The "Silent Majority" And The Triumph Of Donald Trump

By Rafael Rivera, Harvard Business School, Class of '17 & Harbus Contributing Writer

Against all odds and expectations, Donald Trump won the presidential election to become the 45th President of the United States. For many, the result was surprising and disappointing. the morning of November 8th , most polling agencies gave Hillary Clinton at least 70% probability of victory. The last polls in Florida, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania suggested that Clinton would win. Here at Harvard Business School, more than 85% of RC students supported the Democrat candidate, while only a 3% supported Trump. The results were shocking.

These elections brought reality in front of us. We believed we were in a country where citizens would not vote for a candidate temperamentally unsound, racially biased, and misogynist. We also believed in the political discourse of mass media that constantly supported Clinton. It turns out that we all were wrong. The "silent majority" of angry, white working class voters was louder this time.

The message of Donald Trump clearly resonated with the white working class. CNN exit polls revealed that the majority of voters wanted change, irrespective of their political preferences. Some reports by the HBS Project on Competitiveness offers data to understand this issue. According to their analyses, the proportion of U.S. population involved in the workforce has declined since 2000, with increasing unemployment rates among sectors with low levels of education. Similarly, real household income of the bottom 50% of the population has been practically stagnant since 1980. In other words, the average white worker in America has a life similar to the one that his father lived. Both can buy a similar set of goods and services, with no significant improvement between generations.

The other half is different. While the top 10% of the population earned 35% of the income in 1980, now that segment earns 50% of income. Similarly, profits of corporate firms represent 10% of GDP in the country, a share that is twice as big as it was in 1980. As different scholars have shown, while the new era of capitalism and liberal trade created wealth for some segments, inequality is increasing and the benefits have not reached everyone. Donald Trump represented hope for those forgotten groups, supported by his populist messages on immigration, national security, and job creation that went against the establishment.

These elections are definitely a wake-up call for all of us who rejected the idea that America would elect Donald Trump. It is also a wake-up call for citizens of other countries such as the UK, Poland, Philippines, or Colombia, who have had similar "Brexit moments" in the last couple of years.

The fact that we are deeply surprised about the results reveals how disconnected we are from the average citizen. While we have been blessed with an education at Harvard Business School, our situation might also put some distance between us and the vast majority of citizens. As aspiring leaders in business and politics, we cannot ignore the problems of our people. Inequality, stagnant wages, terrorism, and poor welfare are issues faced by developed and developing countries alike. Our education is a great privilege, but also a big responsibility to find real solutions to those problems.

As professor Michael Porter says, competitive businesses not only create wealth but promote welfare to the average worker. It is time to bring the discourse of inclusiveness and competitiveness to our business education. It is time to act before we are forced to listen.


Rafael Rivera (HBS-HKS '17) is an EC student at HBS, Section C who loves dancing salsa, backpacking, and talking about Mexico. Prior to HBS, Rafael worked for McKinsey & Company in the offices of Mexico City, Mumbai, and Dubai, and for the World Bank in Cambodia. He spent this summer in Goldman Sachs in New York. He's the Head Senator of the HBS Senate and he plans to work in the public sector in Mexico some day in the far future.