So, Trump was right, and everyone else was wrong. Most of all the pollsters – my advice to them: McDonalds and Starbucks are hiring, $9.00 an hour; that might be your best option for a while. A period of humility might be required from a few pundits and journalists, too. No one, it seemed, understood what kind of country America has become.
Hillary Clinton had been measuring the drapes for the White House. In the final days of the race, her staff privately predicted she would get 315 votes in the electoral college. ‘We’d like 340,’ a member of her staff said smugly. David Plouffe – President Obama’s campaign manager – tweeted that her path to 300+ was ‘rock solid’.
It was such a stunning upset that even Trump himself – never one for self-doubt – hesitated to believe it. ‘He’s happy – but nervous,’ one of his friends told me, just having come from watching the results come with Trump, in his redoubt in Trump Tower in New York. Trump then went off to celebrate the most improbable victory in American political history while, a few blocks away at what was supposed to be the Clinton victory party, people were quietly weeping.
Trump succeeded in the most rancorous – and bizarre – election campaign in America since the television age began. He did it despite a dozen women coming forward to say he had sexually assaulted them; he did it despite the Access Hollywood ‘grab them by the pussy’ tape; despite the 3am tweets, the bankruptcies, Trump ‘University’, the ‘mafia ties’, Russia; despite, even, the excesses of his own personality.
Right from the start of the primaries, Trump did or said things that would have been fatal to any other candidate. He did everything possible to sabotage himself, and yet he kept on winning. He casually insulted the war record of a genuine American hero, John McCain – ‘I thought he was done then,’ a political veteran told me — he mocked the Republican establishment; he harangued the ‘dishonest, corrupt’ media at every rally – ‘liars, liars’ — and the more people he abused, the more his supporters adored him.
There is a simple reason for this. For most American workers, wages have been flat, or falling, for decades. Half of all Americans earn less than they did 15 years ago. For many, the American Dream – the idea that your children will be better off than you – has died. These people — white, rural, poor and getting poorer – gave Trump the presidency. They feel utterly betrayed by a political class and an elite that seem as foreign to them as if there had been an invasion by another country.
The Ivy-League-educated, artisanal-cheese-buying, fair-trade-coffee-drinking, Prius-driving classes who shop at Wholefoods are hated and despised by the gun-owning, pick-up-driving, flag-waving Americans who drink Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and shop at Piggly Wiggly. These are now cultural differences as much as economic. These two Americas were written about by the sociologist Charles Murray, whose book ‘Coming Apart’ defines the poor whites that are Trump’s ‘movement’. Trump’s victory was possible, he told me, because the Democratic Party had lost the people who were once its central constituency.
He explained how this had happened: ‘In the 1960s there began a major shift among Democratic elites. It started with the civil rights revolution,’ he said. ‘It continued as feminism took off and with the gay liberation movement. It wasn’t just that they were ignoring the white working class; they were actively disparaging white working-class males: they were sexist, they were racist, they were homophobic, they were Neanderthals. So along comes Ronald Reagan…and they start voting Republican.’ He went on: ‘What happened this year exposed a big chunk of the Republican party that is not conservative, in any meaningful sense of that word. And that’s a great deal of the Trump support.’
The Democrats had gained from this process, too. ‘This Trump phenomenon closes out the ability of the Republican brand to attract millennials; millennials are staying with the Democrats forever. Increasingly, the Republicans are going to be a party that is white and old.’ I had interviewed Murray before the result. He was wrong about the outcome, along with everyone else, predicting Trump would lose, the Republicans would collapse, and a new populist party would eventually be formed.
He is right about the major realignment of US politics that has taken place in this election. Well-off college educated whites who might once have been ‘country club Republicans’ are now firm Democrats. Mid-western states that were bricks in Hillary’s ‘blue wall’ voted for Trump. And southern states once firmly Republican are a little less so today because of a steadily increasing Hispanic population.
Immigration across the Mexican border was the issue that launched Trump’s candidacy. And more than anything else, race underlies this election. A country that was 80 per cent white a generation ago will see whites no longer in the majority in another thirty years. Trump’s supporters are terrified of this prospect; Clinton’s welcome it. That was the most fundamental difference between the two sides in this election.
One other consequence of this election is that the United States will have one party government (both Houses of Congress going to the Republicans, as well as the presidency). Trump will move quickly to replace Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court; he may well use his first hundred days to sweep away Obamacare, along with much else of President Obama’s legacy. A lot of Republicans who opposed Trump, or who merely held their noses to support him, are going to have a difficult time. Paul Ryan may not last long as speaker of the House.
I was at the Washington Post election watch party as the results started to come in. ‘We’re at liberal ground zero,’ one of the drinkers told me, ‘you couldn’t find a place where more people hate Trump.’ Some guests looked queasy as I left, and it was not because of the canapés, which were excellent. The economist Paul Krugman, though writing in the rival New York Times, spoke for many at the party when he declared: ‘It’s the apocalypse…America is now a failed state.’
A little later, the French ambassador in Washington emerged from his official residence to link Trump’s election with Brexit. ‘The world is collapsing before our eyes,’ he said. ‘Everything is possible. Dizzyness.’ Watching this, the anchor on Fox News remarked: ‘The fact that the French don’t like it is rather good news.’ Trump’s election is indeed dizzying, or as Fox News described it ‘a political miracle’. There were two Americas this morning; one exulting, one in mourning.
When I first started covering Trump, I thought it would be clever to follow around a man who so admired him that he had changed his name to Donald Trump. The fake Trump – who sometimes called himself Donald junior — was, obviously, a little touched. His business had gone bankrupt, his marriage had failed; he was in debt, yet driving around in a stretch limo. It struck me at the time that if Donald junior was living a fantasy life, so was Trump himself, just one in which reality had improbably aligned with his imagination.
Now Trump – the real one — is living the ultimate fantasy. By sheer force of personality, a reality TV star who ran the Miss Universe beauty pageant became the head of the party of Lincoln and will soon occupy the Oval Office. His first test will be whether he can, in his moment of triumph, display enough grace to bring the two Americas together, to govern. He started well. In his victory address, in the early hours of Wednesday, he spoke of ‘binding the wounds of division’. This was a humble Trump, not the bullying, sometimes buffoonish, occasionally brilliant Trump who won, the Trump who proved everyone wrong. How long before that Trump is back?
Paul Wood is a BBC correspondent and fellow of the New America foundation