Donald Trump’s victory confounded elite pollsters, journalists, politicians, academic experts and captains of industry. They all wrote him off as a fading gasbag. By every conventional barometer, he should have lost big time. His own party largely abandoned him. Former Republican presidents and primary rivals refused to endorse him. Donors bailed on him. His campaign staff was ridiculed as amateurish. Trump became the worst nightmare of the establishment, both Democratic and Republican.
But unnoticed during the last month of the campaigning was a growing realization among Americans that the supposedly sober and judicious Hillary Clinton was irreparably disconnected.
On the eve of the election, Clinton packed her rallies with celebrities. Sometimes the result was bizarre, as, for example, when Jay Z managed to use both the N-word and F-word in the would-be president’s presence. Millions were unimpressed. The so-called deplorables, irredeemables and clingers of America certainly did not think the stump performances of Lady Gaga, Beyoncé or Miley Cyrus resonated themes of amenity or probity.
It used to be that Democrats abhorred the role of big money in politics. But Clinton outspent Trump 3-1 and raised more than a billion dollars. The plutocracy — Wall Street, Silicon Valley and the great American gilded fortunes of Goldman Sachs, Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, Facebook and Google — were not just Clinton supporters but often strident ones. The old idea of a liberal populist underdog had morphed into a haughty moneybag, with a huge staff, lots of opposition researchers and internal pollsters, surfeits of questionable cash donations, and politically correct endorsements that the left used to find plastic and inauthentic.
The Trump campaign, meanwhile did everything contrary to the establishment playbook: no big-name endorsers, no ground game, no celebrity entertainers — unless you count Don King — no sophisticated bundlers, no legions of hired-gun political activists and spinners.
Trump was accessible. He talked loudly and perhaps too often to the news media; Clinton was secretive and studied, opening up only to pre-screened media toadies. He tweeted promiscuously; she had an entire team to adjudicate each of the permissible 140 characters. Trump waded into crowds. She was surrounded by a phalanx of handlers. A man from Mars would have assumed that the right-wing candidate was the grass-roots populist and his left-wing opponent was a Big Money, Big Media automaton, created by central casting.
From the WikiLeaks John Podesta trove, we learned that the proverbial mainstream media was not just biased, but had openly colluded with a campaign in a fashion that even the supposed conspiracists on talk radio or at the Drudge Report could not dream up.
Dana Milbank of the Washington Post wrote the Podesta team asking for free research help to denigrate Trump. The widely praised Democratic Party Chairman Donna Brazile leaked debate questions to the Clinton campaign during the primaries — and offered no apologies for her duplicity. Politico’s Glen Thrush at least had the honesty to describe himself as a hack when he sent his reporting to the Podesta group for proofreading. Again, in the old days, all that would have been written off as Nixonian dirty tricks.
For weeks, smug pollsters assured voters of a substantial Clinton lead and likely victory at odds of 70% and greater. A few reliable polls with proven records — the Los Angeles Times and Investor’s Business Daily especially — showed a tight race. So naturally they were written off by the establishment as “outliers.”
When some wrote that a sizable minority of Latinos and African Americans in theory might vote for Trump at levels that met or exceeded support for Mitt Romney in 2012, they were derided as unhinged.
But was it so hard to imagine that a third-generation Mexican American might fear — more so than the gated residents of Malibu and Santa Monica — the impact of illegal immigration on his neighborhood school or community? Or that an out of work lathe operator was not a big fan of globalization? Or that a sizable minority of African Americans thought the blunt and straight-talking Trump was more genuine than a female Romney?
Every hyphenated group now triumphs in their tribal affiliations while deriding “white privilege.” Is it surprising that the white working classes without privilege should follow suit and embrace ethnic solidarity?
Clinton in the last weeks talked of the electorate as if it was a faceless hyphenated Borg — Latinos this, African Americans that, the gay vote, women voters — without any realization that she was referring to millions of Americans by their appearance rather than their essence as unique individuals. In normal times, all that pandering would have been seen as illiberal.
The Clinton message itself was seen as radical and reckless to those who were not so invested in it. Even President Obama’s cheerleading could not mask the bleak reality of doubling the debt in eight years to $20 trillion, chronic near-zero interest rates, record labor nonparticipation rates and anemic GDP growth. It was extreme, not moderate, to junk the nation’s healthcare system and to ram through Obamacare, whose premises were based on partisanship, untruth and pipe dreams.
Yet Clinton’s campaign acted as if all that was the new normal when it was in truth radical fringe politics — as millions reminded us on election day.