How did Donald Trump defy all the pollsters, the pundits, and the Twitterverse “experts” and take the White House? According to the Democrats, it was all a Russian plot – Kremlin-directed Twitter “bots” spread “misinformation” and “fake news,” Russian hackers stole the DNC’s emails, and this deprived Hillary Clinton of her rightful place as President of these United States. If we listen to the Bernie Sanders wing of the party, it was all because their man Bernie failed to win the nomination due to corporate influence and the flawed election strategy of the Clinton campaign. And the Republicans tell us it was because – well, they don’t have any coherent theory, but, hey, they’ll take it regardless of why or how it happened.
What hasn’t emerged from the shock and horror of the elites, however, is a reasonably convincing explanation for the Trump victory: the storied “deplorables,” as Mrs. Clinton described them, rose up in rebellion against the coastal elites and delivered them a blow from which they are still reeling. Disdained, forgotten, and left behind, these rural not-college-educated near-the-poverty-line voters, who had traditionally voted Democratic, deserted the party – but why?
No real explanation has been forthcoming. Hillary tells us it was due, in part, to “sexism,” and the rest was a dark conspiracy by Vladimir Putin and James Comey. More objective observers attribute the switch to the relentless emphasis by the Democrats on identity politics, which seems convincing until one examines the actual statistics down to the county level in those key states – Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania – that gave the party of Trump the keys to the White House.
Francis Shen, a professor of law at the University of Minnesota, and Douglas Kriner, who teaches political science at Boston University, have done just that, and their conclusion is stunning – and vitally important to those of us who want to understand what the current relation of political forces means for the anti-interventionist movement. They write:
“With so much post-election analysis, it is surprising that no one has pointed to the possibility that inequalities in wartime sacrifice might have tipped the election. Put simply: perhaps the small slice of America that is fighting and dying for the nation’s security is tired of its political leaders ignoring this disproportionate burden. To investigate this possibility, we conducted an analysis of the 2016 Presidential election returns. In previous research, we’ve shown that communities with higher casualty rates are also communities from more rural, less wealthy, and less educated parts of the country. In both 2004 and 2006, voters in these communities became more likely to vote against politicians perceived as orchestrating the conflicts in which their friends and neighbors died.
“The data analysis presented in this working paper finds that in the 2016 election Trump spoke to this part of America. Even controlling in a statistical model for many other alternative explanations, we find that there is a significant and meaningful relationship between a community’s rate of military sacrifice and its support for Trump. Indeed, our results suggest that if three states key to Trump’s victory – Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin – had suffered even a modestly lower casualty rate, all three could have flipped from red to blue and sent Hillary Clinton to the White House.”
While the Trump campaign’s foreign policy pronouncements often veered into bombastic belligerence – “We’re going to bomb the hell out of ISIS!” – the candidate also ventured into territory previously alien to GOP presidential nominees. He denounced the Iraq war – “They lied. There were no weapons of mass destruction and they knew there were none” – and forswore the “regime change” foreign policy that produced the bloody disasters in Libya and Syria well as Iraq. His “America First” theme evoked the “isolationist” sentiment that is anathema to the Washington elites – and is the default position of the average American. And yet he did not take the reflexively anti-military position so beloved by peaceniks of the left: he praised our veterans at every opportunity and railed against their neglect by a government that used and abused them.
In an election that gave Trump a razor-thin victory in three key states, this is what gave him the margin of victory.
The Shen-Kriner analysis takes us deep into the weeds, with a county-by-county survey of voter patterns that correlates casualty rates with election results, comparing the interventionist Mitt Romney’s results with Trump’s. This Romney-Trump dichotomy is vitally important in understanding what happened in the 2016 presidential election. As Shen and Kriner point out, while the casualty rate in most areas of the country is low, certain sections – rural, relatively poorer, in the heartland – bear the brunt, and these voters had been abandoning the GOP (or never even considered them) in recent years:
“[M]ore than a quarter of counties had experienced a casualty rate more than 3.5 times greater, and 10% of counties had suffered casualty rates of more than 7 deaths per 100,000 residents. Voters in such communities increasingly abandoned Republican candidates in a series of elections in the 2000s.”
Shen-Kriner go deeper than the economics-fixated analysts, who simply point to the poor rural voters who flocked to Trump’s banner, by focusing in on those areas of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania where casualty rates are higher, running a comparative analysis, and concluding that Trump’s anti-interventionist (albeit pro-military) pronouncements made the crucial difference and put him over the top:
“In each state, our analysis predicts that Trump would have lost between 1.4% and 1.6% of the vote if the state had suffered a lower casualty rate. As illustrated in Figure 2, such margins would have easily flipped all three states into the Democratic column.”
Trump won by a very narrow margin, triumphing in the Electoral College but losing the popular vote: Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania made the difference. The Shen-Kriner analysis shows that “if there had been a lower casualty rate in each state – Trump would have lost all three.”
We’re constantly told that Americans don’t care about foreign policy, and that it’s all about “bread-and-butter” issues: a full stomach is the key to victory for the political Establishment, while economic distress is the fulcrum of insurgency. This may be true in a general sense, but in this era of sharp partisan divides and close elections it isn’t enough of an explanation for why Trump won – and why he may or may not win in 2020. As Shen and Kriner put it:
“The significant inroads that Trump made among constituencies exhausted by fifteen years of war – coupled with his razor thin electoral margin (which approached negative three million votes in the national popular tally) – should make Trump even more cautious in pursuing ground wars.
“Trump, of course, has already proven in his first 100 days that conventional wisdom (and conventional political theory) may not apply to his administration. However, Trump has plainly demonstrated keen electoral instincts and may well think twice before taking actions that risk alienating an important part of his base.”
Trump has clearly not thought twice, if at all, about the course he is taking us on abroad and its relation to his future political career. Since taking office, he has bombed Syria, allied with Saudi Arabia in bombing Yemen, implied that war with North Korea is within the realm of the possible, and gone out of his way to confront Iran. The “America First’ rhetoric of the campaign has gone by the wayside, as the combative truculence of his personal style is transferred from the domestic political scene to the international stage. A prime example of this is his reaction to an alleged chemical weapons attack by the Syrian government against rebel Islamist forces – an attack that US intelligence told him never occurred. As Seymour Hersh reported in Der Spiegel:
“Trump issued the order despite having been warned by the U.S. intelligence community that it had found no evidence that the Syrians had used a chemical weapon.
“The available intelligence made clear that the Syrians had targeted a jihadist meeting site on April 4 using a Russian-supplied guided bomb equipped with conventional explosives. Details of the attack, including information on its so-called high-value targets, had been provided by the Russians days in advance to American and allied military officials in Doha, whose mission is to coordinate all US, allied, Syrian and Russian Air Force operations in the region.
“Some American military and intelligence officials were especially distressed by the president’s determination to ignore the evidence. ‘None of this makes any sense,’ one officer told colleagues upon learning of the decision to bomb. ‘We KNOW that there was no chemical attack … the Russians are furious. Claiming we have the real intel and know the truth … I guess it didn’t matter whether we elected Clinton or Trump.’”
The intelligence was clear: the idea that Bashar al-Assad had ordered a chemical attack was a “fairy tale,” as one officer put it. Yet the media and the pundits were all over this, and Ivanka Trump was telling her father that he had to do something. Trump didn’t care about the evidence:
“The intelligence made clear that a Syrian Air Force SU-24 fighter bomber had used a conventional weapon to hit its target: There had been no chemical warhead. And yet it was impossible for the experts to persuade the president of this once he had made up his mind. ‘The president saw the photographs of poisoned little girls and said it was an Assad atrocity,’ the senior adviser said. ‘It’s typical of human nature. You jump to the conclusion you want. Intelligence analysts do not argue with a president. They’re not going to tell the president, ‘if you interpret the data this way, I quit.’”
“You jump to the conclusion you want” – that’s Donald J. Trump in a nutshell. And that is his fatal flaw: a complete indifference to facts. That and the presence of several advisors who clearly want a confrontation with Iran in Syria sealed the deal: the US struck at Syria, and he even threatened to do it again when the administration claimed Assad was preparing to launch yet another chemical attack – an act of unparalleled stupidity that would likely bring the US into a war that would destroy the Syrian Ba’athist regime and end Assad’s rule.
You’ll notice that Trump keeps reiterating the night of the election: in his speeches on the stump – yes, he’s still on the stump – he lovingly recalls how the media said he didn’t have a chance, how the pollsters were dead wrong, and how he triumphed in the end. He takes us state-by-state, as the returns came in, reveling in how wrong everybody was and how he overcame seemingly impossible odds to take the prize. I think the reason for this seemingly endless reiteration is that no one was more surprised by his victory than him – and, to this day, he has no idea why he won. He’s still scratching his head, wondering how in the heck it happened: when he wakes up in the White House each morning, I’ll bet his first thought is: Where am I?
His cluelessness will prove his ultimate downfall. Surrounded by warhawks in the foreign policy realm, and reveling in the accolades his outbursts of aggression have won him in the media, he doesn’t understand the key role his anti-interventionist rhetoric played in propelling him to victory. The people around him, for the most part, have assiduously ignored – or sought to neutralize – that aspect of the 2016 campaign, and are unlikely to bring the Shen-Kriner analysis of the election to his attention. The “keen electoral instincts” those two analysts think Trump possesses are, in my view, a simplistic faith in his own charisma and a semi-mystical belief in his destiny as the savior of a country in decline. Facts, evidence, analysis, hard intelligence – none of it means a damned thing to a man who operates by instinct. And that instinct is ruled by range-of-the-moment considerations: the opinions of his daughter, the opinions of the pundits, and what he sees on television.
Personal character matters – and it is a life-and-death matter in a President. That Trump is lacking in the character department has been made all too obvious in the first months of his presidency. A commander-in-chief ruled by his “gut feelings” is a danger, in any case: in Trump’s case, it could well prove catastrophic.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that, while Trump himself is proving to be a huge disappointment to those anti-interventionists – such as myself – who took his rhetoric at face value, Trump’s supporters are a different matter entirely. That’s because they, too, took his “America First” no-regime-change pronouncements seriously, and many of them voted for him on that basis – enough, as Shen and Kriner show, to put him in the White House. As the Democratic party and its left-wing hangers-on rail against Russia and embrace a neoconservative foreign policy, Trump’s core supporters, the America Firsters, are the future of the anti-interventionist movement.
I’m currently rereading Rose Wilder Lane’s novel of pioneer life, Free Land, and a recurrent theme expressed by the hard-pressed characters is “There’s no loss without some gain.” Plagued by blizzards, swarms of locusts, horse thieves, and worse, the men and women who settled the West were a sturdy bunch, not easily discouraged by adversity. We anti-interventionists, if we are to win our battle, must emulate their example, and seek our best advantage even in the face of reversals and betrayal.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.