There are a lot of easy ways to get under Donald Trump’s very thin skin, should you desire to do so. One bittersweet method for Hillary supporters has been to point out that, though Hillary Clinton lost the election, she won the popular vote by nearly three million votes. It took a while post-election for all of the votes to be tallied, so Clinton’s lead slowly climbed over the month that followed. As her edge in the popular vote grew, so did the urgency on the part of Trump supporters to convince the broader public that this lead didn’t really exist.
The Meme That Ate California
The main way Trump supporters attempt this is by spreading the idea that Hillary Clinton didn’t really win the popular vote if you don’t count the votes from [ ]. The blank is most often filled in with California, since California provided Hillary with her biggest raw vote margin by far, and its count was the one that trickled in the slowest, providing most of the big boost to her tally over that post-election month. But that blank can also be filled in with a New York/California combo or with “the coasts” generally.
This effort by Trump supporters reached a crescendo shortly before Christmas when the conservative site Investor’s Business Daily published an article calculating that Trump would’ve won 1.4 million more popular votes than Clinton if California had not been included, and then the website The Drudge Report (a right wing, sensationalistic “news” site) tweeted this:
For days afterward, these headlines were echoed on many other popular right wing websites. And for the entire day that the Drudge tweet went out, the phrase “California and New York” topped the trending list on Twitter, and the Twitter stream was filled with exclamations about how Trump really won “outside of CA & NY.”
So, you might think Hillary supporters should just ignore this. The Trump people are annoyed that some of the shine is being taken off of Trump’s win, and this is just how they’re fighting back. It’s not really that important in the big picture, right? But I actually think what they’re doing here is pernicious for a couple reasons, and we need to pay attention to it.
To help understand why, consider a common way the people making this absurd argument try to justify it: they argue that one single state shouldn’t be able to put a candidate over the top (California contains greater than one out of every ten people who voted in this election). But the people who live there are still people just as if they lived anywhere else in the country. If you are going to make that case, it’s only fair to point out that Trump wouldn’t have won the electoral college without Texas’ 38 electoral votes. So why not apply the same logic there?
And here’s where I think some of the genuinely noxious aspects of this argument come into play. Yeah, of course proponents of this argument aren’t mentioning Texas because their guy won Texas. But there’s more to it than that. Underlying this argument about California & New York is the ugly idea that the people who live in those places aren’t real Americans. We see this same general notion expressed when the coasts are pitted against the heartland or big cities against small towns.* There’s the same current flowing through all of it about who’s a “real American” and who’s not.
It Depends What the Meaning of “Real” Is
Sarah Palin used this geographic “us against them” to great effect in 2008. Some of the anger that we saw expressed so intensely in 2016 across so much of the electorate was already beginning to brew in the Republican base during the 2008 presidential campaign. Sarah Palin capitalized on this, riling up her rally crowds and helping to turn Americans’ anger against one another instead of focusing it on the true causes of their woes. She memorably said at one of her rallies:
We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America. Being here with all of you hard-working very patriotic, um, very, um, pro-America areas of this great nation.
The implication of course was that the people living in the rest of America, outside the small towns weren’t real Americans, and that they didn’t work hard and didn’t love their country. And you’ll remember that it was Palin, not John McCain who drew the huge crowds that year on the Republican side. The message she was selling permeated.
Of course these sentiments didn’t begin with Palin. Our country has a long history of politicians pitting Americans against one another. But it had been a long while since a major party candidate had voiced this theme so explicitly. Palin’s star has since faded (though it’s notable that Trump brought her back to the political spotlight momentarily as one of his early endorsers), but what remains as strong as ever is a large and very vocal right wing media-sphere where this sentiment is pervasive: websites, twitter stars, newspaper pundits, radio talk hosts, Fox News, etc. These entities – which are extraordinarily successful at shaping public opinion – use this same tactic to discredit voices that come from these particular areas of the country.
Team Real vs Team Elite
This maneuver is usually employed by these right wing pundits & radio hosts, etc, not by explicitly referring to certain Americans as “real” (or not) as Palin did, but instead by using the pejorative terms “east coast elites” or “Hollywood elites” or “ivy league elites” (ivy league being synonymous here with the North East). So they’re targeting the exact same parts of the country targeted by the “popular vote” Twitter meme – the east & west coasts, or California/Hollywood & New York/NYC – and signalling that the people who live in those places are not like the “real” people living in the vast rest of the country.
Having effectively turned “elite” into a negative word over the last few decades, this tactic is a now a quick, simple way of discrediting their thoughts and opinions. (Note too, that when “elite” is used in this way, it isn’t limited to the wealthy and/or powerful but can be aimed at anyone within the geographical targets. So it could mean a struggling teaching assistant in Boston, an intern in D.C., or an auditioning actress in L.A. who’s waitressing on the side to make ends meet. And the term is, ironically, often wielded by powerful, long-time politicians or multi-millionaire radio-hosts. So the label is defined by geography & presumed political ideology, not by what we typically think of as the definition of “elite”).
And this manipulation of the word “elite” has had a disturbing result. By repeatedly connecting the slur to the locations of so many of our key institutions (the capitol in D.C.; media & banking in NYC; Ivy League schools with their pollsters, political scientists, economists & so many other subject area experts) the proponents have helped create the dilemma we felt so profoundly in the 2016 election, where a significant portion of the electorate was not just skeptical of most experts & authorities but was downright hostile to them. “Real” Americans came to see these experts as not just clueless & condescending, but as intentionally misleading in ways that helped themselves and their cronies hold onto their power or status.
The fact that most of the “elites” didn’t see Trump coming and spent 18 months denying he had any chance to win, before he ultimately did just that, has just solidified in the minds of these “real Americans” that they were right all along to doubt & distrust the “elites” or the experts on any and all topics.** It’s a vicious cycle that has left us in a place where there are no trusted gatekeepers anymore – at least not any that we can all agree on, and it’s making it nearly impossible for anyone to hold Trump accountable as he prepares to take over the Presidency. And that is a profoundly dangerous dilemma.
STAY TUNED for part 2 where I explain the second reason I think this “popular vote” meme should raise our eyebrows . . .
*The attempts by some on the right to discount big cities, either semantically or by literally discounting their voters through various methods of vote suppression deserves more discussion, hopefully in a post of its own at some point. But keep in mind when Trump supporters say he would’ve won if we don’t count votes from CA or NY that New York state is actually fairly conservative outside of NYC and a couple of other smaller cities upstate. Trump did quite well in most of New York outside of NYC and its immediate suburbs. So it’s really about excluding those city voters.
**And to be sure, some of this feeling is probably justified by significant “elite” failures over the last couple decades, such as the Iraq War & seemingly endless engagement in the Middle East and the financial crisis/recession & the inability to dig out of it quickly enough to give enough people real relief. Additionally, the fact that so many journalists, pundits & political science experts did misunderstand the Trump phenomenon should be a wake-up call to these & other so-called “elites” that they need to broaden their horizons. Many of them probably were too comfortable in the conventional wisdom of the worlds they inhabit to see what was going on outside these worlds. This is a genuine issue, since much of the national media is based in NYC and DC (and local media has been decimated), so those are the dominant types of viewpoints that get represented.
But we should also keep in mind that’s a human flaw, not a flaw that’s limited to east coast college professors or DC pundits or Hollywood actors. Many people have a difficult time seeing the world from a point of view outside of their own experiences. It’s the reason that Mitt Romney’s campaign and most of his supporters were convinced he was going to win in 2012, right up to the very end, even as the final states were being called. It’s the reason Sarah Palin’s “small town” fans could enthusiastically cheer her claim that they were the hard working ones (a not uncommon riff among conservatives), when in reality people all over this country go out to work every day just trying to make a living. And, it’s the reason Donald Trump could repeatedly make absurdly broad claims like the African American youth unemployment rate is 58% and they can’t walk down the street without getting shot, and no one in his crowds would bat an eyelash. The truth is that everyone is susceptible to being closed off in their bubbles – no matter where they live, or which side of the aisle they’re on.