Friday 19 January 2018

America has elected a clever salesman who excited his country

Donald Trump (AP)
Donald Trump (AP)

Tim Stanley

Revolutions are hard to predict when you're living through them. Only when they're over does the outcome seem obvious. Eighteen months ago, the idea of President Donald Trump was laughable. Right up to election day, it appeared highly unlikely. Then he did it. He really did it. And on reflection, it makes perfect sense.

To understand how Mr Trump won, we have to clear up two myths. First, he didn't invent a philosophy overnight to get votes - he's been arguing for protectionism and a realist foreign policy for years. He's authentic. Second, he did not dive into the race without a plan. The issues he chose - immigration, free trade and terrorism - he chose because he tested them out first on conservative audiences and found they got a good reaction. America has not just elected a charlatan or a lucky fool, but a clever salesman with a vision. That was obvious from his performance on the stump, which was brilliantly amateurish.

Hillary Clinton, by contrast, was surrounded by a comfort blanket of Hollywood stars and A-list politicians. On the final night of her campaign, in freezing Philadelphia, she spoke last after Jon Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen, Bill Clinton, Michelle Obama and Barack Obama. The event was glitzy but it was also a fraud. Clinton reached out to the constituencies that had formed Mr Obama's winning coalition: women, students, blacks, Latinos, gays, etc.

Bill Clinton had reportedly made the case for reaching out to angry whites, but was told that those votes were lost long ago and unimportant. The consensus held that as the white population shrunk in size, so the Republican vote dwindled. What the campaign didn't appreciate was the power of excitement. If Mr Trump could excite more whites to vote than Mrs Clinton could energise non-whites, then he could win.

The media, meanwhile, got caught up in the micro aspects of the campaign and missed the bigger, macro picture. Mrs Clinton's email problem dominated headlines even though the FBI director eventually declared that she wouldn't be facing charges. And Mr Trump's various - numerous - scandals and gaffes created an impression of chaos within the campaign that was only half-true.

It was true that he exasperated his staff. But those staff were competent enough to win an election. The key moment came in late August, when Mr Trump shook up his team. In came Kellyanne Conway as campaign manager, a brilliant strategist and PR whizz, along with Breitbart news chairman Steve Bannon, as chief executive - and now his the administration's chief strategist.

Mr Trump's analysts confirmed his instinct that they should broaden the campaign out from traditional Republican-leaning states to Democrat areas in hard times: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin. Ultimately, he would triumph in counties with slower job growth and lower wages, where life expectancy among whites was lower, or where jobs are more threatened by automation or offshoring.

Erie county in Pennsylvania went for Mr Obama by 16 points in 2012. Earlier this year, the General Electric plant closed, after shedding thousands of jobs in layoffs. Mr Trump took Erie by two points in 2016.

He continued to make big mistakes during his campaign. But people didn't care. The exit polls showed that many voters did not like or trust Mr Trump but voted for him anyway. They approached the election with a grim realism.

As America went to the polls on November 8, the press prepared for an early night. But the polling was way off; Mr Trump's negatives hadn't crippled him. The old Obama coalition stayed at home. Instead, we saw the emergence of a new electoral block. Of people who feel that the political, financial and cultural establishments haven't been serving their interests - voters who want to "drain the swamp" in Washington.

It's tempting to say that Mr Trump got lucky, to see him as a political naif. But he said all along that he would win and, in a way, he willed himself to do it. He convinced the country that it was possible, and once they had come to terms with that possibility, voting for him seemed like a more rational act than his critics realised. Trump was more controversial than the average conservative statesman, but, given the general atmosphere of chaos, he was a leap into the dark from the dark.

Trump said to voters: you were once great, you are great no longer, but I will make you great again. The American revolution was built upon the promise of freedom and the dignity of the working man. Mrs Clinton never got that. Trump won because, like it or not, he's as American as apple pie. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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