For months now I have been asking various friends and people close to me, who say they can’t stand Donald Trump, whether they had read anything he has written or viewed any of his speeches. I wasn’t a Trump supporter, and I am too distant from the American period in my life and work to be able to judge him properly. But my question was usually waved away. The reason for asking was that all we saw of Trump in Australia was a succession of ten-second clips from speeches, usually showing the Republican contender saying something thought to be outrageous. On numerous occasions, close to the poll itself, there was little about Hillary Clinton at all, only her opponent, and Trump as a bigot, a fool — a caricature of a contender. There were and remain serious objections to Mrs Clinton, but one saw little of them until the FBI reported that it was re-opening investigations into the e-mails found on an aide’s husband’s laptop, seized because he was under investigation for another matter. That little crisis passed, and all the opinion polls seemed to be saying that she was a shoo-in.
I was aware from my American sources that there were suggestions the other way — that, for example, Trump’s crowds were two to three times larger than Clinton’s, that those crowds were exercised about politics, not pop-stars, that opinion polling in rural areas showed strong support for Trump, and so on. An American visitor told me that he had been to a Trump speech, that Trump was a fine speaker who could energise a crowd; at that speech, he said, women seemed to outnumber men in the audience.* But how could anyone here be confident about any of this? We depend enormously on the mainstream media, newspapers, television and radio, for our knowledge of what is happening elsewhere in the world, and even what happens here.
And those conduits to reality were spectacularly wrong. Tom Switzer, a panellist on the ABC coverage of the election, which I watched for more than four hours (the longest continuous viewing of television on my part for years) said that he had egg on his face. He was astonished at his own growing recognition, over those hours, that Trump would win. Other panellists, and other contributors both here and in the USA, were more than astonished. They were annoyed. Former Foreign Minister Bob Carr, I thought, was close to furious. The Daily Telegraph the morning after had on its front page a photo of Trump with the legend ‘WTF?’ This wasn’t supposed to happen.
In New York the mood at the glass building that served as the scene for the Clinton post-election party (Hillary was scripted to point to the ceiling in her climactic moment and say that she had at last broken through) grew more and more sombre as the evening wore on. Some of those in the crowd began to weep. The ABC reporter at the scene kept saying that there was shock and horror. Mrs Clinton never appeared to her followers (which did astonish me), and telephoned her concession to Trump. Over at the Hilton, the base for the Trump crowd, there was growing jubilation. I was not surprised by the fall of states, if only because I had other sources of information. But I still thought Mrs Clinton would win. I tried to guess at the likely turnout and thought that Trump might get 60 million votes. He is a little shy of it at the moment, but he could reach that figure when all the votes are counted. She is a tad ahead of him, and she might reach 60 million too.
So how did the unexpected happen? Let’s start with the media. Over the past few months, even on Channel Nine, I felt that there was a clear preference for Clinton, and there was no doubt about the ABC’s position: she was the only possible President. For months we have been given a couple of stereotypical pictures, a bombastic, vulgar, pretend billionaire without any political or even military savvy, against an experienced, knowledgable, attractive woman. I knew both pictures were cartoons, but repetition has its effects. What I have seen in this portrayal is the cultural position of those who occupy the key posts in our media and the universities as well as the American. Trump is the antithesis of their perspective on life and the world. From their position he was both a buffoon and menace. Mrs Clinton was familiar, experienced, safe, and like them. They would have voted for her if they could, and in the USA they would have voted for her in droves. And they don’t talk to people other than those within the culture, something pointed out by an American commentator. All of this applies to the media portrayal of One Nation in Australia. Its support is systematically ignored, and the leader is lampooned. No one asks why it is that half a million Australians voted for her party and its candidates. They must be ignorant rednecks.
And the media depended on the opinion polls. How did they get it so wrong? There are two technical answers. The first is that opinion polling is not as accurate as it was fifty years ago, when I was doing my own survey work. In the 1960s we could sample electoral rolls (accurate), and write nicely to the respondent asking for his or her assistance, saying that an interviewer would call, would have ID, and would be polite and experienced. Our response rate was over 80 per cent, and there was little variation across the country. For virtually all our respondents this was the first time they had been interviewed, and they enjoyed the experience. Those days are long gone. I think I have been interviewed by telephone four times this year, and I am being surveyed by the Internet almost after every purchase, hotel stay or opera visit. There is resistance by the respondents, and the response rate must be a good deal lower than it was in the 1960s.
Then much of the interviewing is done by phone, and some of it by mobile phone. Does everyone have one of these devices? The penetration of mobile phones into both the USA and Australia stands at about 80 per cent. Who is less likely to have one? Rural dwellers, the poor, those without jobs. Who voted for Trump? Among others, just such people. My guess is that the Trump supporters were systematically under-sampled throughout the campaign just as Brexit supporters were in the UK. Trump himself kept insisting that the polls did not convey the truth. ‘Brexit, Brexit, Brexit. Plus, plus plus!’ he intoned on one occasion that I saw. Well, he was much more accurate about the outcome than the Clinton camp. Another guess is that, faced with differing poll results about intention to vote (and there are many more polling organisations in the USA than there are here), there was a tendency for the editor to choose the poll that was in tune with the paper’s own position. That is, after all, how most of us operate: we choose the data/paper/article/ statement that accords with our own view. It’s hard not to do it, though I try.
There’s a vast amount more to know about what occurred, and even more to know about what will happen now. Those who think that the Trump election is the end of the world as we know it (and the passionate are always more certain about the consequences of the results of elections than the rest of us) should take comfort from the 1980 victory by Ronald Reagan, who was thought not to be able to string words together, to be far too old, to be lazy and to be just the sort of president who would launch the world into nuclear war. I heard that kind of doom rolled out last night. I am unpersuaded, as I was in 1980. In fact, Reagan’s eight years look pretty impressive now, when you look back. He had the wit to choose good advisers. I expect Trump to do much the same. There’s quite a lot of similarity between Trump and Reagan, in terms of what people said about them and what their positions were/are, which you can see here.
The only person who mentioned ‘climate change’ in the whole day was Bob Carr, who said something like ‘Well, that’s the end of doing anything about climate change!’ I hope he’s right. The candidates avoided the issue almost completely, though I caught Trump saying that he would roll back the Paris agreement. Since that is a toothless and meaningless agreement, it’s not much of a promise. But he might appoint someone sensible to head the USA’s Environment Protection Agency, which seems to have its own doom-laden vision of America unless coal and oil are kept in the ground.
*I thought Trumps’s acceptance speech, which was repeated by the ABC, was just about right, in its structure, content and tone. He is certainly a fine speaker. Why did I have to wait until he had won to hear an example of his oratory? Yes, I know I could have linked to one of the speeches on his website. But he deserved better from our media — and from those in his own country. He has a legitimate grievance there.