Geoffrey Miller has been a lecturer at the Department of English and Linguistics of the Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz since 2008. His research focuses on politics, including the role of the news media. In the past, he has written for publications such as the Guardian, the New Zealand Herald, Herald on Sunday and the German Der Tagesspiegel.
CM: Hello Geoffrey. As a media expert, what is your reaction to Donald Trump winning the US election?
Miller: My view is pretty unorthodox: I think it's great. I don't say that because I am a supporter of Donald Trump. I think Trump is distasteful and disgusting. However, as someone who is always about getting change in politics, it is fascinating. He really has been the anti-establishment candidate, so there is a large potential he is going to shake things up. If you had Hillary Clinton win, you would have had the status quo.
Hillary Clinton, with her slogan being "Stronger Together", ran what I would call an "identity politics"-campaign, which was all about Trump's hate, his misogyny and his racism. Trump had a much more class based approach, he ran on economics and on materialist issues. That made him appeal to voters, who had been left behind not just during the financial crisis, but over the course of the last thirty to forty years. There has been a real wave of globalisation, which has hollowed out the middle-class in many western democracies. Trump has identified the right problems, but he offers the wrong solutions. The jobs that have gone to China and Mexico are never coming back. A lot of them also did not go to China or Mexico, they went into micro-chips and computers. And you cannot go back to the 1960’s and 70’s.
Bernie Sanders identified the same problems as Trump, but he had the right solutions, such as free college education. His responses were also economic in nature, which is why he attracted quite a lot of support.
Hillary Clinton was pushing these identity politics, saying how horrible Trump was. But this year, voters were voting on economic and class issues. It did not surprise me in the slightest that he won. Of course there was always a chance that his personality would bring out enough opposition to get rid of him. But minority voters did not turn out in the numbers that Clinton needed. So that's why he won.
So you expected the result?
I was not surprised. I mean, you always get a little seduced by all the polls. We all spend a lot of time looking at averages. According to most of them, the likelihood of Trump winning was only 10% or 20%...
…15% according to the New York Times…
…yes, and FiveThirtyEight, which I put more faith in, had him at about one third. I went back yesterday and looked at the polls. There were some that predicted the result! If you picked and chose, it was there. But if you do an average, then this did not come up, because there were also polls that had Clinton winning by 7 or 8 points nationally.
Speaking of polls, do you think the way the election was covered in the media had an effect on the outcome, or did the media "miss a story"?
That is a really good question. The media were involved in the making of Trump in many ways. He got a lot of airtime for pure commercial reasons. We tend to look at the media as if they were really interested in politics. They are actually not, they are just driven by making money. The fact that Trump was really polarizing brought them to cover him in huge amounts. Because he was really popular, he got the clicks. On the one hand, he had his supporters, who were really interested in him. On the other, there were the people, who hated him. These two extremes were both fascinated by him.
Did the media "miss the story"? I don't see how you can say that. They covered basically nothing else in the last year of US politics! I mean, they got the result wrong. They trusted these opinion polls way too much. That reinforced their thinking that Trump could not win.
Some of the media have been a bit silly on this. They wrote all these "hot takes" for Facebook of Trump being like Hitler, because that gets all the clicks. They did not look at him in normal, sober terms, maybe that did encourage them to "miss the story".
Some people say that the media was really supportive of Hillary Clinton. Individual journalists, sure. They've got their own opinion pieces. She was the establishment candidate and the media are part of the establishment, so that kind of makes sense. Trump realised that he could exploit this and that he could really claim the title of being anti-establishment, despite being a huge billionaire. On the other hand, I think that Trump is going to be more establishment than not, himself. We will see.
Voter analyses show that the majority of people between 18 and 29 voted for Hillary Clinton, and for Bernie Sanders in the primaries. About eight percent of them voted for a third party candidate, as opposed to only two to three percent of the over 45-year-olds. Did the way young people consume news and their presence on social media influence their decision to vote for Clinton?
Maybe, but I am not convinced of this. A lot of young people did not vote at all. The statistics show that, yes, the young people who voted, voted for Hillary Clinton. That is also what you found in the Brexit vote. The young people, who voted, voted to remain. But the most popular choice was not voting at all.
When you are young, you tend to be more left-wing, more liberal. College campuses in the US are all about left-wing activism. But I do not think that was reflective of everyone. It was reflective of college campuses as support for Hillary Clinton. But was it reflective of the 18-year-old black or white man in Kansas, who couldn’t get a job? No, I don’t think so. Their world views are so different.
Germany and the US – is the way elections are covered by the media in both countries different?
US media coverage is so extreme and the US election campaign goes on for almost two years. No other country in the world has election campaigns nearly as long. Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy in April 2015, it’s now November 2016!
German media are very establishment-minded for historical reasons. They are very suspicious of any new movements or challenges. The Greens were seen as suspicious as well, when they first emerged in the 1980’s. It’s always easy in Germany to brand new, anti-establishment groups and say: “They are Nazis” or “They are Communists”. I understand that there are good historical reasons as to such an instinctive reaction. But German media are very establishment-minded in the sense that they like to talk to all the people who are in charge. They missed the AfD and they still haven’t really got it. I wrote an article about this recently. They still just call them Nazis, but that just increases the support for them. This is exactly what happened with Trump and I think that is a real mistake. It makes them more popular, when you ostracise, exclude and call them Nazis. These people have a lot in common with the people who voted for Trump, who voted for Brexit, who are voting for Marine Le Pen in France next year and the people voting for the Sweden Democrats. Anti-establishment populism is all over western democracies and I do not think it is a short-term thing.
In some ways, the German media may be worse than the media in the US in terms of being very establishment. It would do them good to become less focused on established political parties and leaders. To go out and talk to people instead of taking the easy way of just calling them Nazis or Communists.
I do think Trump is distasteful. Lutz Bachmann is distasteful. Marine Le Pen… these front figures, they are distasteful, and there is outright racism in their views. But ultimately, the way that you combat and defeat these movements is that you make people’s lives better. If people have a solid job and things are going well for their family, these populist movements lose their appeal. And this is not rocket science, it’s actually pretty obvious.
Germany looks to the US on a lot of issues more than to other countries that are geographically closer to us. Do you see the German media covering elections like they do in the US in the future?
The US do influence coverage and Germany lags a bit behind with the use of social media. The German media seemed to discover Facebook five years after the American media did. So German media probably gets onto Instagram next year, because they’ll be up to 2013 by then. [laughs]
But in general? The countries have two very different political systems. The US system is all about the presidential system, with one person. In Germany, it is a parliamentary system. I think you will never have coverage quite to the extreme that you have in the US. There might be new ways of covering elections, through Facebook live for example. But I think German media are pretty conservative and will probably just do what they have always done. There are limited ways that you can really become like the US, and I don’t think that would necessarily be desirable. As I said, the US election campaign takes almost two years. You cannot imitate that and you don’t want to.
So the media responds to demand and the responsibility is with the politicians to give them something people care about?
Yes. Politicians have to give you someone to vote for, something to vote for. They have to offer solutions that are actually useful. If you just offer boring, bland slogans like Merkel's "Sie kennen mich" and "Deutschland braucht Europa", and not look at the solutions you are providing to people, then how do you expect to excite voters? This was what the Trump campaign was about. The idea of modern politics being all about messaging, slogans, focus groups, polling, being safe, being within the bounds of public acceptance… that has all gone out the window now.
It always depends on who the candidates are. If you have dry, boring candidates, you are going to draw boring coverage. Politicians ultimately decide this. If you have someone who is a bit interesting, then you might see more interesting coverage as a result.
Geoffrey, thank you for the interview.
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