While it is true that only 19.5% of Americans cast a vote for Donald Trump last Tuesday (versus 19.8% for Clinton), one cannot then make the leap to say that 80% of Americans are opposed to Trump and are being dragged along unwillingly. That is nonsense.
First off, 29% of Americans are not eligible to vote, either because they are too young or because they have committed a crime. We have no way of knowing how those people feel about Trump. Then we have to people who were eligible to vote but chose not to - 45% of the eligible population.
In my view, that 45% can only be viewed as having made a choice to tacitly endorse Trump. Only 27% said "yes!" to the rising nationalist tide, but an additional 45% said "sure, why not?"
Think about what was at stake in this election. Americans were given a choice between a man who represented a radical departure from American democratic traditions - someone who promised to wholly remake America and in so doing remake the world. His opponent was a woman who promised to keep the status quo.
27% of American eligible voters looked at that choice and voted proactively for the revolution. An additional 45% looked at Trump - at his behavior, at what he represents, at the outlandish things he promised to do - and decided there was no reason to be alarmed about the prospect of him becoming president. They heard the racism, they heard the promises to dismantle the 70-year-old Western world order, and they said, "OK, go ahead".
Sure, they didn't vote for him. But their decision to stay home faced with such radical promises, faced with such a stark choice, speaks droves about where the American public are right now. 72% of eligible voters were not alarmed by what Trump did and said, so they either voted for him or stayed home.
Maybe not all of that 72% like the guy (he's at 42% favorability at the moment), but they all viewed him as an acceptable president.
One cannot make the argument that the 45% who stayed home could just as easily be put into the Hillary column. She was the status quo candidate. A majority of Americans agreed that she had the experience and temperament to become president. She was not the issue on the ballot on Tuesday.
This was a referendum on whether America would accept a person like Trump as president.
Comparing the turnout to the UK's Brexit referendum in June, therefor, is informative. One obvious observation is that despite having roughly the same proportion of ineligible voters, vastly more Americans stayed home for their election than did Brits for their referendum. Only 27.3% of eligible British voters chose not to vote in the referendum.
But the Brexit vote presented the same kind of binary choice to voters: do you want to stay on the same path, or do you want a radical and risky change led by dubious leaders? A slim majority of eligible voters - 36.9% - chose to vote for the UK to leave the European Union.
But what of the 27% of eligible voters that chose to stay home? They were presented with the prospect of Brexit, something which promised dramatic change, and said "I don't see that as a threat. I'm OK enough with that as a potential outcome, so I'm going to stay home".
Those people saw the racism drudged up by the Brexit campaign, saw the false promises of the Brexiteers obliterated by the media, and decided they didn't see anything so alarming that it should cause them to walk down the street to the polling station.
Given that these were two such binary votes, I think a more accurate way to look at the results is this:
The blue proportion represents the segment of the population that sees the rising populist nationalism as a threat. The people in the green portion were either:
- so uninvested in liberal democratic order that they didn't care to defend it, or
- unaware of the threats posed to that order by the spectre of Brexit and Trump
Personally, I suspect it is more of the latter than the former. But really, it is a mix of the two. A large proportion of the British and American population either don't understand the threats posed by the rising tide of populist nationalism, or they don't see it as a threat.
We have to acknowledge this fact. We can't go deluding ourselves into thinking that the majority of the population thinks like we do and is being dragged toward the abyss by small minorities. In 2016, failure to turn out to vote was more than apathy. It was an active choice to allow the world order to crumble.
As we turn next to the French presidential election in April, this latter graph is important to keep in mind. France traditionally has a fairly high turnout for presidential elections, much higher than in the United States. But I have a gut feeling that turnout could go way down this year. There seems to be a large part of the public that is unhappy enough with the liberal Democratic order that they will not turn out to defend it, even if they can't bring themselves to make the extra leap to vote for the nationalists.
Those who want to maintain the liberal democratic order have a lot of work to do if they want to convince this sizeable proportion of the public that the populist wave is something to be feared.
It's Western comfort and apathy that is the greatest danger here. During his press conference yesterday with Angela Merkel here in Berlin, Barack Obama seemed to recognise this.
"I've said this in the US, and I will also tell Europeans - do not take for granted our systems of government and way of life," he said. "There is a tendency, because we live in an era that has been largely stable and peaceful, to assume this is always the case. In the US, if 45% of eligible voters do not vote, then democracy is weakened."In the week after the election, Democratic leaders have told the 19.8% that they need to "talk to the Trump voters" and try to understand them. Personally, I think this is a wasted effort. The people who really need to be reached, urgently, are the 45%. It has to be made clear to people what is at stake here. Because the voting figures tell is that either people have given up on democracy and are ready for a new form of government, or they do not understand the consequences of their voting (and not voting) decisions.
It may be that only the chaos brought about by a Trump presidency will wake them up to that danger. Those who believe in liberal democracy need to be ready with answers when they come to that realisation.
One final graphic. If you want to understand the scale of the problem we face as a society, look at this map. If 'did not vote' had been a candidate in this election, he would have won every state except six. That is a vote for chaos. And that seems to be where we're headed.