How Trump Won: Part 1

Luke Johnson | SIPA 2018

Since the election results came in, SIPA, along with most of New York and much of the country (and, dare say, the world) have been asking: how did this happen? We have recently had several make-shift events over the past few days to address this question. Although the reasons are many, this blog will explore two ideas in more depth: a feeling of under-representation among a section of American voters and the current state of the US economy.


On the Trump website, the first line is:

“We showed America the silent majority is no longer silent.”

The phrase “the silent majority” was originally used by Nixon in reference to people who were not demonstrating against the Vietnam war. It is now used to describe those people who feel under-represented in the American democracy. It is difficult for us to understand how this would be possible for the Red states that have a large population of white protestant males, but let’s explore it a little.

Perhaps there is a view among conservatives that liberals view the white poor through one lens and the minority poor through another. Whereas the liberals are emphasizing the need to help the minority poor, with the justification that their current socio-economic situation is the result of institutionalized racism and oppression inherent in the system, this compassion does not extend to the white poor, who, as white protestant, are believed to be categorically privileged. But the privilege pie can be cut in many ways.

During orientation week at SIPA, each one of us had to participate in an exercise called “a privilege circle,” in which we stood around a circle, and different statements related to privilege were spoken. If they applied to you, you took a step forward. One of them was “are you a white male”. I took a step forward. In acknowledging my race and gender, all my accomplishments felt stripped from me. It was suggesting that what success I have achieved so far in life was less (or altogether not) a result of my personal drive, effort, and focus, and, instead, it was given to me by society. That was a crappy feeling. But this was not the only point of privilege, much also revolved around income, access to education, trips to the museum, etc.

Do Trump supporters feel privileged? Should they? Could starting income and circumstances be another factor? How beneficial to upward mobility is being white in an all-white community? Is the correlation coefficient of race-or-gender-to-success higher or lower than starting-income-to-success? I do not know the answers to these questions, and I do not know anyone who does.

Jennifer Senior from the New York Times reviewed JD Vance’s bestselling novel Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis”, which, I think, was really, really well done. Some excerpts from the review:

“On the checklist of modern privilege, Mr. Vance, 31, has the top four in the bag: He is white, male, straight and Protestant.

But his profile is misleading. His people – hillbillies, rednecks, white trash, choose your epithet (or term of affection, depending on your point of view) – didn’t step off the Mayflower and become part of America’s ascendant class. ’Poverty is the family tradition,’ he writes. His ancestors and kin were sharecroppers, coal miners, machinists, millworkers – all low-paying, body-wearying occupations that over the years have vanished or offered diminished security.”

For me, I think it is a privilege to come to Columbia, and I am greatly honored that I was accepted into this community! So was JD Vance, who was able to rise above his family’s circumstances and graduate from Yale Law School. But, those who do not have access to this kind of higher education are denied the privilege that follows. One of the most common conversations I had with fellow students since coming here would go something like: “Who would support Trump?! I wish I could just meet one to study and observe them.” There are not many conservative voices here. Further in the article, Jennifer Senior writes:

“His friends and relations are convinced that the media lies. That politicians lie. That the military, an institution they revere, is fighting two fruitless wars. Universities feel ‘rigged’ and inaccessible; job prospects are slim”

There is an argument among many liberals that people should diversify for the sake of diversity. But, like privilege, diversity can be cut many ways. Are we speaking about political diversity? Socio-economic diversity? Intellectual diversity? Really, we are speaking about geographic and ethnic diversity. For such a melting pot, all of us have very similar views. I am probably the farthest right-leaning of most people here, and I consider myself a moderate.

The Economy

From this perspective, with eight years of democratic leadership, most of the country (at least, from an electoral college standpoint) feels like they are the ‘silent majority’ who have not been represented. Additionally, in terms of economic status, they have not grown at the same rate as others. During the discussion yesterday, Professor Ester Fuchs offered another reason for how Trump won:

“The majority of people do not agree with the things he said or that he said them, so people compartmentalized. They decided that what he said wasn’t who he was and reflect what was important to them. There are two pieces of data to put out on the issues, one is the difference between Clinton and Trump supporters on how they viewed the economy. So the people who thought the economy was excellent, 83% of them voted for Clinton, the people who thought the economy was poor, 79% of them voted for Donald Trump. So to dismiss this whole election as simply reflecting the haters is really inaccurate.”

Additionally, Professor Andrea Bubula, at 9:15 AM on the day after the election results were in, came in and discussed “Trumponomics”. He offered one of his own explanations for the problem. He introduced us to the “Elephant Curve”:


Source: The American Prospect, using data provided by Branko Milanovic; from Bilescorak website

The graph shows global income growth from 1988 – 2008. It suggests that globalization has helped out emerging economies (India and China, mainly) and the global elite / wealthy elite (the top 1% in the US, for instance), but has done little to help both the very poor (such as certain parts of Africa and elsewhere) and the already established developed-world middle class (such as middle America).

In the Conceptual Foundations course, we discussed the Dependency international relations theory, in which globalization is essentially expulsion, something that Saskia Sassen has written in depth about on “Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy”. So, there is a whole school of thought representing the plight on the far left part of this graph, and with it, liberals are quick to fight for them, but perhaps there is a vacuum for those fighting for those affected by the second dip? Enter Trump and his message.

On the Trump website, one of the articles is titled: “Clinton’s Globalist Trade Policies have been Devastating for American Jobs”. It is interesting that, on this sense, Saskia Sassen and Donald Trump would both agree that globalization is exploitative, but on different groups. To suggest that these two agree on something is a shuddering thought, but you could say the same thing about Bernie Sanders and Trump supporters as well.

Bernie supporters are Trump supporters with their anger focused in a different direction. Whereas Bernie focused his anger towards the top 1% (greatest winners), Trump focused his support and message on the ‘Middle-America’ dip. An interesting point of research would be to see what counties voted for Bernie in the primaries, but then Trump in the election. After all, they have similar messages when taken in the context of this graph.

There are many other different possible reasons as well, particularly the disconnect between conservative and liberal values, but that can be saved for a future post.

* Featured Image by Rich Schultz from Associated Press


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