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21st November 2016

Why was Trump elected?

A look back into the devastating economic and social wounds of fairly recent American history can help us to understand Trump’s success

In the months running up to the election, few in the UK considered Donald Trump to have a viable chance of winning the office of Presidency of the United States. Even after Brexit, most believed that Trump’s bigoted, erratic speech and behaviour would virtually disqualify him from the race.

Despite the free flow of our culture and media across the pond, very few people in the UK — or even those bi-costal city dwellers here in the US — understand what the real face of America looks like. The US likes to present itself as a hub of culture, freedom and progress. But beyond this (somewhat) well preserved facade is a poor and disenfranchised underbelly, which has been categorically ignored both internationally and within the US itself.

The results of the 8th of November were not altogether dissimilar to those of the 23rd of June. Those who understand the election of Donald Trump as the apex of the post-recession western populist movement are certainly on the right track.

Like Europe, much of the US was devastated by the great recession of 2008. Though the national average of unemployment at the peak of the Great Recession was similar to that in the UK (approximately 10 per cent and 8 per cent unemployment, respectively), many poorer, rural states in the US saw unemployment soar to around 20 per cent.

These regions worst hit by the recession have never come close to a full recovery. Take Martinsville city, Virginia, located within Henry county the worst affected counties in my home state. In December of 2015, the unemployment rate in Martinsville loomed at 9.5 per cent, higher than the national UK average in 2009. Trump won this county by 63 per cent.Trump’s criticism of NAFTA in particular, and globalisation in general, sat well for many of those living in rural communities.

Since the passing of NAFTA, many opportunities for manufacturing jobs have relocated to Mexico. Alongside this, there has been a failure in efforts to offer retraining programmes to those affected. Clearly, much of middle America did not see the same Great Recovery that the Clinton campaign talked of. This talk of progress only added insult to injury.

Like Brexit, this year’s presidential election was a chance for the economically disenfranchised to be heard. These large (often rural) communities which had hitherto been largely been ignored by Washington now had a candidate who not only spoke to them directly and candidly. Better still, this candidate was a businessman — not a politician. And even better again, a businessman who was already a household name.

By all accounts, Secretary Clinton was Trump’s antithesis. Unarguably a career politician, she had spent her life in government championing the key factors that middle America perceived as worsening their lives: globalisation and multiculturalism. While Trump denounced NAFTA for having ‘destroyed our country’, Clinton’s husband had signed it into law.

All that being said, many wonder how Trump’s anti-minority rhetoric was not a deal breaker, especially in a nation that has nicknamed itself ‘the Great Melting Pot’.

Though nearly every country has its own history of bigotry, the US is unique in how recently discrimination was legal. Interracial marriage, for example was unlawful in 16 states until 1967. It was not until the aptly named landmark case of Richard and Mildred Loving vs the state of Virginia (Loving vs Virginia) made it all the way to the supreme court, a process which took 3 years, that laws prohibiting interracial marriage were invalidated. In contrast, there has never been a law prohibiting interracial marriage in the UK.

This is only the tip of the iceberg of state sanctioned racism in the US. Though the segregation of public schools between white and non-white students was officially ruled unconstitutional in 1954, the practice did not end until well into the 1960s. Put in a more personal way, many of my friends’ parents attended segregated primary schools.

Trump’s language of hate was nothing all that new or shocking to the part of America which can itself actually remember when his speech was the norm. It is easy to see, then, why his rhetoric was overlooked by much of his electorate.

This is not to say that there were no genuine bigots among his electorate. One only needs to watch a few interviews from Trump rallies to see that many of his most ardent supporters subscribed, either explicitly or implicitly, to some blend of patriarchal, white nationalism. Trump’s appeal to America’s former glory was undoubtedly twofold — both economic and cultural.

For many of us here in the US, Trump was not a surprise — he was inevitable. America has never fully tackled poverty within its poor post-industrial communities, nor have we extended the dialogue on race much past the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

If there is any silver lining to Trump’s election, it is that the US has finally been forced to confront its issues of systemic poverty and prejudice head-on. Trump has already been elected — there is no changing that. What we can do now is continue to protest, continue to stand up to bigotry, and ensure that Trump becomes only a one term president.

Dianna Ritchtie is an American University of Manchester alumnus. 

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