At the beginning of 2016, few thought Donald Trump, a celebrity tycoon with no experience of working in government, could become the next President of the United States. You would have been laughed out of polite company just for humouring the possibility.
Yet, on 8th November, Trump was elected 45th President of the United States, beating Hillary Clinton 306-232 in the electoral vote count.
Like the UK's vote to leave the EU, the polls did not give Trump much favour. Even in the days running up to the election, polls consistently predicted a Clinton win, with Ipsos Mori/Reuters even predicting a 90% chance of a Democrat victory.
With the election of Trump comes an increasing recognition of the power and popularity of reactionary politics. Trump inherited a platform of right-wing populism that had been building since the 2008 financial crash, and used it to his advantage.
With wages failing to rise alongside inflation, the political climate was opportune for unconventional figures such as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. The federal government was increasingly seen as the enemy of the people, bent on furthering an economic order that has not benefitted many US citizens. From early on, Trump played to this sense of anger and frustration, by painting himself as an ‘anti-establishment’ figure, promising to ‘Make America Great Again’.
Although, on a personal level, Sanders and Trump were polar opposites, on a political level they were very similar. Advocating a radical agenda in response to stagnating living standards, Sanders, like Trump, gathered support from those wanting clear change. Trump paid close attention to the Democrat nominee’s campaign, and once the Democrats had selected Clinton, Trump was free to borrow Sanders’ ideas. Unsurprisingly, many of Sanders’ support bases, such as Wisconsin and Ohio, voted for Trump.
In a related vein, politicians such as Jeremy Corbyn have concluded that Trump’s victory was a result of globalisation, and in particular an economic system of free trade that has taken manufacturing jobs away from the US.
Yet, the pervasive belief that working-class economic disenfranchisement led to Trump’s election is not very robust. It ignores working-class people of colour, and middle-class Trump voters. African-Americans have the highest poverty rate in the country, at 27.4%, followed by Hispanics, at 26.6%, whilst white Americans have a poverty rate of 9.9%. African-Americans and Hispanics largely rejected Trump, despite being the most deprived, whilst many white middle-class voters turned out in support of him.
By focusing too much on economic arguments, we put ourselves in danger of ignoring the role of race, and its bedfellow gender, in the US election. Race, and nationalism, were certainly factors in Trump’s victory. Indeed, the KKK enthusiastically endorsed the Republican candidate, and his main political promises included banning Muslims from entering the country, deporting 11 million migrants, and building a wall between the US/Mexico border. It is equally striking that leaders who have been known for their latent racism, such as Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, and Geert Wilders, all celebrated Trump’s election victory.
Conversely, the election result can be seen as a crushing defeat for the Democrats. Ultimately, not enough voters turned out for Hillary Clinton. Too many felt ambivalent about choosing her, or were unsure of what her message was and how she would change the country.
Although Trump lacked intelligent, well-planned policies, he did succeed in arguing a triad of election promises, namely: reduced immigration, economic protectionism, and infrastructure spending. Almost any observer of politics will remember these key tenets of Trump’s agenda and the memorable soundbites that accompanied them.
Meanwhile, what were Clinton’s messages? Despite her dominating Trump in knowledge and sensibility, Clinton had almost nothing memorable to say. In this sense, she was an easy opponent for the Republicans.
By using sensationalist soundbites, Trump was able to dominate the media coverage of the election. Even at the very beginning of the election, he was given 23 times more coverage than Bernie Sanders. He appeals to a 24 hour, fast-moving media in which thoughtful, considered debate grabs little attention.
For voters who had little understanding of politics, and were largely undecided, Trump’s message could be easily absorbed just by tuning in to a few minutes of election coverage. Clinton’s more nuanced, considered politics required greater understanding. By dominating election coverage, Trump was able to mould the election discourse, directing it towards issues such as immigration and Clinton’s email scandal.
In a year full of political fluctuations, Trump’s election was perhaps the biggest turning point. Although historians of the future will have a stronger understanding of what led to the making of President-elect Trump, what has become clear in 2016 is that the ‘end of history’, that is, the universalisation of western liberal democracy, is not inevitable. The US election has also shown us that politics is far from linear and predictable. From Brexit, to the ousting of Matteo Renzi, to rise and rise of alt-right figures like Trump, it is clear that free-market liberalism still has much persuading to do.