Policy Analysis 02 March, 2017

Understanding Donald Trump’s Victory: Some Methodological and Semiotic Considerations

Samer S. Shehata

​Samer S. Shehata taught at the American University in Cairo, Columbia University, New York University, Georgetown University, and the University of Oklahoma before joining the Doha Institute. Shehata is the author of Shop Floor Culture and Politics in Egypt and  is currently writing a book about the rise and fall of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

Many Americans and much of the world were both surprised and shocked by Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Almost all the polls had predicted Hilary Clinton would comfortably win the election. Pundits were shocked that a candidate who seemed so reckless during the campaign, mired in multiple personal and financial scandals, with no previous experience in elected office, and with a seemingly endless penchant for making bigoted and offensive remarks, could be elected to the world’s most powerful office.

Donald Trump’s political success in 2016 is part of a much larger global phenomenon: the rise of right wing, anti-establishment, populist politics. Brexit, the Italian Five Star movement, the resignation of the center-left Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, and the increasing popularity of Marine Le Pen’s National Front, are all recent examples of this trend.[1]

Many of these parties and movements are founded on anti-globalization, anti-immigrant, and anti-establishment sentiment. In fact, it would be a mistake to approach Trump’s success without reference to larger global economic and political forces. The movement of manufacturing and industry from advanced economies to Asia and other developing nations and the consequences of this on patterns of income inequality in Europe and North America fueled anti-globalization sentiment. Similarly,  global immigration patterns and the perceived “threat” new immigrants pose to “national” cultures and economies in Europe and the United States resulted in increased right-wing, anti-immigrant politics.  And the rise of extremist Islamist groups such as ISIL contributed to heightened Islamophobia in the West and elsewhere.

But just as it would be a mistake to analyze Trump’s election without reference to structural changes in the international economy and the transnational wave of right wing populist politics, it would be equally mistaken to focus exclusively on these factors to the neglect of American domestic politics. 

To understand America’s 2016 election both global as well as national and structural as well as contingent factors need to be examined. In this context, Azmi Bishara, in a recent essay[2], does an excellent job of examining some of the international and structural factors behind Trump’s victory. Bishara analyzes the wider economic and political factors driving the global rise of right wing populist politics. This essay, by contrast, focuses primarily on some of the national and contingent factors behind Trump’s victory.

This essay makes four points. The first is methodological and has already been articulated: both global and national as well as structural and contingent factors are essential for understanding the 2016 U.S. election. Second, the fact that almost all the polling including by the New York Times and the much-heralded Nate Silver got the election wrong reflects something more profound than simple polling error. It reflects the character of the social world and the limits of prediction in the human sciences. Third, one cannot understand Donald Trump’s victory without understanding Hillary Clinton’s shortcomings as a presidential candidate. Finally, the semiotic failures of the Clinton campaign have been largely overlooked in the voluminous analysis explaining her defeat. Not only was Hillary Clinton an unpopular candidate, her campaign message was deeply flawed: unmemorable, barely coherent and often referenced Donald Trump. Trump’s message by contrast, was simple, positive, and unforgettable.

To read the complete version of this paper as a PDF, please click here or on the icon above. This is a modified version of a presentation which the author gave at the December, 2016 conference on the global repercussions of a Trump presidency.


[1] There are also some similarities between the politics described above and India’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte. Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah Al Sisi are also examples of populist, ultra-nationalist, rightwing politicians, although neither Putin nor Sisi were elected through free and fair elections.

[2] Azmi Bishara, “The Rise of the Right and the Adoption of the Clash of Civilizations: When Democracy Spawns the Antithesis of Liberalism”, 2016, Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, December 31, accessed February 28, 2017 at: http://english.dohainstitute.org/release/77612fb6-cc40-46a3-937b-5445def5e487