After Trump’s win, opinion polls are meaningless

Hussein Ibish looks at why he and so many others misread the mood of the US electorate.

Republican president-elect Donald Trump gives a thumbs up to the crowd during his acceptance speech at his election night event at the New York. Mark Wilson / Getty Images
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It was an American intifada on Tuesday night. In these pages in August, I declared Donald Trump unelectable. Nothing that followed until the election really shook that conviction. I was in increasingly good company, as commentator after commentator, left and right, came to the same, ultimately erroneous, conclusion.

What did we miss? Plenty.

First, social media has clearly changed communications and political interaction so thoroughly that the existing polling models are no longer capable of real accuracy.

Second, no one, including the Trump campaign, thought he was really going to win white working-class states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania that haven’t voted Republican since the 1980s. But he did.

Third, there was a massive cultural and perceptual disconnect between the rural and ex-urban Trump coalition voters and the urban and educated Americans, both liberal and conservative, who disdained Mr Trump to the point that almost no newspapers, including the most doctrinaire Republican ones, endorsed him.

But as reporter Salena Zito has tirelessly pointed out, the educated urban elites took Mr Trump literally but they didn’t take him seriously, while his voters took him seriously but not literally. They don’t believe he is necessarily going to build a wall along the Mexican border, deport millions of immigrants, ban Muslims from entering the country, and so forth. They understood these to be generalised sentiments rather than realistic policy proposals. In many cases they may be correct.

Many factors brought the new Trump coalition together.

Some were just voting for change and saw Hillary Clinton as representing continuity as well as the establishment. Others were howling a primal scream of white working-class rage, not bothered that their reckless candidate might actually make a mess of things, because they don’t think they have anything to lose. Still others were genuinely attracted to his racist and white nationalist appeals.

White Americans in rural and exurban areas, particularly those without college education, voted overwhelmingly for Mr Trump. This includes women who did not hold his long history of sexism against him. Added to that was about one quarter of Latinos, some of whom probably thought they were voting their economic or patriotic interests, or were drawn to his authoritarian personality.

White women in surprising numbers joined this white American intifada, seeing Mr Trump variously as a champion, long shot, or nihilistic message of fury aimed at an educated, urban establishment they believe has abandoned them.

All of this was readily evident in anecdotal form, but it wasn’t measurable statistically, so the fact-based community didn’t believe it. One of the biggest casualties of the election was the very concept of objective, statistical data. At least for now, polls are meaningless.

Democrats won the popular vote, but they lost the White House and Congress. They now have no leader and have lost their old “blue firewall” of reliable Rust Belt states. But they still have their party and identity – and demographic trends favour them. They will lick their wounds, and be back, probably very powerfully, soon enough.

Perhaps the biggest losers are ideologically traditional conservatives. They now have no party, because the Republican Party has been taken over by a right-wing populist and protectionist movement that espouses none of the core principles of traditional American conservatism.

Unless Mr Trump somehow defects to their side – and why would he, having defeated them soundly – these people are truly adrift.

The country in general is bracing for a political disaster. The public outside the cities elected a real-life equivalent of Donald Duck. Most educated urbanites, left and right, understand this.

One can only hope that Mr Trump, who has been something of a chameleon in the past, will change again now he’s in office. It’s very unlikely. But if suddenly, and unexpectedly, becoming president of United States doesn’t change one, nothing would.

For many decades, Mr Trump lived as a relatively liberal Manhattan socialite, so his current white nationalist identity is in fact a persona recently adopted for a political campaign he has now won.

There is a small chance, then, that he will govern very differently from how he campaigned.

Sadly, the greater likelihood is that he will import into the White House his authoritarian and vengeful tendencies, lack of regard for the Constitution, distaste for civil liberties and bizarre opinions – perhaps the most dangerous being that climate change is a Chinese hoax to rip off America. If so, it will be up to a Republican Congress, which is fully beholden to him, and courts that have no enforcement power, to try to restrain him.

We must hope that president Trump will be very different from candidate Trump. But there is every reason to fear that the US constitutional order will soon face its toughest challenges in many decades.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute in Washington

On Twitter: @ibishblog