A flawed system delivered Trump victory

I was in Los Angeles on the night of the US elections. What should have been a celebratory dinner with friends became a long and increasingly depressing evening as numbers started coming in from states we had counted on – Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin – and the expected surge of Hillary Clinton votes from cities such as Miami and Detroit failed to balance regional and suburban votes.

Driving back to West Hollywood that evening the streets were unnaturally quiet. The bar on Santa Monica Boulevard that had promised “high fives for Hillary” was gloomy.

What happened?

In the following week, travelling through other parts of California where Clinton was preferred by a huge majority, there was a sense of widespread depression and anxiety as people sought to understand how the pollsters and pundits had been so wrong.

In San Francisco I saw several protests, small and unsure of their objectives. The anti-Donald Trump marches were largely expressions of collective grief, with occasional flashes of anger at a system that gave the presidency to the candidate with fewer votes.

Ironically, Trump won through the system he had consistently claimed was “rigged”.

There are problems with the Electoral College, which overweights the importance of less populous states. Yet these are minor compared to the various ways in which the US has developed a localised system of managing elections that effectively disenfranchises millions of people.

Yes, Trump won the rustbelt because some who had supported Barack Obama switched to Trump – which should make us wary of branding his supporters as racist.

But Trump won in states where rules on voter registration and the provision of polling places have been systematically distorted to favour Republicans, who control most state legislatures, and through boundary changes have entrenched their hold over the House of Representatives.

Without any equivalent of the Australian Electoral Commission, and no compulsory voting, US elections are arguably no more “democratic” than those that elected Vladimir Putin – which is appropriate given his overt support for Trump.

In August, the US Supreme Court upheld a lower court decision against North Carolina, which had introduced voting laws clearly designed to limit the influence of African-Americans.

What will happen next?

Now that the Republicans control both Washington and a majority of state legislatures there will be further moves to restrict voting.

Republicans such as Ted Cruz and Mitt Romney, who were caustic in their attacks on Trump, have already vowed allegiance. Trump’s chief-of-staff, Reince Priebus, is master of the Republican Party machine.

Trump simultaneously ran against his own party but was supported overwhelmingly by Republican voters. Clinton lost her gamble that many Republicans, especially educated Republican women, would agree with most of the Republican elite that Trump was unfit to be president.

Could another Democrat have beaten Trump? Possibly, though this is unknowable.

It is unusual for a two-term president to be succeeded by someone from their own party. In the past 60 years only George H.W. Bush has won a third term for his party. In 2000 Al Gore – like Hillary Clinton – won a popular majority but lost the election after the Supreme Court prevented a recount of all ballots in Florida.

Pointing to Clinton’s failure to repeat Obama’s victories forgets the deep unpopularity of the second Bush administration and overstates the support for Obama, whose ratings have risen because of the deep unpopularity of this year’s candidates.

While some on the right in Australia take comfort from Trump’s win, American and Australian domestic politics are very different.

Trump’s election will affect Australia profoundly, not only in foreign policy and trade, but in the comfort it gives to those who oppose progressive policies in the name of fighting “political correctness”.

Most worrying is the encouragement Trump gives to those who would scapegoat migrants and refugees. The European right have hailed Trump’s victory as their own, and One Nation is already identifying with the new administration. But when Labor’s Penny Wong cautiously suggested that we might need to rethink the American alliance, government ministers lined up to denounce her.

The real test in Australia will be within the government parties. Like the Republicans, Australia’s Liberals include many who are genuinely appalled by the racism, jingoism and misogyny that groups like One Nation tap into.

The American Republicans were outmaneuvered and have almost all capitulated to the worst elements of their party. In their eagerness to work with the new administration will the Liberal Party do the same?

This article first appeared in The Conversation.

Photo: Reuters/Mike Segar

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