When Insider agreed to write a post-mortem on the US presidential election, he thought it would provide an opportunity to reflect on the many shortcomings of electoral politics in the second-largest democracy on earth, and that it would also offer some catharsis, some closure, at the end of a gruelling 18-month campaign.
So much for catharsis.
Not that there's any good amount, but it's definitely the case that too much of Insider's week has been taken up by reports of racists and other bigots newly emboldened by the election of 'their' candidate. Indeed, many did not wait for the election results. The Anti-Defamation League, which tracks anti-Semitism, has released a report on the 2016 election that documents a "year-long rise in anti-Semitic hate targeting journalists on Twitter."
Although the ADL stops short of claiming that Trump "supported or endorsed" the harassment, its data shows that those engaging in anti-Semitic harassment of journalists largely self-identified as Trump supporters or were part of the white-supremacist networks that threw their weight behind Trump's campaign. The harassment, the ADL argues (and this will shock no one other than the trolls ), was "driven by rhetoric in the 2016 presidential campaign".
Hate crimes rise after Trump's election
Now that Trump has been elected, the Southern Poverty Law Center titled one piece simply 'White Nationalists and the Alt-Right Celebrate Trump’s Victory'. Not that 'celebrate' is the only verb to describe the response. Shaun King, a reporter with the New York Daily News, is among those who been tracking reports of violence and harassment linked to Trump's win: a Muslim teacher received a note telling her to take off her hijab and hang herself with it; a different teacher recorded by a student as he taunted Latino students that their parents would be deported; graffiti, on the 78th anniversary of Kristallnacht, no less, on shop windows, featuring swastikas and pro-Trump slogans.
Insider is familiar enough with the rural areas of the United States - those areas where Trump had his greatest margin over Clinton - to trust the many reports of violence against women, against people of colour, against visible religious minorities, though aware too that many of those reports are now coming also from 'Blue' areas where Trump voters are actually in a minority.
Many Trump voters, of course, are not actively committing hate crimes, and many take offence at the use of 'Trump voter' as synonym for 'racist'. "That's not why I voted for him"; "Of course I didn't support those things he said." There's something to those denials - and, as we will see, the media did a bad job of covering the election (and Trump ) in a way that might have engaged these voters as they were mulling over their choices.
But with Steve Bannon - a man once described (approvingly ) by Andrew Breitbart as "the Leni Riefenstahl of the Tea Party movement", and who has been accused of white supremacism and anti-Semitism - now confirmed as President Trump's chief strategist, the window for those looking to distance themselves from 'those parts' of the Trump vision is rapidly closing.
The role of the media
As to the media's role, it is difficult to know where to start. There has long been criticism of US media in particular - though Irish media are hardly innocent - for an over-whelming focus on politics as horse-race. Opinion poll stories are cheap and easy, and are tempting filler for outlets that have an increasingly large news-hole to fill, but often decreased resources.
At the relatively benign end of things, this is how we end up with PR pseudo polls becoming breathless stories about the public believing some ridiculous thing (which provides a hook for a shameless plug for the brand sponsoring the poll ); at the more problematic, we get endless talking heads filling time until the next commercial break.
It is largely as a result of this that we saw such positive responses to Nate Silver's fivethirtyeight.com - a site that promised to provide better statistical analysis, and avoid the speculative punditry. Of course, Silver's focus on poll numbers only accentuated the focus on the 'state of the race' to the further exclusion of any possible attention to issues.
When US media deviated from obsessing over the horse-race, they too often viewed it as just another form of reality television - a form of click bait to draw in audience numbers, through hyping one outrageous hook or another. CNN, for its part, has belatedly recognised its culpability for streaming Trump rallies live and unedited - as it did regularly, especially (but not only ) early in the campaign, at a time when other candidates struggled for coverage.
The rationale for such coverage was clear, and did not relate to any high-minded definition of newsworthiness or the public interest. Rather, Trump was seen to provide a form of car-crash television, where audiences would rubber-neck to gawk at the latest outrage. In the tradition of Barnum, Trump provided a show, and CNN was only too happy to harvest the advertising revenues that came from serving up that show to audiences.
Research tells us that attention matters. Particularly in a crowded primary field, such as that faced by Trump, it is as important that people remember that you are in the ballot as having any clear sense of your policies or platform. Trump, throughout the primary season, with the active support of media outlets, took the oxygen from the room. As regards those policies, it was interesting for Insider to see so many polls showing Trump supporters held policy positions diametrically opposed to the stated positions of their preferred candidate, or that they did not believe he was trustworthy or would follow through on his promises.
Somehow, Trump had achieved an extreme form of what the American comedian Stephen Colbert had termed 'truthiness' - a belief that is held irrespective of actual facts. In Trump's case, he was viewed as having some form of authenticity - his followers imbued his campaign, and his persona, with an image as an outsider, a fighter for the little guy, a winner. Whatever evidence was provided as to his bad faith, his history of bankruptcies, his predatory sexual conduct, the truthiness of this vision persisted.
That was not, in many ways, surprising. Research shows that direct challenges of deeply held beliefs do not cause us to change our minds, but rather cause us to double down, and develop strategies for ignoring (or, better, inverting ) inconvenient facts. So, Trump's losses, used to avoid taxes for years afterwards, became evidence of his genius, of sticking it to The Man; his boasts about grabbing women "by the pussy" proved his credentials as a 'real man'; his frequent flip-flopping just did not exist.
Trump was helped, no doubt, by the ecosystem of right-wing media that has developed in the US over 30 years. Where once the media acted as 'general interest intermediaries' - places where audience members from across the political spectrum might hear from differing perspectives - increasingly they have become 'information silos' where people only interact with those with similar ideologies and similar perspectives.
This feeds a range of problematic trends - including a decrease in a willingness to entertain differing perspectives and views, as well as increased extremism among those who are not exposed to those differing perspectives.
If direct challenges did not work for Trump's opponents, Trump, with his willingness to 'go low' had a winning strategy. Again, there is research. Negative campaigning - so prevalent in US elections, with countless television ads, push-polls by telephone, and more - does not cause voters to switch allegiance from your opponent to you, and that (particularly late in the campaign ) is not the point.
Rather, negative campaigning has a depressing impact on both candidates - the one targeted and, to a lesser extent, the one placing the ad. That is why US electoral law was changed some years ago to require candidates to append a verbal statement to their TV ads noting that "I'm X, and I approve this message". By owning the statement, the candidate is tied closer to it, and will see more blowback from negative campaigning.
Of course, third-party expenditures, unleashed by Supreme Court decisions, provide no such blowback to the candidate, and other media coverage - whether it's 'surrogates' interviewed on TV, or campaign-affiliated commentators, or coverage of a letter from the director of the FBI - can also damage your opponent's turnout.
Demoralise those who might be supportive of your opponent, discourage them from going to the trouble to vote - you do not need to move them all the way into your column, as in a first-past-the-post system, a non-vote for your opponent is the same as an extra one for yourself. And so, while Clinton is likely to be two million votes ahead of Trump in the final analysis, that is down from the five million vote margin that Obama had in 2012 (and the nine and a half million vote margin he had in 2008 ). (The oddity that is the electoral college, which turns a lead of ‘only’ two million into a loss would provide a whole other column for Insider! )
The challenge for Insider's friends and colleagues engaged in political work in the United States is to reverse the disconnect engendered by Trump's campaign, as they work towards 2018 mid-term elections, and to challenge the extremist appointments and policies Trump already has underway. It will nott be easy, but Insider knows and trusts many of the organisers who will be doing this work.
The challenge now is not to dismiss the danger of the bigotries Trump has unleashed, and to continue the hard work of coalition-building and outreach.