From start to finish, the 2016 campaign broke just about every rule of politics.
Even as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump triumphed on Tuesday night with the strong support of a largely white proletariat (women as well as working-class men), the poll-etariat tried to grapple with how much it had misread the American public.
The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank slammed Nate Silver, founder of FiveThirtyEight, insisting that the wonder-pollster, who built his reputation on the Barack Obama presidential wins, had hedged his numbers in the most blatant fashion. But the fact remains that the nation is sharply divided in a most polarizing manner.
David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, foresees the miseries to come in “An American Tragedy” – “an increasingly reactionary Supreme Court; an emboldened right-wing Congress; a president whose disdain for women and minorities, civil liberties and scientific fact, to say nothing of simple decency, has been repeatedly demonstrated.”
Yet the political novice defeated heavily favored Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. She won the popular vote but he won the White House.
The elite – people who had recovered handily from the devastating 2008 financial collapse, as well as most of the chattering classes – never fully fathomed the extent of Trump’s support. From his very first rallies, Trump’s backers waited hours on line for the opportunity to hear the real estate developer express the anger they felt.
Trump, the star of a hit reality TV show, was someone the public thought it knew. More than that, however, they lined up to watch him stick it to the entire establishment – not just his own party (which seemed to care only about tax cuts for the rich and trade deals that hollowed out the middle class) but the entire national power structure.
The elites “take Trump literally but not seriously,” Salena Zito noted in the Atlantic, “his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.”
With this analysis, Zito was able to explain why Trump appeared to pay little price even when he sounded racist and bigoted about minorities and immigrants. He could label Latino immigrants as rapists and thugs, insist all Muslim immigrants were coming to destroy the United States, assert African American voters were about to steal the election. His polls might wobble, but would then level off.
Trump realized this back in January. “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody,” he declared, "and I wouldn't lose any voters
Yet there were also his dog whistle signals, calling to the darker side of America. Trump’s political original sin was his zealous advocacy of birtherism, questioning the legitimacy of the nation’s first African American president. This had long been Trump's key issue, even as Zito’s argument suggests Trump’s huge crowds focused on the anger he was expressing. It was their anger.
Trump’s disdain for women was even more overt. It erupted with stunning force in a 2005 video tape from Access Hollywood. He bragged that being a celebrity gave him license to sexually assault women. After he denied this during a debate, saying it was only “locker room talk” (what his wife Melania, later waved aside as “boy talk”) more than a dozen women came forward saying they had experienced unwanted sexual contact.
But here pundits also failed to see how Trump’s misogyny may be reflected across a wide swath of the public. Electing a woman as U.S. president was not going to be easy, no matter who was the candidate. And Hillary Clinton brought along problems unique to her. As Susan Faludi diagramed in a remarkable New York Times op-ed piece, Clinton had been rabidly demonized for more than 30 years. Faludi had decades of reporting notes to back it up.
One big exception to the media’s myopia was, as usual, Ron Brownstein, the astute Atlantic political analyst. He quickly laid out how Trump “mobilized enormous margins among rural and exurban voters, and crushing advantages among blue-collar whites.” With these forces, Trump swamped Clinton’s base of support among minorities and college-educated white women.
Brownstein had earlier faulted the Democratic nominee for spending far more money and time in states she hoped to win (Ohio, Florida, North Carolina) rather than focusing on the core trio she needed to win (Michigan, Wisconsin and Colorado).
In the very last weeks of this endless election, national reporters were regularly citing the “anecdotal evidence” of homemade Trump lawn signs that lined the streets of the towns they drove through. But they didn’t read them as evidence of a groundswell of support.
Late Tuesday night, Ari Berman, who wrote the powerful book, Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America, tweeted:
This was no idle comparison. The promise of Reconstruction and the 14th Amendment were crushed under the oppression of Jim Crow segregation and racism. In the same way, President-elect Trump seems ready to erase Obama’s legacy – end Obamacare, wipe out Dodd-Frank’s financial regulations, banish climate change policies, re-negotiate the Iran agreement.
In a shape-shifting campaign, however, Trump has essentially been consistent about only two things – his love for his family and his refusal to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump was stunningly gracious to Clinton and graceful about his win in his speech early Wednesday morning.
So the Trump administration might prove as surprising as the 2016 campaign itself. Then again, it might not. With Trump, we can’t be sure.
And neither can the country.
Allison Silver is the executive editor of Reuters Opinion. @AllisonReuters
The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.