In my master’s thesis, I aimed to shed light on elements and factors which were of key importance in Donald Trump’s presidential triumph in the 2016 US presidential election. The main reason I chose such a topic was my utter surprise back in November 2016 at the result of the election, as Donald Trump was generally considered to be an outsider in the presidential race.
The thesis is divided into three main chapters: Donald Trump’s campaign, Trump’s voters, and the role of media. The main chapters are preceded by a brief explanation of how the Electoral College works. The first chapter investigates the controversial campaign, which could be described as populistic. Among the most important elements that ensured Trump’s success was his unconventional and tough rhetoric, which made him very distinctive from politicians as we know them. The underlying theme of Trump’s campaign was anti-establishment rhetoric to distinguish himself from regular politicians. His language was harsh and aimed at people’s inner fears, anger and the negative emotions that the people felt towards immigration, growing cultural diversity and the economic situation. Donald Trump exploited such emotions, fears and anxieties in the people in his speeches, which attracted mostly white middle-class workers. He also succeeded by appealing to negative attitudes that the people held towards the Clintons (Hillary Clinton was his main rival throughout the race), exploiting them by making harsh remarks and even by spreading false information in order to harm her electability. A desire for strong, authoritarian-like leadership has arisen among the American public, although the people are not seeking dictatorship as we know it, but rather someone who will pursue strong policies, especially regarding illegal immigration.
The fact that Donald Trump ran on the Republican ticket caused shifts within the Republican Party, as the Republicans did not support his candidacy. During his campaign, Donald Trump even aimed his harsh remarks at them – to show that he simply would not be stopped or discouraged by anything or anyone.
The second chapter deals with Donald Trump’s voters, focusing mostly on their education levels as well as their views on American identity and other reasons that drove them to vote for Trump. This chapter also investigates why women and Hispanics voted for Mr. Trump, as they had very often been targets of his tough rhetoric.
It is important to note that there was no such thing as one type of Trump voter. The people who voted for him were of different demographic groups and their reasons spanned from immigration (legal and illegal), gun ownership, anti-abortion attitudes, economic prosperity, hostility towards the Clintons to the very core of the notion of the American identity.
As for education, Donald Trump won the white non-college vote decisively, with 52 percent. People with lower levels of education were more prone to manipulation by appeals to their emotions and to the making of political decisions based on emotions rather than reason and facts.
There was also notable support from women and Hispanic voters, with 42 percent of women and 28 percent of Hispanic voters voting for Donald Trump. Women voted for Trump for various reasons, such as fear of immigration and Muslims in general, economic anxiety or simply not wanting Clinton to be the president. Many women were well aware of the controversy surrounding Trump and his harsh remarks aimed at women, but most of them were willing to accept these, as they believed that he was the only one who would achieve what they wanted from the president of the United States. Some of them even condoned his behaviour.
The reasons of Hispanic voters were similar. Many of them supported Donald Trump as they considered him a role model because of his business empire. Some Hispanic voters even stated their agreement with his strong policy regarding immigration from Mexico and admitted that their own relatives were among those trying to cross the US-Mexico border illegally. Trump appealed to many Hispanics because of his promises to take better care of veterans and army. One Hispanic woman mentioned that she shifted from the Democratic Party to vote for Trump because she saw him being constantly shown as the villain while Clinton received almost saviour-like coverage.
To sum up, women and Hispanics voted for Donald Trump mainly because they shared his views on immigration and business, wilfully ignoring his controversial behaviour as they believed that it would not prevent him from pursuing his political promises.
The final chapter, on the role of media, deals with Donald Trump’s war with the mainstream media, which constantly underestimated him and did not consider him a serious candidate for the presidency. Donald Trump had wide experience in show business, so he knew how to get the attention that was crucial for his success. His tough and unconventional rhetoric and behaviour attracted the attention of the media, and even though its coverage of his campaign was quite negative, his popularity rose. During the 2016 presidential campaign, the phenomenon of ‘fake news’ came to have an enormous influence on the public. False news, which was either completely fabricated or distorted, was shared massively on websites that are no longer available. Such outlets resembled legitimate news outlets such as The Guardian, so it was quite difficult to distinguish between what was real and what was not, especially for people who were not keen on fact-checking – mostly people with lower levels of education who were prone to manipulation by emotional appeals and did not trust the mainstream media or fact-checking websites, believing them to be biased and run by the elites. A major role in the spreading of fake news, especially to harm Hillary Clinton’s electability and depict Donald Trump as a victim of the political establishment and the mainstream media, was played by outlets such as Russia Today and Sputnik, which have been proven to be funded directly by the Russian government.
Another key element in Trump’s success was the role of social media, especially Facebook and Twitter, which were breeding grounds for the spreading of false news. In addition to his campaign rallies, Donald Trump used Twitter to communicate his political message direct and unfiltered – another distinctive feature of his style which is not shared by established politicians, who usually have several people to agree with a message that is to be posted publicly. Trump’s key advisor, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, turned out to be an asset in the campaign, as he had connections to influential people in Silicon Valley and was able to run the campaign unconventionally. He hired Facebook staff to train his own staff to micro-target voters. With a helping hand from Cambridge Analytica and so-called “embeds” from Facebook, Trump’s campaign team was able to identify voters who would go out and vote for Donald Trump. The social media campaign included up to 50,000 ad variations per day, and data retrieved from the public register of voters was used to find potential voters on Facebook. This data determined almost everything in the campaign, notably where ads should appear or where Trump rallies should take place to gain most voters.
The 2016 presidential race was highly controversial, and many people who were on Donald Trump’s campaign team, including Donald Trump and Jared Kushner, are under ongoing investigation following allegations of foreign interference in the electoral process. What we can say for sure, however, is that the 2016 presidential election was historic in many ways and many elements, notably the rise of populistic leaders as a result of fear of immigration, which is applicable beyond the American presidential election.