Last week, at the launch of my new novel, Pendulum, I was asked who I thought would win the US Presidential Election, and people seem surprised and dismayed when I said that I believed Donald Trump would edge it. Looking at the polling data it seemed obvious that most pollsters had overstated support for Hillary Clinton.
President-Elect Donald Trump
Photo by Michael Vadon via Wiki Commons
Rather than present raw data, most polling companies apply a methodology before publishing their results. That skews the polls in favour of a particular candidate, and in the case of almost all 2016 polls, the methodologies assumed that Hillary Clinton would be able to mobilise the Democrat vote more effectively than President Obama did in 2008. The size of her rallies suggested otherwise.
Pendulum is a crime thriller set in the digital underworld, and in order to give it an authentic feel I've spent years researching the rise of social media. I follow left wing organisers and leading figures in the alt-right movement, and it's been clear for a while that there have been entire conversations and micro-campaigns that have reached millions of voters which haven't even had a minute of mainstream media airtime. But during the televised debates Donald Trump was reaching out to voters who were part of those alternative conversations. He was talking in a way that might not have made any sense to those who rely on the mainstream media for their news, but it made perfect sense to the millions who'd been part of those alternative conversations.
I'm no fan of Donald Trump and I think it's sad that these were the two best candidates the Republicans and Democrats had to offer. However, personal feelings aside, looking at the conversations taking place on social media and the stories that have dominated the alternative news, there seem to be a number of underlying reasons for a Trump victory.
People are still angry about the huge bailouts that happened after the 2008 financial crash. Bailouts that are still happening in the form of quantitative easing and artificially depressed interest rates. Government intervention has led to a massive transfer of wealth from the average taxpayer to the very richest banks and individuals in society. Barack Obama was elected on a change mandate, but immediately appointed most of the same old faces to positions of power, and one of the biggest alternative conversations has been about the Wikileak Citibank email that suggests Wall Street had a hand in shaping the first Obama cabinet. It's one thing to endure hardship to finance a bailout, quite another to see your money go to support what seems to be a rotten system. Trump has successfully reached out to the disaffected with his promise to end the cosy relationship between Washington and Wall Street.
Another important alternative conversation has been on immigration, and away from the mainstream media, it's been interesting to note that Trump has been polling the same support from minority communities as Mitt Romney in 2012. There was no massive swing away from Trump, and there seem to be two reasons for that. The first is that anyone who lives in the southern states of America knows that Trump's proposed wall is an extension of what already exists. A fence covers more than 30% of the US/Mexico border and President Obama's administration has already approved its extension and fortification. As radical as Trump's wall seems to the rest of the world, he's simply proposing to finish a job that's already been started.
The second reason people haven't rejected Trump on this issue is that they are aware that immigration needs to be managed. Turning a blind eye to illegal immigration creates a disenfranchised underclass that can be exploited and left without access to essentials such as housing, education and medical care. Most developed nations need substantial immigration in order to offset their aging populations, but left unmanaged, illegal immigration can harm those who have least, driving down wages at the lowest end of the job market. Trump's approach seems regressive and harsh, but people responded to the fact that he had a plan that didn't involve turning a blind eye to a broken system.
Trump also appealed to those who have a problem with globalisation, with the idea that large corporations have taken control of government and have unprecedented power over our lives. The Podesta Emails released by Wikileaks have only served to reinforce the sense that money can buy political access and that there is a cosy relationship between lobbyists, big money and politicians. On social media, voters have responded to Trump's plan to reform campaign finance and bring these cosy relationships to an end.
Trump's reprehensible comments about women, and his borderline misogyny hurt him far less than one might have expected. The alternative conversation pointed out that Hillary Clinton doesn't have a great track record on women's issues. Articles and videos circulated reminding people that the Clinton Foundation has accepted tens of millions of dollars from regimes that discriminate against and victimise women, and that Clinton's political campaign has received significant funding from Saudi Arabia, a country that has a less than stellar approach to equal rights. Videos also circulated undermining Clinton's claim to be a progressive, reminding people that she only ended her opposition to gay marriage in 2013.
Photo by Gage Skidmore via Wiki Commons
Foreign policy was another important issue and one of the key alternative conversations was about the email released by Wikileaks, which was purportedly sent by Hillary Clinton to John Podesta in 2014, in which she said that the governments of Saudi Arabia and Qatar fund ISIS. Conversations on social media centred on the cynicism displayed by the fact that the Clinton Foundation is happy to accept massive donations from those same governments.
There were of course issues like Benghazi, the State Department emails, the ongoing FBI probe into Clinton Foundation corruption, and dozens of other micro-campaigns and alternative conversations that swayed voters, but the important thing to note is that Trump and his supporters successfully communicated outside the confines of mainstream media, using social media and alternative news sites to reach out to people directly. The mainstream media missed many of these conversations entirely, and it has badly misjudged the outcome of this election, a failure that is going to lead more people to rely on alternative new sources, making the results of any future elections even harder to gauge.
Unless of course, you simply look at the raw poll data.