The Exit Polls

With respect to the U.S. presidential election results, most of my social circle is still at the anger and denial stages of grief. Me, I’m a historian by training, so I tend to bury myself in trying to understand how and why it happened.

It’s familiar ground for me: I have considerable background in the rise of extreme right-wing movements in mid-20th-century Europe; understanding why and how the extreme right came to power is an important area of study in my former field.

I appreciate that activists on the ground right now won’t have much patience for that sort of analysis — they’re not interested in understanding the motives of people who voted for a racist, misogynist bigot — but I think that’s a mistake. If you want to fix the problem, and, you know, prevent it from happening again, you have to understand it first.

Let’s begin with the surprising and inexplicable fact that Trump performed far better among constituencies that he had absolutely no business doing so well in.

According to the exit polls — the New York Times has a marvellous infographic here — Trump held on to 42 percent of the women’s vote, only one point down from Romney in 2012. He actually won 53 percent of the white women’s vote (white women with a college education supported Clinton 51 to 45 percent). How the hell did that happen?

It gets weirder. Trump got 29 percent of the Latino vote — that’s up eight points from Romney in 2012. (Though Latino Decisions questions that number, pointing out that a large portion of the Latino electorate voted before Election Day.) He also got 8 percent of the African American vote (up 7) and 29 percent of the Asian American vote (up 11).

If the exit polls are accurate — and I don’t know how big an if that is — then Trump held his own among women voters despite repeated allegations of sexual assault and harassment (plus, you know, the pussy-grabbing), and improved his standing with Latino voters despite the build-the-wall rhetoric and calling Mexicans rapists.

This is, on its face, insane.

And if you think that’s crazy, dig this: a substantial number of Trump’s voters didn’t think very much of him.

Trustworthiness was a wash: about equal numbers said Clinton and Trump were untrustworthy (61 and 63 percent), and of those voters, about one in five voted for them anyway. We’re used to not trusting our politicians very much. But 63 percent of respondents also said that Trump didn’t have the temperament to serve effectively as president, and one in five of those respondents — 20 percent — voted for him anyway.1

One gets the impression that the Clinton campaign strategy to portray him — quite correctly, in my view — as temperamentally unfit for the presidency didn’t work very well. Not if 12.6 percent of the entire electorate agreed with their premise, and voted for him anyway.

That 12.6 percent was roughly six times what Clinton would have needed to win. Moving one or two percentage points from the Trump column to Clinton would have flipped Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin to Clinton, and we wouldn’t be having this discussion about how she could win the popular vote by so much and still lose in the electoral college.

Many commentators point to racism, or at least the lack of discomfort in voting for a racist candidate. They’re almost certainly right. But that’s at least partially problematized by Trump’s small-but-not-insignificant minority support, plus the fact that the regions that swung to Trump this time had no trouble voting for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. Glenn Greenwald points to economic anxiety, which he describes as “inextricably linked” with racism, sexism and xenophobia:

[O]ne must confront the fact that not only was Barack Obama elected twice, but he is poised to leave office as a highly popular president: now viewed more positively than Reagan. America wasn’t any less racist and xenophobic in 2008 and 2012 than it is now. Even stalwart Democrats fond of casually branding their opponents as bigots are acknowledging that a far more complicated analysis is required to understand last night’s results. As the New York Times’s Nate Cohn put it: “Clinton suffered her biggest losses in the places where Obama was strongest among white voters. It’s not a simple racism story.” Matt Yglesias acknowledged that Obama’s high approval rating is inconsistent with depictions of the U.S. as a country “besotted with racism.”

People often talk about “racism/sexism/xenophobia” vs. “economic suffering” as if they are totally distinct dichotomies. Of course there are substantial elements of both in Trump’s voting base, but the two categories are inextricably linked: The more economic suffering people endure, the angrier and more bitter they get, the easier it is to direct their anger to scapegoats. Economic suffering often fuels ugly bigotry. It is true that many Trump voters are relatively well-off and many of the nation’s poorest voted for Clinton, but, as Michael Moore quite presciently warned, those portions of the country that have been most ravaged by free trade orgies and globalism — Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Iowa — were filled with rage and “see [Trump] as a chance to be the human Molotov cocktail that they’d like to throw into the system to blow it up.” Those are the places that were decisive in Trump’s victory.

Countering the economic argument (and in support of the racism argument), people point to exit poll data that show Clinton winning voters making less than $50,000 per year. (It’s actually pretty close above $50K — Trump never does better than 50 percent.)

But that’s not how economic anxiety works. Economic anxiety is greatest among the people who are doing better than that — a bit better, but they think they’re not doing better enough, and they’re worried that they could lose what they have. It’s not a paradox for people making a bit more money to be afraid for their economic circumstances.

And indeed, we find that among respondents who say that their family financial situation is worse today than it was four years ago (27 percent of respondents), Trump won bigly — 78 to 19 percent. Among respondents who thought that the next generation of Americans would have it worse than today (34 percent of respondents), Trump won 63 to 31 percent. If you were doing well, better off than you were four years ago, or thought things would get better in the future, you almost certainly voted for Clinton. Trump won the pessimist vote.

Small wonder then that of the 39 percent of respondents who said that the most important candidate quality was that they “can bring needed change,” 83 percent voted for Trump.

So. Economic anxiety facilitates bigotry and makes a Trump victory possible.

Some voters — just enough voters to make the difference — made the decision to accept the bigotry and vote their economic anxiety.

This is not to excuse or explain away the bigotry. But if you think the rise of the Nazis had nothing to do with economic anxiety, you don’t know your history.

John Scalzi makes the analogy of subscribing to a cable package: you really want HBO, but you also get Cinemax. Regardless of whether you really only wanted HBO, you’re still a Cinemax subscriber. In voting their economic anxiety, they also voted for racism, sexism, homophobia, and harassment.

That’s not the sort of thing that makes Clinton supporters feel very favourably toward them at the moment.

That’s understandable in the moment, but a mistake in the long run, because some of these voters — some — are voters the Democrats had before, and could get back. And they’ll need them back, if they want to regain the White House. You can’t get the racist vote. You don’t want the racist vote. But you only need a few percentage points — the gettable voters who broke for Trump in the end.

(I’m leaving aside the question of depressed voter turnout and minority voter suppression, mostly because it’s not something exit poll data can deal with.)

Writing in Slate, Helaine Olen argues that Clinton blew the campaign in precisely the same way her husband did not in 1992: by making the campaign about Trump’s character and not the economy — whose improved fortunes are not evenly distributed. What may have done her in was not her email server, but her private speeches and Wall Street ties.

Trump, on the other hand, was incredibly canny. He said four words that I suspect resonated with this part of the electorate — “The system is rigged” — and four more words that neutralized his billionaire status and, incredibly, suggested he empathized with them: “Believe me, I know.”

And that’s one way of explaining how we got here. How the pussy-grabber and the wall-builder managed to get support from women and minority voters. Because this campaign was more about the economy than the Clinton campaign realized, to its — and our — chagrin.

Note
  1. Forty-three percent said the same thing about Clinton; only five percent of those voted for her anyway.

Savoie Acquitted in New Brunswick Python Case

Jean-Claude Savoie, the owner of the African Rock Python that killed two young boys as they slept in August 2013, has been found not guilty of criminal negligence causing death: Canadian Press, CBC News. The verdict comes after an eight-day trial that focused on a ventilation pipe the python escaped through, and whether Savoie was negligent in not securing it, or honestly believed the snake couldn’t squeeze through it.

Oh No You Don’t. Oh No You Don’t.

Last night Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch sent out a message to her supporters that described Donald Trump’s victory against the “elites” as “an exciting message and one we need delivered in Canada as well.”

This is the same Kellie Leitch who announced the “barbaric cultural practices” hotline during the last federal election campaign. The same Kellie Leitch who wants to test immigrants and refugees for “anti-Canadian values” — whatever they are. (Love to know who determines what is and isn’t a barbaric cultural practice or an anti-Canadian value.)

It is, shall we say, of a piece.

I get what Leitch is trying to do. There are more than a dozen candidates for the Conservative party leadership, and she needs to stand out. Cosplaying Ilse Koch seems to have accomplished that goal. She’s gotten no shortage of attention, including Maclean’s cover story, and according to the Ottawa Citizen she leads the field among polled Conservative supporters.

But here’s the thing. Aping Trump’s strategy to stand out from the pack is a short-term strategy at best. The next federal election will be in 2019. If Leitch manages to win — and if the Earth has not yet been turned into a smouldering cinder by then — by 2019 we will be in the third year of the Trump presidency. At that point I expect Trump’s popularity in Canada, such as it is, to be at its utter nadir. Leitch’s faux-populist, xenophobic message will be long past its sell-by date.

I don’t intend to let things go on that long, though. This rhetoric must be opposed, forcefully and continuously. If this isn’t an anti-Canadian value or a barbaric cultural practice, then nothing is.

What Comes Next?

Last night’s election result is unquestionably bad news. Trying to get a handle on how bad, and in what ways, is next to impossible and has kept me up most of the night doing the threat assessment thing, and trying to come up with some initial thoughts that are at least semi-coherent.

There are many ways in which America is already a messed up and dangerous place. The carceral state, the civil asset forfeiture, the security theatre, the heavily armed hair-trigger police, the pervasive fear that leads so many to double down on gun ownership despite the repeated social costs — these are things that make me feel unsafe every time I visit the United States, and I’m a straight white male.

I don’t expect I’ll be able to travel to the United States again at this point. It doesn’t seem to be a safe place for foreigners right now, even straight white male foreigners.

And as a straight white male I don’t have to deal with the systemic racism and sexism that pervades every aspect of law and justice, that seems ready, even joyful, to come pouring through any breach and that affects nearly every aspect of public and private policy.

These problems continued to exist — did not cease to exist — when Obama was elected. His presence in the White House may have lulled us into thinking they were solved. Were past. But they’ve persisted for decades.

Trump is a symptom of a problem far larger, and far more pathological, something that has been festering for decades, if not the entire history of the nation.

America presents two faces to itself and the world: one is sublime, generous, inspirational, cosmopolitan; the other venal, suspicious, distrustful, parochial. The incongruity exists at once: America can swing from World War II to McCarthyism in the space of a few years, simultaneously engage in the Apollo Program and the Vietnam War — and vote for Trump after electing Obama twice.

America is a contradiction, a paradox. It contains multitudes. And no matter what your politics, it will always, always break your heart in the end.

Last night represented a complete failure of the political class — politicians, strategists and pollsters alike — and the media. Conventional wisdom and custom have been disproven at a basic level. It now remains to be seen whether more fundamental American institutions can withstand the oncoming storm. I’d like to think (I hope I’m not naïve in thinking) that U.S. institutions are robust enough to resist any turn to authoritarianism and dictatorship — that the checks and balances, and the professionalism of the civil service, the armed forces, the courts and law enforcement will be sufficient to the task. (But the same could have been said about the Prussian officer corps in the 1930s.)

It’s hard to maintain faith under circumstances such as these. I shudder to think how Trump and a Republican Congress will respond to — will use for their own purposes — the next terrorist incident.

But when I’m feeling optimistic, I think that it’s more likely for Trump to be Berlusconi than Mussolini. A narcissist with no agenda other than self-promotion is not likely to be focused or dedicated enough to do damage on his own — he simply doesn’t have the attention span. He’ll get bored with the minutiae of government quickly enough. No, the problem will be the people around him, full of passionate intensity and given a free hand so long as they pay sufficient obeisance to the boss. There will be drama aplenty as they jockey for position in the Trump White House — a situation perfectly suited to someone who lives to dominate, be in control, and be the centre of attention.

In the end drama, rather than achievement, will be the order of the day, particularly if President Trump continues to indulge in getting revenge for every slight against him. Those of us familiar with the mayoralty of Rob Ford or the governorship of Paul LePage will have some idea of what to expect. If that prevents the Trump administration from getting very much done, that’s probably a blessing, in the sense of mitigated damage. But things that need doing will get botched — there will always be another Hurricane Katrina on the horizon, another opportunity to do a heckuva job.

The impact on the rest of the world is more complicated. Does the election of Trump represents an inward turn, a return to American isolationism? I can think of a few cases where U.S. withdrawal and indifference wouldn’t be such a bad thing. But I’d rather that NATO wasn’t one of them, particularly during an Article 5 event (such as a Russian move into the Baltic states). And while I don’t think Trump is going to blow up the world, I honestly don’t want to think too much about what happens when his tendency to lash out is combined with first-strike capabilities.

Many of my American friends are terrified this morning. I don’t know what comfort I can be to them. For one thing, I’m kind of scared myself. For another, I really don’t understand the American experience. My country has different institutions and cultural and political norms — I can’t reassure someone who lives in a country that already freaks me out on several levels. The whole world seems to be on a rightward, authoritarian, xenophobic turn: central Europe’s done so, Erdoğan’s shown his colours, Britain’s gone brexit, and Le Pen just might win the next French election. And now Trump. I’m not entirely sure how Canada has dodged that particular bullet. I hope no one else notices that we have.

In the end, though, I honestly don’t know what comes next. Whatever happens, let’s do our best to survive it. That’s our first order of business.

Invisible Planets

invisible-planetsIn addition to writing some of the most critically acclaimed stories of the past few years (and I hear his novels are pretty good, too), Ken Liu has also been translating Chinese science fiction into English. His most visible work has been the translation of the first and third volumes of Liu Cixin’s Three-Body trilogy, but he’s also been translating short stories — more than forty of them so far, according to his bibliography — that have been appearing in the online and print magazines. One of those translations, Hao Jingfang’s “Folding Beijing,” won the Hugo Award for best novelette this year.

Thirteen of Ken’s1 translations, including Hao’s “Folding Beijing” and two stories by Liu Cixin, have now been gathered in Invisible Planets, out this week from Tor (in the U.S.) and Head of Zeus (in the U.K.). It’s a first-rate anthology for a couple of reasons. For one, Ken himself is an elegant writer, and his translations are no less elegant. For another, the process to arrive at these thirteen stories — Ken translating his favourite Chinese-language stories, then picking his favourites of those translations — makes for a selection process akin to a year’s-best or best-of anthology. In other words, we’re getting the cream of the cream of the crop.

At the same time, this is not necessarily a representative anthology — something that Ken warns against in his opening essay:

Any broad literary classification tied to a culture — especially a culture as in flux and contested as contemporary China’s — encompasses all the complexities and contradictions in that culture. Attempts to provide neat answers will only result in broad generalizations that are of little value, or stereotypes that reaffirm existing prejudices.

This is a collection of contemporary stories by up-and-coming writers (with the exception of Liu Cixin, already seen as the dean of Chinese sf). There is no attempt at comprehensiveness or canonicity, though the included essays from Ken and three of the Chinese writers do provide some of the history of Chinese sf. Invisible Planets is in the main about where Chinese sf is going, not where it’s been; it’s an introduction, not definitive.

Ken has also done two things that anthologists tend not to do. Most anthologies don’t have more than one story per author; he’s included three each from Chen Quifan and Xia Jia, and two each from Hao Jingfang and Liu Cixin. And he’s included longer stories. Many anthologies load up their table of contents with smaller stories (more bylines, better value); Ken’s eschewed this. Not only do the stories get more room to breathe, but we also get to see more than one side of each of Ken’s seven writers.

So what can be said about these stories in particular? Ken argues that these share “a sense of imbalance” reflecting the fact that China is a society in extremely rapid transition, split between poor villages and high-tech cities. That sense is most keenly apparent in a story like “Folding Beijing,” with its critique of class, poverty and privilege, or in Chen Quifan’s “Flower of Shazui” — the poor and traditional bump up against the rich and advanced. But it echoes in stories where the cost of that transition is scrutinized, as in Chen’s poingnant “Fish of Lijiang.”

I also think that these stories are engaged — socially aware, concerned with the impact of technological, political and environmental change. The uninitiated reader who assumes that Chinese literature must necessarily exist in a modern-day Biedermeier period will be startled to read something like Ma Boyong’s story, “The City of Silence,” a parable of censorship and repression that reads like Fahrenheit 451 for the digital age.

There is a recurring theme of loss and endings: we see it in stories that focus on old age and the end of life, even the end of human civilization (Xia Jia’s “Night Journey of the Dragon-house”) or existence (Chen Jingbo’s “Grave of the Fireflies“). Care for the elderly is a recurring topic, both literally — Xia’s “Tongtong’s Summer” explores telepresence — and allegorically: Liu Cixin’s “Taking Care of God” looks at the elder care requirements of the dying race that created humanity.

If these stories say anthing about Chinese sf, it’s that it’s a whole, complete, living breathing thing, capable of both pocket-protector crunchiness (Liu Cixin recasts a scene from The Three-Body Problem — using armies as calculators — as a historical tale) and real poignancy. There’s a there there — and it’s worth paying attention to.

I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley.

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Note
  1. To avoid confusion between Ken Liu and Liu Cixin, I’m calling Ken by his first name.