Hoots of derision greeted me when I began predicting at the beginning of the year that Donald Trump would win the US presidential election in November. ‘What’s the math on which you base that?’ P.J. O’Rourke asked, clearly thinking I’d taken leave of my senses. The math, of course, was that Trump would win the 270 votes in the Electoral College needed to become president. I couldn’t predict the pathway to 270, but I felt certain the pundits and pollsters were missing the blindingly obvious. Many were failing to take Trump seriously because they took him too literally. But politics is a high form of art, and those who took him seriously knew not to take him literally — even while they were thrilled by his rhetoric. Needless to say, learned and distinguished jaws swung open with incredulity. Even my CIS colleagues thought perhaps the demands of think tank life were taking their toll. ‘If Trump wins, I’ll bake you a cake,’ said our General Manager Jenny Lindsay; other colleagues said I was more likely to be eating humble pie. I wasn’t so sure. My wife and I were about to spend a month in the USA — extending our stay to be there for the election — and I reckoned I’d learn a lot more then. It was, I felt sure, going to be a beautiful thing.
‘Grabbing pussy’ were the two words blasting a hole in the Trump campaign. Landing in California about three weeks out from election day, I found the Wall Street Journal was declaring ‘the cake is baked’ — and they didn’t mean Jenny Lindsay’s cake. Candid off-mic. remarks caught in a 2005 Access Hollywood video embarrassed Trump. The media would not let go of his alleged sexual predations and were confident his bid for the White House was finished. According to one national poll, his support dropped by 35 per cent.
‘Welcome to President Trump’s hotel,’ said the concierge cheerily as he opened the cab door for me. Trump International Hotel in Washington DC was Trump Central for supporters of the GOP nominee — both staff and visitors — and even to walk through the doors was to engage in a process of self-selection. I was there to catch up with Ying Ma, Deputy Director of the Campaign for American Democracy, a Trump Super PAC. It was the afternoon of the final debate and the anticipation was keen. Ying is whip-smart and while recognising Trump’s weaknesses, was confident that he would prevail. I shared her optimism and we clinked glasses. ‘Let’s go back to the Trump Hotel to watch the debate,’ I suggested to my wife later. ‘It’ll be great.’ Her response was edged in hardened steel so we settled into our apartment for the evening just round the corner from the White House. Trump still had ground to make up and everyone knew it. But although Clinton proved to be vulnerable on the Constitution and abortion, The Donald lacked discipline in his attacks and missed opportunities to land solid blows. Clinton seemed agitated and Trump showed himself again to be thin-skinned.
No one I spoke to in any of the conservative think tanks I visited in DC gave Trump much of a chance. They were preparing for a Clinton presidency and were, at this stage, looking for hopeful signs that she would differentiate herself sufficiently from Obama, particularly in foreign policy. When Trump was booed for certain remarks he made at the Al Smith Dinner in New York the day after the debate, many thought the cake was indeed baked. But were the polls and the commentators still missing something?
Driving through Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, the heart of Civil War country, we stayed overnight in Staunton, the birthplace of President Woodrow Wilson. The town was still proudly showing its Democratic colours. The Clinton campaign had a small (but closed) office in the main street and you got the strong sense when talking to people that the spirit of the 28th President continued to prevail there.
‘Trump has been a disappointment,’ 80-year old Terry, a life-long Republican, told me over lunch in North Carolina, one of the key battleground states. The nation was ready for change, he thought, and Trump was in danger of squandering an historic opportunity. But Terry was still going to vote for Trump — out of loyalty to the GOP — in a bid to stop what he feared was America’s ‘slide into socialism’. Out on the streets, people seemed to be keeping their voting intentions to themselves despite frenetic media coverage of the campaigns. ‘The quietest election I’ve ever known,’ one storekeeper in Hendersonville, North Carolina told me. ‘Everything is very quiet.’ Heading down through South Carolina and into Georgia, it was obvious we were in a world far removed from that of the eastern and western coastal elites for whom climate science is settled and artisanal coffee must be hand-picked.
Back with family in California for the final week — and on my very best behaviour because Ann, my wonderful mother-in-law, is devoted to Hillary — we watched as the ‘Comey Effect’ hit Clinton hard. Adored by progressives in July, the FBI Director was now traduced. But hadn’t Hillary brought this email mess on herself? Trump remained witty and confident. ‘Don’t worry,’ he told the crowds, ‘we’re doing great.’ And from the moment the first results came in, Trump was indeed ahead in the Electoral College, and remained there. Ann was in tears at Clinton’s concession speech the following morning. Hillary was the best ever chance for women and for America, she believed. I wasn’t so sure; but when I soothingly predicted the first woman president would be a Republican, her incredulous stare was oddly familiar.