Chapter 2 – Why did Donald Trump Become President?
Mike Ras, Senior Counsel
We’ve examined the mechanics of how Donald Trump became President and the evidence points to a combination of:
- poor campaign execution by the Clinton campaign (they didn’t turn out their vote);
- unexpectedly good campaign execution by the Trump campaign where they turned out every last one of their identified supporters and made up for the traditional Republicans they lost by finding new voters for their pool; and
- some fortuitous “switchers” in some key states that moved from the Obama coalition to the Trump camp, at least for this election cycle.
Now, let’s look at the why?
I think there are four main reasons why Donald Trump’s message resonated and was able to speak to the middle class in the middle of the country. The first is a story of economic dislocation. The second is a story of mastery of media. The third is an age-old story in politics: the simple message wins. And fourth, it has to be acknowledged, is a story of racism and sexism.
With respect to the first reason … these charts show clearly that the bottom 80% of the population have stagnated for many years now and they are not going to put up with it anymore. The American dream has left them behind. The top 20% are doing relatively well and trending up much faster than the rest.
And perhaps most telling …
Working class white men without a high-school diploma saw their income drop 9% between 1996 and 2014, according to a report from Sentier Research. This group earned only $36,787, on average, in 2014, down from $40,362 in 1996.
In 1996, if you had a high school diploma you could work for an auto parts company, a manufacturer, a mining company and make a great middle-class living. In 2016, you can’t. Even if the job was there to be had, you were making less to do the same work. You simply can’t live in places like Chicago, New York … or Toronto … on $36,000, so you’re making less and your standard of living is even worse. Meanwhile, college educated white men saw their income rise nearly 23% over the same period, from $77,209 to $94,601.
The second reason I would give to credit Donald Trump’s win is to credit his mastery over new media that proved Marshall McLuhan right again: The medium is the message.
FDR mastered radio in the 30’s.
Kennedy and Reagan mastered TV and especially the ability to get the 10-second sound-bite onto the evening news.
Bill Clinton mastered late-night talk shows (remember his appearance on Arsenio Hall?) He connected and empathized through the TV screen better than anyone before or since.
Barack Obama used the internet and the early days of social media to organize and to raise hundreds of millions of dollars in small donations.
Donald Trump figured out how to master the new social media and especially Twitter and, to a lesser extent, talk radio and Facebook to amplify his message directly to his core pool of voters.
Yes, Trump was outrageous on Twitter and continues to be, but that’s how he got attention and was able to reinforce the message that he was an outsider. No “insider” or career politician would ever say such outrageous things! He used Twitter to speak directly to his people and to get them activated.
The mainstream media in the U.S. all thought that the only people on Twitter were other urban, professional types - just like them. It's true, urban, cultured, media types were on Twitter, and they were talking to themselves. But there were other people on twitter too, and they weren’t reading the New York Times Twitter feed. Donald Trump had those people following his every word – about 15 million people, in fact. And those 15 million were then using mediums like Facebook and blogs and talk radio to further amplify that message to each other.
Most importantly, Trump turned social media’s biggest challenge – the fact that it’s an echo chamber – into his biggest asset. His large following on Twitter made it ok for other followers to support his beliefs. They normalized what the rest of us might call outrageous behaviour and outrageous positions. His “straight talk” and shunning of “political correctness” (what some might just call rude, racist, misogynist, bullying) made it ok for people who shared in those beliefs or were energized by them because he connected millions of others who believed the same things. Instead of being shunted to the fringes of society, a whole lot of people became empowered to believe they were now in the mainstream. (That’s what the “alt-right” movement is all about. It’s an “alternative” that was on the fringe and is now mainstream, or at least heading that way … as I shudder at the thought.)
The third factor relates to the simplicity of the message.
- Make America Great Again
- Build a wall
- Rip up NAFTA
- Stop the Chinese currency manipulation
- Drain the swamp
- “What the hell have you got to lose?”
Simple messages. Easy to understand; easy to rally behind. And a maxim of politics is that “simple messages win” because simple messages resonate.
Contrast that with Hillary Clinton’s message. Think hard. It’s only been a few weeks now. What was her message?
I’ll give you a hint (and I had to go looking for it). She talked about fairness and helping the middle class … and so much more. Too much, in fact. You can’t boil the Hillary message down to one thing, with the possible exception of the phrase: “I’m with her”. This was meant as a signal to women that being with her was going to help break the glass ceiling (laudable, to say the least), but it also suggested that you had to like her and “be on her side” even if you found her personally and politically lacking.
And that leads to the final point. Let there be no doubt that there was a distinct and real element of sexism and racism that ran through the campaign which motivated a certain portion of the population.
Trump did give a voice to a number of people who might never have voted before precisely because the mainstream candidates of the past were too “moderate” for their tastes. This is an element that cannot be underestimated and is an ugly truth of this campaign. It cannot be ignored and I only hope that Trump takes steps to steer away from this element in the future. Though I have my doubts that he will.
It is also true that there was an impossible double-standard for Secretary Clinton to overcome. Her qualifications and qualities were viewed in the prism of her gender. Her qualities of toughness, drive, energy and desire for power were viewed as negatives, while those same qualities in Donald J. Trump were viewed as positives. Furthermore, his lack of experience in government and his willingness to ignore facts, evidence or the conventions of democratic society were turned into virtues because he was “bucking the system” while Clinton spent the entire campaign defending relatively minor procedural indiscretions that she made in “the system” around whether she used the right e-mail accounts. She became “Crooked Hillary” while it is Trump who is facing numerous law-suits, possible criminal complaints and maybe even tax evasion.
November 19th was the 153rd anniversary of the Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln. 272 words is all Lincoln needed to deliver one of the most powerful and impactful speeches in history. 153 years later, Donald Trump is making a similar impact, 140 characters at a time. Progress?