There was a wide expectation that supporters of Donald Trump would protest by taking to the streets if he lost, thus violating the fundamental norm of electoral politics, the readiness to accept election results. However, he won, and Hillary Clinton supporters have taken to the streets. This has happened despite two important markers which should have prevented this, the concession by Clinton in a phoncecall to Trump which preceded his victory speech, and then the invitation by President Barack Obama to the Oval Office to discuss the transition.
It should therefore be clear that the street protests against Trump’s election did not reflect the opinion of the losing side’s establishment, but that of the ordinary voter. That voter had Trump demonised to the extent by the Clinton campaign that even when Trump won, it was not willing to concede him the Presidency.
That threw into doubt one of the basic assumptions underlying elections: that the entire electorate will accept the result, even the losers. Here, it seems that there is a more-loyal-than-the-king phenomenon at work: the person who actually lost, the candidate, has accepted the loss, even though this was personally devastating (and Ms Clinton’s personal cost includes having been a loyal wife to a sleazebag like Bill serving as a senator and a Cabinet member, and a previous presidential run that ended at the primary stage); the supporters have not. This reflects how Trump is seen as a divisive figure. Those who are protesting against his election claim to be speaking for the many groups he has excluded: non-white racial minorities (blacks and Latinos), a non-Christian minority (Muslims), women.
Democracy is about inclusion, not exclusion. Candidates are supposed to give reasons to vote for them. In this election, the main selling point for a candidate was that he (or she) was not the other. Anybody is supposed to be able to contest, and if unreasonable, to be voted down. Trump garnered votes by appealing to the unreasonable nature of his supporters. There was a political correctness which he challenged, even as he claimed to obey it. Racism and misogyny are two phenomena which he fed upon; which may be why the revelations that he was a sexual predator did not turn off voters enough for him to lose. It helped him that the alternative to him was someone who could be shown as unable to handle high office, and a crook that he promised to prosecute. Trump’s characterisation of Clinton as a crook who deserved prosecution may have gained him votes, but also riled her supporters to the point of protest.
It is worth noting that the protests started in California, which was also the site of the first attacks on Muslim women. California is the state with the most electoral votes, and thus also was the place where Hillary Clinton managed her popular vote win, because even though she won about 200,000 more votes than Trump, she still won fewer electoral votes than him. It should be noted that Trump became the second consecutive Republican President to lose the popular vote, but win in the Electoral College. It sees that this is the only way the Republicans can overcome the Democrat majorities in New York and California. In this way, it can be seen that Republican Presidents must appeal to the insular, inward-looking, conservative, fundamentalist USA that feeds the ‘bicoastal consensus’ formed by New York and California, but is not part of it.
There has been some talk of a California secessionist movement. While such talk is premature, its occurrence revives a discussion that takes place off and on. After all, if it was to hive off from the USA, it would form the world’s 10th largest economy, and is the home of both Hollywood and Silicon Valley, both symbols of American world dominance. It has never voted Republican in a presidential election since Ronald Reagan, who was a favourite son by virtue of having been a former governor. Therefore, it cannot have a chief executive of its choice unless the rest of the country also chooses similarly. Of course, if it leaves the Union, it can always have a chief executive of its choice.
However, leaving the Union is not an option. Unlike the USSR, the USA does not have a constitution which allows the constituents to secede. Indeed, the US government takes a dim view of secession, as it showed in 1861, when the Civil War took place to keep the South, the slave states, in the Union. It is perhaps disquieting that that secession was over a presidential election, with Abe Lincoln’s win a signal. It is perhaps a paradox that states’ rights was a hot topic then, but the advocate of states’ rights, Trump, is the winner against whom they are being invoked. The anti-Trump protesters would probably be horrified by the secession suggestion, but should also realise that the possibility has been raised by their protests.
However, the happening of those protests indicates a disaffection with democracy as a whole. It has come after an election in which the lack of trust in the candidates had reached record highs. This indicated the undermining of one of the basic assumptions of democracy, that the winner of an election should be acceptable to those who opposed him (or her). This lets the person elected fulfills his role as union councillor, MNA or US President, not just for his supporters, but for the entire electorate. No matter how hard-fought an election, even the loser must be able to look upon the winner as his or her representative. That is why it is not supposed to matter whether the winner did so by a single vote or a million.
This disaffection with democracy would be unpleasant reinforcement, perhaps even confirmation, of those who suspect that Trump may well be destined either to play a significant role in the conversion of the American republic, just as the Roman Republic was converted into an Empire, or to lead a new Fascism, just as Hitler led the old. The Roman Republic, and the Weimar Republic, fell because no one believed in it any longer. The USA may well be facing such a moment. The current rash of protests would then assume the character of a premonitory protest against the destruction of the Republic rather than bee related to a particular electoral event. The refusal to accept election results by losers is something that countries like Pakistan are familiar with, but defective systems and voters without the right traditions are easier targets than in the USA, where elections have been held for centuries without doubts being entertained on either score. More than internally, the tarnishing of the USA’s image will prove harmful to democratic movements worldwide, as it is shown that electoral results need not be accepted as final. It is perhaps paradoxical that it was Trump, not Clinton, who was gearing up to protest a loss, but his earlier example lent strength to those who protest that the ‘system’ is rigged. Trump does not seem to have any problem accepting the result when he won.
In this election, the main selling point for a candidate was that he (or she) was not the other.