Why did Trump win? And what’s next for labor in the US

By and

Rand Wilson and Peter Olney have penned another in a series of commentaries on American politics and labor. This article first appeared in Sinistra Sindicale, an internal newsletter of the Confederazione Generale Italiana dei Lavoratori (CGIL), the largest trade union federation in Italy. This article deals with the US election result.


European elites were shocked at the surprising victory of “Brexit” last June. American elites — and especially the pollsters and major media outlets — were similarly shocked by the results of the U.S. elections on November 8.(1)

While Brexit was a straight up “Yes” or “No” vote, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, but lost because of the Electoral College system of electing our national presidents. The Electoral College is an arcane constitutional provision intended to protect smaller states from the population power of larger states and the rule of the “mob” over the perceived wisdom of elite electors.

This is the fifth time in U.S. history that a presidential candidate has won the popular vote, but lost the election because of the anti-democratic Electoral College. The last time was in 2000 when George W. Bush became President after a Supreme Court ruled that he had won the vote in the state of Florida. That state’s electoral college vote gave Bush the election, even though a plurality of the American people voted for the Democratic nominee, Al Gore.

Trump heralded his election as “Brexit on steroids” and appeared at a rally in Mississippi with Nigel Farage from the British Independence Party. Both Brexit and Trump’s triumph tapped into a distraught white working class buffeted by globalization and new demographic realities. In many cases Trump’s appeal was pure and simple racism, attracting alt-right and overt racist elements. Yet while all racists, misogynists and xenophobes most likely voted for Trump, not all of his 60 million votes were racists, misogynists and xenophobes.

The Electoral College system made winning the states of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin key to either candidate winning the White House. Why did Secretary Clinton lose in these three states that her predecessor Barrack Obama carried in 2008 and 2012? Workers in all three states have suffered huge job losses in basic industry and in the case of Pennsylvania, the closure of coalmines. The sons and daughters of “New Deal” Democrats many of whom supported Obama in 2008 and 2012 were looking to make a statement against the ruling elites and voted for change.

Exit polls in Ohio tell the story. In 2012 when Obama carried Ohio, he won union households by a 23% margin. In 2016, Trump, the New York billionaire, carried union households by a 12% margin. Similar voting patterns took place in the crucial battleground states of Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. In short, many white working class voters simply deserted the Democratic Party.

After the election, a railroad worker from Ohio who is a member of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees (a division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters) and who voted for Trump said, “I didn’t vote for my retirement. I didn’t vote for my healthcare. I didn’t vote for my union membership. I voted for my son. Because I just didn’t see a future for him if we elected Hillary. I actually voted for Obama in the last two elections. Now, I stand here and tell you that if we lose our retirement, I will not bitch. If I lose my healthcare, I will not bitch. If my tax rate goes through the roof, I will not bitch. I cast my vote and I will stand behind it.”

An SEIU member in Massachusetts felt betrayed, “I’m a registered Democrat, but they have let me down,” said Peter Blaikie, a custodian and shop steward in the Somerville Public Schools. “I expect Republicans to screw me, but the Democrats take our money and do worse, so I voted for the lessor of two evils. Clinton just looked like Obama’s third term. She just seemed entitled. And it was also a matter of how I feel about right and wrong. Hundreds of her emails were mishandled. She should have been charged with treason. If you do something wrong with classified information you should be held accountable. Others have been severely punished for lessor crimes. I obey the law, so should she.”

In the run-up to Election Day, pollsters and pundits talked of re-configuring the electoral map because of the anticipated strength of the Latino vote. In the end, Trump polled as strongly among Latinos as the Republican candidate in both 2008 and 2012. The Black vote — without Obama at the top of the ticket — polled below the last two election cycles in cities like Detroit that are crucial to winning industrial states like Michigan.

After the election, Sen. Bernie Sanders summed up Clinton’s defeat: “Donald Trump tapped into the anger of a declining middle class that is sick and tired of establishment economics, establishment politics and the establishment media. People are tired of working longer hours for lower wages, of seeing decent paying jobs go to China and other low-wage countries, of billionaires not paying any federal income taxes and of not being able to afford a college education for their kids – all while the very rich become much richer.”

Many people believe (including these authors) that Sanders would have won against Trump. The Sanders’ campaign (and many down-ballot victories on 8 November) showed that an explicitly anti-capitalist campaign can succeed.

Now the Neo-Liberal wing of the Democratic Party (the Clintons and their Progressive Policy Institute think tank friends) is completely discredited. The Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren populist wing of the party is challenging its national leadership. Even New York’s Chuck Schumer, the ranking minority leader in the Senate, acknowledged the need for a new approach. He is supporting Congressman Keith Ellison, a Muslim African American from Minnesota, and a supporter of Senator Sanders, for Chair of the Democratic National Committee.

Perhaps more importantly, grassroots activists inspired by Bernie Sanders’ campaign are challenging the leadership of the party at the state and local levels across the country. Sanders is backing a new group, Our Revolution, formed to build on the movement that he started. “Our Revolution” backed over 100 new progressive leaders in the November election and hopes to transform American politics to be more responsive to the needs of working families.

Trump’s victory, although made possible by an angry white working class, has also elevated working class issues to a degree not seen since the 1930s. Ironically, it also led to the defeat of the Trans Pacific Partnership, the trade deal negotiated by the Obama administration with Pacific Rim nations.

“The movement we built has brought down, at least for now, the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” said Larry Cohen, the past president of the Communications Workers and now Board Chair of “Our Revolution”. “This was because of the work of union members and environmentalists, farmers and immigrants. This was the work of the political revolution. Our defeat for now of the TPP is a bright spot in a bleak week for our country. Let’s celebrate our victory, and get ready for the fights to come.”

Going forward, workers and the unions that protect them, will likely be under a heavy attack by Trump and the Republican Party majorities in both the House and Senate. The labor movement will have an opportunity to organize more workers while also attracting more militant leaders if it can offer a “port in the storm” to those who are most vulnerable in the Trump era.

The unions that backed Sanders — and hopefully many others — will help lead the fight against Trump and by doing so, build the strength of a more militant, class conscious wing of the labor movement.


1) For a more thorough discussion of the election’s similarities with Brexit, see, “Democrats, Trump, and the Ongoing, Dangerous Refusal to Learn the Lesson of Brexit,” by Glenn Greenwald, The Intercept, Nov. 9, 2016.

About the author

Peter Olney

Peter Olney is retired Organizing Director of the ILWU. He has been a labor organizer for 40 years in Massachusetts and California. He has worked for multiple unions before landing at the ILWU in 1997. For three years he was the Associate Director of the Institute for Labor and Employment at the University of California. View all posts by Peter Olney →

Rand Wilson

Rand Wilson has worked as a union organizer and labor communicator for more than twenty five years and is  currently an organizer with SEIU Local 888 in Boston. Wilson was the founding director of Massachusetts Jobs with Justice.  Active in electoral politics, he ran for state Auditor in a campaign to win cross-endorsement (or fusion) voting reform and establish a Massachusetts Working Families Party.  He is President of the Center for Labor Education and Research, and is on the board of directors of the ICA Group, the Local Enterprise Assistance Fund and the Center for the Study of Public Policy. View all posts by Rand Wilson →

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10 thoughts on Why did Trump win? And what’s next for labor in the US

  1. Pingback: Why Did Trump Win ? And, What is Next for Labor? | Talking Union

  2. Thanks for this. One important missing element in the anaylsis is the roots of the Electoral College are not only about the rural urban divide, but more important, to my mind,is is roots in slavery. The development of the Electoral College was part of the 3/5th of a person deal made between slave owners, who were — especially in Virginia–vastly outnumbered by their African slaves. In order ot to be swamped by the north, this system was created. We forget at our peril that white supremacy and economic development in the US go hand and hand

  3. Why Did Trump Win? Part II Response
    Donald Trump Is the Result of White Rage, Not Economic Anxiety

    Carol Anderson

    Nov. 16, 2016- time.com

    Carol Anderson is the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor and Chair of African American Studies at Emory University and the author of White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of our Racial Divide

    Obama’s election was a major trigger for the policy backlash that led to Donald Trump

    White rage got us here. While the economic anxiety of Trump supporters is often touted as the driving force behind the mogul’s electoral college victory, that rationale is just a ruse, a clever red herring. The median income of a Trump supporter is more than $70,000 per year, which is well above the national average, and a 2016 study noted that it would take African Americans 228 years to equal the wealth of whites in the U.S. Clearly, Trump’s pathway into the Oval Office is not really about white economic angst. Rather, Barack Obama’s election — and its powerful symbolism of black advancement — was the major trigger for the policy backlash that led to Donald Trump, and which has now put America’s national security at risk.

    Republicans carved out this trench shortly after Obama’s 2008 victory. The GOP pushed through a number of laws at the state level to block as many of his voters, primarily African Americans, from the polls as possible. North Carolina targeted black voters with nearly “surgical precision.” Wisconsin Republicans were “giddy” about disfranchising African Americans, especially in Milwaukee. Florida’s GOP cut particular days of early voting to nullify the political participation of black churchgoers. Texas required certain types of government-issued photo IDs to vote and then ensured that nearly 1.6 million black and Latino citizens would have very limited access. Ohio skewed its early voting laws to diminish the turnout in the cities while also implementing a literacy test that officials applied only to those in urban counties.

    The end result was that the Republicans had effectively shattered the black and Latino demographic firewall that could have prevented a Trump presidency. A Trump presidency, to be clear, that many in the Republican establishment rightfully feared because of the mogul’s demonstrated unfitness for office.

    But they didn’t fear it enough. Because even in the wake of federal court orders striking down many of the most odious, discriminatory features of voter suppression, the GOP resisted, stalled and defied the judiciary until confusion and resignation reigned at the polls. It was too late.

    In a horrific Faustian calculation, these Republican patriots put the nation at risk so that Trump could fulfill his dominant campaign promise. And, to be clear, it was not to make America great again, but to make access to America’s resources “whites only” again. The Klan recognized it, as did the white nationalists who gave Trump their full-throttled support. But, this wasn’t just a fantasy of the far right. The allure of a revived Jim Crow nation that proudly, willfully excludes and debases millions of nonwhites was so reaffirming and reassuring that everything else became secondary or tertiary. Everything else, including national security.

    Despite his glaring lack of qualifications, patriots shoved Trump into the role of Commander in Chief — a man who had already maligned the U.S. military as a “disaster,” denigrated the generals dismantling ISIS, and disparaged POWs for being stupid enough to get caught. Patriots cheered on as Trump asked the Russian government to hack an American citizen who had led a national-security agency. Patriots acquiesced to a foreign policy that encouraged nuclear proliferation, oozed profound ignorance about the basic fundamentals of U.S. nuclear capability, and kept in play use of the ultimate weapon by a man who has difficulty even maintaining control on Twitter.

    Patriots gleefully ignored warnings by the National Security Agency that the hacked documents released by WikiLeaks were actually the result of and washed through Russian intelligence. Patriots didn’t blink when Trump’s economic plan included the possibility of defaulting on the U.S. debt although that “could undermine the stability of global financial markets” on a scale not seen since the Great Recession and cost American taxpayers billions of dollars in higher interest rates. Patriots accepted Trump’s admiration of Vladimir Putin, disdain for the President of the United States, and a foreign policy agenda that matched up smoothly with the Russian — not American — government’s.

    In other words, in January 2017, a man will be at the helm of the U.S. military, intelligence and foreign policy bureaucracies, who actually encouraged foreign intervention in an American election and advocated for dismantling the alliances that will aid Russian expansionism and weaken U.S. influence and power. Yet, the patriots bet that the trade-off will be well worth it.

    Clearly, white rage has brought us here.

  4. You folks still don’t get it. Blacks and Latinos are also very angry about the economic decline of their working-class and middle-class status. In fact, their decline has driven them back into the 1950s. So… by your logic in your essay on why Trump won, they should be voting for Trump by 94%!

    However, the reality of capitalist America is that you cannot separate race and class from any analysis of this society. Trump and his handlers played up the white supremacy card in coded and not so coded ways during his entire campaign… allowing many of the 200+ white supremacist groups to go out and mobilize their white working-class and middle-class base to such an extent that even racism trumped sexism and misogyny.

    I urge you, as fellow activists and thinkers, to begin to face the reality of the historical and inextricable link between race and class in America. If not, all things will confuse you.

    Race/white supremacy is not an afterthought: it is front and center when it comes to social, cultural and economic matters in the US. Your challenge as labor leaders is to bring your white union members into that very hard discussion of racism and white supremacy and how we can eradicate them. The longer you avoid this encounter, the stronger the Trumpists and “alt-right” forces become institutionalized within an increasingly Browning America. And that, my fellow labor friends, is fertile ground for a New-Apartheid America where the white minority in the late 21st Century oppressively rules over the Brown, Black, Yellow majority.

  5. Pingback: 11.29.2016 Nearly Naked Links | Daily Links & News

  6. There are many factors why DT won and HC lost but the bottom line is that in Ohio, county by county, DT edged up over Romney but by far it was HC lost much over Obama.  Part of that is the suppression of African American vote but across the board, urban and rural, Trump went up in almost EVERY county while Clinton went down in almost EVERY county.  Exceptions are Cincinnati (Hamilton County where HC lost some but DT went down twice as much) and Columbus where HC went up while DT went down. The Ohio totals are that Trump got 169,000 more than Romney and Clinton lost 422,000 from Obama 2012.

    as to voter turn out: down across the board. Only three counties turned out 1,000 more total voters than 2012. Ohio lost 100,000 votes over 2012 while the Libertarians and Green went up by 150,000.

  7. Peter Olney and Rand Wison responds:

    Len Shindel, Nick Unger and Stansbury Forum stalwart (and administrator) Bob Gumpert ask important questions and make good critiques of our article written for the Italian CGIL Sinistra Sindicale.

    Len Shindel calls correctly for a more careful analysis of the voting stats before making assumptions. The only real stats that we used were the NBC exit pols regarding union household voting, and of course those can be flawed because a union household can have a lot of non-union voters. While George Lakoff’s work is important, we find the article by Christian Parenti “Listening to Trump” far more accessible than Lakoff’s academic analysis.

    Shindel’s admonition to confront job losses caused by technology is accepted, and we have ordered a copy of People Get Ready by Nichols and McChesney. Some of organized labor’s single-minded focus on trade deals as the only job killers boomeranged in this election, as Trump was able to grossly manipulate the dangers of NAFTA and TPP to his advantage. One thing that is never said is that the U.S. is the number two manufacturing power in the world and that manufacturing, albeit downsized, should be the renewed focus for labor’s organizing efforts. Organized manufacturing workers remain crucial to working class power in society.

    Nick Unger stresses the importance of dealing with voter suppression among African Americans. Undoubtedly that was a huge factor, although we have not seen the numbers. Union household numbers are not racially categorized. The point we are making is that the Clinton neo-liberal message did not resonate with portions of the working class, and that was probably an issue with lots of people of color also.

    Gumpert questions whether Sanders was running an “anti-capitalist” agenda. Certainly his was more “anti-capitalist” than any agenda we have seen from a major party candidate in our lifetime. However, Bob is right that Sanders’ agenda was generally for more social democratic control over the economy. In these times of neo-liberal and laissez faire capitalism, we certainly welcome it.

    The reasons whites voted for Obama once, twice but then not for Hillary will surely be dissected until the cows come home. The two quotes from the workers we cited, reveal the contradicting and countervailing opinions in the political thinking of a lot of folks. Imagine someone voting for Trump knowing that it may cost him his pension, but thinking that it is good for the future of his family. This muddled thinking is the product of a working class with a low level of political consciousness. Folks who are surprised by those opinions haven’t spent much time talking with workers.

  8. All dialogue on the left is helpful. But we need to do a much deeper inspection that draws upon race and class analysis, but also the metaphors driving U.S. politics that George Lakoff and others so sharply dissect—the need for progressives to frame policy and activism in a context of values that make sense to the broadest possible population. Anecdotally, it seems Bernie’s campaign drew a section white union workers who ended up voting for Trump. How many would have stayed with Bernie if he were the nominee? How many would have been stripped away by Trump’s appeal to racism and an attack on Bernie based upon “open borders” and Democratic Party “elitism”? We don’t know. We should ask and probe before we make assumptions. The stats seem to show that large numbers of Millennial whites, rejected Trump’s message. That should create openings for union organizing, North and South. But organized labor’s internal strength and political influence is rapidly coming up against the reality of a massive job-killing technological wave, one not discussed by any candidate during the campaign, but well-described in People Get Ready by Nichols and McChesney. How should progressives in the labor movement deal with that future in organizing new bargaining units and politically confronting a Trump presidency?

  9. Do Black Votes Matter? Not that much if one compares the immense attention paid to what happened to the votes of white workers in the Rust Belt with the relative indifference to what happened to all the Black votes suppressed and stolen. Even devoting 3/5 as much attention to racially based voter suppression would be a big step forward in the 2016 election autopsies.
    Focusing mainly on the reasons many white workers in the Rust Belt voted for Trump and paying almost no attention to how so many Black votes were suppressed guarantees that the lessons learned will not be accurate. Race in America is not something to get to after dealing with the economy. We have 400+ years of evidence. Let’s not keep making the same mistake.
    Many forces are at work. Many things were happening. This was a very close election. Yes, Clinton lost the election and yes, the election was stolen, and yes, misogyny played a role and yes, neoliberalism played a role, and yes, the Christian fundamentalist leadership of the FBI found a way to play a role and the list goes on.
    Saying, “It’s the economy” is of course important and necessary. But ending the discussion there is just another way to ignore race. It means we can’t learn what happened or figure out what to do about it.

  10. Judging from my time in London during election day and the aftermath, it was just the elites who were shocked.

    Was Bernie really running on a “anti capitalist” agenda? Except for single payer healthcare I didn’t hear anything bout nationalizing transportation, energy, etc. I did hear much about exerting control.

    And a few questions:
    1) how does the higher wage of his voters play into this?
    2) While I have not been in either state in sometime, when I worked union campaigns in PA and OH, the white union population was overwhelmingly anti-gov and racist.  Might it be we are asking the question of Obama people voting trump in the wrong order: instead of why did whites who voted Obama then vote for trump, perhaps the more telling question would be: Why did racist whites vote for Obama?  Is it possible that if offered the chance to vote for a racist advocating change it simply was no contest.  But given the choice between a black man (especially a “non threatening black man) offering change and a white man offering more of the same, whites went with the black man. 

    Given the polling issues we have seen I wonder how many whites we talk to actually fall into the category of Vegas travelers who always report they won.  Or for that matter people this time around not wanting to say they supported Trump before the vote.
    And lastly, I’ve been wondering if Hillary really lost this election in 2008 when the Dems didn’t much help the working and middle class who were loosing everything, or nearly everything.
    Agree that Sanders quite possible would have won – even without large turnout of people of color (even taking into consideration voter suppression) but he didn’t run on a platform of ending private ownership, put of capitalism with meaningful and powerful controls placed on it – or am I knit picking here?

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