Experts found it impossible to believe that voters would buy what Trump was selling. Which was exactly the winning sales pitch.
(Special Report) Donald Trump did all kinds of things that were unthinkable for a serious presidential candidate. But it turned out that the failure of thinking wasn’t his. Trump rose to political prominence flogging the false claim that President Obama is not an American. As a candidate, he repeatedly said things that responsible candidates weren’t supposed to say—describing Mexicans as rapists, pledging to ban Muslim immigration, mocking a disabled reporter, fat-shaming a Miss Universe, cozying up to Vladimir Putin, trashing women who accused him of groping, calling vaccines harmful, repeatedly sparking outrages that would get overshadowed by the next outrage. He refused to release his tax returns, which had never been done, and the experts said couldn’t be done.The experts, it turned out, had no idea what they were talking about.
And that, it seems, was what last night’s Trumpquake was about, a revolt against the experts, against the elites, against the out-of-touch inside-the-Beltway insiders who enforced the longstanding norms that Trump so flagrantly violated. Trump got virtually no newspaper endorsements—one exception was the Ku Klux Klan’s newspaper—but those influencers had no influence over the mostly white and Republican voters who carried Trump to victory. Washington was outraged when he wouldn’t promise to concede if he lost, but his supporters were outraged by Washington. Hillary Clinton had governing experience and establishment credentials and deep policy knowledge, but a majority of the public didn’t see those as points in her favor. Trump’s Twitter rants and name-calling and insinuations about his opponent’s health didn’t seem presidential, but apparently, they are.
So the polls were wrong, just like Trump predicted. And the pundits who explained why Trump’s various provocations—attacking a judge’s Mexican heritage, offering to pay the legal fees of supporters who beat up protesters, refusing to disavow the support of David Duke—were disqualifying or unacceptable were wrong, too. None of the things he said or did disqualified him,
and his supporters accepted all of them. The Anti-Defamation League criticized a recent Trump speech for its anti-Semitic tropes; not only he did he refuse to apologize, he used the speech as his closing ad, along with images of Janet Yellen, George Soros, and Lloyd Blankfein, who all just happen to be Jewish. It obviously didn’t hurt him any more than implicating Ted Cruz’s father in the Kennedy assassination or suggesting Justice Antonin Scalia was murdered or retweeting white supremacists hurt him.
It’s too early to say exactly what went wrong for Hillary Clinton, since most of us didn’t realize it was going wrong until late last night. But Trump’s primal-scream message that Washington is broken, the economy is a nightmare, and the world is going to hell clearly resonated in white rural and exurban communities. It may seem odd at a time when the economy has added jobs for a record 73 straight months, when a Gallup poll just found that Americans approve of Obama’s job performance by a 56-41 margin. High school graduation rates are at an all-time high; teen births and the uninsured rolls are at all-time lows; incomes grew last year at the sharpest rate since record-keeping began in 1967. But Trump ran a change campaign, vowing to roll back just about everything Obama has done, and he won bigly—including several states Obama won, and many voters Obama won.
One could make the case that Clinton and down-ballot Democrats had a narrative problem. All 17 candidates in the Republican primary portrayed America as a flailing dystopia, even though 15 million new jobs have reduced unemployment from 10 percent to 5 percent since 2010. But in the Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders painted a similar portrait of a broken system failing all but the rich and well-connected, while Clinton’s main response was that Sanders was failing to emphasize the pervasive racism and sexism that was also stacking the deck. With everyone seeming to agree that the status quo was unacceptable, maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that voters rejected the candidate who represented the status quo—especially when the media coverage of her focused mostly on emails.
But it also seems clear that Clinton’s problems extended well beyond narrative. Too many voters didn’t like her or her conventional talking-point approach to politics; at Trump’s raucous and unpredictable rallies, the first things most voters said about why they supported him was that he wasn’t a politician, didn’t talk like a politician, wasn’t politically correct. They didn’t like him despite all the norms he violated; they liked him because of the norms he violated. When he suggested he would put Clinton in jail, when he called her Crooked Hillary, when he hinted that maybe without her armed protection someone would shoot her, the chin-stokers were appalled, but his crowds were thrilled.
The big unanswered question is how much Trump’s victory has to do with cultural factors and how much it has to do with economic factors. Last night’s TV punditry focused heavily on Trump’s appeal to working-class voters, but he didn’t seem to appeal to many black or Latino working-class voters. The Rust Belt in particular did seem to embrace his economic message of trade protectionism, even if—perhaps in part because—most economists hated it. But it’s hard to know whether Trump’s supporters were truly responding to his policy proposals, like a 35 percent tax on imports, or whether they just like the way he blames the Chinese, the Mexicans and other foreigners for the decline of American manufacturing.
It’s hard to ignore how Trump turned The Other into the enemy—Syrian refugees who threaten America’s security, Black Lives Matter activists who disrespect America’s police, illegal immigrants who take America’s jobs, shadowy global elites who, as Trump complained in his incendiary closing ad, bleed America dry. The Trump phenomenon felt a lot like a backlash against the multiracial Obama coalition that seemed to be taking over the country until last night; taking it back felt like a big part of what it meant to Make America Great Again. There were plenty of “Never Trump” Republicans in elite circles who objected to his war against globalism, his desire for a literal and metaphorical wall around America, but they mostly seemed to be concentrated around Washington.
It all worked out for the candidate with no political experience and no apparent interest in reading policy briefings, the candidate who, according to conventional wisdom, ran an abysmal convention and lost three consecutive debates. Now Trump, with the help of a Republican Congress, should have the power to repeal Obamacare, undo Obama’s Wall Street reforms, scuttle Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, and roll back Obama’s new rules limiting carbon emissions at power plants. He can also build a border wall, slash corporate taxes, appoint conservative Supreme Court justices, and pursue the rest of his agenda. It’s unclear how much of that beyond the wall Americans thought they were voting for, but they voted for it no matter what they thought.
It’s a bit reminiscent of the old joke about how many psychiatrists it takes to change a light bulb: Just one, but the light really has to want to change. There can be plenty of debate about the specifics, but America sent a message last night that it really wants to change. Some of the changes on the way may have seemed as unthinkable as a President Trump yesterday, but they’re thinkable now.