2016 in review: America’s second civil war
Historians will describe the Trump election as the defining event of the year. Behind it lies a profound and clear divide between the educated and the working class. How did it come to this?
At 2:44am on November 9th, Hillary Clinton telephoned Donald Trump to concede defeat in the presidential election. In 240 years of history as an independent nation, the United States of America had never seemed so peculiar, nor so fascinating.
The USA has long been defined by its optimism. The major development of the last century has been its rise to becoming the only global superpower. Without the ancient historical baggage of the Old World, the USA was the home of capitalism, opportunity and a sense that tomorrow would be better than today.
Donald Trump’s angry, inward-looking campaign could not have been more different from Barack Obama’s message of ‘hope and change’. If 2016 proved anything, it was that the stereotype of the happy-go-lucky American is false.
An exit poll question asked ‘What do you expect for the next generation of Americans?’, and 63% of Trump voters answered ‘Worse than life today’. In contrast, 59% of Clinton voters thought that their lives would be better.
Many Trump voters were motivated by fear — fear of immigration and a paralysing fear of the future. But why? After all, the US economy is still comfortably the largest in the world.
The USA has always been divided: the coasts and the heartland, red states and blue states, blacks, whites and Hispanics. But the election revealed another major split — education. Those with degrees generally voted for Clinton; 67% of non-college-educated white voters plumped for Trump.
Some Trump voters say America only works for those fortunate enough to have had a good education — the people living the American dream of a college degree and a well-paid job. For those who did less well at school, security seems more distant than ever.
In recent decades manufacturing has collapsed. Some worry that the US economic system has created an impersonal society of big winners and losers, where success at work is seen as the only measure of self-worth. Others felt powerful liberals scorned their traditions and way of life, and voted for Trump as he understood their anger.
School of thought
Some say this vindicates those who were horrified by Trump’s victory. Uneducated Americans were hoodwinked by a political charlatan offering easy solutions and a nasty turn against others. Had they been a bit more intelligent and informed, the absurd Trump would never have had a chance of being elected.
Writing off millions as stupid hillbillies is exactly the kind of snobbish thinking that motivated people to vote for Trump, say others. These people have legitimate concerns: the scarcity of work and the advancement of a liberal agenda with which they have profound disagreements. Those in power should listen to them.
- Will 2016 turn out to be the most important year in US history?
- Is the United States in decline?
- List the five things you most associate with the USA, and compare your choices with those of your classmates.
- Pick one date in the past year, apart from either November 8th or 9th, and give a one-minute talk explaining why it summed up the USA in 2016.
Some People Say...
“2016 was the year America embarrassed itself.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- I’m not American. Why does this matter to me?
- The United States is, by almost any measure, the most important country in the world. It has the widest cultural influence, it has the highest gross domestic product and it has the strongest military in the world. Many of the current political events taking place in the USA are being replicated across the West. What happens there has a knock-on effect for the rest of the world.
- What will 2017 bring?
- The first major US event next year is Trump’s inauguration as president, which takes place on January 20th. And a president as colourful as Trump will not stay out of the news. For example, there are likely to be legal wrangles over his proposed border wall with Mexico. He has already angered China’s leaders by calling the president of Taiwan.
- Old World
- The parts of the globe — Europe, Asia and Africa — known to Europeans before contact with the Americas, which form the ‘New World’.
- Barack Obama
- After a dip in 2014, Obama’s approval ratings have soared since the election of Donald Trump. He now has an approval rating of +20%. Trump, by contrast, is on -8%. That, though, is a significant rise from early May when he was on -35%.
- The United States Department of Homeland Security estimates that there are around 11 million illegal immigrants residing in the USA.
- Red states and blue states
- Red states — Republicans; blue states — Democrats. In general the densely populated north-east, including major cities like New York, Boston and Philadelphia, is Democrat, as is the West Coast. Most of the rest of the country tends to vote Republican. At this year’s election, the area around the Great Lakes — known as the Midwest — switched from Democrat to Republican, handing victory to Trump.
- There are around 12 million manufacturing jobs in the USA, compared with a peak of almost 20 million in 1980.