Yesterday morning, I had a deja vu. For the second time in five months, I woke up to a global reality that I thought would be impossible. The first time was when voters in the United Kingdom decided they wanted a Brexit and to end the country’s more than four decades of membership of the European Union. Yesterday we learned that populist Donald Trump would be the next president of the most powerful country in the world.
In both cases, I was convinced it would be a close call, but reason would ultimately prevail. Reason, of course, for me would have meant for the UK to stay in the EU and for the United States to elect Hillary Clinton. Both things have not happened.
Faced with the unthinkable some people, in particular in continental Europe, become arrogant: Those dumb Americans again, they say. Really? Not so fast! Despite all the differences the people who elected Trump are the same as those who voted for the Brexit. They are the same as those who vote for the new right-wing party AfD in Germany, for Austrian presidential candidate Norbert Hofer and Marine Le Pen in the next French presidential elections.
We witness an obviously very aggrieved group of white voters with lower socio-economic status who feel that they pay the price for globalization and technological progress and who feel threatened by immigrants (in Europe in particularly by Muslims, in the US also by Latinos) and by changing cultural norms, including things like gay marriage. Their anger turns against the political and economic elites, and it is immune from reason or arguments.
We underestimated the size and the determination of this group of voters. In particular, the pollsters were humiliated. How many times had we heard over the past couple of weeks that there was “no mathematical path to the presidency for Trump”? Well, it turns out that there was more than one and it wasn’t even particularly close. Forecasting models that rely on assumptions of past behavior fail when the underlying dynamics shift.
A US-specific problem is the arcane way to elect the president via an electoral college. Let’s not forget that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. The system allows an outcome like this, but it violates the fundamental principle of equal weight for every vote. It effectively gives voters in swing states outsized influence and renders other votes in “safe” states completely worthless.
The US will now have to find out what a President Donald Trump actually means. The mood I witnessed in New York and Boston was between somber and utterly depressed. I’m attending a conference at Tufts University and Anthony Monaco, the president, told us that they even brought in therapy dogs to comfort distressed students. In the meantime, the rest of the developed world, and in particular the Europeans, should not be complacent. If Trump can happen in the US, it can happen anywhere.