On January 31, 2019, Dr. Brandon Yoder from the Centre on Asia and Globalisation (CAG) and Dr. Steven Oliver from Yale-NUS College presented on the topic of “The Trump Presidency as Preventive Conflict.” The first question that needs to be asked in how Trump managed to win US presidency in 2016, and the most straight forward answer is that Trump convinced swing voters that he will act in favor of their interests. However, an alternative explanation is that many swing voters who voted for Trump did not expect that they would benefit from his presidency, but they voted for him anyway because they thought that his policies would be harmful to everyone, including to those who these swing voters seen as long-term threats.
It has been noted that a large proportion of swing voters who voted for Obama in 2012 but voted for Trump in 2016 were from the American Midwest and the Great Lake Regions. This group of voters were the decision factor that enabled Trump to be the president, so the question is, what motivated these voters (known as O-T voters) to shift from supporting Obama in 2012 to supporting Trump in 2016. The absolute gain argument is that, the O-T voters voted in favor of Trump because they believed that Trump’s policies would be more beneficial to them than those of Clinton. And they identify more with the protectionist economic policies and conservative social policies of Trump than the liberal policies of Clinton.
The alternative hypothesis that Dr. Yoder and Dr. Oliver are introducing is that the support for Trump is not about absolute gains, but on relative gains. This is similar to the preventive wars in international relations. In other words, the O-T voters also think that the policies of Trump would damage them, but they would also damage the interests of those who they see as threats. The O-T voters are willing to accept policies which hurt their interests in absolute terms, but hurt the interests of those whom they hate even more in a relative sense. The “threats” that these O-T voters see are mainly the globalist, coastal elites, as well as the immigrants and minorities, since the O-T voters mainly consisted of the white working class (WWC).
The theoretical basis used by Yoder et al is the bargaining model for war that is commonly seen in international relations and other disciplines. The premise of this model is that, because war is costly, there are some settlements that both parties should prefer over war. The assumptions for this model are that, there is perfect information between both parties, and power is static over time. However, if there is a power shift, when a rising state gains power, then its interest demands are going to increase in the future and this creates the commitment problem. While the rising power may reach a mutually acceptable compromise with the other party, but the declining state may not believe that there will not be anymore interest demands from the rising state, so the declining state may refuse to bargain with the rising state now in anticipation of more demands from the rising state in the future, which will no longer be acceptable to the declining state, so the declining state would rather go into a preventive war now with the rising state when it still holds comparative advantages.
Bringing this theory into the context of the US politics, the WWC is the declining power in the US, while the minorities and the educated elites are rising powers. In order to forestall their long term loss of power, even though many of the O-T voters see Clinton as a more competent candidate, they nevertheless chose to vote for Trump. According to a survey done in 2016 before the US presidential election, there are O-T voters who willingly say that they identify more with the policies of Clinton, yet they indicated that they were going to vote for Trump. Therefore, in terms of policy preferences, a fair amount of O-T voters recognize that they are voting for the wrong candidate. However, the main drive that made the O-T voters to choose Trump over Clinton was not what they can yield from the policies of Trump, but what someone else is going to lose relative to the O-T voters. Such is the rational response to irrational premises and beliefs.
During Q&A, it was pointed by the speakers that while it might be the case that many of the O-T voters thought that Trump would overturn the current American political system, allowing him to implement policies that would in turn benefit them; but the crux of Yoder et al’s argument is that, it might also be the case that many of these O-T voters know that Trump’s policies are going to hurt them, but these policies are going to be more damaging to the people who would outstrip the economic and politic privileges of the WWC in the next couple decades.
It was also pointed out by the audiences that the speakers must also explain why was it that many voters who voted for Trump are also immigrants themselves. The ability of Trump to mobilize the supporters to cast their votes should also be accounted for. A bigger issue is that, the fact that many O-T voters identify more with the policies of Clinton does not translate to them wanting to see a greater relative loss to the coastal, globalist elites and minorities. Nonetheless, the speakers replied that since this project has just started, this is the only point of departure that is available to them as of now. The hypothesis of Yoder et al originated from the puzzle of what could explain the fact that many O-T voters voted for Trump knowing that they agree that Clinton’s policies would benefit them in the absolute sense.
While the survey of 2016 was conducted before the election and no one knows for sure what kind of policies were Trump going to implement apart from his rhetoric that lacks substance, therefore it might not be accurate to say that any O-T voters were able to say that they identified more with the policies of Clinton than those of Trump; however, it was also pointed out by the speakers that not all O-T voters are politically-savvy and with the lack of perfect information, many of them might just be led by their gut feelings and the messaging and emotional appeals of Trump.
This is the seventeenth in a series of 'Politics and IR Brown Bag Lunch Sessions' organised by the Centre on Asia and Globalisation (CAG). Launched in 2017, the initiative aims to provide a more casual and intimate setting for CAG faculty members to share their nascent research ideas on international relations over lunch, as well as engaging in unconstrained and thought-provoking discussion.