Now before I start, please allow me to offer something of a disclaimer. A lot of the following should be treated as theoretical possibility rather than certain fact. Owing both to the complexity of humanity, the fact that the election fallout is still unfolding, not to mention the uncertainty around the man himself, we just don’t know what will happen in the coming weeks, months and years. Neither do we know whether the explanations proffered for Trump’s victory are correct, or the extent to which they are so. Indeed, one of the regrettable consequences of how our 21st century media landscape works is the clamour for immediacy in the wake of significant events – manifesting itself through shallowness, slogan instead of prose, and catchy and ‘confirmation bias esque’ explanations. This is one of the reasons why I’ve waited a little while before offering some thoughts. I believe in potentially seismic times as these, it is wise to let things percolate before spouting off, and I say this as someone who all too often has been guilty of this.
So, why did Trump win? A lot of reasons, probably.
Much of the commentariat have pounced on a whole array of data and hypotheses to try and explain why Donald Trump is now the president elect. Early on, there seemed to be at least two camps, the economic and the socio-cultural. The former argue that this election was won because a high number of poor to middle income voters plumped for Trump – those who have had their incomes squeezed and who have lost jobs (which haven’t been replaced) as the manufacturing bases which formed the bedrock of many communities have moved overseas. It is true that the rust belt states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania all voted Trumpwards. And even more remarkably, there was a 16 point swing toward Trump amongst voters earning $30,000 per year.
Indeed, a core component of politics in the last 30 years has been the consensus around neo-liberalism, an important part of which has been the embrace of globalisation and with that, the embrace of things like international trade arrangements and the free movement of labour. Proponents will argue this has brought widespread national and international economic growth, but inevitably, there have been losers, many of which can be found in the aforementioned rust belt communities. Thus, voters, fed up with seemingly unending economic stagnation wanted change and to them, Trump represented just that. Whether he’ll bring in jobs and greater prosperity for these communities (as he’s promised) is still to be seen, as is the reaction if he doesn’t.
Others have pointed to more cultural and social explanations to explain the result. Yet these explanations aren’t totally divorced from the economic. Again, globalisation, along with what many perceive as the ever increasing pace of social reform (gay marriage, shifting social norms around gender and sexuality), and high levels of immigration has left many in the USA (and in the UK for that matter) feeling threatened, uncertain and increasingly disconnected from debates around what kind of nation they want to live in. Elites, whether they be political, media or otherwise have imposed new ideas on their citizens and many are rebelling. Trump, the scheming pragmatist that he is, capitalised on these legitimate concerns and offered an alternative vision of a better society. As with the above, it is still to be seen whether Trump will have the desire or ability to carry through on bringing about the social reforms many of his voters desire.
I wonder whether to many Trump voters it matters that much whether he actually brings in any significant change. To many, he represented a refreshing change from what had gone before, and he appeared to listen to and represent groups who felt they hadn’t been listened to in a long time. On the flipside, it may be that if Trump and his team are unable to bring in the promised changes, supporters may deem him to be in fact no different from the rest, and a backlash may ensue. It’s worth saying that if the president elect doesn’t do much of what he has promised, excuses are already being made for him. ‘Alt Right’ stalwart Alex Jones for instance, quite literally the day after Trump won, said that the mainstream media and the political elite were scheming against him to make sure he failed. Thus, if Trump does indeed fail, it won’t (in the eyes of Jones and no doubt many of his supporters) be because of any malpractice or incompetence of the Trump administration, but because of an elitist conspiracy to stop him succeeding. It’ll be interesting to see whether many of who voted for him will buy this if perceived failure does ensue.
Moving on, it is impossible to overlook the role race played. It can’t be denied that Trump was supported (and voted in) by those who are overwhelmingly white. White men voted him in by 63% to 31%, whilst most white women also voted in favour of the Trump-meister, despite his infamous comments. There are undoubtedly links between this point and the above; communities affected by the decimation in the manufacturing base in the US (plus many more besides) and who have valid concerns/views regarding immigration tend to be white. Perhaps correspondingly, elements of the ‘coastal media elite’ have wrongly labelled these legitimate concerns regarding immigration, job losses, security and terrorism and economic difficulty as racist, or racially motivated. Yet, as legitimate as these concerns are, it could well be true that there is a genuinely racist overtone to the Trump vote. That is, some voters simply don’t like ethnic minorities, and the fact that the changes brought by pro-globalisation policies have resulted in an increase in the number of people from these ethnic groups, or rather, a perceived increase. Nonetheless, it is imperative not to conflate these two groups.
There are other factors too that could and perhaps should be explored. Others have pointed to educational background being a factor. As seems normal these days, certain commentators and individuals have (both implicitly and explicitly) mocked and derided Trump voters for being stupid. This would be a grave error. For one thing, this label stands at odds with the fact that white men regardless of educational level voted for Trump, and secondly (and more importantly) it gives an excuse to delegitimise certain viewpoints as lesser, without proper engagement, something not helped by the way in which our social media platforms are designed (shouting and sloganeering rather than thoughtfulness and insight.)
Moving on, a piece in the Financial Times also raised the impact of personal values. What particularly caught my eye in this piece was the research cited – it found that most of those analysed DIDN’T change their personal values they had been raised with during university. Further, it found that those who went into degrees around the political and social sciences didn’t find university as an experience which challenged their views on the world, but merely entrenched pre-existing opinions further. This then is a challenge to the oft espoused notion that education is the key to making everyone that bit more ‘tolerant’ and ‘progressive.’ It could be that personal values are entrenched earlier on in the education system, at primary or secondary school. Another alternative could be that parents play a key role in shaping the personal values of their children.
Maybe we’re overanalysing all of this. Celebrated pollster Nate Silver remarked in a podcast just after the election that every so often people just fancy a ‘change.’ It doesn’t go much deeper than that. Every so often, the electorate want a change see a change in the party in power, regardless of whether it’s red or blue. Perhaps this is why Barack Obama back in 2008 utilised the word ‘change’ and placed it front and centre of his campaign (to great effect, he won the thing). He successfully persuaded enough of the US electorate that he was the ‘change’ candidate. Indeed, whatever you think of Trump, few will disagree that he likewise was the ‘change’ candidate in 2016. It is unnecessary to explore what exactly constitutes ‘change’, merely that a decent portion of the electorate feel something different is required every now and then, and whoever happens to be in opposition and perhaps manages to utilise the desire for a different direction reaps the benefits.
Returning back to the media, the way in which this fourth estate works is such that its less about WHAT is said but WHEN it is said. That is, due to the fierce competition for clicks (more clicks means more advertising revenue) there is a race to put out articles which quickly and comfortably offer explanations for certain phenomena or results. By ‘comfortably’, I mean explanations which offer relatively simple explanations for events which although often controversial, confirm one’s view and opinions. This results in publications and websites offering output which sits well with audiences, while at the same time offering novel enough explanations as to generate the advertising revenue. Further, in the age we live, we simply don’t have the time to mull over the reasons for and the implications of certain events. The danger then is at least twofold; a.) we fall for simplistic explanations of the world and the events around us, without leaving ourselves and each other the time to fully consider the evidence and or experiences, and our own views of these experiences, and b.) we naturally gravitate towards explanations which conform to our own pre-determined views of the world and events.
I feel like this latter point has been done to death, but the first point is an important one. In the case of Trump’s victory, I think it’s probably true that all the aforementioned factors, plus more, played a role in the Republican candidate’s victory. Thus, it is true that BOTH economic and cultural factors played a role in his success (as well as many others.) And whilst its fine to focus in on an individual factor and examine its role in an outcome, it is surely just as, if not more, important to consider how ALL the factors interacted with one another to foresee an event. I’ve seen precious little of this in the coverage around Trump; it’s been ‘education levels key to Trump victory’ or ‘economic decline amongst US middle classes key to Trump victory’ etc. Admittedly, considering a number of factors and their relative importance to an event can be very difficult, and is probably beyond the remit of statistics or quantitative research alone. By no means should we give up in the pursuit of explaining events, but as already said, humans are incredibly complex beings, and it therefore might be impossible to totally get to the bottom of why Trump won the election.
So, why did Trump win? A number of reasons, probably.