Why Trump won America's election and why it matters

US President-elect Donald Trump at his election night event at the New York Hilton Midtown hotel in New York City on November 9, 2016 when he gave his acceptance speech. PHOTO | MARK WILSON | AFP

What you need to know:

  • Numbers suggest that Trump won because he secured overwhelming support of white men, and combined this with strong support from white women and small but significant support from some aspects of the Latino and other communities.
  • If this picture is accurate, the findings that vary most from the pre-vote assumptions of many commentators are those relating to white women, and potentially also Latino voters.

In a year of surprises, the victory of Donald Trump in the US presidential election was perhaps the biggest. The candidate with no experience and few friends took the White House, sending shockwaves across the world. In hindsight, it perhaps should not have been so much of a shock — most opinion polls predicted a very tight race and some had even predicted a Trump win. This, of course, is of no consolation to the many women and members of minority communities who now feel like strangers in their home country, unable to understand how a society they thought they understood could vote for a man who has shown such disrespect for core American values.

The shockwaves did not stop at the coastline of the United States. World leaders are struggling to get to grips with the news, and to think through what it means for global politics. Will Trump form an alliance with Russian President Vladimir Putin? Cause a war with Iran? Inspire political and economic instability? It will take us a while to work through the answers to these questions, so it is important to start now by asking why Trump won, what this says about the long-term direction of American politics, and why this matters for Africa.

The first thing to say, of course, is that we don’t know. If we trust the exit polls, we get a sense of which communities voted for Trump in smaller or larger numbers, but this does not tell us what motivated them to do so. Moreover, given that few people called the outcome of the election correctly, we must be careful about what we infer from opinion polls and existing models.


That said, the numbers suggest that Trump won because he secured overwhelming support of white men, and combined this with strong support from white women and small but significant support from some aspects of the Latino and other communities. If this picture is accurate, the findings that vary most from the pre-vote assumptions of many commentators are those relating to white women, and potentially also Latino voters.

Despite Trump’s terrible comments about groping women and accusations of misogyny, exit polls find that he performed better than Hillary Clinton where white females are concerned. The same polls also suggest that despite Trump’s general hostility to migrants and claim that Mexicans are rapists, only 65 per cent of Latino voters backed Clinton. However, this analysis has been contested by researchers from Latino Decisions, a specialist polling company which argues that the sample used by traditional exit polls is unrepresentative of Latinos, and that only 17 per cent actually voted Republican.

Combined with the fact that the community turned out in much higher numbers than in 2012, it is clear the narrative that Latino voters backed Trump in large numbers significantly overstates the case. Nonetheless, it seems likely that Clinton won a smaller proportion of the black and Latino vote than Barack Obama, and this did not help her cause.

Knowing how people voted is not the same thing as knowing why they voted. Without sitting down and having long conversations with large numbers of people in different contexts it is not possible to talk with certainty about their motivations and beliefs. This work will take some time, so is there anything we can say now based on what we know now?


A political scientist’s response to the challenge of explaining voting trends is to look for patterns and correlations. One obvious pattern is that the Trump vote appears to have been strongest among less well educated whites and in the historically more conservative parts of the country that have benefited the least from the economic growth of the last 30 years. It is, therefore, easy to see why so many commentators have viewed Trump’s political rise through the lens of “whitelash”; the revenge of communities who feel they have been neglected by the political class.

The roots of white radicalisation appear to have at least three dimensions. First, a recent report by the Economic Policy Institute finds the real income taken home by some of the poorest citizens has fallen over the last 30 years. Second, those whose own incomes have stagnated or fallen are well aware this is not true of those at the top of the income scale, whose wealth has risen dramatically. In other words, some parts of the US have seen both rising poverty and rising inequality.

These two dimensions are reinforced by a third that often goes unmentioned: The Pew Research Centre has found class mobility in America has fallen over time. In other words, one of the central tenets of the American dream, the notion that anyone can make it big no matter what their background, has become increasingly untrue. It is not hard to see how the combination of falling standards of living and the absence of an exit option could lead voters to look for radical alternatives to the status quo.


In the American context, of course, these developments have been overlaid by white fears about the impact of migration on the country’s social make up — and the fact that we are not far away from the point when whites will become a minority. However, while the rise of racist white support for Trump — witness the Nazi swastikas recently daubed on a wall along with the phrase “make America white again” — is often pitched as a response to immigration and globalisation, we also need to recognise that it’s grounded in the fact that some whites never left behind the deep seated racism of the past. Viewed in this way, Trump has not simply awakened new feelings, but appealed to old ones that previously went unrepresented within mainstream politics.

If this is a fair depiction of the set of economic and social factors that enabled a radical and offensive leader to use classic populist tropes to secure power, it would be unwise to see Trump as a flash in the pan. None of the trends identified here is likely to be reversed in the next decade, so if they propelled Trump to political prominence they are likely to do the same for others like him in the future. Thus, while it is surely true that old-fashioned sexism worked against Clinton, it is a mistake to assume that a male Democrat would have easily won this election, or will win future ones.


Given the many worries about the impact that a Trump presidency may have on different parts of the world it is important to start by pointing out the obvious: He is unlikely to spend a lot of time thinking about or making policy on Africa. The President elect’s manifesto makes no mention of sub-Saharan Africa at all, and it is questionable whether he could name more than one or two sub-Saharan African leaders — if that.

With the pressing challenges that he will inherit in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, whatever attention Trump has for foreign affairs will be exhausted well before he gets south of the Sahara. As a result, most African states are unlikely to register on the political agenda. After all, it has been a long time since a president of the United States launched a major initiative and followed it through.

At the same time, many of the strong relationships between African states and America are likely to continue. Countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda, for example, are important allies in the war-on-terror and there is no reason for Trump to seek to break these partnerships. Given that the people appointed to manage day-to-day relations with Africa are likely to include old hands from the previous Republican administrations, in some respects continuity is more likely than change.

However, Trump’s win may also lead to more subtle changes that could have profound long-term consequences for the continent. It seems likely that the American government will become increasingly insular, and that US foreign policy will become evermore fixated on promoting a narrow understanding of the national interest that does not stretch much beyond economic and physical security.


If so, the next four years are likely to witness declining American support for democracy and the rule of law in Africa. This may take a number of different forms: Weaker criticism of election rigging, less funds devoted to supporting civil society groups, and greater willingness to trade away human rights in return for political and economic loyalty.

Already, there are rumours that a number of African presidents close to the end of their time in office — such as Joseph Kabila, who is currently refusing to stand down having served two terms in office as the leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo — are determined to hold on to power until Barack Obama leaves office because they believe that it will be easier to force through an unconstitutional third term with Trump in the White House. While it is important not to overestimate the impact of foreign powers on the fate of African democracy, it is also true that under Obama the US has targeted travel bans and sanctions against the supporters of abusive authoritarian regimes, providing them with a strong incentive to moderate their behaviour. If this incentive is removed, the consequences in countries such as Kenya and the DRC could be profound.


Nic Cheeseman teaches African Politics at the University of Oxford in the UK.

Twitter: @fromagehomme