Explaining the Trump Victory:
Populist Sentiments and the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election
Deirdre Tinney and Stephen Quinlan
As the world peers into the crystal ball era of Brexit and President Trump, it has become clear that we need to talk about populism. These days, parties and politicians articulating what are regarded as populist views are to be found in established democracies globally. A vexing question however is do so-called populist sentiments shape vote choice? The Comparative Study of Electoral Systems (CSES) has responded with Module 5, which examines ‘citizens’ attitudes towards political elites, majority rule and out-groups in representative democracy’ as a priority. It runs from 2016 to 2021 inclusive and will be fielded in more than 40 countries. Data from countries that have fielded Module 5 are slowly becoming available. Using the CSES Module 5 component included in the Irish National Election Study (Marsh et al. 2016), we showed that some populist attitudes did motivate vote choice in the 2016 general election in Ireland. Here, we take advantage of the American National Election Study’s (ANES) 2016 data that included CSES Module 5, to focus on what impact populist sentiments had on Donald Trump’s victory.
Populism is ‘an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups…[and that] politics should be an expression of the volonté générale of the people’ (Mudde 2004). Arguments that the political elite is incompetent and/or corrupt; that a ‘great leader’ is needed to sweep all the problems aside; and that immigrants should ‘go home’ and leave the ‘worthy’ people to enjoy their existence in peace, are typical of what is referred to as populism. However, ‘chameleon-like’ variation exists across countries, and some question whether populism constitutes an ideology at all (Aslanidis 2016).
Donald Trump’s campaign ticked many so-called ‘populist’ boxes. His descent by escalator in Trump Tower, New York, at his campaign launch in 2015, was accompanied by the pulse of a powerful rock anthem, with lyrics reaching out to the marginalized. The themes of his campaign were clear. Other countries dumped their problems on America. Career politicians were the incompetent puppets of wily lobbyists. A wall must be built to stop immigrant Mexicans, who were mostly ‘criminals’ and ‘rapists’. As the campaign progressed, these themes were extended. Republican opponent Jeb Bush was rebuked for campaigning in Spanish instead of insisting that immigrants should speak English. Muslims came in for ire. Calls to ‘drain the swamp’, and slurs about ‘crooked Hillary’ showed great sticking power. The message was crystal clear: America was broken, needed to be made Great Again, and Mr. Trump cast himself as the saviour-in-waiting of the people. The question is whether such sentiments influenced American voters to support Donald Trump? Continue reading “Explaining the Trump Victory: Populist Sentiments and the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election”