Enduring Trump: The Cost of “Hillary Aversion”

Donald Trump was elected U.S. President one year ago. A week before the election, I watched the odds of a Trump victory increase from almost impossible to within the realm of possibility. That led me to write a blog post about the role of a specific psychological trait that some call “gambling for resurrection.” Psychologist and Economics Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman describes this trait as “aversion to a sure loss.”

People who gamble for resurrection have difficulty coming to terms with a loss, and instead take imprudent risks hoping to beat the odds in order to avoid that loss. A year ago, many people perceived a likely Hillary Clinton win with such distaste that they would not vote for her, even if they detested Trump. Such behavior, I pointed out, could lead to a Trump victory in which the country as a whole would subsequently need to beat the odds.

One year after the election I find myself asking two questions. First, does the evidence suggest that non-voting by enough people favoring Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump produced the Trump victory? Second, are we beating the odds?

As we know, Hillary Clinton strongly won the popular vote, but her electoral loss stemmed from Trump’s narrow victories in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. In her book What Happened, Hillary Clinton makes a case that her loss stemmed in large part from the actions of former FBI director James Comey, regarding the FBI’s investigation of her use of a private email server while serving as Secretary of State. Comey might have been part of the story behind what happened, but focusing on him distracts from the critical underlying demographics.

Wisconsin voted Republican for the first time since 1984. Clinton fared particularly badly among young Wisconsin voters, many of whom had enthusiastically supported her primary opponent Bernie Sanders. Trump received about the same number of votes that Romney had in 2012. However, Clinton received almost a quarter-million fewer votes than Obama. Notably, turnout in the state was lower than it had been in the previous four Presidential elections. Exit poll results in that state found that although 63 percent of voters had a negative opinion of Trump, 21 percent of that group actually voted for him. The media interpreted this finding as a reflection of the electorate’s distaste for Clinton.

Michigan voted Republican for the first time since 1988. Clinton had weaker support from Michigan’s African Americans than Obama had had four years before. For example, in Detroit she received approximately 50,000 fewer votes than Obama had in 2012, and her share of the vote in Wayne County, which includes Detroit, was lower than Obama’s by 6 percent.

Nate Silver’s post election analysis emphasizes that the dominant variable explaining Trump’s electoral college victory was the state percentage of “non-college” whites, meaning whites without college degrees. For example, in Wisconsin, Trump won this group by 28 points, 20 points more than Romney in 2012. The strong support of non-college whites for Trump, combined with nonvoting behavior reflecting “Hillary aversion” allowed Trump’s narrow victory in Wisconsin.

One year after the election, are people who exhibited “Hillary aversion” beating the odds with a Trump Presidency?

They are not beating the odds when the best available science indicates that global warming is man made, but the White House argues otherwise. They are not beating the odds when President Trump appoints Scott Pruitt, a fierce climate change denier, to eviscerate the Environmental Protection Agency’s structure for addressing global warming. They are not beating the odds when Pruitt refuses to discuss the degree to which the devastation caused by Hurricanes Henry and Irma is a manifestation of global warming. They are not beating the odds when President Trump withdraws the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement, thereby isolating our country from its Western allies.

They are not beating the odds when President Trump undermines his Secretary of State’s diplomatic efforts to address the conflict associated with North Korea’s nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles, all the while using Twitter to communicate delicate affairs of state.

They are not beating the odds when white supremacists and neo-Nazis march to preserve monuments erected to honor defenders of slavery, all the while chanting anti-Jewish slogans. They are not beating the odds when President Trump’s tepid condemnation of these bigots displays less passion than his tweets berating Rosie O’Donnell. They are not beating the odds when President Trump makes no public condemnation of a white extremist leader’s sneering comment about him having given his beautiful daughter as a wife to a Jew.

As for non-college whites, whose economic and cultural pain Hillary Clinton did not understand, they too are not beating the odds in terms of Trump’s promise to deliver good jobs with fair wages. Trump figured out how to help this subgroup feel better about themselves, but he has done so in a way that is divisive and weakens the cultural fabric of the country. In addition, his policies will hurt, not help, most of his most ardent supporters. The ones he will help are those that already have high incomes, adequate health care, and ample tax shelters.

Many gambled for resurrection when they stayed away from the polls last year. Most of those are losing the gamble, as resurrection is in the opposite direction from the country’s present course. In the end, we may all end up on the wrong end of this gamble, unless we all turn out to vote in future elections.

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