Election 2016

13 Top Theories for How Trump Won and Why Clinton Lost: What's Your Theory?

Everyone is still debating what happened.

Photo Credit: a katz / Shutterstock.com (compilation by AlterNet)

It’s now three weeks since Donald Trump won the presidential election, and people are still reeling. In an election that shocked the world and scrambled people’s sense of reality, Trump did what millions thought impossible: he was—sort of—elected president of the United States. True, if the U.S. were like the rest of the world, the person who got the most votes—Hillary Clinton, with in this case over 2.5 million more—would be the next president. And also true, the shenanigans, voter repression, disenfranchisement and perhaps worse that accompanied this election, mean that Donald Trump starts his term having very little legitimacy in the eyes of millions.

Nevertheless, it was an astounding feat for Trump to get elected. He has never held public office. He is widely known for a unique form of obnoxious branding and corrupt capitalism that includes numerous casino failures, multiple bankruptcies, hundreds of lawsuits (with 75 still outstanding two months before he takes over the Oval Office) and untold examples of screwing over those who work for him. On top of this, he was hugely unpopular—even more so, according to most polls, than his opponent.

So how the hell did this happen? The Trump victory, as unlikely and confounding as it was, set off an enormous amount of head-scratching, along with an unprecedented avalanche of opinions and theories about how this came to be. What is it that just happened to America? What is it that so many did not understand? And how could the pollsters and prognosticators be so far off?


We at AlterNet set out to catalog what we consider the top 13 theories of this election. Most everyone, of course, has a theory. The biggest theory is that voters wanted change. Hillary Clinton was very familiar and an extension of President Obama, while Trump was different, saying many things to please many people. Many of the things he said were contradictory and often untrue, but that did not seem to matter to 60 million or so voters. So on one level, almost half the voters wanted some kind of change—that is not debatable. But why? Why were they willing to bet the ranch on a candidate with some of the most blatant flaws and inappropriate behavior of any presidential candidate in our lifetime?

Before we dig deeper, we need to stipulate at the onset that there can be no one single theory explaining why voters wanted change, unless it is a theory that weaves together many theories. That said, certainly Hillary’s often-touted unpopularity comprises a major ingredient, since a lot of voters stayed home, and third-party voting was higher than in recent years. But still, an event as shocking as this election has to have multiple causes, and some of those reasons may still not have fully surfaced.

Cooked into this election is a meaty stew of factors: the huge desire for change, voter anger, fear and resentment, trauma, loss of place, white supremacy, misogyny, economic deprivation, media bias, conspiracy theories, unpopular candidates, FBI meddling, voter suppression and more, if you want to add to our list.

So, dear reader, you no doubt have plenty of opinions of your own. To have a little fun with this list, there are some exercises you might try: 1) rank this list from 1 to 13 in terms of the importance or impact of the theory on the outcome of this election; 2) take 100 points and allocate them to your favorite theories as a way of weighting them compared to each other (and leaving some out if they do not rise to a sufficient level of importance).

Don Hazen, AlterNet executive editor

1. Racism and white supremacy ran deep enough to help Trump win.

The big winner in this election, capping off a streak lasting hundreds of years now, was white supremacy. Never mind the false media narrative about Trump voters being motivated by economic anxiety—a premise that not only runs counter to actual data and numbers, but also discounts the more dire economic insecurity of people of color. Don’t be misled by appeals to understand the rage of the white working class, a storyline belied by the sheer number of votes cast for Trump by middle- and upper-class whites. This whole thing has been one big referendum on race, and is more proof of how far and wide America’s love of white supremacy goes.

Trump’s was a campaign largely devoid of policy proposals, except for those of erasure and exclusion. There were promises to keep Muslims out of the country, calls for mass deportations, the criminalization and pathologizing of black Americans, the whole “big, beautiful wall” lie. The repeated oath to Make America Great Again—to turn back the clock to when this country was even more horrific in its treatment of women and racial and ethnic minorities—was a perfect summation of Trump’s terrifying goals. The candidate’s general refusal to disavow support from white supremacists, his “law and order” mantra, his hiring of Steve Bannon, a white supremacist (aka alt-right) leader, made clear to every voter Trump’s ugly vision for America. That’s the vision Trump’s overwhelmingly white base supported during the campaign and the one they voted for in the election.

President-elect Trump is now making good on his vows. Bannon has been elevated to chief White House strategist. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s new attorney general, was once turned down for a U.S. District Court judge position because he was just too darn racist. Trump's national security adviser, Michael Flynn, is an unrepentant Islamophobe. Trump ran on racism, and now his team is all set to codify racism into some of the most regressive policies we’ve seen in decades.

This administration will have social, cultural, economic and political consequences that are both devastating and disastrous for communities of color. It’s already making the very act of existing potentially dangerous for them. There’s no doubt Trump will also royally screw over his supporters, particularly the most vulnerable. But it’s hard not to feel like those voters are getting the leader they deserve.

2. It was easier to accept a misogynist than a woman in the White House.

When Trump supporters said they wanted change, that didn’t include the status quo on misogyny. Sure, it’d be easy to paint Trump voters as either sexist men or self-loathing women, both opting for the traditional masculine image of leadership—and both holding women to higher standards of conduct. But Trump’s win and Clinton’s loss simply represented millions of voters’ failure to confront misogyny, however latent or overt. And it also proved that more than 60 million voters don’t see sexual abuse, sexist attacks and misogynist attitudes as a deal-breaker for being president.

Although Trump’s appeal lay in his political outsider status, his persona was a familiar and perhaps comforting one. As Laura Morgan Roberts and Robin Ely explain, Trump’s image “as the supremely successful businessman” and “masculine leader-as-savior” is one that “women and men have been socialized by family members, educators, and the media to associate [with] leadership.” As Roberts and Ely state, Clinton failed because, “Many women (and men) who supported Trump bought into the false dichotomy that a woman leader can be either competent or likeable, but not both… While almost 25 percent of Trump supporters said he was not qualified, they voted for him anyway.”

An abridged list of Trump’s misogynist offenses includes bragging about grabbing women by the pussy; objectifying women (e.g., rating Carly Fiorina’s looks, calling Alicia Machado “Miss Piggy,” discrediting women’s claims of sexual assault based on attractiveness); and interrupting Clinton to call her a “nasty woman.” Trump’s VP and hypothetical SCOTUS nominee both support banning a woman’s right to choose, and Trump once said that women who seek illegal abortions should face “some kind of punishment.” Still, Trump insisted, “Nobody has more respect for women than I do.” It’s painful to say, but Trump’s "respect" for women falls within the accepted boundaries of misogynist behavior in America.

Trump repeatedly proved he was an unqualified candidate and a hater of women, and Clinton clearly proved she was a politically experienced candidate with a plan. But America was not with her.

3. The media gave Trump an unfair advantage.

The media began normalizing Trump’s racial bigotry and misogyny well before the election, fawning over his ratings-boosting belligerence to the tune of $3 billion in free press that was fairly impossible to run against. For much of the election season, candidate Trump was allowed to say whatever erroneous thing he wanted without correction, while the flagging media used the Trump show to drive ad dollars to levels the industry hadn’t seen in years. Initially, Trump bathed in this spotlight, telling Fox News’ Neil Cavuto, “I've spent zero on advertising,” because the press covered him “a lot, to put it mildly.” He told the New York Times, “When you look at cable television, a lot of the programs are 100 percent Trump.” When the press later tried to do its job and Trump complained the media was biased, the only detail he left out was that it was in his favor.

Traditional online and offline news outlets undoubtedly helped Trump soar atop their rising profit margins, but perhaps no industry got a bigger boost than fake news sites, which produced stories both Trump supporters and the Trump team helped go viral. Professional conspiracy theorist and paranoia machine Alex Jones fed the right-wing fever dreams of Trump’s base; conservative attack dogs such as Michael Savage, Matt Drudge and the rest of the right’s echo chambers beat the drums of fear and misinformation. Breitbart—now the white supremacist propaganda arm of the White House—lavished praise on the candidate; Russian state-backed trolls on social media and white supremacist provocateurs spread lies, abuse and surprisingly effective memes. CNN did its part, hiring Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski as well as surrogates Kayleigh McEnany, Scottie Nell Hughes and Jeffrey Lord as talking heads. Jimmy Fallon, Saturday Night Live and Dr. Oz all gave Trump guest spots that helped turn a bloviating demagogue into a relatable billionaire.

Trump often outpaced a newscycle that spent most of the election in furious pursuit, shuttling from one daily outburst and scandal to another. When the media wasn’t pushing the ridiculous idea that using a private email server came anywhere near those violations, it dedicated itself to criticizing Clinton’s speaking voice and questioning her long list of accomplishments in a way it never sufficiently questioned Trump's. In the big picture, while the press wasn’t the only entity responsible for Trump’s win, it played a major role in making it happen. The latest news suggests it will continue to make the Trump presidency—complete with its white nationalist ties and disregard for rules and law—seem like just another political story.

4. Clinton was tarnished by perceived corruption for accepting money from Wall Street for her speeches.

Hillary sincerely believes there's nothing wrong with taking $225k a pop from Wall Street for giving a speech. There's also no harm in helping out the Clinton Foundation by arranging a State Department meeting or two for its donors. She and Bill are just doing what those around them have been doing since leaving Yale Law School. Becoming super-rich on Wall Street or super powerful in politics launches you into the rarefied world where money and power glide back and forth with little ethical friction. Our political and economic elites dine together, vacation together and share their private planes and estates. If you're on the money side of the line, you crave political access. If you're on the political side, you'd like a little spending money—about $10 million a year would do.

The Clintons see this as their due. They are as smart, capable and hardworking as any of their hedge fund friends. They also share a cold, hard understanding that the line between the public interest and pay-to-play is ever wavering. Elites never judge each other harshly when there's a bit of slippage. It's the burden you must carry.

The public usually envies the glitter. They can even forgive the ethical lapses. But the game changes when their own prospects diminish year after year. Unfortunately, for Hillary, her slippery slides took place just as the American people woke up to the runaway inequality. Why was it so easy to make stick the claim that she was getting rich at our expense? Because, in a broad sense, it was true.

5. Actually, Hillary did win.

The number of presidential votes now stands at 135.5 million and is still growing as states like California keep processing their ballots. What’s clear is Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by more ballots than anyone in American history who did not become president—over 2.5 million. But the problem of rigged American elections goes deeper than the antiquated Electoral College, which makes a mockery of a nationwide contest in which more than 60 million people voted for the top two candidates, yet the race was decided by 106,000 votes in three states (27,000 in Wisconsin, 11,000 in Michigan, 68,000 in Pennsylvania).

Republicans employed their do-everything strategy to complicate and create barriers to voting in Democratic epicenters, as most visibly seen by 14 states that adopted new laws restricting voting since 2014. Did tougher ID requirements in Wisconsin tip the balance from Clinton to Trump? In Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, where turnout was down by 58,000 votes from 2012, and where local officials said the new tougher ID law was partly to blame, Clinton got 66 percent of the votes this year. Could those mostly missing-in-action Democrats have made the difference? Perhaps, except some voters who backed Obama before said they didn’t like anyone this year and didn’t vote, or they voted for Trump.

The same questions are raised about Detroit, Michigan, where Wayne County’s turnout fell by 70,000 votes this year compared to 2012. Whether it was voter suppression tactics, a candidate who lacked the emotional appeal of her predecessor, states that were mostly ignored by both candidates during the lengthy campaign, unexpected high turnout in the white-majority rural areas—hacking vote count apparatus—or some mix of these (and other) factors, Trump is set to take the presidential oath in January—pending recounts.

6. Clinton supported trade deals and Trump criticized them.

Once upon a time, trade deals like NAFTA were win-win deals for Democrats as they competed for corporate/Wall Street cash. Since the Republicans were already there, it took Democratic votes to seal the deal. A "yes" vote cost the Democrats very little since unions and working-class voters understood that the Republicans were even worse. Triangulation, the Clintons called it: Please your corporate donors without losing votes.

Hillary, in lockstep with Bill, lobbied wavering Democrats. Drunk on neoliberal Kool-Aid, they argued that more trade between the U.S. and low-wage countries would increase jobs and prosperity for all.

Flash-forward a decade and Senator Hillary is both the senator from Wall Street and from the Rust Belt devastation of upstate New York. Obviously, those who lost their jobs to low-cost Mexican and Asian labor were not getting the good-paying ones. So she put down her pom-poms to say that NAFTA "has not lived up to its promises."

Meanwhile more than 850,000 workers were dislocated during the NAFTA years, and millions more from the vast imbalance in trade with China. After decades of industrial decay, the anger was rising. It came from industrial workers, from the cities and towns left behind, and most importantly from a shared class understanding that the dream of "free" trade left nearly all working people behind. The economic elites had promised prosperity for all—and took it all for themselves.

Bernie Sanders, onto this for years, was finally recognized, and he nearly demolished Hillary on the trade issue. Then came Trump, the first successful Republican contender to attack NAFTA head-on. Good-bye, triangulation.

7. Party loyalty and candidate loyalty ran high.

Americans are more divided along political lines than at any time since the Civil War, according to post-election statistics that saw the fewest states splitting their votes for president and Senate since the popular election of senators began a century ago. Even in a year where more than 7 million voters picked third-party presidential candidates, it’s hard to say that Bernie Sanders supporters who flocked to the Green Party (or even some Libertarian Gary Johnson supporters) could have changed the outcome. Seen from afar, Jill Stein won more votes than Trump’s margin of victory in Wisconsin (almost 31,000) and Michigan (51,000) but not in Pennsylvania (49,000), where Trump was leading by 68,000 in the unofficial count. Clinton needed to win all three of these states after losing Florida on election night.

Without the third-party candidates, Clinton might have won. Certainly, without the Electoral College, she would have won. But this is not the world we live in. Exit polls, which early on November 8 wrongly predicted a Clinton victory, found that Clinton and Trump won about 90 percent of the votes of people who identified with their two parties. That suggests partisanship still greatly matters. In that vein, it’s clear that many people moved by Sanders were not going to follow his advice to vote for Clinton when Stein more clearly resonated with their values.

What this means, looking ahead, is the country seems fated in the near future to see-saw between the two major parties, each taking a turn forcing their agendas through over the other's fierce objections, and voters reacting with a backlash several years later.

8. The feelings of displacement and economic stress overwhelmed many voters.

Displacement is loss of place or stature. Many millions of Americans, for a host of reasons, are feeling fundamental loss. Their displacement is a loss of culture, jobs, community, religion, economics, identity and hope for the future. Trauma can follow. And so in terms of this election and a desire for change, displacement can be seen as an overarching umbrella that encompasses the polarization, anger and pessimism prevalent in many parts of the country and seen as motivating Trump voters.

Displacement can exacerbate fear of the “other”—immigrants, minorities—and provide increased rationalization for racism and misogyny. It can produce paranoid thinking, blame-the-victim psychology and fantasies of reverse discrimination. It can trigger fear, anger and domestic violence. People who feel psychologically displaced and fearful are more likely to respond to authority figures who talk of law and order. The feeling of being displaced can be a loss experienced so deeply it has led to increasing levels of addiction, alcoholism, violence and suicide.

The Science of Us website highlights:

“Penn State demographer Shannon Monnat, who tells Business Insider’s Harrison Jacobs that the counties that went harder for Trump than expected correlated closely with mortality rates stemming from drugs, booze and suicide. The other two predictors were the portion of white voters and a measure she calls the ‘economic stress index,’ which bundles poverty, unemployment, being uninsured, and other precarious states in a single metric.

“’[W]hen you think about the underlying factors that lead to overdose or suicide, it’s depression, despair, distress, and anxiety,’ Monnat said, and those are exactly the emotional states that Trump, the master marketer, appealed to. When people in a community are ‘literally dying,’ she notes, it makes sense that they’d vote for massive change, like the many that did in 2008 for Barack Obama. In Ohio, Jacobs reports, almost every county with an overdose mortality rate above 20 per 100,000 people (14.7 is the national average) saw Trump do about 10 percent better than Romney in 2012, or saw Hillary Clinton lose about 10 percent of Obama’s 2012 votes—or both.”

As Robert P. Jones, author of The End of White Christian America, offers in his interview with AlterNet:

“My best read of what's happened on the ground is a combined economic and cultural anxiety particularly among white conservative evangelical Christians. In addition to the cultural fears, about eight in 10 white evangelical Protestants say they still think we're in a recession today. They still feel economically distressed.”

9. Clinton performed worse with union households than any Democratic candidate since 1984.

It’s hard to compile definitive data on how union members vote, but if we trust any part of the exit polls, things didn’t go well for Hillary Clinton. The numbers indicate that Clinton outperformed Trump by a mere 8 percent in union households. That’s the lowest Democratic advantage since Walter Mondale lost to Ronald Reagan in 1984. To put this in context, Obama won union households by 18 percent in the last presidential election.

Trump obviously didn’t get endorsements from the big unions like Clinton did, but he consistently talked about the devastating impact of NAFTA and the disappearance of jobs. He also invoked the boogeymen of undocumented workers and the economic threat of China. As Dave Jamieson of the Huffington Post wrote after Trump’s victory: “Trump did something unheard of for a modern Republican presidential candidate: He made a direct appeal to union workers and claimed to be their champion.”

The numbers don’t exactly point to a positive union showing for Trump (exit polls indicate that GOP support with union households only rose by 3% since the last election). While there are many reasons for this outcome, it is interesting to note that Clinton lost important, union-dense states: Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and (it looks like) Michigan—all states that Obama won in 2012.

10. Americans were more pessimistic than ever before, and instead of reforming the system, they decided to blow it up.

Economic despair, lost jobs, fantasy-based economic policy, and racism were too potent a cocktail for voters in the Rust Belt and the South to ignore, and they drove Donald Trump to victory. Voters took a risk, and that risk means white supremacists in the White House.

Why? Economists and pundits will be arguing for years over whether racism or job loss had a bigger effect on the Rust Belt's and South's Trump votes. Production data, as the MIT Technology Review explains, shows a "massive 30-year decline of employment beginning in 1980. That trend led to the liquidation of more than a third of U.S. manufacturing positions. Employment in the sector plunged from 18.9 million jobs to 12.2 million."

During the Great Recession, the South and the Midwest both suffered; according to one report, "poverty rates in some Midwest cities, such as Detroit and Toledo, Ohio, have doubled over the last decade. And in the South, poverty in some metro areas, such as El Paso, Texas, and Baton Rouge, La., has increased by more than a third." Which is atrocious, but so is telling voters that tariffs on China and Mexico are an economic wand that will magically transport jobs to depressed areas.

It's tempting, as Damon Young writes in the Nation, to simply say that Trump supporters voted against their self-interest. However, "They may have voted against a self-interest—several self-interests, actually—but not their most important one: the preservation of white supremacy." Despair and job loss drove America to madness.

11. The FBI’s James Comey stopped Clinton’s momentum.

Clinton’s momentum in the final two weeks of the election was halted when FBI director James Comey went public with a virtually meaningless letter to Congress about how the department was looking into some emails found on a laptop belonging to Anthony Weiner, the estranged husband of Clinton aide Huma Abedin. Comey was said to be under pressure from his more conservative anti-Hillary agents to reopen the investigation into her server. We know from post-election interviews that some fence-sitting voters tipped over to the Trump side after that. Others just firmly decided at that point they could never vote for Clinton and sat it out. Clinton’s allegedly unusual use of a private email server while Secretary of State, and the statements she made about it afterward, seemed to bother even staunch Democratic voters about her more than any other pseudo-scandal.

The timing of Comey’s letter was far too coincidental for anyone to believe it was not intentional. And the added bonus of somehow linking Clinton to creepy Anthony Weiner in the midst of the mounting allegations of sexual assault against Donald Trump helped seal the damaging deal. The press happily complied and talked about nothing but the nonexistent email kerfuffle for five precious days, as the narrative shifted away from the now p*ssy grabber-in-chief.

Comey’s decision to resurface the suspicions about Clinton’s email at that critical moment stinks in every way, and many are calling for an investigation into this egregious interference in the election. It violated longtime Justice Department protocols not to comment about ongoing investigations, as well as the federal Hatch Act, which prohibits government employees from interfering in elections. Will the nation’s top cop admit any policy or law was breached?

12. Clinton had too many shortcomings as a candidate.

It has often been said—even by Hillary Clinton—that she is better at doing the actual work of governing, legislating and getting things done than running for the job. She’s doesn’t connect emotionally with crowds and struggles to be spontaneous and seem authentic. This matters. Democrats like Barack Obama and Bill Clinton were talented campaigners and they won. Stilted technocrats like Michael Dukakis, John Kerry, Al Gore (well, he won, but didn't occupy the White House), and Hillary Clinton were not, and they lost. Unfortunately, the beer test matters, and Clinton was a historically unpopular candidate. (Then again, so was Trump.)

Clinton was a savvy debater, and the debates were a bright spot in the campaign. She ran rhetorical circles around Trump in the first debate, closing strong with the Alicia Machado reference, which prompted a damaging Twitter meltdown. Clinton was sharp as a tack in the third debate. Her full-throated endorsement of reproductive choice was an inspiring, unparalleled moment. Her comments on race were thoughtful and considered. But it doesn’t matter. It turns out that most Americans don’t really care about debating skills.

Clinton also lacked a strong central message. Her general election campaign focused almost exclusively on Trump’s unfitness for office. She had extensive proposals on her website, but they seemed more like wonky, uninspiring tweaks to Obamacare, minimum wage and paid family leave, not a grand vision. Even those who were for her were hard-pressed to say what exactly she stood for and what she planned to do, or what her legacy might be.

Clinton’s arrogance helped do her in. She had a great resume; it was her turn. Too often when she spoke, she made it about herself and her marvelous accomplishments, rather than about American people and what they needed. Tin eared, she hit the wrong notes most of the time. When it became clear the race in Michigan was dangerously tightening, she went there, and sang the wrong tune again.

13. The election was undermined by the powerful effect of conspiracy theories, fake news and disinformation.

Let’s not forget where this election started, or rather where this version of candidate Trump started: with Trump’s aggressive and persistent pushing of the so-called “birther" theory that Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. and by implication was a Muslim and not a Christian. Trump pushed the racist birther lie for years, enjoying substantial media coverage along the way. Throw into the mix media-savvy conspiracy peddlers Roger Stone, Alex Jones, Michael Savage, and the major domination of the white nationalist anti-Semitic Breitbart News’ Steve Bannon, and you have an unprecedented all-star team of conspiracy mavens on team Trump.

These are the people who thought, according to Sarah Kendzior writing in the Globe and Mail, “that the path to victory lies with the campaign’s ability to manipulate people through the internet.” Kendzior adds that Trump campaign conspiracies traveled not only through social media and mainstream outlets, but also through the FBI, whose authoritative reputation lends innuendo legitimacy, whether intentional or not (see theory #11 on Comey and the FBI).

Consistent with conspiracies and disinformation is the huge debate underway in the country about the extent and impact of fake news on Twitter, Facebook, Google and all over the internet, and role it played in the election (see theory #3 on media).

As Kendzior underscores, “Mr. Trump’s campaign has long been aimed at pulling the fringes into the center, mainstreaming extremism, so that it is not recognized as extreme anymore.” She adds: “In authoritarian states, conspiracy narratives... Operate both as a method of intimidation and a way to rally followers. ...One should not dismiss the process by which he successfully cowed and manipulated institutions; or how deeply his narratives—often consisting not of substantive claims but of allusions to shadowy unnamed forces—resonated with a frustrated public.”

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Don Hazen is the former executive editor of AlterNet.

Kali Holloway is a senior writing fellow and the senior director of Make It Right, a project of the Independent Media Institute.


Jenny Pierson is the manager of editorial projects and programs administrator at the Independent Media Institute.

Jan Frel is the executive director of the Independent Media Institute. He is the author of Neighbors from Hell: An American Bedtime Story (Feral House, 2015). 

Les Leopold, the director of the Labor Institute, is currently working with unions and community organizations to build the educational infrastructure for a new anti-Wall Street movement. His new book Runaway Inequality: An Activist’s Guide to Economic Justice serves as a text for this campaign. All proceeds go to support these educational efforts.

Steven Rosenfeld is a senior writing fellow of the Independent Media Institute, where he covers national political issues. He is the author of several books on elections, most recently Democracy Betrayed: How Superdelegates, Redistricting, Party Insiders, and the Electoral College Rigged the 2016 Election (March 2018, Hot Books).


Michael Arria covers labor and social movements. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelarria

Ilana Novick is an AlterNet contributing writer and production editor.