The Uncomfortable Truth About How Trump Won the Election

It’s time we took an honest look at the ugly, multi-faceted nature of the historic upset.

The New Yorker (2016)

There was a lot of misinformation, and a lot of simplistic, angry reductionism during the election about Clinton, Trump, and their respective supporters.

Now that Trump won, there’s been the same kind of simplicity, reductiveness, and misinformation in our reaction. We’re pointing fingers and jumping to simple explanations: some have blamed the outcome on racism of the working class, others have joined the chorus in condemning coastal elites for abandoning middle America.

I was angry and confused at first too, so I took a break from social media and all the simplistic/emotional takes. I wanted better answers, so I decided to spend time poring over long-form, patient, serious-minded journalism.

My search for answers taught me that this upset wasn’t the result of a freak combination of a few random factors, but of many significant and interconnected forces. We need to recognize not just the hatred, but the surprising combination of widespread misinformation, real economic problems, and other contemporary and historical factors that led to this result. Only with a full, honest picture of the troubling state of America can we tackle the scary challenges ahead.

Here’s my analysis of how Trump pulled this off. I cite my sources extensively throughout this document, so I encourage you to use the links in this piece as a launching point for an even deeper pursuit of answers.

How did Trump win?

Throughout the election, Trump outplayed Hillary in the character-assassination contest; thwarted the mainstream media; exploited the “post-truth” nature of social media; co-opted growing ultra-conservative and white-supremacist movements; played to and amplified voters’ fears through his politics of demagoguery; allied himself with election-tamperers, propagandists, and enemies of the state; and ultimately won over enough voters in swing states with a platform of pretend populism. Let’s look at each force that pushed him to victory in detail.

A) Trump leveraged the self-serving nature of mainstream media

The shift from candidate-centered news to reporter-centered news prioritized entertainment value at the expense of substance. The primary function of the press during election season is traditionally giving candidates a platform to talk policy, but mainstream media was financially incentivized to favor timely over old, novel over predictable, controversial over drab, negative over positive. ABC’s World News Tonight, CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News devoted just 32 minutes to issues coverage in 2016.

Meanwhile, Trump fed the press an endless stream of controversies, which boosted their ratings and gave Trump $5B in free coverage. Much to liberals’ surprise, this nonstop, largely negative media coverage pulled millions of Americans toward Trump and his alternative media machine. At the other end, Clinton’s email-related issues were covered in total twice as long as all of her policy positions combined, and in the final week were alone covered more than all stories covering Trump.

B) Trump dodged attacks by spreading media distrust

The press worked tirelessly to eviscerate Trump’s chances and almost exclusively supported Clinton, but his campaign pushed aggressively to discredit media outlets in the eyes of his supporters. He popularized the term “dishonest media”, slurred CNN as “Clinton News Network”, threatened to sue The New York Times for reporting on two of his sexual assault accusers, barred reporters from covering his rallies, and dismissed every unfavorable story as a lie.

Trump triumphed in his war against mainstream media. Only 14% of Republicans expressed trust in mainstream media in October, down from 32% the year before. And with the encouragement of Trump, working class voters — who are often reductively caricatured by reporters as poor, simple, and monolithic — simply stopped trusting mainstream media altogether. As the election came to a close, it was apparent that criticisms of Trump had little effect on his support. It’s fitting that “post-truth” made it as the Oxford Dictionaries’ international word of the year.

C) Trump was powered by self-serving lies and a powerful far-right media machine

Trump lied constantly and was propelled by a shockingly robust right-wing propaganda apparatus, and it turns out that the voters were both shockingly unable to discern truth from lies and indifferent to his trustworthiness. Also, it wasn’t that voters didn’t try to stay informed, they were troublingly misinformed.

How much did Trump lie? From mid-September to Election Day, one fact-checking journalist recorded a total of 560 false Trump statements — an average of about 20 a day. What percentage of the facts that he stated were false? Seventy percent, according to PolitiFact. Trump trafficked dozens of flagrant lies directed at Obama, dozens of anti-Muslim conspiracy theories, countless anti-Hillary falsehoods, and ungrounded attacks on institutions like the CDC. He continued to deny climate change and peddled right-wing conspiracy theories throughout his campaign.

But Trump was far from the sole agent of misinformation during his campaign. As Trump crept toward Electoral victory, he was backed by right-wing media that had successfully created an alternative reality bubble around his candidacy. Pro-Trump “Alt-Reality Media” consisted of a motley crew of radio show hosts, tabloids, fringe publications, fake news writers, sophisticated Russian propaganda machinery, pretend news sites, Fox News anchors, and other dark corners of his echo chamber. He brought together the incuriosity of Sean Hannity, the conspiracism of InfoWars, the incoherent vulgarities of Ann Coulter, the fearmongering of Breitbart — a collective of post-truth champions.

How rampantly was pro-Trump misinformation spread around social media? While Mark Zuckerberg sheepishly denied any responsibility for the election’s outcome, the top 20 fake news articles were shared on Facebook more than the top 20 legitimate news articles, with 17 of these top fake articles being explicitly anti-Clinton and/or pro-Trump. The two top shared stories of the election were false claims that Clinton sold weapons to ISIS (960k engagements) and that the Pope gave an endorsement for Trump (789k engagements). Twitter, which saw record traffic during this election season, proved to be the perfect platform to spread Trump’s lies and conspiracy theories. Trump’s simple turns of phrase, like the infamous “Crooked Hillary” line, made for naturally great hashtags that were exploited by pro-Trump bots. The rise of social media radically disabled fact checking, and made it easy for made up stories to travel at the speed of light. Turns out fake news is good for social media companies, even if it’s bad for a truth-driven democracy.

D) Hillary was uniquely unsuited to exploit Trump’s weaknesses

Some Republican leaders believed before the general election that Hillary was easier to beat than Sanders. Why? False equivalences between Hillary and Trump were easy for Trump to exploit, and virtually everything about her biography made her uniquely unsuited to draw blood where Trump was most vulnerable.

Let’s reflect on this matchup. Trump told his voters that mainstream media was untrustworthy, and then Hillary was given debate questions in advance. Trump promised to rip apart political establishment, while Hillary embodied it for decades. Trump lied constantly and had scandals and sexual assault accusations, but Hillary had her emails, was constantly suspected of corruption, and was known to have discredited Bill’s accusers. Trump boasted about paying off politicians, while Hillary spent her career cozying up to banks and corporations. Trump faced criticism for not being a man of the working class people, but Hillary and her husband made $153MM in paid speeches since 2001. Trump organized massive working class rallies, while Hillary called half of his supporters “deplorables” at a fundraising dinner that costed $50,000 a seat. Much of America thinks that Hillary feels above-the-law and is out of touch. They’re probably right.

E) Hillary’s trustworthiness was destroyed by constant email and Clinton Foundation coverage

Trump spent much of the election seizing on Clinton’s email server scandal, WikiLeaks hacks, and blurred lines between the Clinton Foundation and the family’s business interests. Despite coordinated attacks by the Assange-Trump-Putin trio, the week before the election, Hillary’s victory looked just about guaranteed. She was riding high in the polls after two weeks of Trump’s disastrous gaffes. But her fortunes were reversed after a WikiLeaks dump renewed concerns about the Clinton Foundation, and FBI director James Comey’s last-minute intervention dug her into a deeper hole.

Trump wasted no time capitalizing on this fresh cloud of suspicion hovering over Clinton. In his attack ad that ran right up to the election, he boldly asserted that “decades of lies, cover-ups and scandal have finally caught up with Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton is under FBI investigation again after her emails were found on pervert Anthony Weiner’s laptop.” While Comey admitted to finding no evidence of Clinton’s wrongdoing in Weiner’s emails, the story dominated the political conversation throughout the most important week of the year. Democrats paid a deadly price, with a third of likely Clinton voters saying they were now less likely to support her because of Comey’s disclosure.

F) The Democratic Party couldn’t overcome internal strife

Democrats were fighting each other through the entire election. Well before the DNC, there was growing suspicion of mainstream media’s dampening of Sanders coverage. Then right before the convention, a WikiLeaks dump confirmed the widely suspected favoritism toward Hillary Clinton. Throughout primary season, Clinton supporters dismissed Sanders supporters as conspiracy theorists, but as these loyalists protested for Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s removal, they felt both vindicated and infuriated. Sanders seemed to echo this frustration over the alleged rigging of the system, and refused to immediately concede the Democratic nomination after Hillary clinched her superdelegate majority. His criticism of “establishment Democrats” and claim that Clinton was unqualified angered party leaders and split the base of the party.

For Trump, these WikiLeaks emails were the perfect evidence to bolster his narrative of “Crooked Hillary” rigging the system. As the general election picked up, establishment Democratic leadership continued to falter in their efforts to mobilize Sanders supporters for Clinton, despite Sanders’ strong involvement on the Clinton campaign trail. One poll released September 15 showed that only 51% of Sanders supporters planned to vote Hillary, and 15% of Sanders supporters planned to vote for Trump. And on election day, only 43% of Clinton voters said they were enthusiastic about their choice. All this frustration with Clinton helps explain why undecided voters and initial backers of Gary Johnson broke strongly for Donald Trump in the states that mattered.

G) Trump out-campaigned Clinton in swing states

Perceived leads from misleading polls contributed to smugness by Clinton’s camp when it came to key battleground states. Despite her huge TV ad budget of more than $200 million, Clinton barely touched the airwaves in Wisconsin or Michigan. Her first ad buy in Wisconsin launched on October 28th, and she didn’t even announce a Michigan TV campaign until November 1st. This overconfidence may have been deadly. In the last 100 days of the election, Trump spent roughly 50 percent more time in six key swing states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — states that pushed him to Electoral victory.

H) Trump exploited the pent-up frustration of the white working class

No one knew the white working class better than Tea Party insider Steve Bannon. He knew they were deeply frustrated. He knew they wanted easy answers. He knew they wanted others to blame.

Bannon coached Trump to ditch the language of personal responsibility and instead tell the white working class exactly what they want to hear. Trump identified scapegoats for their frustrations, telling them that they were victims of political and economic forces beyond their control. Trump sold the white working class on the promise that he would be their populist champion. That he would tackle ruling class disdain for the working class, the loss of manufacturing jobs, the importation of low-skilled labor, ruling class political self-interest, etc.

On the economy, Trump blamed its failures on free trade and immigration, lied about Hillary not having an economic plan, lied about our trade deficits and GDP growth, lied about international trade deals, and convinced voters that he could rescue the economy. The demagogue’s working class supporters were the demographic most likely to suffer from outcomes related to America’s period of rapid globalization — unions decimated, jobs shipped away, families split apart. Trump gave hope to those who had saw a decline in their socioeconomic standing, rallying them around his anti-“globalist” theory that stopping free trade and immigration would revive a lifestyle of the past.

On healthcare, Trump’s strategy was to slander Clinton and her plans, sensationalize the purported weaknesses of Obamacare, and sell voters on the promise of a revolutionary repeal-and-replace plan. Some of the lies he told his supporters were that Hillary was going to put healthcare completely in the hands of the government. Other lies include the claim that repealing Obamacare would create millions of jobs and that two thirds of the counties were on track to lose insurers. When the Obama administration announced a rise in premiums, Trump seized on the opportunity to intensify his assault. But even then, he vastly exaggerated the cost of the premium hikes. Voters responded positively to the anti-Obamacare message: the worse they felt about their health, the more likely they were to vote for Trump.

On terrorism, Trump intensified Americans’ fear of Muslims and peddled dangerous lies about President Obama and Hillary’s ties to ISIS. Trump ramped up his fearmongering following the bombings in New York and New Jersey and stabbings at a Minnesota mall — incidences that helped him galvanize support among terror-concerned voters, many of whom were independents. Trump framed the decision to vote for him as a choice between safety and political-correctness. By the election’s close, terror-attack-concerned independents voted for Trump over Clinton by a 3-to-1 margin.

Trump won the entire rust belt — states Democrats won easily in 2008 and 2012. How? Trump tapped into the existing frustration of the working class — converting misinformation into outrage, and outrage into passionate support for his agenda.

I) Trump mobilized sexists & white supremacists

Unlike Reagan whose optimistic leadership ignited an outward-looking brand of civic nationalism, Trump fanned the flames of white resentment and turned it into ethno-nationalism, which is zero-sum, irresponsible, aggressive, nostalgic, and draws on race and history to set the nation apart. Thanks to Trump, positive patriotism of decades ago warped into negative nationalism, and solidarity among Americans mutated into an intersectional animosity toward minorities.

In America’s history, dramatic race and gender progress in America is inevitably followed by backlash: The reconstruction in the 19th century was followed by a century of Jim Crow. The civil rights movement was followed by Reagan and the rise of the fundamentalist right. The past few decades of progressive strides, a black president, and a female Democratic nominee is now followed by a KKK-endorsed president-elect — the face of the latest incarnation of racist, sexist backlash. Not only does Trump lead a movement of almost exclusively disaffected whites, but it speaks volumes that his popularity in a state is directly correlated to how racially polarized that state is — appeal to white identity tends to work better in areas where that identity is felt to be under threat. Indeed, the people most enthusiastic about Trump — meaning those most likely to volunteer for him, advocate for him, and back him in the GOP primary — were driven in large part by racial anxieties.

Hillary called half of Trump’s supporters “deplorables”. While that was an awful political move, there is some truth to that: Half said blacks were “more violent” and “more criminal” than whites; A third said blacks were “lazier” than whites; Over a quarter said blacks as less evolved; Many were afraid of women seizing power; 60 percent think that Barack Obama is a Muslim. Most believe that blacks, Hispanics, and Muslims are lazier and more violent than whites. Many women chose whiteness over solidarity with other women.

Commenters like to downplay the effect of racism and sexism to bolster a tidy narrative of working class rebellion. Struggling white men surely contributed to Trump’s popularity, but the driving force of this election was not money — the median household income of Trump voters was $16,000 more than the national median household income. This is in large part a struggle for power — against women, against minorities — even if they can’t admit it. They voted for a person who peddled racist lies trying to delegitimize President Obama for years. And throughout the entire election, Trump lied incessantly about the shortcomings of black communities, about his behavior with women, about black community crime levels, and about immigrants and refugees. Dismissing the race and sex problem surrounding Trump’s popularity blatantly disregards the suffering of groups who have experienced centuries of structural discrimination and marginalization. It reinforces racial, ethnic and gender divisions and undermines the possibility for broader solidarities. It ignores the reality that economic anxieties are often rooted in racist attitudes and beliefs.

Why was David Duke celebrating Trump’s victory? White male supremacy has always been an issue, economic anxiety made it worse, and Trump normalized and empowered it through his open, symbiotic relationship with the white nationalist alt-right movement — championed by Breitbart News. After masterminding Trump’s victory, Breitbart’s executive chairman Steve Bannon was promoted to chief presidential strategist. With all this progress taking white supremacy mainstream, there’s no surprise that the well-groomed neo-Nazi Richard B. Spencer, who coined the term “alt-right”, recently proclaimed to his fellow deplorables that: “America was, until this last generation, a white country designed for ourselves and our posterity. It is our creation, it is our inheritance, and it belongs to us.”

J) Trump was heavily promoted by the Tea Party Movement

Trump ran on the populist platform of bringing accountability to political establishment, legislating anti-immigration laws, and deregulating the economy. These ideas are not new. For decades, the Koch brothers-funded Tea Party Movement has lobbied its platform of strong borders, gun rights, limited government spending and interference, religious fundamentalism, and “traditional family values”. This prevalent brand of hyper conservatism is a backlash among traditionalists (often men and the less educated) faced with rising American support for issues such as gun control, gay marriage, sexual equality, and tolerance of social diversity, all lumped under the phrase “political correctness.” Tea Party voters are taught that all aspects of the liberal agenda pose an existential threat to the ideal American Judeo-Christian way of life, that politics is a zero-sum game, and that reaching across the aisle is treason.

With a loyal Tea Partier in Steve Bannon by his side, Trump appealed heavily to Tea Party officials and voters who had lost faith in existing GOP leadership. When it was all said and done, Tea Party volunteers had rallied more than 100,000 activists dedicated to defeating Hillary Clinton. They knocked on more than 100,000 doors in battleground states, and made more than 2 million volunteer phone calls into Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Ohio, and Florida.

K) Trump mobilized the uneducated

Never has there been an election in which educated voters so uniformly rejected a candidate. And never before have the less-educated so uniformly supported a candidate.

There’s a lot we can learn from looking at how Trump’s performance compared to Romney’s. In counties where less than 20 percent of the population has a bachelor’s degree or higher, Trump exceeded Romney’s margins by 14 percentage points. And, conversely, counties with more than 40 percent of the population having completed higher education, Trump did 6 percentage points worse than Romney.

Anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism are on the rise for a host of reasons. Shortcomings of public schools and trends in technology and pop culture may explain the troubling shortening of attention spans and collective dumbing down of America. We can also point to the GOP’s tireless crusade to discredit fact-based, scientific thinking.

Ultimately, many Trump’s supporters didn’t just suffer from a lack of knowledge per se, but were unaware that they had that lack of knowledge. Because these supporters were unable to perceive Trump’s ignorance, inexperience, and deception, Trump seemed qualified for the job.

L) Voter suppression laws stopped likely Clinton voters from getting to the polls

As Clinton’s campaign conducted a massive Get Out The Vote campaign, Republicans passed last minute legislation that suppressed the votes of likely Clinton voters. In the months before the election, a number of lower federal courts mandated that states had to help prospective voters get the identification cards they need to vote, or open sufficient polling places in minority areas. However, many of these states defied these rulings. In Wisconsin, local officials failed to issue temporary voter IDs. In Georgia, the state government simply refused to process roughly 100,000 voter registration forms. In Indiana, the police cracked down on black and Latino voter registration drives, under the baseless claim that voter fraud was afoot. Fourteen states had voting restrictions in place for the first time in a presidential election, a practice that has been shown to disenfranchise elderly citizens, African Americans, Hispanics and low-income residents. The result? In one instance, voter suppression laws in Milwaukee might have curbed black turnout by roughly 41,000 voters in a state where Trump won by fewer than 18,000.

So how did Trump win? We now know that his campaign benefited from the combination of widespread misinformation, economic frustration, growing white male resentment, failures of the media, Democratic party infighting, bad moves by the Clinton campaign, FBI & Russian election tampering, contemporary political movements, discriminatory voter suppression policies, and most of all a sensational and divisive platform to “Make America Great Again”.

It’s not just a race issue; It’s not just a Democratic unity issue; It’s not just a rural-elite bubble issue; It’s not just a flawed candidate issue; It’s not just a mainstream or social media issue. It’s all of these things and more. This answer is messy, heartbreaking, and hard to digest; But it allows us to learn from our mistakes and address root problems, so that we can take practical and productive steps forward.

A lot of people are happy about the outcome of the election. But to the other half of the country, myself included, Trump’s presidency poses an existential threat to our environment, democratic ideals, geopolitical balance, economy, and safety. Grappling with the forces that contributed to his election prepares us for his dangerous presidency. The more we learn about Trump, the better prepared we are to fight.