When Hillary Clinton won the nomination as the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in July 2016, she celebrated her victory speech with words that foreshadowed her campaign message:
Tonight, we’ve reached a milestone in our nation’s march toward a more perfect union: the first time that a major party has nominated a woman for president…When any barrier falls in America, for anyone, it clears the way for everyone. When there are no ceilings, the sky’s the limit.
In this exuberant declaration, Clinton introduced the image of the glass ceiling which spoke of a female president who would pave the way for not just her success but the success of all female Americans.
This focus on women in America is closely linked with the plight of the country’s other structurally marginalised groups, even if those groups have sometimes opposed each other to get their own way. But in the 2016 election, faced with an opposition Republican candidate who resorted to racism, sexism and anti-Muslim rhetoric, those groups, and their representatives, began to find solace in the Clinton campaign. Clinton campaigned on the social ticket for a united America with the slogan “Stronger Together”.
Using this “one nation” rhetoric, Clinton was hoping to move forward on the country’s extraordinary success in electing its first black President in 2008, offering the electorate an opportunity to reach yet another milestone: to elect its first female President. And if she were to win, it would be due to this revolutionary alliance of voters of colour and women, the same groups who had to fight previously for their right to vote.
Meanwhile Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric was based on building a wall: an ‘impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful, southern border wall’ between the US and Mexico. Media and political leaders criticised this impractical and far-fetched idea, that became one of the most emblematic metaphors of Mr Trump’s campaign. How long? How tall? How powerful? The US-Mexico border is approximately 1,900 miles (3,100 km) long and traverses all types of terrain.
Trump was characteristically big on ideas but small on details throughout his campaign. His use of the wall symbol was no exception to this rule. Rather than asking these factual questions, some of Trump’s supporters wrote in various blogs that the wall is merely a symbol of America getting a chance again, protecting the nation’s borders, signally the end of globalised capitalist practices that were deemed harmful for the US.
Although Trump is considered a political neophyte, his years of experience as a TV reality show host helped him fine-tune the art of using words and images that cut to the core, making his message clear. His much-quoted slogan “Make America Great Again” is perhaps the greatest illustration of that ability to tap into his reality star allure.
To the surprise of many, Trump read his audience correctly when he bashed the Democrats, the Mexican government, Muslims, talk show hosts such as Megyn Kelly, Republicans like John McCain, Karl Rove, and the Bushes. In doing so, he was convinced that he was speaking on behalf of the many powerless, voiceless Americans whose disenchantment with their country included many issues.
Terrorism, security, illegal immigration, changing demographics, the economy’s post financial meltdown, political correctness and environmental regulations were some of their nagging concerns. Trump became their hero and mouthpiece and the wall became a place where the disillusioned majority could find refuge. Trump was savvy with social media and he took his messages and frustrations to Twitter, bypassing the established media outlets:
The Dems don’t want to talk ISIS b/c Hillary’s foreign interventions unleashed ISIS & her refugee plans make it easier for them to come here.
The clash of two slogans
In the end, it was apparent that Trump’s rhetoric and symbol, although couched in the politics of polemics and protectionism, reached deep into the hearts and aspirations of rural, White and conservative Americans. They ushered him to victory on November 8th. Arguably, the fact that Clinton won the popular vote and, that her electoral college loss amounting to approximately 100,000 votes in three rust belt states, are factors that will no doubt continue to consume researchers.
While Clinton’s glass ceiling in the main, represented her personal ambition to be the nation’s first female president, Trump’s wall was presented as a project for the nation’s greater good. The glass ceiling represented social and cultural unity for an inclusive America, while the wall promised economic prosperity and security for “the people”.
Clinton’s image held promise as a “barrier-breaking” opportunity for females, minorities and the LGBT community while Trump’s “closed” image brought relief and consolation to those whose jobs were outsourced.
The glass ceiling was a positive metaphor about building a nation with an embrace that was ‘hopeful, inclusive and big hearted’, while Trump’s wall was largely framed in a negative, divisive and polarized manner. The emotional appeal of Trump’s wall was in direct opposition to Clinton’s free movement policies in our globalised world. Many perceived Clinton’s symbol as too elitist and far removed from rural, White America hit by Obamacare’s high health premiums, loss of jobs due to globalisation, and fear of terrorism. Clinton’s symbol also did nothing to tackle the roots of poverty.
On election night, Clinton, buoyant in the hopes of a much-predicted win embellished by the major pollsters, political pundits and social media soothsayers, chose to hold her victory celebrations at Manhattan’s Jacob Javits Centre where there is a gigantic, transparent ceiling—a dramatic way to consummate her victory. Outside the Javits Centre, fireworks over the Hudson River was planned to usher in the historic victory of the first female President in the USA. However, as the results started to come in, reality set in. Clinton’s dreams were shattered into smithereens. The glass ceiling at Javits Centre remained intact.