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Trump\'s victory and media legitimacy: Technological bite-back

Imtiaz A. Hussain | Published: December 12, 2016 21:23:40 | Updated: October 25, 2017 01:28:42


One of the salient flanks of Donald J. Trump's election campaign was the crusade against the media: newspapers, reporters, pollsters and analysts were denigrated more rabidly and indiscriminately than ever before in US presidential campaigns. Although they largely constitute what we call the "media," they were assailed for ostensibly being a part and parcel of the "establishment," and thereby accessories of the "failed policies" of the outgoing president. There is more behind this divide than meets the eye, and the division itself spans far beyond what the "establishment" embellishes.
Back-tracking slightly, the "media," here meaning newspapers, journals, and television networks, endorsed Hillary R. Clinton by a whopping margin over her opponent: in fact, some, such as The Atlantic, by breaking a pattern of electoral neutrality unless a national crisis or tipping-point is at stake. For The Atlantic, it was the third time; the other two being just before the Civil War, in 1860, and just before the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964. The first was out of "a moral aversion to slavery," the second to prevent the United States "from stumbling down the road taken by South Africa," and the third because "Trump is not a man of ideas . . . [he] is a demagogue, a xenophobe, a sexist, a know-nothing, a liar."
This set up a pattern that the Trump campaign fully utilised. By an equally whopping margin, the "media" populate the two coasts but only the major metropolitans in a sprawling middle, what is known as the U.S. heartland. More truthfully, local newspaper endorsements in Topeka, Kansas, or Boise, Idaho, for example, or anywhere else in the hinterland, get outweighed by the sheer size, reach and influence of, say, the Boston Globe, New York Times, Washington Post or the Miami Herald on the east coast, from the north to the south, or the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Examiner or the Portland Mercury on the west coast, from the south heading north. On November 07, that is, the day before voting, 57 of the top 100 US newspapers endorsed Clinton, while only two Trump (The Las Vegas Review Journal and the Florida Times Union). In fact, Trump received an even lower proportion of newspaper support than George McGovern in 1972, the previous denizen of the nadir world: 3.0 per cent as opposed to 7.0 per cent. Libertarian Party's Gary Johnson received twice as many more newspaper endorsements than Trump.
Yet, Trump's campaigners effectively neutralised the behemoth coastal and metropolitan "media" through their "establishment" association, and though several local media in the US hinterland did not endorse Trump, his campaign had blackened the regulation of the "media" at large to such an extent that grassroots voters shunned not just the press, but also the television networks, and all other mass-circulation "media." Appeals to the small-community voters with this message had enormously large consequences that even the brightest candidate on the block, Hillary Clinton (and her own campaigners) simply did not sense, let alone fit into their own victory equations.
If only the damage stopped there. Just like the "media," almost every polls also predicted a Clinton victory. They messed up not because the Trump campaign neutralised them too: they were to be their own victims too. Their methodologies may have done them in. If, for example, polls get taken over the phone, many would turn to cellular clients than land-lines. Those cellular phones are a given anywhere along the coast, in metropolitans and for mobile clients. They are not as common in the deep countryside: the proportion of coal miners, for example, utilising cellular communications would be lower (to what extent we don't precisely know), than say, metropolitan or coastal bus drivers, indicating how even the most representative polling sample might still be skewed for technological reasons. If, on top of that, the coal community had been canvassed by the Trump campaigners with an anti-establishment message, a huge swathe of quickly-transacted polls might simply miss out on a substantial voting segment or get a large number of negative replies to the Clinton candidacy. Obviously, the latter did not happen, at least not significantly, raising the ante of the former plausible explanation.
Beneath both the "media" and polls lies the socio-cultural or socio-economic divide which the Trump campaign easily converted into the socio-political trump card for victory. Coastal and metropolitan locations have more upwardly-mobile voters, not to mention universities, as opposed to the more status quo defenders and traditionalists in the hinterland: both types of voters exist in both locations, but the proportions differ, as outlined here. If we add up all the states with a coastline and all the states with a large enough metropolitan population, we will still see the hinterland, with far fewer people, still spanning more states and determining more electoral college votes proportionately. Of course, many of them have long been the Republican base, but they could trump the Democrat base mostly along the west coasts, upper east coast and the Rust Belt by relying more on the methods of yester-years than of the technologically-driven futures: word-of-mouth and values over cell phones, newspapers and television networks. It is not that they do not have cells or a newspaper subscription or a television: it is simply that these were less reliable, and exposed by the Trump campaign to be part and parcel of why they did not have a job (coal miners, auto-workers and so forth), all reduced to the "establishment" or "media" factors.
If we now shift from the Republican-base and Democrat-base states to the swing states, we again see how the hinterland trumped the metropolitan: Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have more counties outside metropolitan/coastal areas than inside. Even universities depict this divide. They cannot all be seen through the prism of being progressive just because they are the seats of higher learning: some upgrade their technologies faster than others and many of those on the fast-track lie in metropolitan/coastal areas where cash flows are thicker than in small-town or municipal locales. A university in Kansas or South Dakota is more likely to be still operating the last "Windows" software than one in Massachusetts, Illinois, or Oregon. 
In and of themselves, these subtle differences do not a headline make, but in the aggregate, as we witnessed, they wrought tectonic changes. Very broadly, rounding up all the "ifs" and "buts," a case can be made that new and progressive technologies could not deliver the goods.
What do these observations mean for the United States and democracy?
For the United States, these observations reaffirm the concept of a "two Americas" country made popular by Senator John Edwards to the 2004 Democrat Convention in Boston. No one paid any attention to the divisions he noticed, among others, and particularly the party that has stood up for the downtrodden, the Democrats, by moving towards the centre with Bill Clinton in the early 1990s, began to slowly and completely ignore this group. Stretching his wife's "deplorable" reference in the 2016 election to include anyone in the middle class or below was an exercise not even an idle voter would miss in such a bitter contest, especially given how untrustworthy a candidate Hillary proved to be to the public. With Trump's ascendancy, it is only a matter of time to see if he performs better than as a businessman and candidate, or takes the global reputation of the US reputation even lower.
For democracy, the 2016 US presidential election was a bad blow. If a contested election produces a "demagogue, xenophobe, sexist, know-nothing, and liar," even worse if democratic elections pit one such candidate against another of the same stripe, the losing equation is none other's than democracy's. For all the hype about civilisation progressing, "a brave new world," and a "new world order," we still remain only a step or two removed from the barbaric past of physical contestation. Even that could be lost, give or take a Rodrigo Duterte here and a Vladimir Putin there, but mostly a lot of Trumps and Clintons in between, that is, in countries where democracy has been practised.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.
inv198@hotmail.com

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