Donald J. Trump’s long, triumphant march to the White House didn’t start on 16 June 2015, when he announced his candidacy at the Trump Tower in Manhattan. It began four years ago, on 19 November 2012. On that day, days after President Barack Obama had defeated Mitt Romney, Trump filed a trademark application for the slogan ‘Make America Great Again’. It was, like all things Trump, a bit of a rip-off. Ronald Reagan’s successful presidential campaign of 1980 had coined the phrase. But Make America Great Again was even more potent in 2015-16. After the crash, those four words spoke powerfully to the anguished spirit of America: to the nation’s nostalgia for the Reagan era, and to its insatiable longing to fix itself.
Whenever the Trump campaign floundered, the candidate and his spokesmen could fall back on that hypnotic incantation: Make America Great Again. Just like ‘Yes we can’, Barack Obama’s campaign hymn of 2008, Trump’s Maga mantra worked. Three weeks ago, commentators were chortling at reports that Team Trump spent more on its Make America Great Again baseball caps than on professional polling. How amateur! How tacky!
Well, who’s laughing now? Those silly red hats proved to be a PR masterstroke. While the snobs were sneering, Donald Trump was creating a movement that would take over America.
Trump may not be as good a businessman as he thinks he is. We’ve all read about his bankruptcies and myriad commercial failures. It must now be acknowledged, however, that he is the greatest political entrepreneur of our time. Long before anyone else, he spotted a huge gap in the disgruntlement market. While Republicans were licking their wounds at Romney’s loss, Trump was already plotting to take advantage of the anger eating America. And only he realised that, by consistently doing the opposite of what experts told him to do, he could propel himself to the Republican nomination and on to victory against Hillary Clinton.
By not caring about his own popularity — and insulting as many people as he could — he made himself popular. Through the sheer force of his obnoxious personality, he has pulled off the most extraordinary election victory in US history. Dislike him or hate him, Trump has upended American politics and shaken the liberal world order to its core. The pollsters were wrong. The betting markets were wrong. The media was wrong. The Democrats were wrong and so were the Republicans. Only the Donald was right.
The data experts, in particular, should hang their heads in shame. The polling dramatically underestimated the Trump effect. They told us that ‘Clinton’s firewall’ — the six swing states in which she had held a consistent poll lead throughout the year — would keep her safe. Trump isn’t Brexit, the pundits said, dismissing the idea of a transatlantic populist revolution as naive — but Brexit he proved to be. In both cases, the plebs used the ballot to tell the liberal elite to get stuffed.
The president-elect is meant to sound gracious and offer succour to those who opposed him when making a victory speech. Donald Trump tried to do that. He thanked Hillary Clinton and promised to heal America. ‘I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all Americans,’ he said. ‘We will deal fairly with everyone. All people and all other nations.’
It sounded strangely flat, though. It’s hard to shake the suspicion: does Trump really want to be president? Or was his campaign just an epic ego trip? He is so unlike any other president that it’s hard for anyone to believe that he is for real. After all, a former campaign communications director claimed that the Trump camp originally intended to finish second in the primaries, possibly as a noisy protest, possibly to create publicity for the next season of his TV show The Apprentice.
Throughout his campaign Trump insisted on turning major political events into promotional stunts for his luxury resorts. His infamous ‘anti-birther’ press conference — when he declared that Barack Obama was indeed born in the United States — seemed like an excuse to unveil his shiny new hotel in Washington DC. His first foreign trip as presumptive Republican nominee was to his own revamped golf course at Turnberry in Scotland on 24 June, the day after the Brexit vote. The press pack was desperate to ask him about it, but Trump was more interested in describing how he rearranged the par three holes to Make Turnberry Great Again.
His whole campaign had the air of an elaborate hoax. For the last few weeks, it looked as if his advisers were more interested in launching a Trump TV channel than in preparing for government. But there was art to his campaign. It managed, at once, to be fake and sincere. And it was that sincerity that the media could not comprehend. They thought the Donald was joking; voters, by contrast, knew he was serious.
It is said that Trump has no policies. But he does — and they appeal to voters. His ideas — including a wall to keep out Latinos, for instance, or a ban on all Muslims entering the US — may strike sophisticates as preposterous, but they resonated with poor, white Americans. Analysts on CNN spent so many hours denouncing Trump’s ‘anti-immigrant rhetoric’ as dangerous and un-American that they barely stopped to consider its appeal. But now we know: Donald Trump’s radical positions on border control mobilised great swaths of the American electorate who felt that their prospects had been damaged by mass immigration.
A lot has been written about America’s rapidly changing demography, particularly about the increase in minority Democratic voters, who are largely Hispanic. But psephologists have been so eager to look towards the diverse American future that they seemed to ignore the 70 per cent of the American electorate that remains white. Trump’s supporters are often portrayed as ‘white nationalists’, but the Trump phenomenon is better understood as a spasm of white frustration at a political system that considers minorities more important than the majority.
But white anxiety only goes so far in explaining the Donald’s success. Journalists have been so busy squawking about racism that they missed the bigger story: which is that the electorate liked Trump’s tough talk, not just on immigration, but on trade, jobs, infrastructure, crime and foreign policy. They liked hearing him berate the corrupt ‘corporate media’ — which was so obviously biased against him — and his promises to ‘drain the swamp’ of Washington DC.
Trump has shown a genius for snarling at people in a way that Americans like. The names he gave his opponents — Crooked Hillary, Lyin’ Ted, Little Marco, ‘Low-energy’ Jeb — were devastatingly catchy. But his real talent was his ability to tell America that it was a loser and the country was a wreck. ‘We don’t have victories any more — we used to,’ he moaned at his campaign launch. ‘The US has become a dumping ground for every-body else’s problems.’ Americans are not as peppy and cheerful as the stereotype suggests. Trump’s negativity proved to be exactly what they wanted.
And then there was his endless talk of China. Over and over, he said that America was being ripped off by Beijing. He repeated — thousands of times — how America was losing because Washington was allowing jobs to go overseas. Millions of Americans, whose jobs had indeed gone overseas, agreed.
Trump’s international outlook struck both the Democratic and Republican party elite as treasonous. His critics called him ‘isolationist’ and ‘protectionist’, and he is both, but American voters don’t seem to care. ‘America First’, his more controversial slogan, reflected a popular and perfectly understandable wish — especially after the failures in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya — for the US government to put America’s interests ahead of the rest of the world’s.
Trump is no dove, which is why he succeeded where other anti-interventionist candidates failed. He talks with almost psychotic aggression about destroying Isis, torturing terrorists, and tearing up Obama’s Iran deal. Americans like that. He promises to restore American greatness by making America tough again. The Democrats and Trump’s Republican enemies tried to link him to the Kremlin, speculating that Trump was in Putin’s pocket. But the average American is not as Russophobic as the average wonk on Capitol Hill. When Trump said ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we got along with Russia?’, most Americans didn’t think ‘Traitor!’ — they agreed with him.
It didn’t matter that he was a sociopath, a misogynist and a pervert. At least he wasn’t Hillary Clinton, a woman who encapsulated in one smug face everything that Trump voters feel is wrong with their country. The Donald’s supporters often said that, while they found him nasty, a Clinton presidency would have been the ‘end of this country’. Or as Daniel McCarthy, editor of the American Conservative put it, ‘With Clinton, there is neither hope nor change.’ Trump may be awful. But he was awful different.
During the Republican convention in Cleveland, I met a Republican voter who said she would support Trump even though she thought he was a bad man. His thuggishness struck her as exactly what was needed to smash through the dysfunction in Washington. Which brings us to Trump’s much–discussed tendency towards authoritarianism. There’s no denying that, in manner and style, Trump will more closely resemble a dictator than any previous commander-in-chief. American thinktanks have been quick to point out the similarities between Trump’s populist approach and that of the Latin American dictators who have plagued their continent since the second world war. In his ostentatious anger, obvious shadiness and batty orange campness, Trump looks like America’s answer to the late Hugo Chavez.
Yet Trumpism is a uniquely American phenomenon. It has emerged from the much-misunderstood tradition of the American new right, which is much wilder than the turgid ‘movement conservatism’ that has dominated Republican party thinking since Reagan. Trump channels Richard Nixon’s law-and-order appeal — often posing (in somewhat fascistic-looking guises) with law enforcement officers — as well as alluding to the ‘pitchfork populism’ of Patrick Buchanan.
Those now fulminating, in the wake of Tuesday’s shock result, about the end of democracy and the collapse of civilisation should try to get some perspective. America isn’t Venezuela or Russia. The land of the free is still, in all its unhappiness, the most spiritedly democratic nation on earth. Various overreaching presidents — including Barack Obama and George W. Bush — may have eroded the integrity of the US constitution, but the American system of government, with its checks and balances, was designed to survive and thrive under even the most depraved leaders. Trump may try to ride roughshod over the Senate, Congress and the Supreme Court, but he will not succeed. America is too great a nation to be unmade by one man shouting ‘Make America Great Again’.
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