On 9th November 2016, I awoke expecting Hillary Clinton to have a large lead in the electoral college votes for the United States election. Instead, CNN was focusing on Donald Trump’s red states. Disbelief and panic flooded my social media feeds for the next 48 hours.
I had been writing the first draft of my PhD conclusion chapter. One section dealt with red teams: adopting an enemy or adversary’s viewpoint during a war game or strategic planning. Did I live in a bubble? I wondered. Why did Clinton not have a red team to understand Trump?
I retreated to think more about who had foreseen Trump’s electoral win. Michael Moore had foreseen Trump’s strategy in advance. Dilbert creator Scott Adams had lobbied Twitter for Trump to win. SkyBridge Capital’s Anthony Scaramucci and PayPal founder Peter Thiel had advocated for Trump’s innovation agenda.
But the dominant theme was the rise of white working class voters.
I had been thinking about this group for awhile but had not made the connection. In 2013, I read George Packer’s book The Unwinding as a model of individual decision-making in the face of structural change. In 2014 whilst at an International Studies Association conference in Toronto, Canada, I bought paperback copies of The Unwinding and Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile. Months before the election outcome I was reading sociologist Justin Gest’s The New Minority and J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy. I had also bought Trump and Tony Schwartz’s The Art of the Deal during business development training.
But this reading wasn’t done as some red team prescience. Instead, I was trying to understand my own blue collar family and working class childhood. I had finished a university contract and had moved cities. The decompression time made me reflect on the end of Australia’s mining boom and the socioeconomic changes I was seeing play out.
I had expected Hillary Clinton to win. There were red team signals I had seen but not integrated which showed Trump would win. Jane Mayer’s book Dark Money had documented the Koch Brothers’ funding of Charles Murray’s research and the alt.right. I had skimmed Murray’s book Coming Apart on white America at the start of 2016. J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy had become an Amazon.com bestseller. Trump had hired UKIP proponent Nigel Farage. These were all red team signals that Michael Moore, Scott Adams, and others had integrated into their worldview.
In her campaign’s last few days Hillary Clinton campaigned on the aspirational goal of becoming the first female President of the United States. This is an important and now missed historical opportunity. In contrast, Gest, Murray, Packer, and Vance remind us that the power of aspirational goals are muted when survival goals are more paramount to the individual’s life circumstances. I had also forgotten this insight from psychologist Clare W. Graves’ work on human values.
The red team signals of Trump’s strategy and election win were visible in advance. I had seen some of them. But I took the Clinton campaign and election polls at their face value. I wanted Hillary Clinton to win and for the United States to embrace the historical opportunity it faced. I felt Clinton was the more experienced candidate in terms of governance and her performance during the three televised debates.
This analytic misperception illustrates why red team work can be important. An enemy, adversary or competitor may work out your cognitive biases and decision preferences. Your filter bubble may not realise this until it is too late – even if you had the background to correctly see the situation. Consequently, the world is going to be a different place now that Trump is President-elect. A Hillary Clinton Administration will now be a counterfactual scenario for political scientists to consider.