US president-elect Donald Trump was the first reality TV star — and the first non-politician since former US president Dwight Eisenhower — to win the nomination for president of a major US political party. He was the first to spend part of his campaign denying sexual assault allegations and clashing with the family of a fallen soldier and a Miss Universe. At 70, he is the oldest person in history to be elected US president.
Trump copied and recast former US president Ronald Reagan’s promise to make America great again. In four words it captured both pessimism and optimism, both fear and hope. The slogan harks back to a supposed golden age of greatness — the 1950s, perhaps, or the 1980s — and implies that it has been lost, but then promises to restore it. It went straight to the gut, unlike rival Democratic US presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Web site manifesto and more nuanced proposals.
It was an appeal to the heart, not the head, in a country where patriotism should never be underestimated.
Illustration: Mountain People
Chris Matthews, a host on MSNBC, said in September: “A lot of this support for Trump, with all his flaws which he displays regularly, is about the country — patriotic feelings people have, they feel like the country has been let down. Our elite leaders on issues like immigration, they don’t regulate any immigration it seems. They don’t regulate trade to our advantage, to the working man or working woman’s advantage. They take us into stupid wars. Their kids don’t fight, but our kids do.”
“It’s patriotic. They believe in their country. .... [There is a] deep sense that the country is being taken away and betrayed. I think that is so deep with people that they’re looking at a guy who’s flawed as hell like Trump and at least it’s a way of saying I am really angry about the way the elite has treated my country. And it’s so deep that it overwhelms all the bad stuff from Trump. It’s that strong. It’s a strong force wind,” he said.
In 2003 Trump became the host of the reality TV show The Apprentice, in which hopefuls competed for a chance to work for his organization. For a decade, millions of viewers were fed the idea of Trump as a successful businessman, a boss with the power to say: “You’re fired!”
Trump biographer Gwenda Blair said: “It gave him 10 years of being in front of the American public being the boss, being CEO, hiring people, famously firing people, being the guy who can fix it, the one who knows everything, being the big authoritarian patriarchal guy. I think that has imprinted on a lot of people, that they ‘trust’ him, that that makes him ‘trustworthy.’ That combined with the reality TV phenomenon in which it became acceptable to have something that wasn’t really true. It legitimized a kind of a not-quite-true thing and shifted our idea of what’s an acceptable version of reality.”
In the media age, Trump had accumulated not only financial capital, but celebrity capital. On Tuesday, he cashed in.
In Clinton he faced a candidate whose unpopularity rating was surpassed only by his own. As the wife of a former president running to succeed a two-term Democrat, she was the ultimate face of the establishment in a year that was all about change. The lack of enthusiasm compared with then-US presidential candidate Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign was palpable.
Clinton’s unique vulnerability was exposed when she struggled to beat US Senator Bernie Sanders, a 74-year-old socialist from Vermont, in the Democratic primaries. Sanders’ main theme was a rigged economy. In regions of deindustrialization and wage stagnation, Trump rode the same anti-trade and anti-globalization wave.
People who perceived themselves to be caught in an economic downdraft — their children would be worse off than they were — wanted a simple fix and Trump seemed to provide it. As witnessed by the rise of other populists around the world, there were global forces at work that not even Clinton and the Democrats could resist.
Clinton’s long political career also came with baggage, most notably the FBI investigation into her use of a private e-mail server when she was US secretary of state. She was judged to have been “extremely careless” and the issue flared up again late last month when the FBI said it uncovered a new batch of e-mails. The whiff of scandal persisted, despite the decision to clear her again just over a week later. Historians are likely to debate how crucial FBI Director James Comey’s intervention was in tilting the race when set against her own failings as a politician.
Trump seemingly declared war on his own party. During and after a traumatic primary campaign, he attacked the Bush family, US House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan, former Republican US presidential nominees Mitt Romney and John McCain, and many more. It was anything but a united front and it would normally have cost him in terms of a lack of organizational “ground game” or financial muscle.
However, many Trump voters relished his attacks on the party establishment.
They complained that the members of US Congress they elected made promises they fail to keep. They noticed the years of deadlock and government shutdown and thirsted for change. So when Romney and company condemned him, it actually worked to his advantage as a rallying point for his supporters. He ripped up the rule book as the maverick outsider set to march on corrupt, do-nothing Washington.
However, at the same time, the Republican national committee never lost faith in him.
Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus was quick to declare Trump the nominee and twist and turn and excuse his every misdemeanor.
The committee’s chief strategist and communications director Sean Spicer aggressively pushed the Trump cause.
Somehow, even as pieces of debris flew off in every direction, the party machinery kept working to deliver the unlikeliest of victories, and vindication for Priebus.
Yes, the demographics were against him. When Obama was first elected in 2008, 74 percent of the total voter turnout was white. By 2012, this had fallen to 71 percent and this year, it was expected to dip to 69 percent. Following Romney’s defeat four years ago, a Republican autopsy report urged the party to reach out to women and minorities to survive; Trump did the exact opposite.
However, other pressures were at work. The Democrats had held the White House for eight years. Clinton would have been the first candidate since former US president George H.W. Bush in 1988 to extend one party’s hold for a third term.
Even Obama’s high approval rating evidently did not dim the appetite for his direct opposite.
David Axelrod, mastermind of Obama’s election wins, wrote in the New York Times in January last year: “Open-seat presidential elections are shaped by perceptions of the style and personality of the outgoing incumbent. Voters rarely seek the replica of what they have. They almost always seek the remedy, the candidate who has the personal qualities the public finds lacking in the departing executive.”
“Many Republicans view dimly the very qualities that played so well for Mr Obama in 2008. Deliberation is seen as hesitancy; patience as weakness. His call for tolerance and passionate embrace of America’s growing diversity inflame many in the Republican base, who view with suspicion and anger the rapidly changing demographics of America. The president’s emphasis on diplomacy is viewed as appeasement. So who among the Republicans is more the antithesis of Mr Obama than the trash-talking, authoritarian, give-no-quarter Mr Trump?” Axelrod wrote.
Trump was wildly ill-disciplined. There was outrageous behavior and offensive statements that alienated women, African-Americans, Mexicans, Muslims, disabled people and, ultimately, believers in constitutional democracy. In any normal year, such a volatile package would have been disqualifying.
However, while those voices were amplified in the media, there were plenty of people who agreed with him. Some could not stomach the idea of a female president. Some proved that racism has not withered away, but rather in some cases has intensified, since the election of the first African-American president.
A majority (56 percent) of white Americans — including three in four (74 percent) of white evangelical Protestants — said US society has changed for the worse since the 1950s in a recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute.
Trump was the ultimate protest vote with obvious echoes of Brexit. Film-maker Michael Moore told NBC’s Meet the Press last month: “Across the midwest, across the ‘rustbelt,’ I understand why a lot of people are angry. And they see Donald Trump as their human Molotov cocktail that they get to go into the voting booth on Nov. 8 and throw him into our political system. I think they love the idea of blowing up the system.”
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