WASHINGTON — For many Americans, the unimaginable has happened.
Their new leader is a man who had never previously run for public office, who fired people in a reality television boardroom, who boasted of forcing himself upon women, who promises to jail his main political opponent and who will soon have the keys to America’s nuclear arsenal.
Six out of 10 Americans don’t even like Donald Trump. But the number that mattered in the election was this one: Two-thirds of voters said the U.S. was on the wrong track.
For many of these people, Trump is exactly the president they want, the president they believe this country desperately needs. Not bound by the conventions of Washington, or of political correctness. Not afraid to use American might to stand up to smaller nations. And most of all, not Hillary Clinton.
She proved a deeply unpopular candidate, the very symbol of the political status quo.
Trump was gracious toward Clinton and made a plea for unity in his victory speech early Wednesday morning.
“Now it’s time for America to bind the wounds of division. We have to get together,” Trump told supporters gathered at the New York Hilton Midtown. “It is time for us to come together as one united people. It’s time.”
Trump’s agenda is blunt-edged and dramatic, a tonic to right a country gone astray, in the eyes of his voters: Build a wall. Deport undocumented immigrants. Ban immigration from many Muslim countries. Renegotiate trade deals or abandon them. Make NATO allies pay more toward their own defense. Make America great again.
He mentioned none of that in his victory speech, pledging to focus on rebuilding U.S. infrastructure. “We will put millions of people to work,” he said.
Trump’s victory is an American version of the nationalist populism that has surged across Europe and that powered the discontent behind Britain’s vote to exit the European Union. Only now the wave has crossed the Atlantic, cresting in the world’s most powerful nation.
Despite evidence that the U.S. economy has come back from the Great Recession, many voters viewed progress as too slow and their own future financial prospects as too uncertain. In exit polls Tuesday, voters cited the economy and jobs as the top issue, at 52 percent, followed by terrorism at 18 percent, foreign policy at 13 percent and immigration at 12 percent, according to ABC News.
Trump has promised to use his executive authority on his first day in office to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, President Barack Obama’s 12-nation Pacific Rim trade deal that was never ratified by Congress, and to notify NAFTA partners of his intent to renegotiate that trade deal. He also has pledged to designate China a currency manipulator, stop the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the U.S., end the Obama policy protecting millions of undocumented immigrants without criminal records from deportation, and reverse “every single Obama executive order.”
His legislative agenda for the first 100 days includes a massive tax cut, the repeal of Obamacare and groundbreaking on his Mexican border wall.
Easy to say, hard to do. The traditions of U.S. governance and the familiar gridlock of Washington are sure to work against him. He’ll have to figure out how to pay for his wall if Mexico’s government continues to spurn his demand that it foot the bill.
He’s repeatedly modified a proposed ban on Muslim immigration. He has tempered his talk of abandoning military alliances. Even the most powerful office in the world has its limits, and the courts and Congress — where even many Republicans are cool to him — exist largely to constrain the ambitions of the U.S. executive.
Financial markets were jolted by Trump’s victory. The outcome was unexpected even a day before the election. Global stock markets gyrated after FBI Director James Comey announced, 11 days before the election, that his agency had discovered a cache of emails related to an earlier investigation of Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of State. Comey’s astounding move hurt Clinton’s poll numbers but never broke the consensus she would prevail.
Not since Richard Nixon has a man so reviled by so much of the country been elected its leader. Like Nixon, Trump summoned up the nation’s darkest impulses: fear and resentment over Clinton’s promises of continuity and community.
“The American Dream is dead,” Trump has said.
That sense of dread, and that promise of deliverance, resonated with a white working class besieged by economic rip currents, terrorist threats and a rapid demographic shift to a nation with a majority made up of minorities.
That such a bleak outlook can succeed in a presidential election — especially when the country is relatively prosperous and largely at peace — is remarkable. Nixon exploited divisions over the Vietnam War, race riots and countercultural upheaval, but his so-called Southern Strategy to stir up racial resentments among white voters was largely a whisper campaign.
“Nixon had this strategy of marshaling resentment, but it was nowhere near as overt as Trump’s,” presidential historian H.W. Brands, a professor at the University of Texas, said in an interview. “It’s the last gasp of the old white guy. Demographically they are losing ground. By 2020 it’s virtually impossible to win the presidency focusing on that narrow demographic.”
Far from bringing unity of purpose to a national government after years of gridlock, Trump’s election threatens the cohesion of the Republican Party even as it strengthens its grip on both chambers of Congress.
His rise fractures the Republican confederation between a corporate wing that’s thriving from the benefits of increased globalization and a culturally conservative white working class now hostile to anything smelling of Wall Street. Trump openly trolled leading congressional Republicans on Twitter. Neither of the Republican leaders of Congress, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, were seen on the campaign trail with their party’s standard-bearer.
Democrats in Congress will be determined adversaries and can be expected to make full use of minority powers, such as the Senate filibuster, to thwart Trump’s legislative priorities. He has no reservoir of goodwill with much of the American public to draw upon for strength and leverage.
Though presidential elections frequently represent a reversal in course from the incumbent, rarely has the repudiation been so striking. Trump’s victory wrests the presidency from the first black commander-in-chief, who assembled a winning coalition from the country’s expanding minority population. Power is back in the hands of an almost exclusively white coalition, perhaps for the last time.
Trump first made his mark in politics in 2011 by championing the “birther” movement that falsely contested Obama’s citizenship and thus his legitimacy as president. He represents everything that Obama does not: gut instinct instead of intellect; anger rather than hope; raw emotion over cool restraint; nativism instead of cosmopolitanism; political incorrectness over multicultural sensitivity; the oldest man to be elected president following one of the youngest.
Trump’s vocalization of the frustration and foreboding felt by America’s white lower middle class resonated with an electorate that has watched the benefits from the economic recovery since 2008 flow mostly upward. The stock market has tripled in value in less than eight years. The median U.S. household meanwhile earns less than it did in 2007, and its net worth in 2013 was 28 percent less than a dozen years earlier.
The same technological progress that mints Silicon Valley billionaires is scrambling the economic prospects of workers who once could expect to maintain a comfortable middle-class lifestyle without a college education. Factories operate with fewer employees. Self-service kiosks have replaced cashiers and ticket agents. Even roadwork is increasingly mechanized. Drones and driverless cars are poised to displace even more unskilled workers.
Attacks by home-grown terrorists — across the Atlantic in Paris and Brussels and in the U.S. in San Bernardino, Calif., and Orlando, Fla. — further stoked anxieties. And racial tensions surfaced in protests over police shootings and a sniper ambush of officers in Dallas.
The stress of the times may be literally killing middle-aged whites, the constituency that most overwhelmingly embraced Trump. Death rates among 45- to 54-year-old non-Hispanic whites rose from 1999 to 2013, a period when other ethnic groups enjoyed longevity gains, according to a 2015 study by two Princeton University professors. Suicides and drug and alcohol abuse largely account for the increase.
Trump may not save America’s disaffected white middle class. But for one election, at least, he gave it voice.