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Does it matter that Trump didn’t win a majority of the popular vote?

November 13, 2016


Well…  in legal and constitutional terms – no it doesn’t.   This becoming president despite winning fewer votes than another candidate thing has happened a few times already.

It happened in 1824,  when John Quincy Adams failed to receive a plurality of either the popular vote or electoral college votes and was voted into the presidency by the House of Representatives – an arrangement denounced as a corrupt bargain by Andrew Jackson  (who had polled better than Adams).  Jackson himself did, however, get to become president just four years later.

Then there was the election of 1876 – the messiest in the history of the Republic.  This election was so messy that nobody could figure out whether Democrat Samuel Tildon or Republican Rutherford Hayes had fairly and squarely won certain states, though nobody doubted that Tilden had secured more votes nationwide than Hayes.  After a very prolonged negotiation process the electoral college voted for Hayes, but only after the Republicans promised to pretty much end Reconstruction in the South, with the result many decades of white supremacy denied basic rights to black people across a huge chunk of the (barely) United States.

In 1888, Grover Cleveland won more votes than Benjamin Harrison, but acquired fewer electoral votes.  Cleveland was at least emboldened by his performance sufficiently to stand again against Harrison in 1892 where he won both the popular vote and the electoral college, becoming the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms resulting in the bizarre means of numbering presidents.  (Barack Obama is NOT the 44th President of the United States – he is the 43rd.  His is sort of the 44th Presidency – thanks to the anomaly of Grover Cleveland.)

And then there was 2000 of course.

It is notable, of course, that in 2000, the debate was always about Florida and how Floridian votes were to be fairly registered.  At no point did Gore (or any other prominent Democrat) suggest that the arithmetic fact of more American voters voting for Gore than for Bush should overturn the vote of a duly determined electoral college.

And that, from a legal point of view is that.  You can lobby to remove the electoral college and treat the presidential election as a nationwide plebiscite.  Constitutional reform is always worth discussion – it heightens a sense of civic consciousness and is good for the lungs.  But elections are games where it should be assumed that everyone agrees to play by the rules before they start to play.

Similar things have happened in the UK of course.  In 1974, more people voted Conservative than voted Labour yet Harold Wilson found himself with more Labour MPs in parliament than Edward Heath did.  This anomaly was, however, rectified by a second election in the same year which gave Wilson an actual if very small majority in parliament and more nationwide votes than Heath’s Conservatives.  More seriously, in 1951, Labour voted piled ever so high in safe constituencies, Labour polling more votes than they had during their 1945 landslide and more votes than the Conservatives got – but they still lost the election.

It can, perhaps, be noted that the 1950s governments of Churchill, Eden and Macmillan sought to consolidate the social achievements of the Attlee government rather than reverse them.

So there is no legal precedent or constitutional basis for saying that the fact that Trump polled fewer votes than Clinton should have any more significance than all of these examples.

Law is one thing, but politics is another.  Trump’s failure to achieve majority of votes is a political fact with emotional and attitudinal impact.

It’s down, of course, to the negatives.  Donald Trump had the lowest approval records of any presidential candidate ever in what was basically a binary contest.  Those voting for Clinton regarded Trump as a uniquely (let’s use the word) deplorable candidate, intellectually, psychologically and morally unfit to hold office.   Right now, days after Trump’s election, it is fair to say that most Americans actually despise their own President Elect.

This political reality is, I think, unprecedented in the American experience.

At the same time, we must acknowledge that if a few more voters had shown up for Clinton in Pennsylvania and Florida instead of in California and New York, then we would still be dealing with a massive hatred problem.  Online discussions reveal that there are people who passionately believe that Hillary Clinton is the most evil human being who has ever lived.  I’ve been told on a variety of occasions that Clinton personally slaughters full-term foetuses as the climax of her bi-monthly Satanic rituals.  When making a polite request for evidence for such assertions, I’ve been told that such skepticism makes me a terminally degenerate libtard in the slavish grip of the lamestream media.  Being a Christian these days is all about giving instant credence to the most obscene rumours about Hillary Clinton.  Not hating Hillary Clinton is what makes Baby Jesus cry.

I like to think that deploring Trump is rather better grounded than hating Clinton.  When I think of Trump as an awful, awful human being, I can point to concrete evidence of horrible things that he has said and done.  I can point out that virtually everything he said during the campaign was factually wrong, logically impossible or in contradiction of something else he’s said or done in the past.  Most Americans agree with me.  More Americans despise Trump than despise Clinton.  However, the ones who despise Clinton are more likely to have guns.

Over the next four years President Trump is going to do a deal of harm and hurt a great many people.  He will do this because he has a zero sum mind which cannot conceive of “winning” without others “losing”.  Even if he is too vain and cowardly to blow up the world deliberately, his refusal to believe in climate change will have calamitous consequences.  Most Americans (most by a slight but measurable margin) see this and dread it.  What’s needed now, is a recognition that most Americans are better than Trump, that America is better than Trump and that Americans right now, everywhere in the world, wherever you find them, still need a great deal of hugging.




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