We were lucky to host Jonathan Capehart for an informative and entertaining lunch with students. Capehart, a Washington Post columnist and MSNBC contributor, fielded student questions about Trump and the current state of politics in America. One question offered by a student prompted a powerful discussion: “Why did Trump win?” This question launched Capehart into a lengthy analysis of contributing factors that led to the election’s outcome. A combination of angry voters with a longstanding frustration with the political establishment, Trump’s media prowess, and the widespread unpopularity of Secretary Clinton created the perfect environment for the political shock that took the world by surprise on November 8th, 2016.
Trump’s base, that ultimately put him in the White House, consists of angry voters who saw no change coming from Washington. Political stagnation throughout the Obama years—through no fault of his own—frustrated these voters. Trump’s base saw Obama’s system as beneficial to the elite and detrimental to the middle class. They wanted a change in Washington, and they voted that change into office. To these voters, Trump represented an anti-establishment presence that could come into the White House and jolt the political system.
Part of Trump’s appeal no doubt sprung from his years as a reality TV personality. He is a media whiz who knows exactly how to gain attention. Always in the headlines, it didn’t matter if Trump made an outrageous comment during the campaign cycle. While this may seem counterintuitive in that someone in the headlines may want to watch what they say, it worked for Trump because his comments and tweets generated an unprecedented amount of free press. His comments were polarizing, electrifying the base and alienating others. But he knew exactly what he was doing. A combination of these controversial statements and Trump’s vague promises to “make America great again” presented him as an ideal candidate to represent the people whose voices had been left unheard by the Obama administration.
On the other hand, the Democrats put forward Secretary Hillary Clinton as their candidate. While she worked her way up the political ladder and served the country throughout her long, industrious career, she represented the political establishment that so many voters had grown to despise. Her career and misuse of her email server as Secretary of State made it easy for Trump’s base, and many undecided voters, to write her off as untrustworthy and/or corrupt. For many of these undecided voters, FBI Director James Comey’s public declaration that the Bureau reopened its investigation into Clinton’s email scandal was the final straw. Just thirteen days before the election, this event may have pushed some undecided voters towards Trump. Those who voted for Trump saw Clinton as an extension of the political establishment, and Trump’s victory signified the voters’ rejection of the status quo.
The perfect storm of political elements combined to allow Trump to win the presidency. His populist appeal drove a disgruntled bloc of voters to his corner, while the unpopularity and perceived corrupt nature of the other major candidate strayed some voters away from her and toward the right. Finally, Trump knew how to manipulate the media to his advantage.