Donald Trump’s populist uprising takes him all the way to White House

Though Donald Trump’s inner circle had been talking about hidden Trump voters for months, the decisive resonance of his message only became clear on election night


Election poll analyst Nate Silver infamously predicted in August 2015 that Trump had a 2% chance of winning the nomination. Photo: AFP
Election poll analyst Nate Silver infamously predicted in August 2015 that Trump had a 2% chance of winning the nomination. Photo: AFP

Washington: Two engines propelled Donald Trump’s rise from longshot to next president of the United States: an angry message of nativist populism, directed at the very elites among whom he’d spent his adult life, and his loquacious, volcanic, uncontrollable, made-for-television personality. They pushed him further than anyone had believed possible, and made fools of many a pundit who held to his underdog status until the final hours of election night.

Most journalists, along with the people with whom they live their lives in America’s cities and college towns, had a hard time believing that Trump was more than a novelty act gone much too far. That turned out to be a stunning instance of epistemic closure. For tens of millions of Americans across the red states and in many of the battleground states held by Barack Obama in the past two elections, Trump became the embodiment of their acute frustration with elites who brokered trade deals that bled the nation of jobs and allowed too many foreigners to enter the country, legally and illegally, and who insisted that things were getting better when they seemed to be getting worse.

Though Trump’s inner circle had been talking about hidden Trump voters for months, the decisive resonance of his message with the Republican base only became clear on election night. In the days before the election, the story had been about the Hillary Clinton campaign’s impressive ground game and Hispanic mobilization—but after polls closed it became clear that the enthusiasm of Trump voters in exurbs and rural areas had surpassed them.

It was a wave. A white, male, wave, deeply suspicious of Clinton and angry after living through a slow recovery from the 2008 economic collapse and the institution of Obamacare, with its recently announced sharply rising premiums.

“What Trump’s unlikely nomination and more unlikely triumph in the general means is that he has obliterated both party establishments,” said California-based GOP strategist Rob Stutzman. “This may be the moment the traditional two-party system exhaled their groans of death.”

Longshot-in-chief

Election poll analyst Nate Silver infamously predicted in August 2015 that Trump had a 2% chance of winning the nomination; less than a year later, he clinched it, after steamrolling through a field of 17 said to be the strongest in Republican history. The GOP establishment he’d just decimated advised him to pivot, to moderate his positions, to act more presidential, and he refused.

“I certainly don’t think it’s appropriate to start changing all of a sudden when you’ve been winning,” he told Fox Business in August. Days later, on Twitter, he slammed the door on any hopes he’d change with five words. “I am who I am.”

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On the way to a narrow victory, Trump seemed to pass none of the usual presidential tests. Polls showed he lost all three debates against Clinton. His background, when vetted, included everything from exaggerations about his charitable giving to a refusal to admit he once backed the Iraq invasion to a tape of him talking about groping women, followed by a series of women claiming unwanted advances, to an admission that he hadn’t paid taxes for nearly two decades. And he never released those tax returns, as candidates had done for decades.

Voters across the nation either swept aside those concerns, or had greater ones about his opponent.

“It’s what happens when both parties nominate deeply flawed candidates and the electorate spit one of them out,” said David Kochel, who was chief strategist for Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign. “Hillary’s old news, cloaked in secrecy and scandal. He’s the primal scream.”

Hammering Hillary Clinton

Clinton did plenty to damage her own image, unwittingly giving heft to Trump’s scorched-earth—and hyperbolic—closing argument that she was a criminal for her carelessness with handling top-secret information as secretary of state.

Three moments crystallized the “terrible” instincts that Clinton’s longtime confidante Neera Tanden privately fretted about, according to hacked e-mails released by WikiLeaks, and which helped stop the first female major-party nominee from shattering the ultimate glass ceiling. In classic Clintonian form, it wasn’t necessarily the decisions that did her in, but rather her poor handling of the fallout that did more to exacerbate than limit the damage. (The Clinton campaign wouldn’t confirm the authenticity of e-mails posted by the site from a hack of campaign chairman John Podesta’s personal account.)

First, Clinton’s puzzling decision to use a private e-mail server as secretary of state was exacerbated by her months-long retreat into deflections, legalese and half-truths when grilled about the practice. Her claims about the existence of classified information on the server that was summarily debunked by fact-checkers—and the long saga—cemented a perception of untrustworthiness that she couldn’t shake, despite apologizing for her decision. Many polls throughout the general election showed her viewed as more dishonest than Trump, even though he was found by the same fact-checkers to make false claims far more frequently.

Second, Clinton’s refusal to hold a press conference for some 275 days fueled a perception that she was too secretive and—in Trump’s words—“hiding” from the public. It was, again, a needless self-inflicted wound. Clinton finally held a press conference in early September, blunting that particular criticism, even as Trump ended the campaign with a press conference dry spell of some 100 days. But the damage of the unusual nine-month drought of press conferences had been done.

Third, Clinton’s paranoia and penchant for privacy caused more problems for her during a 11 September commemoration event when 90 minutes under the sun on a humid day made her queasy. Rumours that something was afoot were quashed by her campaign, until video emerged of her seeming to collapse as she tried to get in her van. Still, Clinton’s campaign took hours to explain that she had pneumonia, by which time speculation had spiraled out of control and conspiracy theories had set in to the point where the Trump-friendly drudge report hyperventilated, “Will she survive?”

“Antibiotics can take care of pneumonia. What’s the cure for an unhealthy penchant for privacy that repeatedly creates unnecessary problems?” David Axelrod, a former top adviser to Obama, wryly remarked on Twitter.

The internal e-mails revealed by WikiLeaks, which US intelligence has tied to Russian hackers, contained multitudes of examples of Clinton’s closest aides concerned about the consequences of her actions and rhetoric.

“We’ve taken on a lot of water that won’t be easy to pump out of the boat. Most of that has to do with terrible decisions made pre-campaign, but a lot has to do with her instincts,” Podesta wrote to Tanden on 6 September 2015, according to WikiLeaks. “She’s nervous so prepping more and performing better.”

Chaotic campaign

Until he’d secured the nomination, Trump was almost completely uncontrolled. He hardly had a campaign manager—Corey Lewandowski, who held the title, was in many respects his body man—running his campaign the fifth floor of Trump Tower. “Let Trump be Trump,” Lewandowski’s mantra, provided needed reassurance, for a time, to a boss who hated being steered and, crucially for any staffer hoping to survive the campaign, for Trump’s children, and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

When it looked like there might be a contested convention, he brought on Paul Manafort, a legendary adviser to foreign dictators and a former partner of political operative Roger Stone, to bring order and authority to the campaign.

Manafort, along with Trump’s children, eventually forced Lewandowski off the campaign—but he was never able to tame the candidate, however, much he tried to spin that failure. “The good thing is,” Manafort told NBC’s Meet the Press a little more than a month into taking over the campaign, “we have a candidate who doesn’t need to figure out what’s going on in order to say what he wants to do.”

The recipe for victory was unveiled to the nation at the Republican convention in Cleveland. Clinton was painted as both responsible for the nation facing a desperate end and as a criminal who should be imprisoned. Chants of “lock her up!” rang through the convention hall throughout the week.

“This is the legacy of Hillary Clinton: death, destruction and weakness,” Trump said, painting the US as a hellscape overridden with crime (even though it is down), migrants pouring across the border (even though illegal immigration has been flat for years), and a crumbling global order in which Iran would soon obtain nuclear weapons. “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”

Shortly after the convention, Manafort was pushed out amid sinking poll numbers and reports of ties to Russia. He was replaced with Steve Bannon, leader of the alt-right, pro-Trump website Breitbart, and Kellyanne Conway, a longtime GOP pollster with a specialty in targeting women. The two finally had some success in reining in the candidate’s worst excesses, and his numbers seemed to improve.

Finding discipline

Trump’s new chief strategists warned him over the summer that if Republican National Committee officials decided he was too much of a liability and switched their money and concentration to the US Senate races, he’d lose by 20 points.

“It’ll be the first couple of lines in your obituary in the New York Times,” Bannon told Trump. “And it’ll be the catastrophic landslide. These guys are not going to lose the Senate because of you. They’re literally going to cut you free.”

But, his strategists said, once Trump began showing discipline, he’d revive the GOP’s prospects by Labour Day.

“You’re going to see Portman pop, Rubio pop. They’re up by a couple now but as you take your drag away, they’ll pop. And once they pop, you’ll have a whole set of new best friends,” Bannon said.

For a while, the GOP was fighting as a team. There were lingering tensions with House Speaker Paul Ryan, but it didn’t matter because they had a common enemy.

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In late September, Trump’s strategists were feeling confident. They pointed to Clinton’s “flat” speeches, crowds that were paltry in comparison to Trump’s stadium rallies before thousands, and Trump’s ability to attract the white working-class voters that had long been the safety net that saved Clinton campaigns of the past.

“We all understand there’s a path to victory here. It’s ours to win. Before it was insurmountable. Now it’s not,” Bannon said as the poll numbers narrowed. Bannon calculated that if the election were held then, Trump would win, 270 to 268—by bagging Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, Iowa, Nevada, and New Hampshire. Pennsylvania was a high priority, but not a must-win.

“I said, ‘You’re going to run for governor in five states. You’re going to run for county supervisor in 25 counties. And that’s the plan. Just concentrate,’” Bannon said.

The campaign dug in hard on microtargeted areas, adapting as their poll numbers showed signs of progress.

October surprises

Then the hot-mic Access Hollywood tape emerged, on 7 October. It captured Trump a decade earlier boasting about how he could grab women “by the pussy” if he found himself attracted to them. More than a dozen women came forward to accuse him of groping them, and Republican leaders began to disavow him—even as Trump denied the claims. Trump’s chief allies reached the dark place where they realized he would likely lose. Privately, they said they were waiting to see if their latest nuclear-option tactics would depress Clinton’s climbing poll numbers, even as they felt intense anxiety about the next damaging revelation that could blow up more up more of Trump’s support.

“It’s a campaign. Some days are better than others,” George Gigicos, Trump’s director of advance operations, told Bloomberg Politics in mid-October. “But at the end of the day, the American people are sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

The Access Hollywood tape would have killed an ordinary candidate, in an ordinary year. And it almost killed Trump. But then two last-minute windfalls injected TrumpWorld with hope. First, on 24 October, was a government report about rising premiums for the Affordable Care Act that they could use to castigate Clinton. Then, 11 days before the election, FBI director James Comey announced a review of newly found e-mails potentially relevant to the investigation he closed in July.

In clearing Clinton of wrongdoing then, Comey also damaged her reputation by declaring her gross negligence in handling classified information, words that would linger in the minds of skeptical voters until election day—even after he cleared her a second time after finishing the supplementary review.

“It’s a wild day out there,” a thrilled Trump said in New Hampshire on 28 October, the day Comey disclosed the new review.

It was, but not as wild as another just more than a week later when his victory shocked the world. Bloomberg

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