In the aftermath of the disaster that befell the United States on November 8th, countless theories have been bandied about as to why Hillary Clinton was unable to muster the requisite Electoral College votes.
Was it her lack of attention to the industrial Midwest?
Was it her strategic decision to focus on Donald Trump’s lack of qualifications rather than on her own agenda?
Was it her progressive policy platform that alienated large swathes of the country?
There are likely elements of truth to all of these hypotheses. But one facet that hasn’t received nearly enough attention is the simplest one: the voters got it all wrong.
For obvious reasons, blaming the voters is not usually seen as a particularly useful strategy. For one, if the losing candidate has any hope of a political future, deriding the voters is not usually a pit stop on the path to victory the next time. (Granted, this rule almost definitely doesn’t apply to Clinton, whose political career appears to be largely over.)
Secondly, assuming voters react in somewhat predictable ways to both a candidate and the basic fundamentals of the campaign (how well the economy is doing, crime rates, and so on), faulting the electorate, rather than the candidate, comes off as thin-skinned and devoid of introspection.
But in this election, if not all others, the ‘blame the voter’ message takes on added resonance. On the one hand, we had a flawed but exhaustively prepared and qualified candidate who’d spent roughly her entire adult life pursuing various forms of public service. On the other hand was a tacky real estate heir with a well-documented penchant for brazen lies and multiple bankruptcies in his past, not to mention the numerous sexual assault allegations – including his own admission caught on tape.
Indeed, notwithstanding constant noise to the contrary, Donald Trump is not a savvy liar. He’s not even a particularly decent one. He lies about statements that were recorded. He lies about statements he’d just made moments earlier on a debate stage in front of millions of live television viewers. He possesses no discernible genius other than a breathtaking shamelessness.
In other words, instead of arguing about campaign decisions at the margins – should Clinton have held rallies in Wisconsin? should she have tailored her message more to the white working class? – at some point it seems ridiculous not to zoom out a little and ask: what the hell were all those Trump voters thinking?
This is not a call to evade responsibility: all of us, from the press to the pollsters to liberal voters to activists and everyone in between, bear various degrees of responsibility for Trump’s stunning victory. But if we can be even partially blamed for not predicting the coming storm, it seems logical that the final responsibility for the ensuing destruction should rest with the storm itself.
So here’s a thought experiment: what is an acceptable number of Trump voters?
As of today, Clinton leads Trump in the popular vote by over 2.3 million votes. In fact, just over 100,000 voters combined from Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania handed the victory to Trump over Clinton.
If Clinton could have somehow captured those 100,000 voters and thus the presidency, would it be any less disturbing that more than 62 million Americans took the time to head to the voting booth and selected Trump? Even in France, a country with a relatively longer history of far-right presidential candidates, the last time such a politician made it to the general election, he failed to capture even 18% of the vote. (This year will likely be a different story.)
In other words, the point is not to ask what Clinton could have done differently to swing 100,000 swing state voters. The point is to question how we as a nation got to a stage in which such razor-thin margins could separate one of the most qualified presidential candidates in American history from the man who is by far the least.
The problem with avoiding this question – with choosing instead to focus on the minutiae of campaign decision-making – is that it lets voters off the hook entirely. It lets our culture off the hook as well. What’s to stop the presidential election of, say, 2060 from being decided via a televised bake-off? Or a juggling competition?
It sounds absurd now. But just two short years ago, the prospect of Donald Trump holding his own against Hillary Clinton in a general election would have been seen as similarly preposterous. Failing to hold our citizenry to account for its own direct role in creating a Donald Trump presidency is equivalent to ceding the future to random chance: whoever creates the most distractions, or says the most absurd things, or lies the most, wins. The rest of us will continue to be the losers.