Trump’s Success – An Attempt at an Explanation

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In November 2016, Republican Donald Trump was elected as the 45th president of the United States of America. He won the election astonishingly clearly with 306 electoral votes to Hillary Clinton’s 232. Many were surprised by Trump’s victory. There are various explanations for his success.

“Anti-establishment”: Trump exploits lost confidence in the political system

Americans are fed up with politics and want fundamental change. Many are dissatisfied, in particular, with the work of the U.S. Congress. In mid-November 2016, when the election took place, Congress had an approval rating of just 19 percent. In the mid-term elections of autumn 2010, the Republicans won back their majority in the House of Representatives. Since then, there has been a political blockade in the U.S. two-party system. Having enacted just 284 laws, the 112th Congress was the least productive in the country’s recent history, closely followed by the 113th Congress. The population is tired of the political wrangling. Trump exploited this popular discontent by attacking the “political elite” and portraying himself as an outsider, as a businessman, and someone who gets things done. In particular, he criticized the “elite” for making the United States less secure and less prosperous in recent years through the decisions they had taken. As former First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State, Clinton was seen as very much part of the political elite.

“America First”: A better America through isolationism

Many U.S. citizens agree with Trump’s assessment that the country is heading in the wrong direction. In a survey carried out by the Pew Research Center in August 2016, 47 percent of all respondents believed that in the United States, the living standards of people like them were worse today than 50 years ago; among those respondents who supported Trump, the figure was as high as 81 percent. Overall, the U.S. economy is doing well. GDP grew slowly but steadily in 2015 – at a rate of 2.6 percent – and is expected to have grown by around 1.6 percent in 2016. Unemployment has fallen to below 5 percent. However, not everyone has benefited to the same extent from the recovery since the crisis. Real wages have barely increased in the United States for years. Many middle-class citizens believe that their financial situation has not improved in recent years. Moreover, 47 percent of respondents in the Pew survey believed that overall, free trade agreements have damaged the country; among Trump supporters, that figure was even as high as 68 percent. During the election campaign, Trump promised to focus on the United States – “Make America great again” and “Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo”. Free trade agreements and China’s entry into the WTO had not benefited the country. At the same time, illegal immigrants – for example, from Mexico – had made the country unsafe. In the United States, like in other countries, there is a growing number of people who are open to this kind of isolationist rhetoric. They believe that they are not sufficiently profiting from globalization and view the recent terrorist attacks in Europe as proof that open borders are dangerous.

Fact or fiction?

The economic pessimism of many Trump supporters can be only partly explained on the basis of the data available. Their state of mind was also influenced by the conservative media – and Trump himself – repeatedly emphasizing how badly the economy was doing. As fact-checking reveals, the bare facts played a subordinate role in Donald Trump’s election campaign. Numerous false statements did not prevent many voters from casting their ballots for Trump. This may also be attributed to media use. More and more Americans follow only certain media – either the conservative outlets, such as Fox News and Breitbart, or the liberal ones, such as CNN, MSNBC, and The New York Times. As a result, their exposure to different opinions and alternative views is limited.

The lesser of two evils? Hillary Clinton remains unpopular

As former First Lady, U.S. Senator, and Secretary of State, Clinton is a part of the country’s political establishment. Moreover, she remains unpopular as a person, being seen as cold and calculating as well as dishonest. In a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center from 7 June to 5 July last year, only 13 percent of respondents considered her to be “honest”. While Trump hardly fared much better – just 19 percent regarded him as “honest” – this does not seem to have helped Clinton. In particular, she was blamed for two things related to her term in office as U.S. Secretary of State: her handling of official emails and the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. Indeed, the email affair weighed down on Clinton right to the end of the election campaign.

Inimitable rhetoric: Trump’s slogans are catchy

While Trump’s election campaign programme was often vague and superficial, it was also simple and easy to understand. With his slogans and his straightforward, direct statements, he pandered to mainstream preferences. His attacks against Clinton (“crooked Hillary”) and his rivals within the Republican Party during the primaries were frequently below the belt but drew attention. Because he kept making the same statements over and over again – for example, that the United States would build a wall along the border with Mexico – they remained in the memory of those listening to him.

Together we’re strong: Better Trump than a split Republican Party

For some time now, the Republicans have been up struggling with an internal split between the moderate members of the party and the ultra-conservatives – the Tea Party movement. The hope that, in these elections, the party would unite once again and win back the White House rendered many critical voices within the party silent. This explains why Trump’s main rivals – latterly Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich – abandoned the contest for the presidential nomination relatively early. For her part, Hillary Clinton had to battle with her rival, Bernie Sanders, much longer – until the end of June.


The election campaign has further divided American society. In his victory speech, Trump sounded a reconciliatory note, saying he wanted to be a president for all Americans. The next months will show whether Trump is going to keep his promise. But, in any case, uniting society will prove a difficult task.