News analysis

US election: America's divide runs far deeper this time

Campaign rhetoric centred on issues of identity rather than policy.

NEW YORK • Thousands of protesters blocked roads, burned effigies and chanted "not my president" in cities across the United States, as it quickly became clear that healing will not come easily to a nation torn apart by the divisive presidential campaign.

In New York, thousands of protesters shut down the busy Fifth Avenue in front of Trump Tower for hours on Wednesday night - many expressing anxiety about what was to come and disappointment that so many of their fellow citizens had voted for a man they consider unfit for the job.

"He's xenophobic, homophobic and an aggressor and I don't want him to represent the country and I'm horrified that so many people voted for him," said university student Hannah Hutchinson, 21.


Protests took place in cities like (clockwise, from above) Los Angeles, where protesters shut down a major expressway; Chicago, where people gathered outside Trump Tower; and Seattle, where they marched through the streets. PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

In cities like Chicago and Washington, DC, protesters surrounded Trump properties, while in Los Angeles, a group of demonstrators blocked a major expressway. Across the country, there were also reports of isolated racial clashes; minorities' parents pulling their children out of school; and numerous heated arguments between Trump and Clinton supporters in the streets.

And while the country has always been able to reunite after divisive periods in its history, observers say there is something fundamentally different about the political earthquake that struck on Tuesday.

 

At the heart of the problem is the rhetoric of the campaign that centred on issues of identity rather than policy.

As Dr Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia's Miller Centre, noted: "There is a perception that this isn't a case where people just have a difference of opinion about immigration. Rather, many see it as this group of people embracing a Trumpian message that is 'Our country would be great again if you weren't here'... That can be very worrying if you feel like your own country is turning against you."

It isn't just the Republican's fault, observers note. The narrative from the Clinton campaign had also contributed to the depiction of Mr Donald Trump as a terrible person and his supporters as deplorable.

Indeed, many disheartened Democrats said they felt disconnected from the Republicans and Trump supporters who propelled the businessman to victory.

Said Ms Sam Bordereau, 44, who works in a bank: "This just shows that we are broken. What message are we sending to our kids?"

Exit polls from the election highlighted the many different lines of division the campaign had drawn. The story of support for the two candidates can be told in all manner of conflicts: rural versus urban, young versus old, immigrant versus non-immigrant, college educated versus non-college educated, and white versus black.

A look at the electoral map also makes it clear that while Mr Trump painted the middle of the country Republican red, the two coasts are very much Democrat blue.

Data from the National Election Pool found Mr Trump doing especially well among white voters with no college degree. He beat Mrs Hillary Clinton in that category by 39 percentage points while she won white college graduates by 5 points. She also won overwhelming majorities of voters in every minority race group, but ultimately the numbers proved insufficient to put her over the top.

Adding to the problem of reunification is the fact that with the counting nearly complete, Mr Trump looks set to become only the fifth candidate ever to win the presidency while losing the popular vote. He currently trails Mrs Clinton, 47.5 per cent to 47.7 per cent. His current tally of 57.7 million votes cast in his name is also notably fewer than the two Republican nominees preceding him - Mr Mitt Romney and Mr John McCain.

Experts say whether the country can re-unite will depend a lot on how a President Trump conducts himself. If he begins his term in office focusing first on issues with some bipartisan support, then there might be a chance to slowly earn back the trust of those who did not vote for him.

If, in the more likely scenario, he sticks to the conservative agenda of repealing many of President Barack Obama's legacy achievements, then divisions are likely to continue.

For Dr Perry, US history suggests reasons to be optimistic.

"When we see these earthquakes happen, we can't see how things get better, we can't see beyond today. But we have always been able to come back together. We even came back together after a civil war that broke a country into two. It may take a while but I have faith in the American spirit," she said.

Video: Protesters take to the streets http://str.sg/4g8k

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 11, 2016, with the headline 'America's divide runs far deeper this time'. Print Edition | Subscribe