How did he do it? The man who broke every rule in the political playbook, the man shunned, excoriated, and ridiculed every day by the mass media, the man rejected by the very party that, to its horror, found itself obliged to nominate him, finds himself now the most powerful man on the planet. Aside from the stunning fact of his victory itself, the question that will remain for many is how Donald Trump could have overcome a world of obstacles, any one of which would have instantly destroyed another presidential candidate—and often has. How could a nation more than half composed of women have elected the misogynist-in-chief? How could a nation of immigrants have chosen a xenophobe? How could a nation increasingly composed of minorities have selected a man who dog-whistled racism?
Donald Trump did it because, ignorant though he is of constitutional processes and the complexities of public policy and superficial as is his grasp of the world, he has proved himself a political genius. And, for those of us who thought he would crash and burn on the political trail, or think he will certainly crash and burn in office, it is time to think again.
When Trump won the Republican nomination last spring, people asked the wrong question. They asked, How did this happen instead of the more pertinent one, How did he do it?
Like Bernie Sanders, Trump rode a wave of popular discontent. Unlike Sanders, he went straight for the political jugular—“low-energy Jeb,” “little Marco,” “lyin’ Ted.” Unlike Sanders, who tried to appeal to a broad spectrum of voters, Trump saw a crucial segment of his party’s base that could be detached from it and hitched to his own star, and he went after it with laser-like precision. That, in a crowded field of candidates, gave him enough of an edge to gradually whittle down and finally overcome the field.
The rest of the story is that he won over a majority of the nation’s electors—not its voters—and so will become our forty-fifth president. The old saw that all politics is local is never more applicable to us than in our national elections. The Electoral College system means that our politics has now devolved into a struggle for a handful of so-called swing or battleground states, mostly of small to middling size. A vote cast for a Republican in New York or California is a wasted exercise; the Democrats will (so far) reliably win those states and all their electors. The same goes for Democrats voting in Texas. So, candidates never show up in those states except to court fat-cat donors; they hold no rallies, give no speeches, and kiss no babies. Running for president reduces our map to five or six states; the rest of the country might as well be on the moon. Nor does voting for the winner in noncompetitive states have full value either. Millions of people voted for Hillary Clinton in California and put her over the top in the popular vote, but every vote beyond the last one required to top Donald Trump in the Golden State was merely symbolic, which is to say superfluous.
The same thing is true, of course, in every state, swing or not. The only vote that counts is the one that puts a candidate over the top; every one before that is cancelled out when the winner is ascertained, and everyone after it is just piling on. Of course, it’s impossible to say whose vote gave Pennsylvania to Donald Trump among the more than five million cast: it’s a needle in a huge haystack, and no one will ever find it. Somewhere in our Commonwealth is the voter who broke the tie between Clinton and Trump, but we’ll never know who it was. Nor will he or she. In that sense, all votes in a presidential election are symbolic, and only Pennsylvania’s twenty electors have actual votes. The electors themselves don’t have individual votes; they are a slate, bound except in a handful of states to cast their votes according to the popular ballot.
In short, 125 million ballots were cast in the 2016 election, but none of them represent actual votes in the sense of individually sovereign acts. They were inputs into a process merely, bubbles in a soufflé. Which bubble made the soufflé rise or fall, no man can tell.
This isn’t a democracy, but of course the Founding Fathers didn’t set it up to be one. In this sense, Donald Trump was perfectly right to call the system rigged. And he was the one who gamed it.
The other thing to understand is that, in modern mass elections, there are no issues as well. The choices put up may look concrete—to raise the minimum wage, say, or to sign a particular trade agreement, or to keep abortions legal—but they, too, are symbolic, because they are all subsumed in the emotional grid that packages the candidates. When we choose a president—or, rather, when the process does—it is a leader that is being chosen. It is the qualities that are sold in representing leadership in any given election that determine the outcome.
Donald Trump understood this too, and he broke it down to its most crudely effective level. A leader is one who leads; that is, who succeeds in getting his way. Trump reduced every personal quality about himself to one: success. There was Trump the successful businessman; Trump the successful TV personality; Trump the builder of huge skyscrapers with his name emblazoned on them; and, yes, Trump the mighty conqueror of women, who took them as his tribute because he was so successful at everything else. Donald Trump was simply the world’s most successful brand, and that entitled him—in the cruder, cowboy sense of the term—to brand everything else.
So, what was it that made Donald Trump the successful presidential candidate? I would argue that it was the one seeming embarrassment that so many thought would stop him, the sex tape that caught Trump bragging of his sexual droit du seigneur. For many, to be sure, Trump’s boasts were offensive and revolting, and the mass media played it as a fatal gaffe. But, you know what? It turned out that a rogue flaunting his sexual prowess was a more appealing political figure than an aging wife put on the shelf many years ago by her own rogue of a husband. Needless to say, no one could say this publicly. But in the national psyche where such things marinate below the threshold of polite conversation or even necessarily conscious awareness, it took hold, and not merely for men. Hillary Clinton struggled throughout her campaign, in 2008 no less than 2016, to win the support of women, whom she and everyone else considered her natural constituency. In the end, though, a lot of them didn’t want to identify with a marital loser, and, fair or not, that was the brand Hillary Clinton bore. She was the most famous, the most publicly cheated-on wife in American history, and if she stuck it out with her husband it was, manifestly, to protect her own political future. That created the double bind she could never escape, no matter what she might put on her resumé. She was at once the pathetically dependent woman who dared not avenge the ultimate marital wrong, and a figure of coldly calculating ambition who would not allow even a deep affront to her personal dignity to stand in her way. The combination was fatal.
You can see the difference between Clinton and Trump by parsing the campaign slogans on which they ran. Donald Trump himself invented the slogan, “Make America Great Again,” and tried it out on a reporter as early as 2013. The pundits ridiculed this, because America was, by definition, always great, and anyone who suggested that it had ceased to be so was challenging the most cherished tenet of our national mythology, namely, American exceptionalism. We were the world’s greatest country, the indispensable nation. How could we cease to be so, and who would agree that we had?
As it turns out, roughly sixty million people did.
The key word in Trump’s slogan, though, was the action verb “make.” To make it, in the colloquial sense, is precisely to succeed; in the literal one, to produce something, to bring it into being. It was what Trump supporters had once done, before America’s manufacturing base had been outsourced and its factories left to crumble. It was what they wanted to do again, and the Wall Street types and slick academics who told them they couldn’t were telling them they couldn’t have their country back, that it was gone for good and that they themselves were irrelevant in the new cyberworld that knew neither nation nor soil. Trump told them that this needn’t be so, that he, personally, would guarantee that it wouldn’t be so; and they grasped at this hope.
To make also has a sexual connotation, of course, as in to be on the make. Trump thus subtly incorporated the image of the sexual conqueror into his general message of renewal. But it also carried a family message, for what men and women also ‘make’ are babies, and when all other all other ways of making are denied them it is still the one they have left. When they can’t provide for the children they make, though, or when those children face the bleak future of an underclass, the virility and fertility of their parents are simply mocked. It is the final humiliation, the kids doomed to live in the family basement. Hillary Clinton, the ever tone-deaf, actually mocked this. So the people on the bottom, with one say in the game, one job they could grant or deny, decided that it would not be hers.
Clinton’s own slogan, “Stronger Together,” was the awful, poll-tested result of 265 entries. Aside from its near-unpronounceable clunkiness on the tongue, it suggested a false unity, the chumminess of the already-satisfied, a club you couldn’t get into if you weren’t already there. It also suggested a world already near-perfect, where all one needed was a commitment to more of the same. In a change election year, that was catastrophic.
Finally, there was the matter of campaign style. Trump stumped alone, virtually without surrogates and with a vice president who seemed at odds with him as often as not: the lone warrior. Clinton clung to entertainment celebrities, all more glamorous by definition than she was. When Michelle Obama campaigned with her, her physical stature dwarfed Clinton’s. The image she projected was almost of someone being held up by kindly hands.
Donald Trump knew how to win this election. He overcame the odds, the campaign finance gap, the disdain and condemnation of the elites in his own party as well as his opponent’s. He may fall on his face as a president, or prove a pawn manipulated by others. Don’t bet on it, though.