Campus News

Acclaimed scholar sees lasting impact of a Trump presidency

Theda Skocpol.

Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol delivers the keynote address for UB’s “Critical Conversations.” Photos: Douglas Levere


Published November 18, 2016 This content is archived.

“This election blows to smithereens many of the theories in my profession of political science. ”
Theda Skocpol, Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology
Harvard University

The underlying narrative of Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential race is a tale of Republican turnout that surged to very high levels on Election Day in rural areas and small cities, flipping states like Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania to the GOP that were expected to go to the Democrats, according to internationally acclaimed political scientist Theda Skocpol.

“This election blows to smithereens many of the theories in my profession of political science,” Skocpol told a UB audience on Thursday.

The outcome — which featured an unusual candidate in Trump, who faced determined opposition from the start of his campaign from key office holders in his own party, previous presidential candidates and leading interest groups — ultimately hinged on a handful of states, mostly in the Midwest and will have environmental, health, immigration and social policy consequences far into the future, she said.

Skocpol, the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard University and director of the Scholars Strategy Network, delivered the keynote address for UB’s “Critical Conversations,” an annual program showcasing distinguished scholars discussing vital issues, questions and challenges facing the world in the 21st century.

She also took part in two small group discussions and joined a panel discussion with faculty during her two-day visit to UB.

During the keynote, Skocpol told audience members that “it’s not news” that Democrats tend to do better in big cities and Republicans do better outside of cities. “That has been true for quite some time,” she said. “But that became even more amazingly pronounced in this election.

“It’s those counties that went from Democrat [in the 2012 presidential election] to Republican,” she said. “That’s the real story.”

But if any mystery remains to be analyzed, for Skocpol it’s not why, in a highly polarized country, one of the two major party candidates ended up edging out the other. She said matters could have easily gone the other way if a few tens of thousands of votes had gone in the other directions in the states she mentioned. The mystery is how this unusual candidate, despite outright resistance from within the GOP, could garner his party’s nomination and be in a position to win the presidency.

“It was really events in the last two weeks [of the campaign] that caused those voters to turn out,” she said. “We could go on about the grand causes and guess what those events might have been, but it’s hard to prove one way or the other because we don’t have the detailed kind of daily polling in these states that we have on a national level.”

When Trump announced his campaign, Skocpol, who was studying the Tea Party at the time, started getting calls from reporters about the viability of a Trump candidacy. She never dismissed his chances because of the manner in which he positioned himself as the chief exponent of an angry, anti-immigrant message that any course other than his was not good for the United States.

“Unlike most everyone else in my profession, I wasn’t saying Donald Trump could never win,” said Skocpol. “When he declared in 2015, he took a good percentage in the polls and never lost it.”

Helping to secure that toehold is Trump’s uncanny ability to play with the structural dynamics of the media — and not exclusively from the right.

“Donald Trump understood if you say incredibly controversial things you’ll have cameras on you all the time,” she said.

In fact, by the end of the primaries, estimates tallied Trump’s free media coverage to be valued around $2 billion, compared to $746 million for Hillary Clinton. Despite that savvy, which Skocpol says is not intelligence, Trump is an outsider who is not surrounded by experienced Republicans.

“He was surprised by the outcome of the election, too,” she said. “And he suddenly has to assemble a federal government.

“We don’t have any idea what Trump’s actual economic policies are going to be or what the impact will be when combined with social spending cuts,” she said.

Skocpol said rollbacks in the areas of health and social policy are likely, among them the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid spending, including subsidies for low- and middle-income people.

“He’s likely to voucherize Medicaid, basically turning it into what Obamacare is now,” she said.

Trump also is likely to abolish or reduce the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority and withdraw from the Paris Agreement to reduce global carbon emissions. Immigration changes will happen largely by executive action, which means there won’t be much debate or a change to stop them in Congress, she said.

“He’s promised to deport 2 to 3 million criminals who are illegal aliens,” Skocpol said. “The problem is there aren’t 2 to 3 million. This is an empirical fact. There are at most 300,000 to 800,000. He’s promised 2 to 3 million. So where is he going to find them?”

Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee, who Skocpol expects to be confirmed, will be a conservative much like the late Antonin Scalia, but other vacancies that might occur during Trump’s administration could result in what she called a “battle royale,” that would affect the court’s balance for decades.

“This is a big deal. It’s a bigger deal in the consequences it presents than in actually what happened,” she said. “I did not think I’d live to see anything like this and I lived through 1968.”


U.S. elections are subject to disenfranchisement and computer fraud like no other developed country. Professor Skocpol does not seem to take any account of this.


There has been careful research, for example, by Bev Harris at the non-partisan Black Box Voting, more broadly described here.


The bottom line is that Trump LOST the Electoral College vote and Skocpol should have addressed this issue as it has been going on quite some time. Greg Palast is a person deeply into the disenfranchisement, while Harris focuses more on the technology being used.


Paul Zarembka