There are a lot of ways you can explain how Donald Trump won the White House. The first one is about white people.
A cake of Donald Trump's head at his Election Night party. (Photo by Jabin Botsford /The Washington Post via Getty Images)
You can imagine the story of Donald Trump's election going back to the idea behind America, that idea being that white people could come here and take the land and even other people and do whatever they wanted. We got rid of slavery, and replaced it with Jim Crow, then replaced that with subtler forms of racism, structural inequalities that kept black people from buying homes or getting good jobs. Or we just kept them in prisons. Political parties stopped being overtly racist and started speaking in code—a candidate can say "law and order," and everyone knows what he means. Mitt Romney says 47 percent of Americans feel "entitled" to government benefits and "will vote for the president no matter what," and we know what color that percent is.
So Trump was saying the same things that other Republicans were saying. In 2009, Glenn Beck said that Barack Obama has "hatred for white people." In 2011, Trump appeared on FOX News to say that Obama wasn't born in the US. You could say nonsense claims like this, lies, and no one would contradict you, at least not on places like FOX.
So when Trump talked about Mexican immigrants being rapists and criminals, when he talked about how his supporters should go to "certain areas" because the election was going to be "rigged" against him, when he said that Muslims should be banned from entering the US, he wasn't saying anything that hadn't been said before. He was just saying it louder and stronger, and people liked it. Well, white people liked it. They were tired of hiding their pride at being white, tired of feeling guilty about their Confederate flags. Trump would give their country back to them, he would make it great again.
The exit polls bear this out—Trump did not win young voters or poor voters; the only group he really won was white voters.
That's one story about Trump, but there are others.
Most Republicans just promised tax cuts, because that's what they did, always, but Trump promised to limit free trade, roll back globalization, resurrect those jobs.
One story is that he came around at just the right time. Globalization—sped along by trade deals like NAFTA, endorsed by fancy East Coast people in both parties—had destroyed manufacturing. Environmental concerns and cheaper, cleaner energy alternatives had led to the decline of the coal industry. Working-class people, a lot of them white, had lost good jobs and those fancy people didn't seem too eager to help them. Maybe you yourself weren't in dire straits, but you felt pinched, you felt like the fancy people were telling you your way of life was bad. You wanted to hear something new.
Most Republicans just promised tax cuts, because that's what they did, always, but Trump promised to limit free trade, roll back globalization, resurrect those jobs. Fancy people said no, that wouldn't work, it would just make things worse—but they didn't seem to have an alternative. Bernie Sanders, in the Democratic primary, said the same sort of thing and tapped into that same populist electricity.
Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, just looked like another fancy person. She was one of those Democrats from the era when the party moved away from economic populism, when they started caring less about unions and more about Wall Street.
Another story isn't actually about Trump, but about Clinton. It's about how she kept getting into these situations that were hard to explain. She used an email server to hide her communications and the FBI had to investigate whether classified information had been mishandled. Her family's foundation was complicated, and there were questions about conflicts of interest and donations given by foreign countries with histories of oppression. The FBI director, James Comey, called her "extremely careless" when he decided not to charge her with a crime over the email thing, then, later, announced that the FBI had found more emails and wasn't done investigating. There is a whole story about Comey, the FBI, and how leaks made Clinton look bad and maybe influenced the election. There is a whole other story about how Clinton kept handling these scandals poorly and letting them play out over the course of weeks—but we are trying to tell the story of Trump.
One story about Trump is that Facebook, which is now one of the major ways people get their news, is hopeless when it comes to figuring out what is real and what is fake. There is partisan disinformation out there, and actual misinformation designed to deceive you, and a lot of people believe things that simply aren't so. It happens on cable news, too, on shows that are actually not news but people arguing about the news—you get a couple from either side, split-screen 'em, and there's your half-hour.
In that climate, who's to say what's real and what's spin? A woman says Trump grabbed her. Trump says he didn't. He says that another woman was lying, that they're all liars, and who's to say? You show proof that he lied about giving to charity, or supporting the Iraq War, and he shrugs it off. What's proof? He says he's going to grow the economy by 4 percent the same way some con men used to promise they'd make the rains come. No one bats an eye.
A simple story about Trump is that he didn't win the popular vote but still controlled the Electoral College.
A more complicated story about Trump goes back to the Republican primaries, when no one was taking him seriously. He was one candidate among many back then, and he actually wasn't earning the majority of votes in states, but thanks to some recent rule changes, he was still picking up huge chunks of delegates because he kept coming in first.
This story is really about many Republicans being chickenshit, of not being able to properly fight back against a man many of them obviously hated.
The other Republicans might have been able to come together and stop him, form some sort of back room alliance, but they didn't. They just watched as one after another dropped out, humiliated by Trump at debates. The media watched too, and didn't investigate all of Trump's many scandals until the primaries were already over. By then, Republicans were panicking about Trump as the nominee, but it was too late.
This story is really about many Republicans being chickenshit, of not being able to properly fight back against a man many of them obviously hated. Ted Cruz declined to endorse Trump even at the convention, then changed his mind later. John McCain endorsed Trump even though Trump had insulted his war record.
Another story, a smaller one, is that Glenn Beck, who said Obama hated white people and stirred so much anger up, now supports Black Lives Matter and thinks Americans need to listen to one another more. He didn't want Trump to be president, but not enough to actually vote for Clinton.
There is a messy story about a lot of people not wanting Trump to be president but finding excuses not to vote for Clinton.
There is a messy story about the polls—almost all of which said Clinton would win—being very, very wrong and no one seems to know why yet. That's all wrapped up in the story of how Clinton had a campaign with all the money and data in the world and still lost. It's a story about how a lot of people who were supposed to be smart didn't know what was going to happen.
Another sad story: Trump said one time that it would be OK to torture people.
Then there's the story about how Trump refused to properly denounce actual hate groups even as they buzzed around him like flies to rotten meat. In this story, white nationalists, those cowards and frauds who hide behind computer screens, are happy, and that should make everyone else sad.
Another sad story: Trump said one time that it would be OK to torture people. He bragged about being so famous he could just kiss women and grab them "by the pussy" whenever he wanted. He said that he would put Clinton in jail if he won, though he didn't say for what. He said many things like that, pointless, stupid, hateful things, and still won.
Then there's the Bernie Sanders story, about how he said things many people wanted to hear, about how the Democratic National Committee was biased against him in ways that made his supporters angry, about how some of them are still saying he would have beat Trump.
We tell all these stories for various reasons, to make each other feel better or to reassure ourselves that we were right all along. The Electoral College cost Clinton the election can be reassuring. America is racist can confirm what a lot of people already know.
Most of all, though, I think this is a story about how the people in charge of the country failed, the kind of failure that takes years and even decades to be fully known.
These people were Democrats and Republicans, they were elected to office and they held quieter posts in government and business. Some of them watched wages stagnate and the income gap grow without doing anything; others invaded Iraq without a plan; still others who shut down the government multiple times as a negotiating tactic, or allowed the prison at Guantánamo Bay to remain open, or had no solutions for the loss of manufacturing jobs or for the opioid addiction crisis. Trump won because he had a story on his side: He could point to their failures, that DC paralysis, as proof that the country itself was falling apart, that it needed someone like him to fix it.
How will he fix things? According to Politico, he'll fill his cabinet with oil and finance executives and a batch of retrograde Republican leaders from the 90s. And that is an old story.
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