Sunday, November 13, 2016

Why Trump Won the 2016 Presidential Election

Donald Trump's stunning victory was propelled by millions of white blue-collar and rural communities concerned about jobs and the economy. This observation was especially true in the Rust Belt states, a geographic region that Democrats traditionally carried in the general elections. In a nutshell, Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 presidential election because her platform ignored the overriding concerns of white working- and middle-class families in the Rust Belt.

While racism and sexism may have played some role, the effect was minimal in the general election. I believe voter suppression laws exist, and the gutting of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder (2013) is a disgraceful travesty. But voter suppression does not fully explain why the five Rust Belt battleground states (Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania) turned red in the general election. These states are demographically similar so the polls missed other key factors.

Breakdown of the Election Results

Most Trump supporters are not racist or sexist. More white women (53%) voted for Trump than Clinton. Trump also performed better among African Americans and Latino voters than Republican nominee Mitt Romney did in 2012. On top of that, two-thirds (67%) of white voters without college degrees and over 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump. Both groups are concentrated in middle America.

One-third of nearly 700 counties that voted twice for Obama in 2008 and 2012 supported Trump in the general election. Former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (I-VT) stated in his New York Times op-ed that "millions of people who voted for Mr. Trump did so because they are sick and tired of the economic, political and media status quo." Trump supporters were seeking a presidential candidate who spoke directly on the immediate needs of the struggling middle class.

Trump supporters also included millions of traditional Democrats--white blue-collar families. The Democratic party used to serve as the base of the labor movement. The New Deal coalition of Democrats and labor unions was formed under the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. By 1964, the Midwest had the highest concentration of manufacturing jobs and union workers in America. While union membership has fallen in the last fifty years, organized labor still remains a strong presence in the Midwest.

Nonetheless, the Democratic national platform continued to ignore the devastating impact of globalization and free trade in these communities. Since the 1970s, the Rust Belt has struggled with economic decline, population loss, and urban decay due to the shrinkage of its industrial sector. Oscar-winning filmmaker and Michigan native, Michael Moore, predicted a Rust Belt Brexit in the industrial Great Lakes region: "From Green Bay [WI] to Pittsburgh, this, my friends, is the middle of England – broken, depressed, struggling, the smokestacks strewn across the countryside with the carcass of what we use to call the Middle Class ... What happened in the [United Kingdom] with Brexit is going to happen here." 

According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the American economy lost nearly 700,000 jobs because of NAFTA. Deindustrialization and globalization have decimated many once-thriving small cities and rural communities across the country. Well-paying blue collar jobs have been replaced by low-wage service jobs (with no fringe benefits) that do not realistically support a family. These forgotten voters felt betrayed by traditional politicians who ignored their economic plight.

As an unconventional candidate, Trump accomplished the unthinkable—he reached out to blue-collar and union households and became their champion by assailing trade agreements that outsourced manufacturing jobs to Mexico and other low-wage countries. Exit polls revealed that Trump did exceedingly well with union households.

Overview of the Rust Belt: The Industrial Heartland of America  

Rust Belt Democrats warned the Clinton campaign to not take the industrial Great Lakes region for granted. The Clinton campaign's major mistake was focusing on future demographic shifts and disregarding current realities: the Rust Belt is demographically different from the more liberal Northeast and West Coast. Predominately white (80-90% white) and traditionally reliant on the manufacturing and steel industries, the Rust Belt contains a large presence of blue-collar and union households--many of whom lacked college degrees but nonetheless achieved the treasured American Dream.

Additionally, the Rust Belt is known as "America's Heartland", the centralized population of industrial production for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. The inhabitants espouse strong moral convictions (due to the high concentration of Protestants in smaller cities and rural areas) and a shared sense of common American values. They also clung to the lauded Protestant ethic (a pragmatic belief that hard work and perseverance rooted in humility pays off in the long run). These factors culturally instilled a form of American patriotism tied to production.

This Midwestern behavior comes across as provincial and conservative to outsiders but this assumption also reveals how the rise of secularized identity liberalism is incompatible with households who want to protect American traditional values and culture. It is important to recall that the foundation of American government is rooted in English common law, Enlightenment thought, and Protestant Christianity. It was divine intervention--the grace of God--that helped the colonists defeat the much larger and better trained British forces during the American Revolution.

Furthermore, the Democratic national platform's laundry list of identity positions--marriage equality, transgender rights, comprehensive immigration reform, bilingual education, refugee resettlement, and environmental issues--did not correspond to white working- and middle-class families in the Rust Belt, who have experienced in the last decade shrinkin workforcesloss of young talent to other stateswage stagnation, and rising cost of health care insurance premiums. Basically, Clinton never tweaked her campaign message to focus on quality-of-life issues--a disconnect that contributed to her astonishing and humiliating defeat in the Rust Belt.

The Rise of Trump: Economic Populist Message Resonated with Middle America

Trump emerged as the courageous outsider who spoke directly on issues that clearly resonated with struggling white working- and middle-class Americans: jobs, free trade, affordable health care, immigration, and border security. Trump channeled their anger and despair with an economic populist message of hope that he will "make America great again". The general public had never witnessed a recent campaign that captured so much of the American imagination since William Jennings Bryan.

This reassurance from a presidential candidate telling forgotten men and women that they matter is a powerful feeling--an emotion so inspiring that it energized them to get out and vote. This coalition of white blue-collar and rural voters in the Rust Belt turned out to cast their ballots. People who were disenchanted with politics found new hope in the image of Trump-Pence.

In an unexpected move, Trump displayed his leadership style by accepting an invitation with Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto and boldly declaring afterwards that Mexico will pay for the construction of a "big beautiful wall" on the U.S.-Mexico border. This power move demonstrated that Trump is not afraid to stand up to other nations. When not hurdling insults, Trump made populist statements that traditional conservative Republicans did not want to hear. White working-class Americans were intrigued with this side of Trump: a successful businessman who is concerned about the future of this nation, not a typical politician beholden to special interest groups.

For millions of white blue-collar and rural Americans who witnessed their jobs outsourced or taken over by low-wage immigrant labor, Trump's economic populist message was music to their ears. Trump's straightforward charisma was a breath of fresh air to voters distrustful of politicians and their broken promises.

Surrounded by abandoned factories, shuttered businesses, dilapidated infrastructure, limited employment prospects, growing poverty and drug use, and increasing rates of suicide, these communities wanted change. They wanted a return to an era where a person, like their parents and grandparents, could obtain stable, well-paying full-time jobs that did not require a bachelor's degree or higher. Trump came across as that likeable candidate who courted and understood their pressing economic needs.

The Democrats' Mistakes: Prioritizing Identity Positions Over Economic Issues  

The Clinton campaign targeted wealthy donors, college graduates, minority groups, and Catholics in the big metropolitan areas. They dismissed Trump as a bigoted clown who would implode and fade away. What the Clinton campaign and pundits failed to notice is that Trump is a mastermind of the media. His brazen tweets also provided a voice for the silenced. He excels in creating a powerful personal brand, which enabled him to outperform and defeat his opponents in the primaries

Despite her qualifications, Hillary Clinton also came across as distant and robotic to most white working-class families. After watching the three presidential debates, I asked myself: "To whom is Hillary Clinton speaking? She sounds out-of-touch with middle America." She also did not speak in laymen's terms, delivering detailed talking points filled with jargon that most viewers would not be able to recall the next day (Another blunder was Clinton asking television viewers to visit her campaign website without considering that many rural households still lack high-speed internet access).

Some of her talking points like renewable energy appealed to specific identity groups but were incomprehensible to voters who have never heard of the term. Trump's rally speeches reached a wider audience with short descriptors like "Build the wall" and "Repeal NAFTA" that voters could understand. He also appeared more confident than Clinton. My concerns were not unfounded: Trump broke the seemingly impenetrable blue wall and dominated the Rust Belt region in the 2016 presidential election.

The Hard Truth: A Declining Quality-of-Life in Rust Belt and Rural Areas

Hard-working Americans prioritized quality-of-life issues over identity positions in the 2016 presidential election. Finding decent-paying work was more important than which group(s) has access to the bathroom of their choice. Democrats' desperate accusations of racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia were practically meaningless when Clinton refused to admit that neoliberal economic policies had a devastating impact on working-class communities. All she could muster to offer was job-retraining programs, and this was not what these folks wanted to hear.

For instance, Clinton appointees in the Democratic national platform opposed a draft of the $15 minimum wage amendment, a perfect example of indifference to the growing problem of wage stagnation and growing inequality in this nation. It is no secret that Clinton steers clear of progressive economic policies that help working families struggling financially throughout most of Obama's presidency.

The "basket of deplorables" whom Clinton labeled as "irredeemable" trumped the establishment--the elite ruling class in business, government and the mass media who condescendingly ridiculed anyone who didn't support Hillary Clinton. The Democratic national platform has become the party of the super-rich by using identity positions to cover up the establishment's quest for greater wealth, power and influence. Trump was scolded in the media while Clinton supporters exempted their own behavior (see this YouTube video). It is no wonder then that white working-class communities did not want to endure four more years of alienation, denigration, and economic misery.

Finally, Clinton did not energize women, blacks, Latinos, and millennials the same way as Obama did in the 2008 and 2012 elections. She made no effort to visibly reach out to undecided voters in key battleground states until it was too late (competent people do not vote based on the endorsements of celebrities and entertainers). Her arrogance, intellectual bigotry, and penchant for secrecy led to her downfall.

Clinton's Neoliberal Legacy Hurt Her Support Among Working-Class Americans

Hillary Clinton also made critical mistakes during her career that resulted in the loss of supporters. Her support for free trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)--which she later retracted--weakened her public image as a defender of working families. The passage of NAFTA contributed to the spike in illegal immigration in the U.S. She also supported China's entrance into the World Trade Organization (Established in 1995, WTO is an intergovernmental organization that monitors international trade and protects investors' rights). This move opened up the U.S. market to China.

Other polarizing policies she vigorously defended from Bill Clinton's presidency--the crime billwelfare reform, and Wall Street deregulation--reappeared in the media with scholarly critiques of their devastating impact on low-income and minority communities, especially African Americans (In a 1996 speech, she implicitly described young black men as a "gang of super predators" with "no conscience, no empathy". She later expressed regret for her word choice.). Ultimately, Hillary Clinton was never able to separate herself from her husband’s neoliberal legacy--a factor that contributed to less enthusiasm for her historic nomination and lower voter turnout.

Another miscalculation by the Clinton campaign was ignoring the impact of Bernie Sanders' unanticipated primary victory in Michigan. Sanders’ victory in a Rust Belt state was enough to shatter the widely held assumption that Clinton would cruise into the White House. His anti-free trade platform captivated many white blue-collar Democrats.

Both the Clintons and Obama supported trade policies that decimated much of the Democratic base in the industrial Great Lakes region. A new form of class consciousness emerged in which blue-collar Democrats saw a direct connection between globalization and economic decay in their own communities. And Jeff Faux nailed it in his op-ed: "America’s globalized capitalism can live with the politics of race, gender, and sexual identity. But it is implacably hostile to organized labor."

When Sanders ended his campaign, some of his supporters gravitated toward Trump who espoused a similar economic populist agenda. Meanwhile, Clinton and her diehard supporters--who came across as smug and self-righteous social justice warriors who shamed and scolded anyone who did not agree with their views--ignored the free trade position. They became complacent in their contempt for working-class Americans. Thus, they learned the hard way on election night (watch this Saturday Night Live parody)--a resounding defeat that left everyone stunned and speechless.

Adding to her misfortune, Clinton was not perceived as a change agent but as a companion to Wall Street. She did not come across as an aggressive candidate who will, in Harry Truman's words, become a "voice of the common man" and take on the establishment, which has ruined countless lives in the pursuit of greater profits. Sadly, liberal elites were tone-deaf to the economic anxieties of working-class Americans.


The liberal media, pundits, pollsters and academics overlooked this demographic. Why were their predictions of the 2016 presidential election so wrong? While the Clinton campaign focused on the Latino vote, they also disregarded the white working-class vote (who are far more numerous in the key battleground states). They were overly concerned with proper speech rather than what made Trump's message so appealing. They relied on data analytics that could not capture human emotions.

The hypocrisy is the Democratic national platform advocated for the rights of minority groups while at the same time denigrated whites and Christians who cherished American traditional values. Clinton lost the presidential election because she ultimately failed to present an economic agenda grounded in moral and patriotic feelings that resonated with white working-class communities in middle America. 

Trump told the audience in his victory speech that “the forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.” This statement epitomizes Trump's economic populist message that helped him sweep the Rust Belt battleground states to victory.