On Tuesday, Donald Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States. If you ignore the popular vote that indicated a photo finish, Mr. Trump’s victory was decisive – he crossed the 270 electoral votes even before the returns from three of the 50 states were tallied, and was ahead of his rival by more than 70 electoral votes.
Mr. Trump’s victory will go down as one of the greatest upsets in political history. No one in the world except perhaps Mr. Trump seriously thought he could do it. Until the polls closed on Tuesday, even the Clinton campaign exuded confidence that she would be elected first female president and cross a barrier that has stood for nearly a century after women in the United States got the right to vote.
Mr. Trump’s victory was not just stunning because it was the first time the 70-year-old celebrity businessman was running for office, he pulled it off by running an unconventional campaign, railing throughout against the entire American political establishment, including that of the party whose ticket he seized as an outsider to face the electorate.
While the campaign lasted, Mr. Trump said and did what nobody before him dared. In spite, or perhaps because, of this, he managed to galvanize millions of his compatriots to disclaim the status quo, shove aside a quality alternative and follow the Republican flag bearer on a journey into an insular Utopia and national rediscovery he alone insisted exists.
How did this blustering maverick and political neophyte achieve his historic electoral feat, especially against a final rival parading enviable credentials as former first lady, senator and secretary of state?
Apart from her credentials, Hillary Clinton’s quest for history as the first female president appeared appealing and within grasp. She was at the cusp of history! But Mr. Trump thwarted it by masterfully rallying voters fed up with the American political system and making them even more distrustful of the rival he caricatured as “Crooked Hillary”.
Many Americans had come to see President Barack Obama and members of Congress as having failed to deliver on their promises of a better nation. Republican voters lament increasing spending and a ballooning national debt.
Democratic voters lament Mr. Obama’s inability to get more laws through Congress. Independent voters (those not aligned with either party) lament the relentless partisan bickering.
As a definitive Washington DC insider and opponent, Hillary Clinton was a natural target for this anger. Under the blitz of Mr. Trump’s acerbic tongue, Mrs. Clinton emerged to aggrieved voters even in so-called Democratic party-leaning states as the embodiment of an ineffectual and rigged system, the ultimate insider of an establishment that had failed America.
“Trump’s core success here has been to usurp the popular anger into his political identity. He became the candidate of the angry disenchanted, while he made Clinton the candidate of the status quo”, observed Tom Rogan, writing for the CNN before the poll.
As a once-in-a-generation political outsider, Mr. Trump was able to capitalize on this discontent. The vast majority of his supporters are Republicans. But many others — in swing states like Florida and Ohio — are independents. Some even are Democrats.
So by projecting a vivid picture of a system that needed to be urgently fixed, and his rival as a pillar of that system, Mr. Trump mobilised the angry to cast their votes for him in record number on Tuesday.
His battle cry was to “Make America Great Again”. This resonated with millions of voters who felt alienated by the forces of globalization and multiculturalism, and frustrated that Washington cannot address their needs.
According to Karren Tumulty of the Washington Post, “voters anxious about the economy, convinced that the system was stacked against them, fearful of terrorism and angry about the rising gap between rich and poor, gravitated toward Trump.
“In him, they saw a fearless champion who would re-create what they recalled as an America unchallenged in the world, unthreatened at home and unfettered by the elitist forces of ‘political correctness’.”
Mr. Trump’s victory, indeed, reflects the nationalist wave that has swept the developed world and which in June pushed Britain to vote for a break from the European Union. His campaign was an American version of the populist uprisings that have been seen in other Western societies against open borders and globalization.
In fact, Mr. Trump said he smelled an American Brexit in the making at the American election. That vote in Britain caught the elites and the establishment totally by surprise. It was an uprising that went unseen until it struck, severing the UK from her neighbours across the channel.
According to Tumulty, Mr. Trump’s victory was “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”.
While Mrs. Clinton assembled a diverse coalition that she said reflected the nation, Mr. Trump built a powerful and impassioned movement by also fanning resentments over gender, race and religion.
He characterized Mexicans who immigrated illegally as rapists and murderers. He promised to deport them and then build a wall on the border with Mexico to keep them at bay. He portrayed Muslims as terrorists and to mark or deport them too from America.
With his supporters, Mr. Trump proved resilient against an onslaught of negative advertising from Clinton’s campaign and her allied super PAC, Priorities USA, which portrayed him as racist, misogynist and unhinged. Nearly a quarter-billion dollars was spent on ads supporting Mrs. Clinton, while just $153 million went into spots backing Mr. Trump.
An important issue in Mr. Trump’s favour was identity politics. His proposed ban on Muslims, promise to build a wall on the Mexican border and threats to annihilate ISIS, persuaded his voters that he will protect them.
“For Americans focused primarily on paying the bills, Trump’s rhetoric against foreigners who either steal jobs or threaten lives strikes a nerve”, noted another observer, Dan Balz.
Mr. Trump’s rants divided Americans along racial lines. As minority groups campaigned against his candidature, white Americans solidified support behind him “to reclaim America”. On Tuesday, they made their support count as they reached a record 75 per cent of national voters’ turnout. According to a breakdown, 70 per cent of White voters without college education voted for Mr. Trump, while 59 per cent of them with degree cast their votes for him.
Mrs. Clinton maintained a lead in the polls for much of the campaign, especially after her party’s convention. The lead looked insurmountable after a video appeared of Mr. Trump making inappropriate comments about women. Subsequently, more than a dozen women came forward to accuse the candidate of various incidents of sexual assault, all of which he denied. It set off a national conversation, involving not just women, but their husbands and sons and brothers.
Then came help for him from an unexpected source.
FBI Director, James Comey, shook the campaign 11 days before the election by announcing that a fresh trove of emails had been discovered on the computer of Anthony Weiner, a former New York congressman and estranged husband of Mrs. Clinton aide, Huma Abedin. On Sunday, Mr. Comey said the investigation found no cause for the FBI to reverse its earlier decision against an indictment. But the developments had taken Mrs. Clinton off her stride in the home stretch and contributed to a tightening of the polls.
The email scandal had dogged her throughout the campaigns and was used by the Republicans and Mr. Trump in assaulting her character and projecting her as dishonest and unworthy of public trust. “After nearly a quarter-century in the nation’s consciousness, Clinton had become a walking paradox, a Rorschach test of what defines character and values. Trump nicknamed her “Crooked Hillary,” said Rogan.
In spite of what the polls suggested throughout, Mrs. Clinton faced an additional burden of running for what would be the third consecutive term for one party in the White House — something that has happened only once since the middle of the 20th century.
She got an early warning of trouble ahead, even before the general election. To win the Democratic nomination that had once been presumed to be a coronation, she had to fend off an unexpectedly potent primary challenge from Senator Bernie Sanders (Vt.), a self-identified democratic socialist who sparred with her until the final primaries in June.
This weakened Mrs. Clinton and distracted some members of the coalition that helped Mr. Obama to two electoral triumphs. Although there is no evidence yet that some of Mr. Sanders voted for Mr. Trump on Tuesday, some key demographic groups in the coalition did not show as much enthusiasm on Tuesday as they had done in 2008 and 2012.
In the final analysis, Mr. Trump successfully projected himself as a champion of Americans, in particular Whites, denied their due by their political system. As much as his election, how he delivers on his promises will remain of interest to people beyond American borders.