Is this joke funny?
”Now that the election is narrowing to a two-person race, Donald Trump said he will have to get used to Hillary Clinton’s shouting. After hearing this, Bill Clinton said, ’You never really get used to it.'” –Conan O’Brien
Not, apparently, to Swedes. A prominent Swedish political scientist I know warned me not to use this one when addressing Swedish audiences about the 2016 presidential election. I recently gave lectures to audiences at Uppsala and Södertörn Universities and participated in a 2016 election panel before the American Club of Stockholm.
Two other jokes, the political scientist advised me, were OK:
Q: If Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are in a boat and it capsizes, who survives?
Q: What’s the difference between God and Donald Trump?
A: God doesn’t think he’s Donald Trump.
From this advice, I gathered that Swedes liked Hillary and detested Donald Trump. That was the case with many in my audiences, but more widespread was the wonder that Donald Trump could be presented by one of two major parties as a plausible candidate for president.
I presented three reasons for the emergence of Trump. The first concerned America’s increasing racial diversity and its concurrent decline in social capital, defined as social networks based on mutual trust and cooperation.
Harvard’s Robert Putnam and other scholars have empirically documented the decline of social capital in American in recent decades. Putnam identifies the rise of television as a force that reduced social interaction and mutually beneficial social ties among US citizens.
Putnam’s more recent research discovered a falloff in social capital in America’s diverse neighborhoods. He discovered areas with high demographic diversity evidenced lower trust in others, lower confidence in local government, less of a sense that an individual can influence government, less of an expectation that others will cooperate to solve common problems, fewer close friends and – notably — more time spent watching television.
It’s no secret that the number of diverse neighborhoods in the US is growing due to the rising racial and ethnic diversity of the nation. By 2065, the Pew Research Center estimates that 54 percent of Americans will be nonwhite, with particularly large increases in Asian and Hispanic populations.
Lower trust in others is a key characteristic of Trump supporters. A recent survey indicates they have lower social capital than other citizens and view Trump as a spokesperson for their alienation.
The Atlantic magazine reported on these traits of Trump supporters:
“The Americans who are civically disengaged—who seldom, or never, participate in such activities—are in many ways distinct from their neighbors. On average, they earn lower incomes; they’re less well-educated; they’re more financially distressed; and they’re less likely to attend religious services. And most of Donald Trump’s support is drawn from their ranks.”
A second, related trend boosting Trump has been public distrust of government and pessimism about the future. In 2013, Gallup surveyed publics in more than 150 nations about this. One question asked respondents whether they agreed that “corruption is widespread in government.”
Swedes had the highest trust level in the world with only 14 percent agreeing with the statement. A whopping 73 percent of Americans, however, agreed that corruption was widespread in government, a percentage higher than that registered by respondents in Haiti, Venezuela, Belarus and Mexico.
In addition, by the end of 2015 Gallup found that only 27 percent of Americans were “satisfied with the way things are going in the United States at this time.” That’s down from 71 percent in 2000. Trump’s call to “make America great again” finds resonance among the many who are dissatisfied with current conditions and believe US government is corrupt.
A third reason for the rise of Trump, I explained to Swedes, was the rise of polarization among lawmakers and political activists. Political scientists have discovered that the Congressional parties are now more polarized on floor votes that at any time since the 1870s.
According to political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal, who have empirically tracked over one hundred years of floor voting, “Congress is now more polarized than at any time since the end of Reconstruction.”
The Pew Center recently found comparable levels of polarization among partisan identifiers. By 2015, 92 percent of Republicans were more conservative than the median Democrat and 94 percent of Democrats were more liberal than the median Republican. In 1994, the comparable percentages were only 64 percent for Republicans and 70 percent for Democrats.
Polarization brought partisan gridlock to Washington, making it difficult in recent years for Congress and the president to agree on measures for funding the government. This inaction and the constant partisan invective accompanying it makes a political outsider like Trump more attractive to many disaffected US citizens.
The usual Swedish reaction to all this was fear of Trump. Many in my audiences worried he would start wars, badly destabilize international relations and disrupt international trade. My political scientist friend was right that Hillary was seen as a “safe harbor” by most Swedes I encountered.
In the end I didn’t use any of the jokes with my audiences. It’s not easy to get Swedes to laugh, anyway.