By Malcolm Mackerras

Both Brexit in June and Donald Trump’s victory in November were mistakes by the British and American people, respectively. Both will have bad effects for those foolish people – but those bad effects will take time to become manifest. Both nations will be poorer in the long run as a consequence of their 2016 folly. Those decisions were made by a relative majority of British voters and a largish minority of the Americans. The British decision was more intellectually defensible but, on the other hand, it’s possible (if unlikely) that ‘Trumpism’ can be consigned to the rubbish bin of history by waiting a mere four years. The British are stuck with their decision permanently. Thank God I am an Australian. I do not need to apologise for either my head of government or my head of state. If I were an American, I would apologise for both!

For me, personally, the difference between Brexit and the election of Trump is this: although I followed both events closely I never made any predictions about Brexit. By contrast, I did make American predictions in my conversation with Peter on Switzer TV and in an article on Switzer Daily. In that conversation, I predicted the vote would be 49% for Hillary Clinton and 42% for Trump. I described Clinton as “unpopular” and Trump much more unfavourably. In my article, I predicted that 384 electoral votes would be cast for Clinton and 154 for Trump.

The outcome

On the latest figures, the percentages of votes are 47.8% for Clinton and 47.2% for Trump, with Clinton leading by 1.5 million votes. The electoral votes are 306 for Trump and 232 for Clinton. Consequently, I over-estimated Clinton’s vote by 1.2% and underestimated Trump’s by 5.2%.

I over-estimated Clinton’s electoral vote by 152 and under-estimated Trump’s by the same amount. My excuse is easy to explain. I know nothing more about American public opinion than the polls tell me. Consequently, I made opinion-poll-induced predictions, which turned out to be wrong. In the case of Brexit, I also made opinion-poll-induced predictions. The polls in that case were so close the wise pundit knew the result was quite unknown, so I decided to make no predictions. The betting markets indicated a belief that Remain would win but I have never accepted the view that opinion polls are inferior to betting markets as a source of good predictions. Usually the betting markets merely follow the polls.

What went wrong?

Both my article and TV conversation with Peter came before the FBI director, James Comey, intervened in the election campaign. I agree with Clinton that the FBI inquiry came at a time when her campaign was riding high – and had the effect of defeating her. Being so, it tells us that her arrogance in having a private e-mail server while Secretary of State was fatal to her presidential ambition.

So one reason the polls were wrong was that voters changed their minds late in the campaign. The other reason may have been that Trump was the “disreputable” candidate in respect of whom voters were reluctant to admit an intention to vote. So-called “shy” and/or “sly” voters intended to vote for Trump, but told pollsters otherwise. The failure of the polls is best illustrated by Michigan and Wisconsin. Not one serious poll had Trump ahead in either state all year, but both finished up voting for Trump.

I wrote above something I hope is wrong but expect to be a correct prediction: “it is possible (if unlikely) that Trumpism can be consigned to the rubbish bin of history by waiting a mere four years”. Let me explain: I think of American politics as consisting of periods of one-party dominance. Andrew Jackson was the first President to call himself a “Democrat”. So the First Democratic Era ran from his election in 1828 until the realigning election of 1860 which ushered in the First Republican Era with Abraham Lincoln as President. That ran until the realigning election of 1932 which ushered in the Second Democratic Era with Franklin Roosevelt as President. That lasted until the presidency of Ronald Reagan which ran for 12 years from January 1981.

So 1980 was another realigning election, and like 1932, a genuine landslide. It converted “majority” party status from Democratic to Republican. Consequently, we are still in the second republican era. The three post-Reagan Republican presidents began with four years of Bush senior who was president on the coat-tails of Reagan’s success. The two most recent Republicans were Bush junior, a dud, and Trump, also a dud – so much so that neither could win as many popular votes as their Democratic rivals, Al Gore and Clinton.

Both won on the peculiarities of the American electoral system, giving the popular vote winner the historical description of “loser”.  Bush senior, Bush junior and Trump all performed worse electorally than the Republican Party as a whole. The term of Bush senior meant 12 years of Republican administration. Consequently, he was not re-elected in 1992 when it was the turn of the Democrats, according to the principle of “It’s time”. However, if a dud like Bush junior can get a second win in 2004, I see no reason why a dud like Trump cannot get a second win in 2020.

Perhaps I should explain my use of the term “dud”. There have so far been these cases of a President with fewer popular votes winning the anachronistic electoral vote: John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harrison in 1888 and George Walker Bush in 2000. The first three served only a single term and, for that reason, are correctly described as “duds”. Bush is different. He served a full eight years but historians generally have a low opinion of his presidency. 

Meanwhile, I hope I am wrong in all this. I can think of scenarios whereby I would be proved wrong. For example, it may be “It’s the economy, stupid” all over again in 2020. However, I believe historians will trace America’s decline to the presidency of Bush junior and will conclude that Trump was as appropriate a man as any to preside over US decline. I am pessimistic for America’s future but optimistic for Australia.