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November 10, 2016
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November 15, 2016

The Reasoning behind the Trump Phenomenon

Elie Al Hindy & Jasmin Lilian Diab


Amidst controversy, Trump won the elections in a landslide victory over Clinton, 232 to 306 Electoral College votes, to be exact. Trump went on to live up to the Brexit-style upset he had promised throughout his campaign, playing on masses of white working-class voters to take-over Florida and North Carolina, put a dent into the Clinton support in Virginia, break through Clinton’s “blue wall,”[1] and win the vote in Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

Worthy of noting is that Clinton has quite likely won the nationwide popular vote according to the New York Times’ live forecast;[2] however, the Electoral College does not apportion votes in proportion to population. Any real conclusions with the aim of understanding the reasoning behind this drastic shift in the United States political agenda is merely preliminary at this stage, but a number of factors, coupled with his highly strategic campaign, seem to have been vital to Trump’s victory in the Electoral College.

I) America is Divided:

The Trump camp tactic delivered an immediate blow at the Clinton campaign’s “Stronger Together” slogan, seen as more of an idealistic approach to an obviously divided population.  Trump telling his voters he will “Make America Greater Again”, made his campaign appealing to more of the realities on the ground rather than the realities the American population had been promised for years under the establishment and which had not materialized.

The USA appears today as “populations and geographies that barely seem to belong in the same country, if not on the same planet. The electorate is so divided that many states went for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton by lopsided margins. The Northeast was solidly Democratic, with Clinton winning New York, Massachusetts and Vermont with three-fifths of the vote or more. Washington, D.C., heavily black and the seat of the bureaucracy and pundit class, delivered an almost Soviet-style 93% to 4% margin. On the other side were a series of states where Trump won just as easily, including Tennessee and Kentucky, with three-fifths of the vote, and West Virginia, by a margin of two-to-one”.[3]

After all, white voters still constitute around 70% of the US votes and it was too early to count them out, notably when they are unhappy with 8 years of the first black president who did not deliver on his promises and when seeing the non-white minorities constantly taking to the streets and asking for more rights.

II) The Revolt of Middle America:

America is a nation of many economies, but it was the more tangible industries – food, fiber, energy and manufactured goods – who overwhelmingly voted for Trump. “He won virtually every state from Appalachia to the Rockies, with the exceptions of heavily Hispanic Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico, and President Obama’s home base of Illinois”.[4]

Some of his biggest margins were in energy states where the fracking revolution created a burst of prosperity. Generally speaking, the more carbon-intensive the economy, the better the Republicans did. These states include Ohio, Texas, Louisiana, Wyoming, Idaho, and especially West Virginia, where he won by a remarkable margin of 68% to 27%. The energy industry could well be the biggest financial winner in the election.

Clinton’s support for climate change legislation was also damaging to her campaign, as the issue has a much lower priority among the electorate than other concerns – it is seen as injurious to them. On the other hand Trump focused on the market flooding by East Asian products, the huge US China trade deficit (reaching 40 Bn $ in favor of China) and continuous migration of industries out of the USA.

III) Hostility to Liberal Migration Policies

Trump rallied voters against immigrants in an unprecedented manner in American history. Moreover, in his announcement speech, he not only infamously promised to build a wall on the Mexican border, but also went on to state that the Mexicans would “pay for it.” Trump’s hate-speech towards the immigrant population and his promises to deport 11 million unauthorized immigrants sparked divisions between racial groups of the population, and played on deeply suppressed visions of who the American population viewed as the “American people” and who they viewed as “the other.” Trump played on this further in his xenophobic and nationalistic policies which the media, academics, politicians and the international community lawfully condemned. In particular, they condemned his verbal assaults on the American-Mexicans and American-Muslims. Despite this condemnation, Trump understood that aggression toward immigration and globalization ran deep among a critical mass of American voters, particularly, the mass of voters he was concerned with rallying. Again, it is not a surprise that Trump did remarkably well in the traditionally blue states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania, all of which have significant populations of male, white working-class voters.[5]

IV) Minorities, Women and Youth Failed Clinton
Gender gap in vote choice: 1996-2016

Figure 1: Source: Pew Research Center

A major reality contributing to the shock of the Clinton campaign was the fact that she failed to gain the margins of victory necessary with minority voters and the general youth population. According to exit polls (any poll questionable at this point) Clinton received 88% of the African-American vote. Although a strong performance undeniably, Obama received 93% of the African-American vote in 2012. Even more shocking is that despite Trump’s remarks about the overall immigrant population in general, he appears to have performed better than former Republican runner Mitt Romney did with the Latino vote.

African Americans

Figure 2: Source: US Census Bureau

The exit poll stated that 65% of Latino voters voted for Clinton, while an impressive 29% voted for Trump.[6] In the area of young voters Clinton also witnessed a major upset compared to 2012, when Obama was able to get 60% of the youth vote (ages 18 to 29), while Clinton was able to secure only 54% of this age group.[7] It evidently cannot be overturned that men were primarily responsible for Trump’s win on November 3rd. The exit poll illustrates that the female vote for Clinton with a margin of only 12% (54% to 42% in Clinton’s favor), yet another shock amid sexual assault allegations and highly sexist statements made by Trump earlier on throughout his career and throughout his campaign. Men voted for Trump by the same 12% margin (53% to 41% in Trump’s favor).[8]


Figure 3: Source:

Another shocking realization was the fact that both race and class were more than able to trump gender. A clear example of this is among white female voters without college degrees (17% of the overall population of voting age) who voted for Trump by a 28% margin (62% to 34% in Trump’s favor). If white women had been divided down the middle, or ever divided 60 to 40 in their votes, this would have ensured a Clinton Presidency.[9]

V) The Rebellion against the Establishment

An ever-growing rebellion against the class of political elites and the eager wait of the American public for a fresh face, Trump will be the first president who does not have elective office experience to be elected into office since Dwight Eisenhower was elected President in 1953. Not to strike an immediate comparison to their overall lines of experience, but noteworthy is that they both used their lack of government experience as an asset to their campaigns. What Trump played on is the issue of trust. Amid a widespread anti-establishment spirit which has swept across the US in 2016 in a truly non-twenty-first-century fashion, Trump’s vulgar, uncontrolled and “unfiltered” if one may, style struck a chord with old and new voters who saw it as more genuine and less tactical than a highly tailored, cautious and controlled Clinton. With this approach, Trump positioned himself as someone “new”. Clinton simply could not shake the establishment that she has been entangled in for years. Simply put, Clinton was seen as the establishment’s candidate, an imprint that proved terminal to her campaign. Further inducing this notion, and tarnishing her image as an “agent of change” even more, is indeed the outward and direct endorsements she received from the Obama Administration. In a sadly brilliant but true admission, one must be non-bias in stating that Trump’s use of Clinton’s “bad” experience in the White House, Senate and State Department against her was a game changing move.[10]

Furthermore, FBI Director James Comey’s October 28, 2016 letter to the US Congress, announcing the FBI’s plans to reopen investigation into Clinton’s State Department emails created a drastic shift in the momentum of the race. It was almost as though people were reminded of this just as they were verging on forgetting.[11]

VI) The Change of the “Nature” of the US Political Competition

The focus on liberalism and freedoms that surged in the nineties (favoring abortion, stem cell research, marijuana legalization, and LGBT rights) is today settled, and even the most conservative Republicans had to concede defeat and start approaching these issues more pragmatically. Pre-emptive wars and full on engagement in international wars proved to be too costly for the Americans on the moral, human loss and economic aspects and a wave of isolationism is clearly overtaking voters across the political parties’ spectrum.  Furthermore, the high hopes for change and anti-establishmentarianism on the economic and political levels that brought Obama to the white house, ended up being deflated and lacked tangible deliverables from the Obama administration on their promises.

This made the Trump discourse focusing on “making America great again” by giving it back to the hard working average “Americans”, closing its borders in the face of migrants and flooding imported products, securing the country from any internal and external security threats, and dealing with the US role in the world very pragmatically-based cost/benefit approach was the magic formula that appealed to the majority of the US voters.

A Trump Era:
Presidential vote by religious affiliation and race

Figure 4: Source: Pew Research Center

His win this November only proves that the deep rooted values of the American population are simply not the ones the Obama or aspiring Clinton Administrations wish to promote. Trump will enter office on January 20th, 2016 with a convenient Republican majority in both the House and the Senate. The 2016 Presidential election has gone on to defy expectations from start to finish, and has not only burnt holes in the political conventional wisdom of the United States, but has also taught both the national and international community not to undermine a candidate who is unconventional, and who wishes to run against an “obvious winner.”

The clear challenge for Trump will not be so much to “punish” these enemies, but to embrace the people — largely middle class, suburban, small town and white — who are not part of his “world,” but are indeed, the faction of the people who made him President. If he embraces his role as a radical reformer, he could do much more good than damage. For example with a flatter tax system, restoring federalism, seizing the advantage of the energy revolution and reviving military preparedness, Trump may actually be able to live up to his campaign slogan. The question is whether he will, or is capable, of making these drastic shifts, among pressure from the Republican Party. A Trump Presidency will be anything but predictable at this point; however, formulating opinions about how it will go will probably prove to be as successful as the criticisms towards his campaign in dictating what is to come.

Further Reading:
Powell. Anita, (10 Nov 2016), Trump’s Election Exposes deep demographic divides in US, Voice of America:
Kotkin, Joel, (9 Nov 2016), The Improbable Demographics Behind Donald Trump’s Shocking Presidential Victory, Forbes:
STRICKLAND, Michael (8 Nov 2016) New York Times Exit Polls:
Freeman, Hadley (10 Nov 2016), I’ve heard enough of the white male rage narrative, The Guardian:
[1] How Clinton lost ‘blue wall’ states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin
[2] The New York Times’s live forecast incorporates the latest voting numbers.
[3] Kotkin J.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Trump wants to build a big, beautiful wall. Here’s all the land (and water) it would have to cover
[6] Ibid
[7] Ibid
[8] Ibid
[9] Ibid
[10] ‘A WHITELASH’ – Trump’s election is a rebellion against Obama and the establishment
[11] Comey notified Congress of email probe despite DOJ concerns

Elie Al Hindy
Elie Al Hindy
Elie Al-Hindy is an associate professor in the Faculty of Law and Political Science, at Notre Dame University – Louaize, Lebanon (NDU), and served previously as the Chairperson of the Department of Government and International Relations (2011-2015). He earned his Ph.D. (2009) in Government and International Relations from the University of Sydney – Australia on the topic of “The Right of Self Determination for Minorities: An Arab Perspective”. He has an MBA in International Affairs and Diplomacy and two bachelor degrees in Political and Administrative Sciences (2000) and in International Affairs and Diplomacy (1998). Dr. Al Hindy’s previous work experience includes the International Management and Training Institute (2002-2004); and tutoring (2005-2009) in the University of Sydney and Macquarie University. Dr. Al-Hindy is an active member, trainer, and consultant in many national and international civil society organizations. He has been also a human rights advocate for more than 15 years. His Civil Society affiliations include: Director of the Middle East Institute for Research and Strategic Studies (MEIRSS) since 2015 Co-Founder & former President of the Board (2010-2017) of ALEF – act for human rights Senior Trainer at the Institute of Citizenship and Diversity Management at ADYAN Foundation Co-Founder of the International and Transitional Justice Resource Center Research interests of Dr. Al Hindy include: Minorities, Consociational Democracy, Citizenship, Lebanese & Middle Eastern Studies, Electoral Engineering, Human Rights, Civil Society, Youth Participation, Religion and Politics, and Peace Education.