Donald Trump’s campaign for president was rarely pretty and always implausible — at least that’s what the experts said. Trump always believed otherwise and in stunning fashion proved all the experts wrong. But his victory over Hillary Clinton left open the biggest question of all: What kind of president will he be and what kind of country will he lead?
It’s impossible to overstate how uncertain the road ahead is at this point. But how will Trump govern, and how effective will he be? His core issues — trade, immigration, and law and order — offer clues but no clear road map for the future. Even in pursuit of the goals he outlined in those three areas, his proposals lack real specificity. But then, his campaign was not about policy white papers. It was instead a thumb in the eye of the establishment, an American version of the populist uprisings against open borders and globalization that have been seen in other Western societies.
Trump always said he smelled an American Brexit in the making — a reference to the unexpected victory in Britain in June by those who wanted to take the country out of the European Union. That vote caught the elites and the establishment totally by surprise. It was an uprising that went unseen until it struck. Trump’s victory was by far even more shocking. It was the kind of “can’t happen here” event that will go down as one of the great upsets in political history.
What happened Tuesday was a victory powered by an outpouring of voters, overwhelmingly white and many without college degrees, who felt left behind by the economic recovery, ignored by Washington and disdained by the political, cultural and economic elites. In the end, that was enough to topple Clinton and her dream of becoming the first female president in the nation’s history. The shock waves will be felt for months and maybe years.
Trump insulted Hispanics, women, a prominent senator who was a former POW, and a disabled reporter. He called for a ban on Muslims entering the country, later modified and softened. Can he make room in the America he now leads for all those who loudly and vigorously opposed his candidacy? Trump suggested he might not accept the outcome of the election if he lost. How will those who oppose him now respond to his victory? Those are far from incidental questions.
At one point in the campaign, Clinton called part of Trump’s army “a basket of deplorables.” Yet even she acknowledged that what fueled his candidacy, at least in part, was the feeling of alienation and economic anxiety on the part of a wide swath of the population. One Clinton adviser described it as “a quiet rage” that existed in the privacy of living rooms and around kitchen tables, frustration with the political system and the lack of tangible results from government’s actions for many hard-working Americans.
Clinton’s “deplorables” comment became a rallying cry in the final months of the campaign. Trump attracted an army of loyal followers who saw in him the mechanism to break the hold of those in power and to shake Washington to its core. They also loathed Clinton, no small part of the reason she lost. It was that combination and that power, seen but underestimated during the campaign that produced an election night shocker that sent world markets plunging and left the country on edge.
Trump succeeded for many reasons, easier to describe in retrospect than many who view politics through traditional lenses saw throughout the campaign. His mistakes always seemed to overwhelm his attributes. What the experts overlooked was how many people were willing to forgive or discount the most controversial aspects of his candidacy — and what no one can measure is just how many agreed with what he said.
This was an uprising by Americans who had lost faith in institutions. Trump gave them a voice they felt they haven’t had in a changing America. Clinton tried to make the campaign all about temperament. As a political strategy, it failed. But that doesn’t negate the questions about whether Trump can successfully translate the style of his campaign to the demands of the Oval Office.
So many questions now rise up for answers. How will he govern? Can he forge a true working relationship with Republican congressional leaders whom he belittled as they equivocated about his candidacy?
His foreign policy pronouncements lacked both consistency and coherence. He had no fixed ideology. He leaned right on tax cuts and left on trade. He has operated on instinct and impulse. He said whatever he wanted whenever he wanted. What he showed is that huge numbers of Americans cared little about ideological consistency or political correctness. What they wanted was a send-a-message candidate.
His most important relationship will be with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.). At one point Ryan described Trump’s insults about U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel as the definition of racism, yet he still voted for him. As Trump offered his agenda, Ryan countered with one of his own. Whose will take precedence?
In the closing weeks of the campaign, Trump went to Gettysburg, Pa., where he laid out an agenda that provides some indication of what he might do. It was a speech akin to the 1994 House Republicans’ Contract with America, a series of pledges designed, as Trump put it, “to drain the swamp” of privilege and special interests in Washington. Others have promised as much in the past.
This was an election about fundamentals and first principles, bringing to the surface an acrimonious argument about the values and beliefs that provide the underpinnings of any society. It was an election that involved big questions about race, gender, religion and economic inequality, as well as the relationship between the central government and an increasingly distrustful people. It highlighted the gulf between society’s elites — political, economic and cultural — and the rest of the population.
Above all it was a campaign about the identity of a nation. The campaign brought to the fore the tensions of a nation in transition and the pull and tug felt on each side of dividing lines that define far more than just our politics. At its best, this can produce a conversation in which different sides bring heartfelt attitudes about what makes America the great nation it was, is and will be. At its worst, it can give voice to racism and misogyny, anti-Semitism and religious bigotry.
The election exposed the rawest edges of a diverse and changing America. The campaign pitted group against group, injected tension into everyday interactions even among friends and neighbors. Social media stoked those tensions and widened the divisions.
Clinton ran a campaign she could never have anticipated. She was thrust into the maelstrom of a Trump-generated cyclone, and she and her campaign tried to adapt on the fly. She represented history in the making, but through much of the campaign the possibility of breaking the gender barrier provided a far more modest lift than Obama received on his way to becoming the nation’s first African American president.
Trump did what Clinton could not do, delivering margins in predominantly white areas of battleground states that far eclipsed those of Mitt Romney in 2012. Clinton failed to do what she needed, which was to combine elements of the Obama coalition — Hispanics, African Americans and young voters — and add to them college-educated white voters turned off by Trump’s rhetoric. His rallies were always bigger and more passionate than hers, and on Election Day, that energy helped deliver the victory.
Big elections are supposed to help settle some of these disputes, or at least point a direction for the new leader. Yet, as the campaign ended Tuesday, the question remained as to what had been resolved, if anything. No one was prepared to predict what kind of presidency Trump would fashion, only that if it followed the patterns of his campaign, it would continue to divide the country and, at its start, certainly, alarm allies around the world. And yet Trump vowed he could find a way to make it work.
Michael Leavitt, the Republican former governor of Utah, said as the polls were closing: “I think the country is desperate for a jolt of optimism. In their own way, what most people have wanted to find is functionality [in Washington]. Those who support Trump believe the only way you can find functionality is to ‘drain the swamp.’ ”
For months, Americans have been apprehensive as they neared Election Day, never able to turn away from the spectacle that was on their television screens and smartphones. Record numbers watched the debates during the primaries, and the biggest audience ever tuned in for the first of three Clinton-Trump faceoffs this fall.
Everyone knew the campaign was unlike anything they had seen in the past. Everyone wanted it to end. Now it falls to Trump, the unlikely winner of the most traumatic election in memory, to chart the course ahead and try, if he can, to prove that he can lift the whole country out of its morass and make Washington work.