In a sentence….
Donald Trump won because he was able to unify the traditional core of Republican support, while also winning traditional Democratic states in the Midwest with his anti-globalist, ‘American First’ populism, and was aided in doing so by massive media coverage of his campaign and a general lack of enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton.
In a victory of the soundbite over policy, of celebrity over experience, of backlash over progress, and of division over unity, Donald Trump marshalled enough of the long term discontent in previously Democratic states in the Midwest to shatter the ‘blue wall’ of Democratic states, while also mustering the combined force of the Republican base across the nation.
Across the Midwest, Trump captured the attention of people who wanted change, without knowing exactly what change. It is not a coincidence that many of these voters were focused in localised areas of economic decline where there were once thriving heavy industries like coal and steel. Added to which, the unfortunate racial tone of much of his rhetoric found a captive audience in predominantly white parts of these states.
The ability Trump of sell a simple answers on complex problems should in no way be understated: he spoke to the common man, in crudely basic terms about monumentally complex issues. Integrate new immigrants and unify America during ethnic change? Build a wall. Rolling back, and then destroying ISIS? Secret plan. Addressing healthcare and the problems with Obamacare? Replace with something better. Reversing long term decline and job losses in industry? Make deals. Tackling the threat of international terrorism? Ban Muslims. Trumpism was less about taking a blunt object to these problems than becoming a blunt object and refusing to engage with complexity.
There would be no Trump without the media. Parlaying the language of anti-elitism, he feasted on negative news coverage during the primaries and general election, preaching to his followers that the ‘elite’ outlets of news were biased against him. Perversely, the media was often complicit with his rise, enjoying the benefits of a larger audience for their political news, so the spotlight firmly remained on Trump. He hit his opponents without any impression of decorum, used his own celebrity to grapple the media, and firmly targeted his messaging to white Americans who could break the ‘blue wall’ of Democratic friendly states.
Some argue that Trump recognised the importance of media dominance, and orchestrated outrages including his spat with the Khans and Alicia Machado in order to retain media attention. Perhaps this is true, but it may be more likely that this simply was an angry old man with a Twitter account who appreciated that his version of being genuine often entailed being controversial, and that his supporters accepted this. The media, meanwhile, never could take their eyes off this candidate bringing the crassness of reality TV into a U.S. presidential election.
Hillary Clinton’s detailed policy proposals simply could not compete with the outrageous showmanship of Trump, with the unfortunate consequence that her email scandal dragged the national choice into a ‘worse of two evils’ false equivalency. Many complaints were centred on the absence of hard policy in this election, but it was there in spades in the Clinton campaign. The campaign undoubtedly paid too much time criticising Trump at the expense of selling their practical solutions, but the idea that there was nothing of consequence on offer in 2016 is misguided.
Nevertheless, there is the inescapable truth that general enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton was not high enough to counteract Trump’s rise. If her polling advantage with women had been realised on election day the Democrats could realistically have won Florida, North Carolina, and Michigan, counteracting Trump’s strength in other Midwestern states. In the event, her support was broad but too shallow, while Trump drilled down into his core constituency of less educated, white Americans across the Rust Belt to expose a catastrophic electoral wound for the Democrats.
In addition, Hillary Clinton also faced the problem of running as a continuity candidate against the glamour and excitement of a change candidate. It is not unthinkable that some voters might have voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and then Donald Trump in 2016: these voters may not spend time looking at specific policy plans, or even consider party vision in their decision making process. Instead, for some the general air of change or disruption is attractive. The irony in 2016 was that Barack Obama was remarkably popular going into the election, but that a majority of Americans still felt like the country was going in the ‘wrong direction’.
Hillary Clinton was unable to fly in the tailwind of Barack Obama’s personal popularity, and the title of The Great Disrupter fell on Donald Trump, a braggart businessman with zero experience in government or patience to learn.
The great unknown factor is that of gender. The problem is very few voters will admit to actively letting gender influence their decision making, but the importance of gender in this election is unquestionable. Americans have never had to choose between a woman and a man for their president, and the man in question was widely acknowledged to have misogynistic tendencies. While outright sexism towards Hillary Clinton was rare in 2016, though not unheard of, the broader issue is the extent to which the reaction to her controversies and statements was altered by her gender. Would Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders, for example, have undergone such prosecutorial criminalisation Trump charged on Clinton? Would Trump’s supporters have been chanting ‘Lock him up, lock him up’, especially in light of Trump’s own controversies regarding tax and sexual assault?
Historians will trawl through this election for years to understand and interpret Trump’s victory, men and women in bars will make sweeping statements about why Trump won for decades, and partisans will bicker over the legitimacy of the win after such a wide loss in the popular vote. Whatever the verdict, Donald Trump will be the forty fifth President of the United States.