Against all odds, in defiance of the pundits, with little help from his own party, with the media stacked against him, and Hillary Clinton casting him as incompetent and worse, Donald Trump has surprised the world by becoming the president-elect in one of the foulest elections in U.S. history.
Trump challenged convention from the start, vanquishing 16 GOP primary rivals with insults and bullying, paying little heed to party niceties or normal campaign dogma, counting on his celebrity and message to stir the country. And stir it he did, even as the Clinton camp threw everything at him and out-raised Trump by hundreds of millions of dollars.
Trump had this going for him: an electorate that was angry. Angry about job losses and stagnant incomes, angry about suffocating political correctness and the condescension of the elites who had brought about the policies that many thought had weakened the nation. Trump called out leaders in both parties for their indifference to the struggles of middle-class America, and middle-class America leaned in.
He also had this going for him: Hillary Clinton. Clinton matched Trump as one of the most disliked and distrusted candidates ever to run for president. But to voters, Clinton was something worse – a symbol of the status quo. For the 64 percent of the country who believed the United States was headed in the wrong direction, she had nothing to offer.
Clinton promised four more years of Obama’s presidency but rarely does the country want 12 years of anything. Even though Obama’s popularity has recovered from the slump that cost Democrats the Senate in 2014 as he heads out the door, his accomplishments are thin on the ground. He would be hard-pressed to argue that electing Hillary was critical to completing an important unfinished agenda.
Though Obama tried. He took to the campaign trail with enthusiasm and with his wife, Michelle, and Vice President Joe Biden and a swirl of celebrities – Cher, Lady Gaga, Bon Jovi, Le Bron, Jay-Z and Beyonce – but nothing could hide the poverty of Hillary’s message.
She shifted left to outplay little old Bernie Sanders, a 74-year-old Socialist from Vermont who had served decades in the Senate without causing a ripple. It was a sign of Clinton’s erratic beliefs. She painted herself into a corner, adopting progressive programs like free college that raised eyebrows and would have raised deficits. She also promised to raise taxes on corporations, which even Bernie might question, given that sluggish business investment has been one of the weak links in the economy’s recovery.
Though Hillary still had pull with billionaire donors and raised over a billion dollars to fund her campaign, she struggled with most other constituencies. She could not excite Sanders’ soldiers – those idealistic young millennials who supported Obama. They appeared unmoved that they might elect the first woman president when that woman had been feeding at the political trough longer than most had been alive.
She did not connect with blacks to the extent that Obama had, which was not her fault. She did win a high percentage of the Latino vote, but Trump helped with that. At the end, despite the huge machine behind her, Hillary simply came up short. Being subject to an FBI investigation did not help.
Trump nearly lost it, multiple times. Instead of riding some good will and good press after the conventions, he engaged in a negative exchange with the Kahns, parents of a fallen soldier who had launched an ad hominem attack on Trump. He persisted in debating them in the court of public opinion and lost.
He similarly became mired in a row with a judge of Mexican heritage whom he accused of being biased against him. He also got into a Twitter war with a former beauty queen who slammed him for calling her fat, and worse. And, of course, he was heard on a decade-old tape crudely boasting of sexual exploits that to many sounded like assault.
Throughout, his campaign managers tried to keep their candidate focused on telling supporters what they needed to hear. They wanted him to explain how he was going to Make America Great Again, not create personal vendettas against all comers. It was a herculean task that felled two managers before Kellyanne Conway miraculously appeared, and somehow reined him in.
Now he is the president-elect, and much of the country still wants to know how he will Drain the Swamp and Make America Great Again. His campaign organization is limited, which is a polite description, and he has an enormous amount of work to do. He has to mend fences with Republicans in Congress who did not support him, though he will struggle to shake off the personal rebukes that occurred during the past several months. But, if he wants to succeed, he will do so. He needs to assemble a team and cabinet that will convince the country he is capable of governing.
He has laid out an ambitious program of tasks – like overhauling Obamacare – to be undertaken right away. How magical it would be for the country if he could follow through, and quickly organize Congress to repeal and replace the unpopular Affordable Care Act. An accomplishment of that scale might set the stage for another surprise from this ever-surprising candidate: a successful presidency.