad Black whose words have appeared in RickardsRead. In his National Post column and as a guest on the electronic media, he has been an articulate and steadfast Trump supporter.

The mainstream media's patronizing and unrelenting negative coverage of Trump and his campaign utterances (and he provided lots of ammunition) was actually a major factor in promoting voter support for him as well as helping to solidify support that already existed; this is a factor for which following the election many anti-Trump pundits now seem too modest to claim some credit.

Unlike many in the media punditry in the wake of Trump's surprising victory I won't attempt to offer an explanation of 'the factors' -- real and imagined -- that produced his victory. I will offer a few observations, in no particular order:

*** After Nov. 8 some of the liberal pro-Clinton pundits have conceded that perhaps not all of the more than 62 million Americans who voted for Donald Trump were racist, anti-semitic, misogynistic xenophobes. They may even come around to admitting that half of his supporters do not belong (as Clinton asserted during the campaign) in "a basket of deplorables".

Given the very low regard in which polls show a majority of Americans hold the news media it was that sort of elitist slant on Trump and his supporters energetically embraced by so much of the media commentariat (and echoed so consistently by American late night talk show hosts) that made a major contribution to driving up Trump support during the campaign.

*** Before the election and right up to Nov.8 anyone who followed the media punditry during the campaign will have noticed ( as part of the news media's system of mutual quotation) the repeated offering of several universally agreed upon 'political truths', ones that turned out to be as erroneous as both the polls and the punditry's understanding of American voters residing between the coastal states.. For example:

It was widely and confidently predicted that Trump would lose the election if only because the votes of Hispanics, women and the better educated would go to Hillary and thus combine to guarantee a Clinton victory. She had a lock on most of the votes of those groups. In fact Trump received 29% of the Hispanic vote, 53% of white women and 45% of college graduates. So much for political predictions tied to seriously flawed identity politics.

*** I suspect that too many Canadians look at the Nov. 8 presidential election result with some degree of smugness because Clinton won more of the popular vote than Trump ( 2+ million more but still less than 50% of votes cast) but Trump became president because he won through the U.S. electoral college system, one viewed today by many Americans  as being outdated.

It would take a constitutional amendment to remove the electoral college from presidential elections. Clinton's win of the popular vote but loss of the election is not the first time this has happened; she was the 6th presidential candidate to win the popular vote but lose the election.

In any case Canadians do not have a political platform of their own sufficiently high from which they can look down their noses at the Nov. 8 results of the American electoral system. Our 2015 election produced a 'majority' Liberal government which has since repeated ad nauseam that it received "a mandate from Canadians". That majority 'mandate' is based on having received less than 40% of the votes cast (39.5%), even less than the Conservatives' share in 2011 (39.6%).

*** I did find interesting the repeated post-election comments from President Obama, Hillary Clinton as well as from members of the American chattering class who refer in a self-congratulatory way to the "peaceful transition of power" in the U.S. after an election as being a hallmark of American democracy, as if somehow this is a special or even a peculiar virtue of the American democratic system.

In my years of following politics in Canada I do not recall ever hearing a Canadian politician even mention much less laud the peaceful hand over from one government to its successor following an election in this country. It would not be said here by politicians since it is taken for granted by the Canadian polity as an unremarkable part of British parliamentary democracy, our system in Canada since Confederation.

I may add to these observations in a future column.




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