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The 2016 US presidential election: a post-mortem

By Melissa Bradshaw, on 23 November 2016

Dr Nick Witham began by admitting that he’d had to rewrite this Lunch Hour Lecture because, like all the pollsters, he had expected a different outcome from the US presidential election. Nonetheless, and unsurprisingly given Dr Witham’s expertise, it was a thorough post-mortem with important conclusions.

Although the electoral map of the US, as Dr Witham showed us, is now heavily dominated by Republican red, for only the fifth time in US history the President-elect lost the popular vote. Hillary Clinton has won more than 1.5 million more votes than Donald Trump, he said, and this margin could increase to 2 million.*

As well as the distorting effects of the Electoral College, Donald Trump’s victory “forces us to reckon with some very unpleasant features of the US political landscape,” Dr Witham said.

Trump’s appeal to ethno-nationalism, racism, and misogyny

He began by analysing the appeal of Trump’s campaign. His slogan, “Make America great again”, resonated with a large portion of the American population who felt unrepresented by globalisation, multiculturalism and political correctness: in particular in America’s Rust Belt, which has experienced stagnating wages and living standards.

“Make America great again” was also an etho-nationalist appeal to the memory of white privilege.


In many of the most memorable moments of his campaign – smearing immigrants, promising to build a “glorious” wall to keep out Mexicans, promising a ban on Muslims entering the US, and a public fight with the parents of a Pakistani-American US Army captain killed in Iraq –  Trump  “politicised immigration more successfully than any Republican candidate before him,” said Dr Witham. (Image: Evan Guest)

Trump also appealed to old-fashioned American racism, Dr Witham said, and he warned that Trump’s endorsement by white supremacists such as David Duke, former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, means that these people will now take a place at the forefront of American political life.

Finally Trump’s misogyny, culminating in a number of sexual assault allegations against him, and his behaviour towards Clinton in the televised debates, which was “dripping with condescension and privilege” only  added to Trump’s status as a maverick outsider who “tells it like it is”. (T shirts worn at Trump rallies included “Hillary sucks but not like Monica” and “Trump that Bitch”.)

Unlike “shy Brexit” voters in the UK, Trump’s supporters did not quietly or shyly support him, but loudly and proudly.