Why did Trump win?

6360489455192162291563850737_trumpWhen Tomasz Schafernaker gave the weather forecast at 6.57 this morning on Radio 4, I fully expected him to read: ‘The sun will be darkened, and the moon will be turned to blood; fire and hail will fall from heaven…’ There is a widespread sense of shock, and that this US election result has something of the apocalyptic about it.

Luke Bretherton, who is British but teaches at Duke University and writes on ethics and politics, posted a quotation from Henry James:

Evil is insolent and strong; beauty enchanting but rare; goodness very apt to be weak; folly ever apt to be defiant; wickedness to carry the day; imbeciles to be in great places, people of sense in small, and mankind generally unhappy. But the world as it stands is no narrow illusion … we can neither forget it nor deny it nor dispense with it.

I have also seen people posting extracts from W B Yeat’s poem The Second Coming, which I learned by heart at school:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Yeats was writing almost exactly 100 years ago, and writing at a time of enormous social and political upheaval in the aftermath of the Great War. He believed that the traditional ruling classes of Europe were unable to protect the traditional culture of Europe from materialistic mass movements, and that this would usher in a new era, though not in the way that actually happened.

Alongside the shock of the result for many commentators, and the anxious anticipations of what it might mean for the future, there will be analysis on how it was that someone like Trump managed to win. It is easy to ask the question in moral terms: how could a misogynistic, racist, manipulative, deceitful and ignorant man be voted for by so many people? That is the personal question—but it doesn’t answer the question of process: how could someone with no political experience, who has never been part of the political establishment, the first president to have neither experience of state politics nor to have served time in the military, manage to muscle his way in to a system he does not know or understand?

The answer to both these questions can probably be found in one word: populism. Back in May, I wrote a post on what we can learn from Donald Trump, which centred on analysis of his style of speaking—broken, repetitive, emotional, incoherent—but with which ordinary listeners resonated strongly. There are some key and consistent elements of Trump’s language:

  • His vocabulary is very simple: 172 out of 220 words  are one syllable—that is 78%.
  • He uses very simple sentence structures.
  • He uses a few key words and repeats them all the time.
  • He addresses people directly using second person plural verbs.
  • He consistently ends sentence with strong punchy words—and goes to some effort to do so

And the final observations of the person doing the analysis were very telling.

You could never accuse Trump of being smart or well-informed. But that’s because Trump is a salesman. The best salesman could sell you a TV without knowing anything about the TV. It is not about the TV—it is about you.

But this populism has been at the heart of his appeal—not just in the way he spoke, but in what he spoke about. An early observer this morning quoted one of Trump’s campaign messages:

It used to be said that cars were built in Flint [in Michigan] and you couldn’t drink the water in Mexico. Now cars are built in Mexico and you cannot drink the water in Flint.

Despite the fact that this was entirely opportunistic, and betrayed complete ignorance of what was actually happening, it struck a popular note and (claimed the commentator) won Michigan for Trump. This was not a one-off incident, but a consistent part of Trump’s approach and appeal. Michael Moore, having predicted that Trump would win the Republican nomination, also predicted some time ago that he would win the race to the White House. Having spent a good deal of time with supporters of Trump (in making his latest film), he offers five reasons:

  1. The Rust Belt—the way that free trade agreements and globalisation have led to a collapse in key America industries and led to massive job losses for the working classes.
  2. The Endangered White male who feels sidelined by the liberal agenda
  3. Distrust of Hillary Clinton, who is seen widely as a dishonest part of the political establishment
  4. Democrats who supported Bernie Sanders failing to vote for Clinton
  5. Voting for Trump as a protest against the political system and establishment.

At least three of these reasons have their roots in populism—and in the potential of a democratic system to upset the established powers within the political system.

There is something here in which Christians should rejoice. Christians have not always been keen supporters of democracy, for both practical and theological reasons. In practical terms, we live in a complex world which requires careful analysis and sophisticated thinking; why on earth would we think that ‘ordinary people’ are capable of discerning where wisdom lies? Churchill once commented that the best argument against democracy was found in spending five minutes talking to the average voter. Christians might have another objection too: if humanity is sinful, why would we expect sinful people to vote for good and wise leadership—rather than the leaders who will simply serve their own selfish and possibly hateful interests? That is a pertinent question to ask this morning.

But democracy, and particularly the kind of direct election offered by voting for a president, holds out the possibility of breaking down power interests. Why is our health service in such a mess, with doctors leaving to work abroad, chronic shortages, trusts facing unprecedented deficits, and those working in the service feeling that Government simply are not listening? Could there be any connection with the fact that the Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, is the wealthiest person in the Cabinet, with a fortune of £174m, and who is part of a social elite that has controlled the Conservative party in recent years?

Despite his own elite status, Trump has been playing the anti-elitist card throughout, including in his acceptance speech an hour ago. ‘I will lead for the forgotten people of America’ he claimed—never mind the groups that he has marginalised, ignored or put down: the groups that Michael Moore identifies above hear Trump say this, and hear him speaking to them. ‘I will serve the people’ he claims—when too many in political elite appear to be mostly interested in serving their own interests. It is sobering to note that in Ohio, the ‘bell-weather’ estate which consistently votes for the ultimate winner, and in which Trump secured a 17% margin, 50% of women and Hispanics voted for Trump.

Fundamentalist Christians in the States have been praying for a Trump victory, largely because they see him as standing against the liberal agenda which includes being pro-abortion, radically feminist, and aggressively promoting the transgender and gay ‘agenda’. (It is not possible to translate the term ‘fundamentalists’ into ‘evangelical Christians’, not least because Christianity Today recently reported in a survey that 80% of evangelicals were not planning to vote for Trump. Fundamentalism is the populist correspondent to evangelicalism.) Parallels have been drawn between Trump’s victory and God’s use of Cyrus (shockingly called ‘my anointed one’ in Is 45.1) to deliver his people from exile, arguing that God can use a wicked person to achieve good things. There are lots of problems with such a comparison, not least because there is no doubting that Cyrus was indeed pagan, and the emphasis overall is that God is sovereign despite the intentions of individuals, and not because of them. If God’s sovereignty implies that he can do his will through this election, that does not translate into any vindication of Trump or his victory.

But the election of Trump is a stand against the relentless march of globalisation—just as was the vote for Brexit for many people—and the havoc it has wreaked in many parts of Western society. The impact of neo-liberalist economic policy is desperately divisive, creating a smaller and smaller elite acquiring greater and greater share of a nation’s wealth, and creating a wider and deeper underclass of those who struggle and feel marginalised, and by and large destroying key structures within society, including traditional patterns of family relating. The main political figure speaking against the impact of globalisation in the UK scene is (ironically) Jeremy Corbyn, and he does not look like seizing power any time soon.

(And why did we not anticipate this victory? Because social media is also divisive, functioning for most people as an echo chamber in which we listen to our own views and analysis reflected back to us by people like us. How could people vote for Trump when so many analyses exposed his shortcomings? Simply because we who dislike Trump watched these analyses—but those voting for him don’t visit the same websites as we do.)

Christians should have an interest in this question not simply out of a concern for justice, but because globalisation, the dominance of free market economics, and the grip that consumerism has on western culture are arguably the greatest forces leading to loss of faith and decline in church attendance. And by and large Christian critiques of this are fairly toothless.

But, it seems to me, Christians can hardly rejoice in the election of Trump with any integrity. After all, Trump is indeed a misogynistic, racist, manipulative, deceitful and ignorant man. We like to treat our figures of evil as ‘other’, as inhuman or subhuman, far removed from the ordinary realities of our lives. But it is no trivial observation to note that, in 1933, Hitler came to power in a democratic vote on a wave of populism driven by angry rejection of the prevailing political elite.

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27 thoughts on “Why did Trump win?”

  1. Many thanks for such a thoughtful, honest and helpful analysis. Trump has promised many things to his core voters which he will not be able to deliver, and their frustration will come back with vengeance. He has lied repeatedly in a manner similar to what Mr Putin (whom he so admires) does, so that the lies are unchallenged or become “truth”. It remains to be seen how much further Trump will go with regard to witch hunting (including by proxy) those who oppose him in the political & media spheres. These are dangerous times.

  2. I think it’s a mistake to view the democratic process as a judgement on the inner character of candidates for office. Which of us would dare to say we know whether Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton has the darker heart? And are we sure that experience of and a wide network within the political world are a sure-fire bet against a more basic common sense gained from running a successful business when it comes to the macro decision making demanded of a USA president? However we might answer these 2 questions I guess most of us would agree that neither candidate has conducted themselves in office or in business in a way that inspires confidence, and their election performance must have confirmed our worst fears. Intelligent discussion of policy has been notably absent but who’s surprised by that?

    Along with a good many people in Britain I have held no brief for ether candidate; one is a wholly untrustworthy member of the liberal establishment with a dismal record as secretary of state, the other is a super salesman who might try to live up to his rhetoric but could equally well bring on economic, social or even military Armageddon. On the face of it neither appears to posses the kind of moral compass we would hope for.

    However, while we have all pitied the American voters given such a choice we have to respect their judgement and not turn against them or their president elect in a tone of superiority; human public affairs probably mirror pretty closely what goes on in our own collective private lives, whether in Britain or anywhere else. Christians should be interested, concerned and speak out about politics but always in calm assurance that our God is sovereign and is well capable of working in areas and ways where we feel powerless. And that’s a very good reason why we should pray for our political leaders even when they are not our man or woman of choice.

  3. I agree with Don in the main, but will attempt my own short analysis.

    Trump represents everything wrong with culture and society. He presents as populist, outspoken, manipulative, greedy and immoral character, especially towards women, as well as (for me most critically) contemptuous of truth and justice. He poses as a conservative, but isn’t, and his party hates him.

    Clinton represents everything wrong with government and the state. She is corrupt, dishonest, far to embedded in the machinery of office, untrustworthy and has dubious allies/connections around the world. She poses as a liberal, but isn’t, and she controls her party with an Iron fist.

    Neither of the candidates embodies any of the criteria that we should look for and discern in leaders, they are both incredibly flawed.

    It is no surprise to me that Trump won, although I do find it surprising the Republicans also won both the senate and congress. The critical checks that I was hopeful would curtail a Trump executive are far looser that they should have been,

    As far as I am concerned, the wise, rational, Christian voter should have (and probably did) vote for neither.

  4. Ian, thanks for this thoughtful analysis.
    I have also heard the Cyrus connection, and note that the self styled prophets and prophetic movements, for example Franklin Graham, voted for Trump as he was God’s man for the US presidency.
    I have recently learned that British prophetic movements understood the Brexit referendum in similar terms, prophets calling for churches to pray against the E.U. as Godless etc., and seeing the result as God’s deliverance.
    I’m trying to understand more why this resonance of populism and so called prophecy.
    C.S.Lewis’ Screwtape has the following from Wormwood ” Be sure the patient remains completely fixated on politics… obsessing on the faults of people they have never met serves as an excellent distraction from advancing in personal virtue, character, and the things the patient can control….”

  5. For once, Ian, I am wholeheartedly in agreement with your post. Thank you. The question is what are we doing as Christians to counter such populism by addressing the real concerns of those who feel ignored. The Bishop of Burnley is right when he says that the CofE has ignored the ‘estates’.

  6. Where did you get the 80% figure from? This Christianity Today article from 16 Oct has evangelicals (I can’t see the basis for your calling them fundamentalists – this survey identifies them by asking belief-based questions) breaking down as 45% Trump, 31% Clinton, 8% Libertarian and 15% undecided – not a majority for Trump but the clear favourite. Additionally, among white evangelicals it was 65% Trump, 10% Clinton. See http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2016/october/most-evangelicals-not-voting-trump-beliefs-identity-lifeway.html

    I think the Supreme Court and culture war issues have played a big role in this election for the Religious Right. With the Senate holding off on appointing a replacement for Scalia until after the election, a number of the justices over 70, and Trump pledging to appoint conservatives to the bench, conservative Christians have seen a golden opportunity to overturn Roe, gay marriage, and other key planks of the liberal judicial activist agenda. 21% of evangelicals cited their most important factor in who to vote for as Supreme Court nominees, abortion or religious freedom – and you can bet that these and similar issues were important (if not most important) for many others.

    Trump is an odious human being and wholly unfit for the office to which he has now been elected, and your analysis of his populism is largely correct. But if there’s a silver lining to this it may be to see at least some pushing back of the baleful liberal agenda that has been so devastating for Christian social values and religious freedom.

    • Voice of reason as always Will…

      Where did you get the “21% of evangelicals” statistic, is that from the CT article or elsewhere?

      • Thanks Mat.

        Yes it’s in the CT article – I added the figures for three categories together.

        Here’s a report on the exit poll stats as they relate to religion – some of the differences will relate to these being based on self-identifying evangelicals and ‘born-again’. https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2016/11/trump-evangelicals-religion-and-the-2016-exit-polls

        It says that ’70 percent of the [whole] electorate said that the composition of the Supreme Court was the most important or an important factor in their vote for president.’ Interestingly though those voters only favoured Trump by 4 points, so it was an important issue for both sides. Probably though ‘evangelicals’ and Catholics will have been disproportionately on the conservative side.

    • I agree with Will. The ‘agenda’ in question is not only horrible in itself (full of things that are the last things anyone ought to promote) but also there is a persistent and dishonest tendency to avoid exposing it to debate. It’s all assertion and no argument; politically correct assertions are is often not allowed to be questioned. These points together constitute a multiple falsehood. An organisation like Planned Parenthood could be seen as exemplifying what’s wrong. Truth has been the loser everywhere.

      I hope and pray with all my heart that this presidency will see this state of affairs change. I am sure that millions of voters hoped the same (saw a window of hope) and voted accordingly. Yes, it is ironic that the man they voted in is himself no lover of truth. On the face of it, he is one of the last people that Christians would want in charge, without the wisdom of a godly leader, without integrity, without maturity and gravitas. He also seems to make the world a less safe place and I find it hard to relax with him in charge. I hope that does not continue for 4 years! But if political correctness is exposed with him in charge, then that means a return for truth, and I do so hope for that. It is the muzzling of truth that has led to the culture wars in the first place.

    • Hi Will,

      Yes I think Ian’s analysis is missing 2 big words – ‘Supreme Court’.

      Recently I heard an address message from Mike Bickle, a respected leader in the US Charismatic movement. He was leading his church in 3 days of continuous prayer and fasting ahead of the elections. A major part of his message was that the low quality of both candidates was a wake-up call to the church, and we needed to repent – but insofar as it touched on direct politics his message was: “in the next few years there may well be 3 or 4 Supreme court places coming up, and it’s a once in a generation opportunity to move the Supreme Court in a more conservative direction, perhaps even to overturn Roe vs Wade.”

      As you say, I think the Supreme Court issue focused a lot of minds in the week ahead of the election, and encouraged Republicans to hold their noses.

  7. Thank you Ian…I’m reminded that both the Exodus and the Exile were the hand of God…

    I do think that the USA needs to leave its ‘dynasty family politics’ behind and to (I’ve no idea how) move away from big money buying political power.

    But…God remains God and politics won’t decide the future of Gods people …ultimately…

  8. Ian, I always enjoy hearing your thoughts. I’d suggest that the comparison between Trump and Cyrus also breaks down on the basis that Cyrus was used in the context of a unique covenant relationship between God and Israel. The kingdom of God for Christians is to be identified with a people not a nation. The comparison seems to me to be an extension of American exceptionalism…

  9. I do not go along with the Cyrus analogy (Is 45:1), as I cannot see Trump as an annointed one, but I wonder whether a better explanation is given in Habbakuk, when in answer to Habbakuk’s complaint about the moral drift in his society, God says he will raise up the Chaldeans to punish Judah. Habbakuk complains that ‘God’s eyes are too pure to look at evil,’ & so cannot use then. God replies in Ch 2 that He will use them, but will bring His judgment on the Chaldeans in due course. Habbakuk is then given a vision of God’s sovereignty, and comes to a position of trust despite what he currently experiences.

    Perhaps this might be an element of what is happening here with Trump- God using a man of admittedly bad character to bring about a judgment on a Western culture which has had a christian heritage, but has now, allowed the ‘cuckoo’ of liberal humanism to psh its christian hwritage and values ‘out of the nest.’ Perhaps Trump’s election & Brexit are signs of God’s judgment on our nation where even our church leaders have in some way colluded with the side-lining of traditional values, & the white working class, who have also felt themselves and their values being side-lined, have been raised up in protest and perhaps been inspired to make the protest that our church leaders should have done long ago.

  10. Thank you Ian. Well expounded. I wonder if after Brexit, this second “rejection of the politician elite”… fuels the momentum, that now clearly exists, for more “rejections” across Europe as each country goes to the polls. Brexit may well turn out to be well down the list of worries by the time other countries jump on the bandwagon. I wonder where a Christian voice can best influence the debate?

      • Thanks, Ian!

        I have a deep interest in American politics for several reasons and keep a close eye upon it. Here are a few of them.

        America is the place where the immediate future of many of evangelicalism’s prominent institutions and voices will primarily play out (although we’ve done well in the UK by having strong evangelical involvement in an established church—see my remarks here and here), so understanding and attending to American politics is something that I think is important for us.

        I also believe that it is crucial that we understand the social dynamics that have produced Trumpism, because those same dynamics are shaping the future of evangelicalism.

        I believe that the conscience and moral credibility of evangelicalism was deeply compromised in the support of Trump. As this is something that I am greatly concerned about, I wrote about that too (see here and here, for instance).

        I am a compulsive people-watcher, and when I see weird social effects (such as the traction of Trumpism), I can become obsessed by it, trying to understand how it ticks, and how good, intelligent, and well-intentioned people could act in a way that seems so strange to my own instincts. I wrote about this back in January.

        I am a passionate advocate of robust and charitable engagement across differences, about a confidence in reality and our shared grounding in it, in natural law as a fact that means that all of us must do business with the reality of human nature, whether we like it or not. The power of reason, persuasion, and conversation to overcome deep difference and opposition, the possibility of a pluralistic politics, is a conviction that lies deep in my bones. When I see a barrier of mutual understanding that seems too great to scale, I am like an obsessed mountaineer who must discover and pioneer some path to the summit, enabling others to follow behind me. Nothing is more imperative at this moment. I have written, perhaps at more length than on any other subject in the past years, upon the distortion of discourse and the need to develop healthy communities of conversation. We can reestablish a politics of trust, good faith, and persuasion if we are prepared to work at it.

        There are also strong personal reasons for my interest. My girlfriend lives in the US and I will almost certainly move to the US within Trump’s presidency (if he lets me!). I love America and Americans as a wonderful and diverse people. My future and the future of any children I might have is at stake on the other side of the Atlantic, so I want to do what little I can to make American society work for everyone.

    • Great analysis, Alastair.

      ‘Liberals’ and ‘progressives’ (these are both problematic, inaccurate and ideological terms) so often just will not debate, so often will not present arguments for their position or weigh these against counter-arguments or show awareness of what counter-arguments are. Their supposed ‘conclusions’ are strangely regularly the same thing as their preferences, which ought to make one smell a rat.

      Obviously if you haven’t started to debate or weigh evidence, then you haven’t reached page 1 yet.

      This sort of thing is so wrong that it is not surprising that people would want to vote in anyone even DT in order to be rid of it. But it was liberals’ fault for thinking that they had the right to bypass the debate and evidence-seeking that the rest of us have to engage in.

      • A hundred percent in agreement to all the above. Trump isn’t perfect, but he’s the Godzilla (though more orange then green) summoned by the unreconstructed masses to rescue them from the liberal Leviathan. I can’t deny a shriek of pleasure at that thought, but a monster on the loose is also a tad concerning too.

  11. Well, in my bubble here in the U.S., there was great celebrations and even tears of joy among most of the evangelicals I know. Most seem to see him as a national savior who will return the U.S. to the (largely mythical) golden days of the 50’s and early 60’s as exemplified in the t.v. shows “Leave it to Beaver” and “Ozzie and Harriet”. I was getting comments about Trump’s election being God’s blessing and favor to this country. I can only think of 2 (at the moment) evangelical friends who voted for Trump while holding their noses, the rest seemed to be enthusiastic supporters. Whenever a new Trump scandal would erupt they would be quick to post to Facebook something defending, excusing, or justifying him.
    Most of the evangelicals I know (perhaps they are neo-fundamentalists) see the U.S. as place that has become lawless, immoral, unsafe (one of their fears here in semi rural N. California is Islamic terrorist attack, hostile to christians, and economically gutted by global elites. And Donald Trump can fix it.
    Most of my non-christian friends (Hillary supporters) on the other hand, are horrified at his election, as am I. I don’t know how much it matters, perhaps a lot, but most of my non-christian friends are university educated and most of my christian friends are not. And both feel morally superior to the other.
    I am the morally superior one, I voted third party (American Solidarity Party).

  12. Ian,

    Thankyou for putting this on your Blog.

    Can we arrest big processes of change? It made me think of Macmillan’s speech to the South African Parliament. Its full text is available on the web.


    In it Macmillan is responding to the stance of the Apartheid government in SA which had been elected some 11 years previously. That Afrikaners were trying to hold on to what they had and arrest the wind of change that in the aftermath of the second world war was beginning to blow from a different quarter. 1960 was the year of Sharpville, and the Treason trials.

    But it is worth reading what Macmillan had to say

  13. “Christianity Today recently reported in a survey that 80% of evangelicals were not planning to vote for Trump.” Christianity Today reported that 81% of WHITE evangelicals voted for Trump. I think the survey you refer to was talking about non-whites (black/Latino). According to Pew, about 25% of Americans are ‘evangelical’ of whom 76% are white. Of course we can debate about who is/not an ‘evangelical’ but the outstanding fact is that Trump made a specific pitch to those self-identifying in this category – and, unlike Obama, Clinton did not. Trump also had a healthy lead among Catholics. Michael Sandel argued that the intensification of church-state separation in Supreme Court rulings from the 1940s left ideological space that the Religious Right occupied from the 1970s, and praised Obama for countering this. Did Clinton’s people forget this lesson? You say there was a 17% margin in Ohio – in fact it was 52.1% Trump vs 43.5% Clinton, so actually 8.6% – still a lot!


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