Learning from the Trump Phenomenon: How Much of the 2016 Election was a Recall on Harvard?

Robert Carpenter
Robert Carpenter

A pickup truck rolled through Harvard Square on the morning of Wednesday, Nov. 9. A man in the truck bed waved a “Make America Great Again!” banner and the passengers yelled at anyone within earshot.

Even if you couldn’t make out words, the tone – somewhere between energized and vindictive – was enough. They were the newly triumphant, claiming their spoils.

That this group chose to celebrate in Cambridge made explicit something that, for me at least, had largely gone unsaid. Many who turned out in droves to vote against the “elites” this fall didn’t just vote against the Clintons and Bushes and Obamas. They voted against us – against our university, which trained the politicians and media personalities and CEOs that they scorn, and against its students, the heirs apparent to this legacy.

Supporters at Trump rallies often chanted “Drain the swamp!”, a reference to unseating the political establishment from Washington, D.C. In a figurative sense, the men in the truck were chanting, “Dam the Charles!” If I’m honest with myself, I find it hard to blame them.

In 2012, the Harvard Business School student body polled 65-32 in favor of Obama over Romney. We skewed liberal, but you could presumably be a Romney supporter in public on campus.

In 2016, with just 3 percent of students favoring Trump, classmates openly assumed everyone within earshot was a Clinton supporter, and celebrated it. The absence of Trump supporters was a sign that HBS is training students who are multicultural and principled, who don’t tolerate misogyny, bullying, or targeting of minorities. These are values we all want in future business leaders, right?

But maybe what we missed is that Harvard isn’t training the kind of person who empathizes with the working class.

Analysis of exit polls indicates that the deciding factor in this election was less ideological than cultural, particularly based on education and values.

Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight observed that in counties with low densities of college graduates, Trump outperformed Romney by 14 percentage points. “[N]o demographic variable reflects Trump’s electoral success better than education,” he wrote.

JD Vance, in his celebrated memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, chronicles a mid-20th-century “massive migration from the poorer regions of Appalachia [Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia] to places like Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Illinois,” and that through this diaspora, “hillbilly values spread widely along with hillbilly people.”

Replace “Illinois” with “Wisconsin” and you have the swath of contested states that carried Trump to the White House. I’m no demographer, but that feels important.

How many of us identify with, or even understand, “hillbilly values?” More broadly, how is it that only three in an HBS classroom of 94 are in a position to authentically represent 47% of the voting American public?

Students were genuinely shocked at Trump’s victory, not having considered it to be even a remote possibility, let alone a viable outcome. A number of classmates have casually observed over the last few weeks that they don’t know a single Trump supporter (“Who are these people?”).

In that light, isn’t it understandable that Americans would vote against an educational class that didn’t know them – or even care to know them – but still assumed the right to govern?

To be fair, maybe these voters don’t care to know us, either. The campaign season certainly featured a healthy amount of contempt – bordering on hostility – toward intellectuals. The difference historically, until Nov 8., is that our educational class was largely unaffected by the working class’ decisions or opinions. What they did or said or thought didn’t reach us. The same couldn’t be said for them.

So now, if our community holds that nativism, isolationism and authoritarianism are poor beacons for public policy, what steps are within our power to prevent further movement in this direction?

I think we start with a healthy dose of humility – acknowledging that it’s easy to accuse Trump supporters of being bigoted and hateful, and more difficult to admit that maybe we don’t understand the world they live in. That maybe – just maybe – they voted for Trump in spite of his flaws, rather than because of them.

I think we also acknowledge that Trump isn’t the end of populist sentiment in the US. The American (and likely global) public will continue to grapple with similar questions as those faced this year – where, as President Obama characterized it, “our values, our ideals” are on the ballot.

We can’t individually right this ship. But maybe, collectively, we can chip away at the country’s need to turn inward. By being faithful stewards of our opportunities, by running our businesses in a way that directly considers the interests of employees and communities, maybe we can begin to build trust where today there is none.

More importantly, maybe we can better understand, and thereby improve, the lives of those who have to care what we think and do.

Robert Carpenter (HBS ’18) worked in strategy consulting and real estate development in Houston, Texas, before starting at Harvard. He previously attended Texas A&M University, where he was editor in chief of the student publication, The Battalion. Robert is a fan of racquet sports, ice cream, and Calvin and Hobbes.