The Real Trump

Mark Danner

December 22, 2016 Issue

Trump Revealed: An American Journey of Ambition, Ego, Money, and Power

by Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher

Scribner, 431 pp., $28.00

Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people.
Federalist 10


Just when the shooting pains in our legs had become near unbearable—we’d been standing, ten thousand of us crushed together elbow to elbow, for well over five hours—the metal hangar door clattered back like a vast white curtain and unveiled The Plane: red, white, and blue with his name emblazoned along its side in the inevitable gold (with all its fixtures gold-plated as well, twenty-four carat, including the seatbelts)—and suddenly as the familiar silhouette materialized in the doorway, arm extended, all that pain from thousands of legs and backs and craning necks seemed to be drawn out of us into one great punishing roar of sound smashing and echoing against the metal walls of the vast building.

Hands that had been free flew instinctively up to cover ears but most clutched phones and cameras and suddenly all that could be seen amid the hundreds of signs (“Trump: Make America Great Again,” “Hispanics for Trump,” “Women for Trump,” and of course “The Silent Majority Stands with Trump”) were thousands and thousands of tiny screens, held aloft and forward in that curiously contemporary attitude of worship, reproducing across the roiling crowd in an array of pointillistic splendor His Face (rock-solid confident, chin outthrust, jaw set), his open-necked white dress shirt and blue Brioni suit beneath an elegant blue top coat, and of course, perched atop it all as he made his way slowly waving down the airstairs, clapping and punching the air and clasping his hands above his head, the red “Make America Great Again” baseball cap pressed down over the defiantly ridiculous coiffure. “In two days,” he began, addressing the working class of Moon Township, in the shadows of Pittsburgh’s old dead steelworks,

we are going to win the great state of Pennsylvania and we are going to win back the White House. [Huge cheers]… When we win, we are bringing steel back, we are going to bring steel back to Pennsylvania, like it used to be. We are putting our steel workers and our miners back to work. We are. We will be bringing back our once-great steel companies.

To this proud vision of a future as past restored the crowd brought huge cheers. By main force the man with the gold-appointed plane would bring back the glory that had been. How would he do it? First, by his very ascension, for he was here to affirm that those steel mills and mines and the good jobs they offered had been lost through treachery. He was here to point out the stab in the back and to vow to avenge it:

We are not going to allow our jobs to be taken from our states anymore…. We are going to bring back the jobs and the wealth that have been stolen from us. The economic policies of Bill and Hillary Clinton have bled Pennsylvania dry. You know it, I know it, we’ve watched it happen.

The rich satisfactions of a politics of villainy! Complicated decades-long tales of technological advance and social change dissolve into the self-satisfied sneer on a hated face. All around me I saw it reproduced, mostly behind bars, on “Crooked Hillary” buttons and “Hillary for Jail!” sweatshirts and much, much worse. “Hillary Clinton murders children!” a middle-aged woman waiting in the two-mile-long line had shouted. “It’s been proved. Hillary Clinton rapes and murders children.”

Not long before I had learned from a small businessman, a produce wholesaler, that the former secretary of state was “a degenerate alcoholic”—a subtext of Trump’s frequent assertion that she “lacked the stamina to be president”—and that FBI director James Comey was on “suicide watch,” the latter words pronounced sarcastically and to a circle of nodding knowing grins, because of course thus far in their careers “the Clintons have killed at least twenty people.”

The words were tossed off calmly, by people with children and cars and jobs, people who watch television and attend PTA meetings and perhaps even read the newspapers. And of course listen to the radio, which had battened on Clinton conspiracy theories for decades. And so we had passed the hours waiting for him in that aircraft hangar by batting around above our heads two red, white, and blue beach balls with the words “Crooked Hillary” inscribed prominently upon them. Hit it! Hit it harder!

The truth is that after decades of attacks and her own prominent missteps—the e-mails that comprised the perfect symbolic scandal since, with its veritable lack of content, there was no way she could ever be vindicated; the speaking fees that recalled to voters a political couple who had left the White House “dead broke” and had since somehow managed to enrich themselves to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars—Hillary Clinton was mistrusted by most of the country and hated and despised by those at Trump rallies rather more intensely and savagely than her supporters hated and despised Trump. They feared her; they swore and truly believed that if she were allowed to win “we wouldn’t”—to use the savior’s typically blunt words—“have a country anymore.” And in the crucial states they turned out to vote against her, as her supporters did not turn out for her.

That she lost this closest of close elections more than he won it has become a truism and some of the numbers bear it out. If part of the rationale behind the withering attacks on “Crooked Hillary” was to depress turnout among her most ambivalent supporters then surely the strategy worked, for there was no “Latino surge,” no “women surge,” nothing to offset Trump’s “working-class white surge,” in which he beat her by nearly forty points among white voters who hadn’t finished college, many of whom had voted for Obama. For Trump, it was barely enough. While winning nearly two million fewer votes than Clinton across the country—only the fifth time in two and a half centuries the losing presidential candidate actually won more votes—Trump won the three critical states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and, yes, Pennsylvania by little more than 100,000 votes in all, or 0.09 percent of all votes cast. The 107,000 voters who made Donald Trump president of the United States could have fit into one large football stadium.1


Donald Trump offers such consummate political theater—his gargantuan narcissism makes him so mesmerizing to watch2—that it is to wake abruptly from an all-enveloping dream to realize that much of what he says has no…content behind it. His assertions, framed in simple, concrete, direct language, are not policy statements so much as attitudes, the tireless ranting of the man on the barstool beside you, some of them, for example, on how America is being “ripped off” on trade, going back decades, some of them, on “the disaster” of Obamacare, notably, acquired only upon his incarnation as presidential candidate. He is a master at sharpening and giving shape to deep-rooted class resentments, an artist at shrugging into attitudes as if they were costumes, at reflecting and embodying anger.

He is a supreme performer—the billionaire builder with the outerborough accent and tough-guy talk—and as he surfs the applause and cheers and shouts nothing could be plainer than that he understands his audience. He has been understanding it for more than three decades, as a cartoon hero of the New York tabloids. “When we would talk particularly to immigrants, recent immigrants who were the readers of the Daily News,” a News columnist, George Rush, tells the authors of Trump Revealed, “they would always want to know about Donald Trump.”

He embodied the American Dream to them. Excessive, conspicuous consumption is not a bad thing in New York to a lot of people. It’s kind of comic what he was doing. I’ve always felt like Donald was in on the jokes. He knows he’s over the top, but that’s where he likes to live.

Many in his huge crowds who have watched him for years, firing people on prime-time television, are in on the jokes, too—but only to a point. As I stood waiting outside the aircraft hangar in Moon Township, a sixtyish man behind me wearing sweatpants and a Trump–Pence sweatshirt stepped outside the line and craned his neck, looking back at the thousands behind us, many of them wearing red-white-and-blue, festooned with Trump–Pence shirts, Trump hats, Trump buttons, and pronounced in a tone of long-awaited satisfaction:

Ah, this is it: the white working class in America. The ones paying for all the others. Finally we’re getting someone who’ll do something for us.

For all the talk of the financial crisis of 2008, that sentiment—“The ones paying for all the others”—comes from a much deeper place. “The others” do not work. They are the free-riders on the system, courtesy of the corrupt elite who put in place and then perpetuate programs to support them, in return for which those “others” supply the votes to keep them in power. And most of those others, it doesn’t need to be said—it can’t be said because of that damn “political correctness” that cloaks and stifles us like a blanket—have darker faces and many of them come from somewhere else.

But Trump isn’t afraid to say it. That he shocks the political class was from the start the heart of his appeal. It says he won’t be intimidated, he won’t back down. With his fancy suits and huge plane and helicopter, he is the cock of the walk, a big swinging dick who doesn’t give a damn, who says what he pleases and won’t sell out to the elite—and this is the elite in the broadest sense: the people who run our government, those who write the news stories and the editorials, those who produce the television programs and the movies.

He knows all those people, of course, has risen to the top among them and remains deeply unimpressed by them. He knows they cheat and lie and he says it plainly; his entire campaign is an affirmation of the fact. I was told repeatedly that the polls—which days before the election showed Clinton up by three or four points, an estimate even Trump reportedly believed—were “just bullshit, just like everything else the media says.” Or again: “Don’t you know they lie? They lie all the time.”

And now his election proved that. It was a double repudiation, of the elite and all it stands for, and of what it says, what it had been saying about Trump and the election itself. It was proof of the elite’s self-regarding cluelessness, from Obama and Clinton right on down. It was a statement of mass affirmation proving “they lie all the time.” Look how they lied about the election. We’re showing you that they lie!

If Donald Trump is truly “in on the jokes,” as the Daily News columnist said, it seems plain that some of his more ardent followers are not. “Finally we’re getting someone who’ll do something for us.” What exactly would that something be? Will Trump truly be bringing “steel back to Pennsylvania, like it used to be”? How exactly will he go about “putting our steel workers and our miners back to work”? How will he turn back three or four decades of history? By imposing a 35 percent tariff, with the collaboration, presumably, of the staunchly free-trade majority in the Republican-controlled Congress?

No matter. From day one—the first day, immediately—he would give them “real change.” After the opening words about steel and coal jobs came even louder applause lines:

Real change begins with immediately—immediately—repealing and replacing the disaster known as Obamacare…. Don’t worry about it. We’re getting rid of it. You’re going to end up getting great health care at a fraction of the cost. So don’t worry about it.

It has since become clear, if it wasn’t already, that when Trump vowed to give the people “great health care at a fraction of the cost,” as he has at every campaign appearance for more than a year, he not only had no program at all to put in place of Obamacare—a plan that now insures the health of more than 20 million Americans—he had very little idea what Obamacare actually was.

Trump has uttered some of the most baldly ideological sentiments of any presidential candidate in American history, including these remarkable lines that I heard him spit out angrily on October 13—twelve women had just come forward to accuse him of sexual harassment—during a packed rally in West Palm Beach, Florida:

Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of US sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special interest friends, and her donors….

This election will determine if we are a free nation or whether we have only the illusion of democracy, but are in fact controlled by a small handful of global special interests rigging the system, and our system is rigged….

Our corrupt political establishment, that is the greatest power behind the efforts at radical globalization and the disenfranchisement of working people. Their financial resources are virtually unlimited, their political resources are unlimited, their media resources are unmatched.

As many have pointed out, words and sentiments such as these—international bankers, conspiracy, “stab in the back”—would not have been out of place in Germany in the early 1930s. Nor are the echoes of such diatribes as the Protocols of Zion difficult to discern.3 The cheers in the hall were deafening, punctuated by ferocious chants of “Treason!” and “CNN Sucks!” directed at the reporters present.

Hearing such words screamed by thousands of furious voices in this raucous hall on a bright afternoon in West Palm Beach was a rather frightening experience. Crushed amid the crowd while scribbling in my notebook—I had escaped the press pen—I felt more than a little unease at the angry glances and suspicious stares. And yet despite myself I came away impressed by a certain absurdity. There was something theatrically garish and self-regardingly anachronistic about the speech, written by late-blooming white nationalist, former Goldman Sachs manager, and Breitbart News chief Steve Bannon.

The hatred of the Other that Trump had so skillfully cultivated throughout the campaign—the portrayal of illegal immigrants as rapists and murderers, the assertions that the Mexicans and Chinese and others had “stolen our jobs,” the insistence that allies in Europe and Asia were calculating freeloaders usurping the protections of American power—had some precedent in his public rhetoric, and his use of it brought rich political benefits, not only among his working-class white audience but among the appalled elite that ensured his words dominated the news cycle. But the markedly anti-Semitic tropes he mouthed in West Palm Beach seemed to come from somewhere else, in this case an intellectual white nationalist—or “a nationalist, an economic nationalist,” as Bannon prefers—whose calculatedly inflamed rhetoric Trump seemed to unleash opportunistically in a moment of anger and vulnerability.4

Trump, after all, had been attacked, by those who had leaked the notorious “grab them by the pussy” tape from Access Hollywood and by the dozen or so women who had come forward afterward to claim he had assaulted or harassed them. And having been hit, he was following his credo to “hit back twenty times harder.” Yet one felt a disconnect: Donald Trump is not an ideologue. Donald Trump is a promoter: he promotes resentment and he promotes fantasy. “I play to people’s fantasies,” he wrote in his most famous book.

People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular.

I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration—and a very effective form of promotion.5

I play to people’s fantasies. Fantasies dark and light. The biggest, best health care for a fraction of the cost. Don’t worry about it. And the rapists pouring over our border. And the international bankers plotting with the traitorous elite to suck dry the “real Americans” who do the work in this country. It is all fodder. It is all a bit, a marvelous bit: great material for the song and dance man.


If problems of the citizens are enduringly hidden in politics, if a political idiom creeps in that no longer means anything to the people, then the time has come for the actor to take to the stage…. The audience is at first astonished…, then charmed and fascinated. Then comes the final step, the transformation of the intoxicated audience into an intoxicated nation.

Regrettably, it is usually the narcissistically damaged actors who become political performers.6

Now the high-flying song and dance man, of manic energy and ravenous narcissism and colossal neediness, will take the oath as our forty-fifth president. The lobbyists are gathering, the would-be courtiers, the place-servers, for his campaign was a ragged pickup team, a tenth the size of Clinton’s, and he was spurned by much of the Republican establishment that would normally stand eager to staff the government—though some of them now are showing themselves eager enough to join. The grasping after emoluments is a great story, Washington in the dawning of the Trump Age a picaresque novel in the making. Even as we watch, political outsiders are rushing in from the wilderness, eager to turn his fantasies, from immigration to trade to national security, into reality, a reality in which swastikas and hate crimes are popping up around the country, and local politicians are talking darkly of “sanctuary cities.”

And yet in a real sense the principal story worth telling is still him. We are now all in the prey of that aberrant personality, of that vast and never-to-be satisfied need. “Everywhere Donald Trump turns, he sees Donald Trump,” said Mark Singer, as quoted by Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher in Trump Revealed.

He doesn’t see the other guy much. It becomes really hard to distinguish [how much] of the promotion and publicity…is good for business and how much of it is to fill that hollowness inside of him.

Now filling that hollowness is our job. No surprise that the president-elect, faced with selecting four thousand reasonably qualified people to fill the government and developing a policy or two that stands a chance of being enacted, has talked about undertaking a “victory tour,” revisiting the states he won, once again surfing those screaming crowds that plainly offer him the real-time affirmation he craves.

When he returns he will have the choice of facing the contradictions he has littered like breadcrumbs behind him. A promise to deport millions of undocumented immigrants while building a “beautiful and impenetrable wall” to keep them out of the country. A vow to bring back the factories and industrial jobs by dismantling trade agreements long since become settled law. A promise to deliver great health care at a fraction of the cost of Obamacare. A threat to “bomb the shit” out of the Islamic State and reinstitute waterboarding and kill the families of terrorists. A pledge to cut taxes by $6 trillion even while spending trillions more rebuilding the country’s roads and bridges and airports, and “rebuilding our military”—while also eliminating the deficit and reducing the national debt.

He is a builder, Donald Trump, or anyway he used to be, before he became a reality television star and a manager of his brand. (“I’m very good at this,” he told Leslie Stahl on Sixty Minutes. “It’s called construction.”) To put people to work across the country pouring cement in his name, rebuilding the country under the grandeur of Trump, may well be his redemption, supplying at least some jobs to the working people who long for a leader who “finally will do something for us.” The program will spotlight his ideological obtuseness, for can he rebuild the country’s roads and bridges, can he build his bright new airports, while also delivering trillions of dollars in tax cuts to well-to-do Americans? Congressional Republicans, for whom the tax cuts count more than anything else, will insist on making compensating cuts in spending. These cannot be found without eviscerating the programs, including Medicare and Social Security, that Trump the populist has vowed to protect. The contradiction is stark and it lies squarely in the distance Trump defined from Republican Party orthodoxy at every rally he held.7 If he is really for working men and women, he will be forced to prove it and to do it very early on.

By such decisions will he define himself. He sees himself as the artist of the deal but he has shown he rarely takes opposition as legitimate, having learned his politics at the knee of Roy Cohn, the exemplar of the “go to hell” philosophy—if they screw you, screw them twenty times harder—and the master of the politics of personal destruction. Trump’s assumption of the mantle of the birther movement, which marked his self-creation as a politician, was pure Cohn, as were the stunningly brutal personal attacks on the Clintons: She lies and she lies and she lies again.

His blithe lack of respect for speaking the truth, his indifference to the strictures of the public record, are unprecedented in an American president and can find their parallels only in European leaders of the 1930s. In this as in other matters, there is no reason to expect a wholesale transformation when candidate Trump becomes President Trump. After all—in that ringing affirmation that he must hear echoing always in his ears—he won. Everyone told him he was destroying himself with feuds and attacks and angry tweets and in the end he won. Why would he change, even if he could?

What will change will be his power. He inherits a presidency that has been vastly inflated by the war on terror policies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. It is not the least of ironies that Trump will have vast powers because his predecessor has chosen not to restrict but to normalize the powers cultivated by the “wartime president” who preceded him.8 Donald Trump will inherit a government on a permanent wartime footing, actively fighting in six countries (Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Afghanistan), using means both public and secret—including drone strikes and attacks by covert special forces—and doing so with the benefit of never-ending war powers granted by Congress. He will have all the powers conferred by permanent war, by a greatly expanded CIA and NSA, and by a national security establishment that since 2001 has nearly doubled in size and has long since escaped the gaze of democratic scrutiny.

When he speaks, especially in the face of opposition, he will not be shy to remind the citizens that it is their commander in chief who is speaking. One can imagine those reminders coming fast and loud should there be, for example, the terrorist attacks from which he, the strongman, the law and order candidate, has vowed to safeguard the country. Or even in the face of huge demonstrations that might follow the shooting of a citizen of color, or a series of them, by police.

Donald Trump has been the shatterer of norms. Thus far it has been enough. Will he become the breaker of laws? Will he find it necessary? Scarcely a decade and a half ago George W. Bush, when he determined that the country’s interest demanded that he torture prisoners, simply found a way to have his government declare legal what was not. It may well be that Trump will do the same. At his rollicking rallies across the country, he has made vows to hundreds of thousands of screaming supporters, and now the eager courtiers are gathering, including figures like Bannon and Flynn and Sessions, among others long regarded as extreme, to put his words into policy and law.

We will see how that goes. It seems predictable, though, that as Trump encounters opposition, as he proves unable to fulfill the grandeur of his promises, he will strike back—it is his nature—and we will see American institutions tested. If they prove strong, there are ways for Trump to circumvent them. The enormous rallies offer one way. The cries of “Traitor!” give sign of another way. Trump is an improviser, a performer, a creator of new worlds. The narcissistically damaged actor, the high-flying song and dance man: even he can scarcely know what is to come.

—November 23, 2016

  1. 1

See Tim Meko, Denise Lu, and Lazara Gamio, “How Trump Won the Presidency with Razor-Thin Margins in Swing States,” The Washington Post, November 11, 2016.  

  1. 2

See my “The Magic of Donald Trump,” The New York Review, May 26, 2016.  

  1. 3

See Ron Kampeas, “Donald Trump’s ‘International Bankers’ Speech Leaves Some Uneasy,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, October 24, 2016, for a comparison.  

  1. 4

See Michael Wolff, “Ringside With Steve Bannon at Trump Tower as the President-Elect’s Strategist Plots ‘An Entirely New Political Movement,’” The Hollywood Reporter, November 18, 2016. For Bannon’s influence on Trump see especially David A. Farenthold and Frances Stead Sellers, “How Bannon Flattered and Coaxed Trump on Policies Key to the Alt-right,” The Washington Post, November 15, 2016.  

  1. 5

Donald J. Trump and Tony Schwartz, Trump: The Art of the Deal (Random House, 1987), pp. 56–58; quoted in Trump Revealed, p. 105.  

  1. 6

See David Schily, “What History Teaches Us About Demagogues Like The Donald,” Time, June 20, 2016.  

  1. 7

There are strong signs already that Trump’s vaunted infrastructure spending is in fact a bit of a fraud, comprising not direct investment of federal dollars, as Clinton’s would have, but instead “an idiosyncratic proposal for Congress to offer some $137 billion in tax breaks to private investors who want to finance toll roads, toll bridges, or other projects that generate their own revenue streams.” See Brad Plumer, “Donald Trump’s Infrastructure Plan Wouldn’t Actually Fix America’s Infrastructure Problems,” Vox, November 18, 2016. See also Ron Klain, “Trump’s Big Infrastructure Plan? It’s a Trap,” The Washington Post, November 18, 2016.  

  1. 8

See my book Spiral: Trapped in the Forever War (Simon and Schuster, 2016), reviewed in these pages by Michael Ignatieff, September 29, 2016. 


The Magic of Donald Trump

Mark Danner

How He Won

Elizabeth Drew

Why We Must Resist

Masha Gessen



The Magic of Donald Trump

Mark Danner

May 26, 2016 Issue

Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again

by Donald J. Trump

Threshold, 193 pp., $25.00

Like Hercules, Donald Trump is a work of fiction.1

Primed for miracles and wonders, Trumpsters in their thousands tilt their heads up toward the blue-black Florida sky. Behind the approaching thwack-thwack-thwack the electronic fanfare soars and above it now we hear the booming carnival barker’s come-on: “Now arriving out of the northwest sky, DONALD…J…TRUMP!” Thousands of upturned mouths gape as the three floating lights, turning slowly, majestically resolve themselves into the shape of the big helicopter, the inevitable TRUMP in signature Akzidenz-Grotesk font just visible on its tail.

 Donald Trump; drawing by James Ferguson

Six thousand roaring voices—or is it seven thousand, or eight, or nine?—crash in a wave of sound against the raucous electro-brass salute. The ear-splitting blare is the theme to Air Force One, a cheesy late-1990s hit starring Harrison Ford as Medal-of-Honor-winning President James Marshall, whose Boeing is seized by terrorists. (President Marshall growling to an about-to-be-defenestrated terrorist: “Get off my plane!”) Can one imagine any other candidate using this as theme music? For Ted Cruz or John Kasich or any of the fourteen others who have wandered on and then off the stage, the irony—the lack of self-seriousness—would be unendurable. After all, they are—were—really running for president. With Trump we are already in the knowing half-grin world of reality television. All irony fits into the self-affirming profile of an inside joke.

No accident, that: it all began as such. “Almost a year ago,” writes the former communications chief of his Super PAC,

I sat in Trump Tower being told that the goal was to get The Donald to poll in double digits and come in second in delegate count. That was it. The Trump camp would have been satisfied to see him polling at 12 percent and taking second place to a candidate who might hold 50 percent. His candidacy was a protest candidacy.2

A protest candidacy? Like, say, Pat Paulsen’s? No, no: much bigger than that. But alike in that there was no thought of actually winning. A celebrity making his protest run in part to bolster and increase his celebrity, for that is what celebrities do. Despite the hundreds of thousands of newspaper epithets marking him a “billionaire real estate magnate” or a “Manhattan developer,” these have not been the accurate or in any event the relevant words for at least a dozen years. I’m not a doctor but I play one on TV…

The celebrity in the distinctive modern sense could not have existed in any earlier age…. The celebrity is a person who is known for his well-knownness.

His qualities—or rather his lack of qualities—illustrate our peculiar problems. He is neither good nor bad, great nor petty. He is the human pseudo-event. He has been fabricated on purpose to satisfy our exaggerated expectations of human greatness…. He is made by all of us who willingly read about him, who like to see him on television, who buy recordings of his voice, and talk about him to our friends. His relation to morality and even to reality is highly ambiguous.3

—Daniel Boorstin, The Image

Observe the celebrity known as Donald Trump saunter onto the stage at Boca Raton, twenty minutes after his helicopter swoops in. The slow and ponderous walk, the extended chin, the pursed mouth, the slowly swiveling head, the exaggerated look of knowing authority: with the exception of the red “Make America Great Again” ball cap perched atop his interesting hair the entire passage is quoted whole cloth from the patented boardroom entrance of The Apprentice, something that does not escape the delirious fans, even if it does most journalists. If when you see that outthrust chin you shiver with intimations of Mussolini, well, you were never a fan.

Legions were; The Apprentice debuted on NBC in 2004 with 20.7 million viewers, ranking it seventh among all primetime programs. Twenty-eight million people tuned in to watch the season finale. The numbers went down from there but still in today’s “fragmented entertainment marketplace” those numbers are, well, huge. Week after week for a dozen years millions of Americans saw Donald J. Trump portraying the business magus, the grand vizier of capitalism, the wise man of the boardroom, a living confection whose every step and word bespoke gravitas and experience and power and authority and…money. Endless amounts of money. The establishing low-angle shots of Trump Tower. The Donald strolling across the grass in front of his helicopter in his Brioni suits and signature red or blue or pink ties. In his presence or out, everyone, even the biggest celebrity retreads, referred to him in tones of reverent awe as “Mr. Trump.”

The ability, the wisdom, the energy, the money. That was the theme song: “Money money money mon-ey…” Watch this show and see him in the boardroom. See how he does it, how he makes it. Follow him and watch him and listen to him and thereby do what we are insistently and seductively bidden to do by the very aura of all celebrities: come to know him.

How many of the thousands pressed together into this sweating mass in Boca, wearing shorts or sweatpants, smiling out under “Make America Great Again” hats, gobbling foot-long hot dogs—how many have come to know him in this way? How many among the millions who gave him his polling leads that began with his and super-model wife Melania’s famous escalator ride down into the Trump Tower lobby last June and have never flagged?

We are told again and again: his is the most improbable political story in decades, perhaps in history. And yet that a reality television megastar, as Trump might put it, could outpoll sixteen dimly to barely known politicians, some new faces, many also-rans, seems less than shocking. Did tens of millions ever cast their eyes on the junior senators from Florida or Kentucky or Texas, or the governor of Ohio, not to mention the ex-governors of Arkansas or Florida, or the ex-CEO of Hewlett Packard, before they chanced to mount the stage for a debate with Donald J. Trump last August, a television event that drew the unheard-of viewership of 24 million? Those 24 million tuned in to see Trump. Only one man on stage had a name as famous and by then it was in such disrepute that he had seen fit to replace it with an exclamation point on his campaign posters.

Presidential elections have long been a windfall for television: campaigns raise hundreds of millions of dollars and then deliver that money to the networks in exchange for advertising. In the casually corrupt American political system the candidates serve as bagmen carrying cash from the corporations to the networks. But Trump has made possible another revenue stream. He himself is a ratings extravaganza. If television is the business of delivering audiences to advertisers, Trump has delivered audiences as no candidate ever has or could. Twenty-four million pairs of eyeballs mean real money. Trump brings those numbers, no one else.

And if it is true that the networks have lavished upon him $2 billion worth of airtime in the jocosely named “free media,” then surely they’ve made it back and more. Television has covered him wall to wall, for he means money. What other candidate is allowed to call in to morning shows or the sacred Sunday shows for television “interviews” whenever he pleases? So he has advertised less and spent less than any other candidate, relying on the endless interviews and news pieces, and feeding the beast with his own unparalleled feel for the news cycle. He shut down his Super PAC so he could claim to be “self-funding.” Trump didn’t need it. “The lamestream media,” as his supporter Sarah Palin is so fond of calling it, is his Super PAC.

And yet behind the money is the fascination. Standing amid the thousands at Boca’s Sunset Cove Amphitheater, as he surveys the crowd—“Beautiful! Beautiful! We love Florida!”—I feel the pull. He praises his introducer, then remarks on the recent fracas in Chicago, where the supposed threat of violent confrontation had led him to cancel a rally, triggering yet another avalanche of coverage. His musings all begin in medias res, launching into the story of his campaign, the story of his life, as if we are all experiencing it together, all gathered together in the Donald’s mind.

From his first words he welcomes us in and his very self-absorption, the narcissist’s fascination with his own sweet self, is the secret of the alarmingly mesmeric quality of his speeches. His one and only subject is himself and if he is frankly fascinated then so are we. We are all enfolded in the warm grandeur of his narcissism. He knows what the Trumpsters want, that inclusion, the unmediated access to the Donald and his vision of himself, the shtick of the True Donald, and he reaffirms it by reassuring interjections that that is precisely what they are getting:

By the way, no teleprompters, right? No teleprompters. No teleprompters…. No reading speeches…. Speak from the heart, and from the head. Speak from the heart…. And from the head….

He takes pride in the fact that his rallies are almost embarrassingly entertaining, a kind of guilty pleasure, and he tips his hat to himself as a performer, as he did the other day during a rally in Delaware:

Hey, “being presidential” for me is much easier than doing this. And you know what, if I was totally presidential—we have ten thousand people here or something?—I’d have about three hundred and you’d be falling asleep after twenty minutes. Okay, we have to have a little…. But honestly I probably wouldn’t even be here….

He acknowledges the power of his own shtick at the same time as he emphasizes its verisimilitude—the truth of the Trump he is exposing—and this in large part relies on the carefully cultivated illusion that it is all off the cuff, that it comes from the heart and that on a given day he might indeed say anything—that anything at all could happen. The protesters, of course, and their sudden exclamations multiply this feeling—the sense of an unpredictable threatening world from which the Donald will protect his followers (as he will from the illegals swarming over the border), the sense of improvised solidarity in the hall—and they add tension and drama, as the showman has himself acknowledged from the stage; but the driving force of his fascination is his narcissism, his sheer and pure conviction that he is the best, the smartest, the most successful. Strewn about his campaign book one finds dollops of it:

A lot of times when I speak, people say I don’t provide specific policies that some pollster has determined are what people want to hear. I know that’s not the way the professional politicians do it—they seem to poll and focus-group every word. But there’s nobody like me.


I ask people to look at what I’ve done throughout my whole career. Look at how successful I’ve been doing things my way. So they have a choice: They can pretend some impossible solution is actually going to happen, or they can listen to the person who has proved that he can solve problems.

I started in a relatively small real estate company based in Brooklyn and made more than $10 billion. I now live on what is considered the best block of real estate anywhere in the world—Fifth Avenue between 56th Street and 57th Street, right next to Tiffany’s in the heart of New York City.

It is easy to ridicule the provincialism of this—the idea that there can even be something “considered the best block of real estate anywhere in the world” and his simple faith in the self-affirming fact that he lives on it—and easy to seize on that single-word paragraph, that “Nobody,” as the height of monomania. One can find, in any speech or tweet, more concentrated versions, for example this tweet on Easter Sunday: “Another radical Islamic attack, this time in Pakistan, targeting Christian women & children. At least 67 dead, 400 injured. I alone can solve.”

I alone can solve. What gives a man who knows little or nothing of foreign policy the unsullied conviction to announce to the world that only he can solve, well, Pakistan? Or terrorism? Ignorance and narcissism are joined together here, surely, but they are fortified by the very fact of the amazing events of the last ten months. He hired no pollster. He spent relatively little money, bought few ads. He promulgated few policies. He merely flew on his own plane from city to city, from arena to arena, talking about himself—about how the country “has big problems” and how only he can solve them—and in between he chatted with television correspondents and pundits, very often by telephone, and with a staff of fewer than a hundred people—Hillary Clinton has a thousand—he has come within shouting distance of becoming the Republican nominee for president of the United States. Who is there to contradict his claim that “there’s nobody like me. Nobody”?

From the beginning about one in three Republican primary voters have agreed with him, have found in him the charisma Max Weber famously defined as

a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least exceptional powers or qualities. These are such as are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as divine in origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader.

These “exceptional powers or qualities” include not just the reputed business genius—a mysterious power that makes the promulgation of specific policies redundant—but the ability to tell a story about why “our country is in big trouble” that is simple, convincing, and satisfying. “Our leaders are so incompetent,” he says again and again. Why have we lost jobs? Because “our leaders are terrible,” the system is corrupt—he knows because he buys politicians as part of his business: “No one knows the game better than me”—and other countries, whose leaders are much smarter than ours, take advantage of us. This includes not just Mexico and China but the countries of NATO, Japan, South Korea, even Saudi Arabia, the fabulously rich oil autocracy for protecting which “we get nothing. Nothing.”

This criticism gains credibility for turning on its head the entire drift of post–World War II American propaganda that said the country acted to rebuild Europe and protect the free world not out of national self-interest but out of good old exceptional American generosity. Trump, a baby boomer who was born in 1946 and imbibed this story with his breakfast cereal, clearly takes this roseate version of history as gospel truth and regards any country that would act in such a self-sacrificing way as a sap.

Anyone tempted to regard these views as opportunistic might take a glance at a full-page advertisement that appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe in September 1987 entitled “An Open Letter from Donald J. Trump on Why America Should Stop Paying to Defend Countries That Can Afford to Defend Themselves.” The letter opens with the salutation, “To The American People,” and continues:

For decades, Japan and other nations have been taking advantage of the United States.

The saga continues unabated as we defend the Persian Gulf, an area of only marginal significance to the United States for its oil supplies, but one upon which Japan and others are almost totally dependent. Why are these nations not paying the United States for the human lives and billions of dollars we are losing to protect their interests? Saudi Arabia, a country whose very existence is in the hands of the United States, last week refused to allow us to use their mine sweepers…. The world is laughing at America’s politicians as we protect ships we don’t own, carrying oil we don’t need, destined for allies who won’t help.

Twenty months later, after the attack on the Central Park jogger, Trump was back with another full-page ad, this one entitled “Bring Back the Death Penalty. Bring Back Our Police!” and opening with a question:

What has happened to our City over the past ten years? What has happened to law and order, to the neighborhood cop we all trusted to safeguard our homes and families, the cop who had the power under the law to help us in times of danger, keep us safe from those who would prey on innocent lives to fulfill some distorted inner need.

The answer to this is simple, Trump tells us partly in all-caps: “Criminals must be told that their CIVIL LIBERTIES END WHEN AN ATTACK ON OUR SAFETY BEGINS!” (As he declared last November about waterboarding terrorists, “You bet your ass I would!… It works…. If it doesn’t work they deserve it anyway for what they’re doing!”) Trump’s ad continues with a poignant memory:

When I was young, I sat in a diner with my father and witnessed two young bullies cursing and threatening a very frightened waitress. Two cops rushed in, lifted up the thugs and threw them out the door, warning them never to cause trouble again. I miss the feeling of security New York’s finest once gave to the citizens of this City.

Donald Trump; drawing by John Springs

I recall rereading these pieces before attending a luncheon with Trump in 1989 and finding myself struck by the odor of nostalgia for a stronger country emanating from that paragraph—the need for a national restoration to return us to a safer, greater world we had lost—that certain European leaders of the 1930s would have recognized. The sense of threat from the Other—whether it be Mexican rapists swarming over the border or Muslim terrorists posing as refugees or “two young bullies cursing and threatening”; the sense of national decline that this signals (“We don’t win any more…”); the clear path to a restoration of greatness marked by simple, autocratic solutions (imposing tariffs, pulling out of NATO, bringing back torture, “bombing the shit” out of ISIS)—all of it springs from the populist toolbox, if not the fascist one, and the advertisements show that the roots of these positions and attitudes run very deep.

Why has this “fascinating intersection of celebrity and neo-fascism”—the words are Carl Bernstein’s—found its following now? Trumpism is partly the child of the 2008 Wall Street collapse and the vast sense of political corruption and self-dealing it brought in its wake: the sense that the country was looted on a vast scale and that the politicians of all stripes made sure the criminals were not punished. Many felt, and feel, an overwhelming sense that those in power betrayed them, “stabbed them in the back,” and this, added to the “very traumatic economic experience which is only eight years past us”—as Jason Furman, the president’s chief economist, memorably put it—accounts for a feeling of pervasive distrust of and fury at all conventional politics and politicians. Furman goes on:

Look at the Great Depression and the impact that that had on the way people thought about saving or the way people thought about inflation—in other places, hyperinflations. Those effects can last for decades and can affect the way you think.4

Those “other places” that Furman is too polite to mention include the Weimar Republic, where hyperinflation did indeed “affect the way you think.” Set against four decades of stagnant wages, the collapse and the further fattening of the elite that followed brought disgust and desperation, and anger at and fear of the Other—illegal immigrants, Muslim refugees, an African-American and possibly Muslim president who seems in league with both—that Trump has skillfully cultivated.

In doing so, as many have pointed out, he builds on and expresses loudly and clearly racist and nativist elements in Republican politics that have been central to the party’s appeal since at least the mid-1960s but that its leaders have preferred to signal rather than enunciate. Trump leaves the dog whistle behind, puts his fingers to his lips, and screeches. Again and again when I asked rally-goers why they supported Trump I heard the word “honesty.” “He doesn’t slip and slide like all the others,” a retired accountant in his seventies told me. Or else: “I see strength in him, power. He’s not afraid to say what he thinks….” That he speaks clearly—that he is unafraid of the police of political correctness—itself bespeaks a power to cut through the corruption and the dealmaking, to fight and fight to get things done: to actually end illegal immigration, to actually repeal Obamacare. It suggests he has the sheer fighting power and energy to do what he says.

We learned this of course on The Apprentice and even more on its spin-off The Celebrity Apprentice, when for example Vincent Pastore—better known to viewers as “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero on The Sopranos—demanded of Trump in one tense boardroom confrontation, “Do you wake up in the morning and fight with people?” to which the Leader replied: “Yes! My whole life is a fight…. It’s no different than him”—he gestures toward former heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis—“except I don’t use my fists, I sort of use this”—pointing to his temple. “My whole life is a big, fat fight.”5

That combativeness and defiance, that emanation of inexhaustible energy and personal power and strength, is central to his appeal. He, unlike the other candidates—“low-energy” tools of the Republicans’ mendacious self-dealing “donor class”—will fight for Social Security and Medicare, he will fight unfair trade bills, he will build that wall (“Build That Wall! Build That Wall!” is the loudest audience chant at his rallies). He will actually fight for us. Watching him blather and mug as he casually leaned over the podium in Boca Raton, seeing him cultivate the applause as if directing a symphony and then raise his two hands in thumbs-up gestures as he surfed the waves of applause and the deafening shouts of “USA! USA! USA!,” I recalled a remark that the philosopher Richard Rorty made back in 1997 about “the old industrialized democracies…heading into a Weimar-like period.” Citing evidence from “many writers on socioeconomic policy,” Rorty suggested that

members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers—themselves desperately afraid of being downsized—are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots….

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion…. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.6

As Trump put it in Nevada, “I love the poorly educated!” Rorty’s words prophesy not only the strongman’s rise but his blithe refusal to let “political correctness” prevent him making sexist and bigoted remarks, and his fans’ euphoric enjoyment of their hero’s reveling in the pleasures of free speech. He says what he wants: he is rich enough, strong enough, to do what he pleases. Strength: though he has had no experience whatever in foreign affairs, polls consistently show he inspires the most confidence among Republicans when it comes to protecting the country. It is plain that Trump is highly sensitive to this, as he showed in this reverie about his campaign during a “press conference”—he took no questions from us though he did acknowledge the assembled reporters as “horrible, disgusting people”—at the ornate ballroom of his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach after he’d won the Florida primary:

We came down the escalator, and it was about trade and it was about borders. And what happened is pretty quickly after that…I shot right up, I shot up to the top of the polls, and have been leading in the polls almost from the beginning without fail….

So we started, and something happened called Paris. Paris happened, and Paris was a disaster. There’ve been many disasters but it was Paris and then we had a case in Los Angeles, in California, where fourteen young people were killed. And it just goes on and on. And what happened with me is this whole run took on a whole new meaning. Not just borders, not just good trade deals…. But it took on a whole new meaning. And the meaning was very simple: we need protection in our country. And that’s going to happen. And all of a sudden the poll numbers shot up….

That this is a fact, and that Trump recognizes this fact, represents the greatest risk of that future that the political class still stubbornly refuses to take seriously: a Trump presidency. All odds are against it: he has made many enemies, particularly among groups (Latinos, women) that any Republican desperately needs to be elected. His “negatives” are historic for a candidate at this stage of the election, though his new campaign manager, the longtime lobbyist and fixer Paul Manafort, confidentially assured Republican National Committee Members:

When he’s out on the stage,…he’s projecting an image that’s for that purpose…. He gets it. The part that he’s been playing is evolving into the part that now you’ve been expecting…. The negatives will come down. The image is going to change.

Perhaps it will, though if Trump gets the nomination what can be counted on to be a very bloody general election campaign fought across stark racial and class lines will make such a wholesale change in image very difficult. Even if Trump is “evolving” we are sure to be hearing a lot about “Crooked Hillary.” (“You have to brand people a certain way when they are your enemies,” he proclaimed to us at Boca. “You gotta brand people….”) Trump is mercurial, unpredictable, and this, and his improvised ideological heterodoxy, make him much more difficult to “brand” decisively than the arch right-winger Ted Cruz. It is possible that facing Hillary Clinton he could put in play some states that the Republicans haven’t won in many years.

Still, as Trump declared, “we need protection in this country.” A President Trump could likely only emerge as a product of our own fears, carefully fostered as they have been ever since the airliners emerged out of that bright September sky one morning in 2001. A Republican nominee Donald J. Trump could be carried forward on all the disquiet about national decline and military vulnerability that the Republican Party has promoted for decades and especially since the September 11 attacks and the subsequent advent of Barack Obama, the Kenyan Muslim usurper who, refusing to produce his birth certificate (in Trump’s fantasy), unaccountably managed to take over the country.

After Paris, Trump declared last fall, “security is going to rule.” However unlikely Trump’s candidacy may be—and we have seen over the past ten months how the unlikely can be overtaken by reality television politics—such a nominee, despite his negative poll numbers among women and minorities and all the other factors that, we are told, will make his election impossible, might stand only one highly telegenic terrorist attack away from becoming the national embodiment of all our fears.

  1. 1

See Stephanie Cegielski, “An Open Letter to Trump Voters from His Top Strategist-Turned-Defector,” xoJane, March 28, 2016. 

  1. 2

Cegielski, “An Open Letter to Trump Voters.” 

  1. 3

See Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (Vintage, 1992; first edition, 1961), pp. 57–58. 

  1. 4

Comments by Jason Furman at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast program, broadcast on C-SPAN on April 22, 2016. 

  1. 5

See The Celebrity Apprentice, Season 7, Episode 5. 

  1. 6

See Richard Rorty, Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (Harvard University Press, 1998), pp. 89–90. 



Golden Boy

James Traub

Trump’s Long Game

Elizabeth Drew

The Trump Bomb

Jeremy Bernstein

Also in This Issue

—— May 26, 2016 ——

California Notes

Joan Didion

Who Was David Hume?

Anthony Gottlieb

Botticelli in Hell

Andrew Butterfield

General Hayden’s Offensive

Charlie Savage



Egypt: Laughter in the Dark

Zadie Smith

Iran’s Game in Aleppo

Ahmed Rashid

The End of Fidel

Alma Guillermoprieto

Hu Fayun: An Interview

Ian Johnson

Trump: The Choice We Face

Masha Gessen


How It Happened

Elizabeth Drew

In late September, I ran into Newt Gingrich and, out of curiosity, I asked him how he thought the election would turn out. “There’ll be a surge for Trump at the end,” he said. “There’s only so far that Hillary can go; too many people don’t like her.” I dismissed this as spin, forgetting that for all his erratic nature Gingrich is a bit of a visionary. Until it happened in 1994, no one outside his small circle believed that he could turn the House of Representatives—in Democratic hands for forty years—into a Republican bastion; hardly anyone took seriously the idea that Gingrich, the rowdy back-bencher, could become speaker. How deeply he believed what he told me about Trump’s chances, I didn’t and still don’t know, but I think my reaction suggests how a great many people thought about this election, up until Tuesday evening: no way it could happen. So it wouldn’t.

People looking for “the reason” Clinton failed in her long-planned effort to become the nation’s first female president are looking for the wrong thing. Elections are complicated and a lot of factors come into play, some barely or not at all discernable. Clinton lost her historic race for a combination of reasons, some almost accidental—falling not many votes short in a given state; the unexpected intervention of the FBI, driven by a collection of agents with longstanding hatred of the Clintons.

The polls are taking a beating now and there’ll be studies of what went wrong till kingdom come. Toward the end of the campaign, the one poll that had Trump ahead—USC/Los Angeles Times Daybreak tracking poll, which showed him in front at various times when no one else did, and in the end predicted he would win—was widely dismissed as an “outlier,” since it didn’t conform to the other polls, and what almost everyone else believed. The difference between its methodology and that of the others is that it tried to gauge the respondents’ commitment to the candidate and the certainty that they’d vote. A McClatchy/ Marist poll of likely voters taken on November 1–3 was close to the mark, finding that Clinton led Trump by only one point in a four-way race and by two points when just the two were matched. That on election day Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight also had the race closer than others did led many to assume he was getting it wrong.

But in much of the astonished comment about the outcome, Trump’s victory became inflated beyond what it actually was: this wasn’t the Reagan sweep of 1980. His victory was nowhere near the size of Reagan’s and it had little effect on down-ballot candidates. Clinton won the popular vote but not by an overwhelming number—by the latest count she won 400,000 more votes than Trump, who got fewer votes than either Mitt Romney or John McCain. [By Thanksgiving Clinton’s lead in the popular vote had grown to over 2 million.]

It was the state polls that threw off the predictions for the Electoral College vote, where Clinton lost the race. The actual results in some states reflected what was happening at the national level, a close election: Clinton won Colorado, Minnesota, and Nevada by two points and Trump won Florida by one; Trump won Wisconsin by fewer than 30,000 votes. Clinton won New Hampshire by one point. It would appear that far greater resources and experience are poured into national polls than into the state polls. Rural voters in particular, who voted overwhelmingly for Trump, were underrepresented in the state polls (Pennsylvania, for example). From the state polls came the stunning miscalculations that Clinton might get more than three hundred electoral votes, when her actual total was 228 to Trump’s 279. [The final Electoral College margin was 306 for Trump to 232 for Clinton.]

The Latino vote did keep Colorado and Nevada, both of them swing states, in the Democratic column. But despite the apparently dramatic surge of Hispanics voting for Clinton in the early voting, she got a lower percentage of them than Obama did in 2012, while somewhat inexplicably Trump managed to get 29 percent, more than Mitt Romney got in 2012. There might have been something of a backlash to Obama’s recognition of Cuba. Clinton should have been expected to do worse than Obama had among blacks, but in doing eight points worse she was badly damaged.

Then there was the effect of the third parties. According to exit polls, as was feared by the Clinton campaign, nearly 10 percent of millennials voted for third-party candidates. (Bernie Sanders’s efforts to persuade the millennials to vote for Clinton, after having painted her for months as a corrupt creature of Wall Street, weren’t successful enough.) On the reasonable assumption that by far most of those who voted for the third-party candidates would have otherwise gone for Clinton, Gary Johnson, the odd-duck Libertarian, with 3.2 percent of the popular vote, and Jill Stein, of the Green Party, receiving just 1 percent, damaged and perhaps destroyed Clinton’s chances. (Ah, not-so-sweet memories of Florida 2000.) Together they appear to have cost her critical states, though it was Johnson who made the principal difference. The national contest was nearly tied 47.7 percent to 47.4 percent, so Johnson’s and Stein’s combined just over 4 percent tipped the Electoral College Trump’s way.

In Florida, the count as of election night was Trump 49 percent to Clinton’s 48 percent, with Johnson getting more than the difference between the two main candidates, and Johnson and Stein together drawing close to 3 percent of the vote, more than twice that difference. In Pennsylvania, Trump beat Clinton by a mere 67,902 votes, while Johnson got 142,608. In Michigan, Johnson drew more than fourteen times the number of votes that Trump beat Clinton by. And in Wisconsin, the result was 47.9 percent to 46.9 percent in Trump’s favor, while Johnson pulled 3 percent of the vote; Stein also received more votes than the margin of difference between the two main candidates. A CBS News exit poll found that if those who voted for Johnson or Stein had had to choose only between Clinton and Trump they would have supported Clinton by nearly two to one. It’s not a stretch to conclude that, absent the third-party candidates, Hillary Clinton would have won the election.

Throughout the campaign, blinders kept most of us from taking aboard a lot of what we were seeing: Hillary Clinton wasn’t giving people a reason to vote for her. “Stronger together” meant what? It’s been reported that for much of the fall Bill Clinton worried that the leaders of his wife’s campaign were too fixated on their supposedly fearsome get-out-the-vote drive and were failing to craft a coherent message for her, and he chewed on the staff about this. Why Hillary Clinton didn’t develop a message is a puzzle. The reconstructions to come of her campaign should tell us why.

On a different front, we could see that the email server issue was dogging Clinton and we knew that this got at what bothered people most about her: they couldn’t quite trust her; there’d been a slight deviousness about her since her early days at the White House. So when one first heard about the private server, the long-missing billing records from her Arkansas law firm that suddenly turned up in the White House came immediately to mind.

Thus, when the server story hit her, Clinton didn’t have a deep reservoir of trust to draw on—not even much of a shallow one. According to a Pew Research Center poll, when the story broke in March of 2015, about half the country found her honest and trustworthy, hardly a fabulous number but one she never saw again. Three months later, that percentage had slipped to just 37. (For Trump it wasn’t much greater, at 40 percent, but the burden on this matter was on Clinton.) In July of this year, after FBI director James Comey said he wouldn’t prosecute Clinton but also excoriated her for her handling of classified emails, 67 percent of voters—more than two thirds—found Clinton not honest or trustworthy.

In October Trump and his campaign were down in the dumps. Clinton had got a break with the revelation of the Access Hollywood tape, with Trump’s appalling talk about groping women, and by the third week of the month, she had drawn even with him on honesty and trustworthiness. To be considered equal with Trump in being distrusted was actually good news for her, since she’d previously been distrusted by 20 percent more of the electorate. (We failed to notice at the time that a majority also believed that Trump would do better than Clinton in handling the economy.)

Then came FBI Director James Comey’s October 28 letter saying that more emails had been uncovered (though none had been read) that might be relevant to the investigation of Clinton’s private server. Soon after, a survey of four battleground states by the same polling organization, CNN/ORC, found that Clinton now lagged considerably behind Trump in being thought to be honest and trustworthy. (Few of us took notice that the survey also predicted a very tight race in those states.) On election day 60 percent of voters surveyed in NBC’s exit poll said they didn’t consider Clinton honest and trustworthy. I think that this undertow beneath Clinton’s campaign also reflected something else.

That a low estimation of Clinton’s trustworthiness clung to her, in contrast to Trump who lied with almost infinitely greater profligacy, raises questions about the coverage of the two candidates and the relative importance that voters ascribed to their various traits. It was clearly more important to a great many people that Trump’s candidacy promised a break with the past, and that he’d said he would treat the causes of their economic anxiety. Was it also more important to a great many people that Trump was more bellicose about “taking out ISIS” (and that Trump insisted terrorists be called “radical Muslim extremists”)? Or that he was far harsher on immigrants and stated wildly inflated numbers of Syrian refugees that he said Clinton wanted to allow into the country? (On no basis at all, he claimed that she would admit 620,000 Syrian refugees in her first term.) The “moral” of the story may be that if you’re going to lie in the course of a public contest, lie so often that people can’t keep up with you, and they might even see your serial exaggerations and fabrications as part of your charm.

The server underlined another aspect of the Democratic candidate that bothered people—arrogance: people concluded that the Clintons didn’t feel that they needed to play by the same rules other people did. There’s no question that Comey’s sudden intervention in the campaign damaged Clinton. It distracted attention from Trump, where Clinton was trying to keep it, and reminded people why they disliked and couldn’t trust her. Many people have anecdotal evidence of someone who said around that time, “I just can’t vote for her.” The damn spot that the server was on Clinton’s presidential campaign turned out to be deadly.

What had all along been the greatest danger to Clinton was exacerbated by the server: a lack of enthusiasm for her. (I’ve been writing since the fall of 2015 that this is what could bring her down.) Her handling of the emails issue kept working against her (and worried her campaign staff): she started off being dismissive, and then sarcastic: asked in a press conference if she’d wiped her server she replied, “With a cloth?” And her explanations were often legalistic and evasive (“not marked classified at the time”).

The lack of enthusiasm for both candidates, but mainly for Clinton—she got nearly five million fewer votes than Obama did in 2012—resulted in the lowest voter turnout in twenty years, and that, in turn, may have done in Clinton’s candidacy. We can’t know what turnout would have been absent the FBI’s involvement, but it’s clear that many voters simply stayed home. There was a dramatic falloff in Democratic votes from the 2008 election as well as the one in 2012, whereas Republican numbers held steady. And Trump gained the votes of a substantial number of people who’d previously supported Obama—most likely because of his promise to ease their felt economic distress.

Significantly, so-called late deciders went with Trump over Clinton by five points. And while the exit polls indicated that Clinton beat him in union households, they also showed that her margins of victory with these voters were smaller than those of previous Democratic candidates. Clearly, large numbers of workers were attracted by Trump’s promises to renegotiate existing trade deals and to bring American jobs back from abroad. The essential fact is that Trump spoke to the economic anxiety of many in this country (despite falling unemployment rates and slightly increased wages over the month and year before, albeit still low), while Clinton did not. Trump channeled the anger at Washington institutions that particularly the working class felt had failed them, while Clinton came across as the very symbol of those institutions. Though Trump was a wealthy man, his populist message—even the baseball caps—made him seem accessible; Clinton’s wealth—some of it coming from highly paid speeches to Wall Street firms, turned her into the one who was beyond the middle-class workers’ ken. (The Clintons’ greed kept getting them in trouble.)

The most significant among the voting groups in this election was white voters, whom Trump won almost across the board: not just among the working class, as expected, but also among college-educated voters, except for college-educated white women, whom Clinton won by a small margin. Among white men overall, Trump dominated, winning 72 percent of non-college-educated ones and 54 percent of those with a college education. These figures had an important part in Clinton’s losing some critical industrial states to Trump, even if just barely.

For many women voters, culture and class mattered more than gender. According to the website FiveThirtyEight, just 34 percent of women lacking a college education voted for Clinton, as opposed to 62 percent for Trump; whereas Clinton won 51 percent of college educated women, while Trump got 45 percent of them. That Clinton’s gender gave her no particular advantage among women doomed the prospect of our “first female president.” According to political scientist Michael Kesler, writing in The Washington Post, her 12 point margin among female voters was about the same as Obama’s in 2008 and 2012. At the same time, Kesler noted, Trump greatly expanded the Republican margins among men, from 1 and 7 points in 2008 and 2012 respectively, to 12. There was no way Clinton could crash through those numbers to take her expected place in history.

The cultural divide in this election was measured by David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, by an innovative method he devised: look at how people voted in the 493 counties that have Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores, and in the 184 counties with Whole Foods stores. In 2012 Obama carried 75 percent of the counties that had a Whole Foods and 29 percent of the counties with a Cracker Barrel. But that spread was exceeded this year—in the other direction—with Trump winning 76 percent of counties with Cracker Barrel stores and just 22 percent of counties with Whole Foods.

In an important change from four years ago, only 26 percent of rural voters went for Clinton, in contrast with the 40 percent of them who supported Obama in 2012. Clinton came across to them as an creature from another, urban, world—a wealthy woman who liked big government and didn’t understand them. Her husband knew how to talk to them; he’d grown up around them and he spoke in their idiom. Jenna Johnson, who covered the election for The Washington Post, wrote that it’s not going too far to say that rural voters (presumably white ones) “hate” Hillary Clinton. J. D. Vance, author of the recent and New York Times best-seller Hillbilly Elegy, who grew up poor in Appalachia and went to Yale Law School, has become something of an oracle about the rural poor, a thoughtful one. He uses a critical word in describing how Trump wins the support of so many of his people: relatable. “People who are drawn to Trump are drawn to him because he’s a little outrageous, he’s a little relatable, and fundamentally he is angry and spiteful and critical of the things that people feel anger and spite toward,” Vance has said. “It’s people who are perceived to be powerful. It’s the Hillary Clintons of the world, the Barack Obamas of the world, the Wall Street executives of the world. There just isn’t anyone out there who will talk about the system like it’s completely rigged like Donald Trump does. It’s certainly not something you’re going to hear from Hillary Clinton.”

The election reflected, as Eddie Glaude Jr., the head of Princeton’s African American studies department, put it on Morning Joe the day after the vote, “White America’s last stand.” Minorities are expected to become the majority of this country’s population by 2060, which white supremacist groups, heavily involved in Trump’s campaign, point out. Trump did a good job instilling fear of an America overtaken by immigrants and it didn’t take much imagination to understand his dark prophecies of where, when blacks were also counted, this country was headed. Trump’s presidency won’t be a good time to be poor, especially a black person who is poor. And in Trumpland, with a president who ran a racist campaign, divisions between the races are set to deepen, as already shown in incidents of harassment and violence against minorities since the election.

Trump’s proposals for dealing with the inner cities include nationwide stop-and-frisk policing—so much for local control of police practices. His ideas for education play to those who don’t care for integrated schools and would lessen the power of the teachers unions. His criticism of food stamps, including the usual myths of widespread fraud, plus a Republican Congress, augurs steep cuts in the program; he wants the work requirement for the main welfare program applied to seventy-six other federal aid programs. (The implication that all these are welfare-like programs is misleading.) I should point out that most of Trump’s proposals to deal with the poor and blacks are borrowed from Paul Ryan, the reputed deep thinker about federal policy, including how to “help” the poor. With a like-minded speaker and a Republican Senate and House, Trump is likely to get his way on many of these, or perhaps it should be said that Ryan is more likely to get his, though they may run into stiff Democratic opposition in the Senate.

In her concession speech on Wednesday morning—she just wasn’t up to it in the middle of the night when the results were in—Clinton said, “This is painful and it will be for a long time.” (Standing behind her, Bill Clinton looked stricken.) She probably has no idea how long the pain will last. Richard Nixon’s political hatchet man Murray Chotiner once told me, “I always tell my clients, If you lose, lose big. Then you won’t chew over for the rest of your life what you should have done differently.” The close election is all the harder to shake off. Worst for her, Clinton knew that she herself had to accept a large degree of the blame.

A lot of people in the Clintons’ orbit had been making plans to serve in government again; from time to time informed speculation emanated from the Clinton camp about who were the finalists for which job. But it’s to be Donald Trump’s administration that takes office next January. Shortly before the election there began to be leaks about whom Trump was believed to be considering for top jobs, but within two days of the voting new names were floated. Best, as it always is, to sit back and see whom the new president-elect chooses. A man totally unfamiliar with government has a staggering number of major decisions to make in a very short time. In his meetings in Washington on Thursday with the president and Republican congressional leaders he was given a nearly overwhelming amount of new matters to consider. (His son-in-law Jared Kushner, who had effectively managed the campaign, was by his side.)

When one considers what kind of administration Trump will form, the people he’s had around him in the presidential race and the manner in which he organized his campaign give pause. Trump’s second and final campaign chairman, Steve Bannon, of Breitbart News, pushes the “alt-right” theme of white supremacy and is believed to have been the guiding spirit behind Trump’s chillingly anti-Semetic final campaign ad, which charged that Clinton associated with three people who happen to be prominent Jews: George Soros (“those who control the levers of power in Washington”); Fed chairman Janet Yellen (“global special interests”); and Lloyd Blankfein (“put money into the pockets of large corporations”). It’s hard to see how it could have been more blatant. These weren’t “dog whistles,” they were dogs barking loudly.

Trump’s deputy campaign manager, David Bossie, the guiding spirit behind Citizens United and is an experienced knifer who used to work with Senator Jesse Helms to upset settled foreign policies and strike fear in the State Department, even under a Republican president (Reagan). Trump’s older children, along with Kushner, were highly influential in the campaign and though they may return to the family business (which could cause awkwardness to say the least) they’ll play an important part in his governing: for starters they’ve been named to his transition committee, meaning they’ll have a strong hand in personnel and policies.

Trump has led his followers to expect a lot. He promised to end Obamacare “on day one,” which will be difficult because it was passed by Congress and therefore isn’t his to eliminate. (And President Obama apparently persuaded Trump in their first meeting that the provisions prohibiting refusal to treat pre-existing conditions and allowing parents to cover their children until age twenty-six are highly popular and shouldn’t be eliminated.)

He’s also said that on that busy first day he’d get rid of the Iran deal, which he has called “the worst deal ever negotiated.” He could do that on his own because it was an executive agreement, not a treaty—I’d be surprised if the president hasn’t explained to him that it prevents Iran from making nuclear weapons for at least ten years. Trump has promised to renegotiate trade agreements to get better terms for America, but he might find out that other countries aren’t of a mind to grant the US more than they did in lengthy negotiations. He’s promised to bring back jobs to the US, but he might find that a lot more difficult than he’s suggested. He’s said he’d eliminate pesky regulations—he seems to find most regulations pesky by definition—especially environmental ones, but he’ll find that some of them, such as those aimed at providing clean water and clean air, have more public support than he may know.

So now Donald Trump has won the long contest to be the forty-fifth president of the United States, however unlikely most Americans thought that would be. (And he’s seemed a bit surprised himself.) In probably our most divisive and ugliest election ever, he prevailed in part because he intuited much about the voters’ psyche and he’s an experienced entertainer. His raw canniness helped him mow down a large number of competitors for the nomination and he fought, virtually to the draw, a highly experienced and far better funded general election opponent.

But he did it in enough states to win in the Electoral College; the fact that once again the Electoral College prevailed over the popular vote upsets many Americans, but both sides are on notice that that’s the goal and they conduct their campaigns accordingly. He knew how to appeal to the angry and discontented, who saw in him someone who would “shake up Washington” and deliver on his campaign slogan to “Make America great again.” He’s raised hopes that he can assuage deeply held frustrations. That leaves the ominous question, what happens if Trump fails to deliver to his followers? Who, and what, will they turn to next?

Previous posts in Elizabeth Drew’s series on the 2016 election can be viewed here.


Why We Must Resist

Masha Gessen

Sue Halpern

A World in Doubt

Jonathan Freedland


Facebook, Twitter & Trump

Sue Halpern

In the weeks and months and years ahead, as people who care about such things debate how, in the twenty-first century, the American people elected a demagogue to the presidency, they will be invoking—blaming—the usual suspects: the pollsters with their broken models, the out-of-touch campaign advisers, the complacent or complicit mainstream media, the misguided electorate, the uninspiring candidate, and so on. They won’t be wrong: there is plenty of blame to go around. It is an open question whether this gnashing of teeth will lead to a different outcome four years from now—if that is even an option. But what is missing from these analyses is a recognition of the outsized influence the Internet has had in this election, influence that may be less susceptible to fixing than, say, tweaking polling methods or replacing political consultants.

Many have lamented the demise of legacy journalism, as local and national daily newspapers go out of business or get bought by billionaire moguls with undisguised political agendas. And much has been made of the migration of “news” to the web—news conveyed via social media, Facebook and Twitter especially, but also through partisan websites that, while devoting little or no resources to fact-based reporting, have followed the Fox News playbook of taking on the appearance of traditional news-gathering operations. While it is true that this can be confusing to some readers, who are led to believe that the sites they rely on for information are honest and objective when, instead, they are designed to throw poisonous content into the news cycle, the actual effect is even more insidious: it has created an equivalence between those ideological sites and traditional journalism. In the Internet world, there is no difference between The New York Times and Breitbart. To many Breitbart readers, it’s the Times that is pushing a particular point-of-view. And in certain ways, as we saw with the coverage of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, one might have to agree with them. Still, the machinations of the ideological “press” are not the same as the noblesse oblige permeating traditional news organizations, however misguided it may be.

By now, nearly a quarter-century into our Internet dependency, it is well-known that many people—and I would not exempt myself—gravitate toward online news sources that confirm our own biases. We also tend to relay what we’re learning to our friends, and since our friends tend to hold the same biases, those biases fade to invisibility. This is how echo chambers are created. This is how tribalism or Balkanization become pervasive. According to a recent Pew study, 62 percent of Americans now get their news via social media, with Facebook topping the list. Facebook shows you what it “thinks” you want to see, which is what your friends are seeing, too. Reaching a vast audience that even the largest news organizations can’t rival, it’s become the most powerful purveyor of self-reinforcing news consumption. If, on election day, your Facebook newsfeed had post after post from some of the more than one million members of the “secret” feminist Facebook group Pantsuit Nation, you would have been shocked when more than 50 percent of white women—the majority demographic, it seemed, of people posting on Pantsuit Nation—voted for Trump. Social media envelop users in a false reality. But of course there is no such thing as a false reality, there is only real reality, as we learned the other night.

Add to this the strange, largely hidden power of automated “Twitter bots,” the computer-generated social media posts unleashed into the global conversation by untraceable agents, governments, political parties, individuals, and organizations among them. Last May, after the Nevada primary, Wired magazine noted that many members of Trump’s Twitter cheerleaders, despite their stereotypical Hispanic names, were actually non-humans impersonating Hispanic voters at a time when the candidate needed to demonstrate his appeal to Latino voters, the very group he had been delighting in denigrating.

Writing in The Atlantic the following month, reporter Andrew McGill pointed to an analysis of five hundred pro-Trump Twitter accounts that had encouraged voters to lodge complaints with the FCC about the Cruz campaign, the majority of which had previously tweeted “17 Marketing Tips for B2B websites.” In other words, they were fake supporters bought and deployed to push a message and look like a small army of concerned citizens while doing so. According to the website Twitter Audit, 4,645,254 of Donald Trump’s 11,972,303 Twitter followers—about 39 percent—were bots, compared to 524,141 of Hillary Clinton’s 10,696,761, or just 5 percent. Here was another way that Trump triumphed.

After studying four million election-related tweets created between September 16 and October 21, the University of Southern California computer science professor, Emilio Ferrara, and his colleagues, determined that one in five were generated by bots. And once they were, they were retweeted again and again by actual humans, who sent them ricocheting around the web, especially those that were antagonistic; in earlier work, Ferrara’s group found that negative tweets traveled 2.5 times faster than positive ones.  “As a result, [the bots] were able to build significant influence, collecting large numbers of followers and having their tweets retweeted by thousands of humans,” and leading to the “spreading of content that is often defamatory or based on unsupported or even false, claims.” Ferrara further noted that, “previous studies showed that this systematic bias alters public perception. Specifically, it creates the false impression that there is grassroots, positive, sustained support for a certain candidate.”

At the same time that hundreds of thousands of bots were working at warp-speed to influence Internet users, Julian Assange, the Wikileaks necromancer, was demonstrating that the reach of the Internet is now so great that a single person can hack an entire country. By hack I mean upend a democratic election, inserting himself between the candidates and the electorate. Though self-exiled in a small room in the Ecuadorian embassy in London with little more to amuse himself than a treadmill and a laptop—and, in recent weeks, ostensibly without an Internet connection—his gleeful release of thousands of private stolen emails from Clinton campaign manager John Podesta was sufficient to reinforce the image of Hillary Clinton and her advisers as corrupt and venal, even when, for the most part, the emails showed little, if any, actual malfeasance, just the cynical plotting and vacuous ambition that has come to characterize much of contemporary politics. The echo in the chamber grew ever louder as Assange dribbled out Podesta’s emails, and in the last days of the campaign—following FBI Director James Comey’s announcement that his agency had found hundreds of thousands more Clinton emails on the unsecured computer of the repulsive cybersex addict Anthony Weiner—little else could be heard over it.

Expect more hacking in the future. That was the message on October 21, when whole swaths of the Internet went dark after someone or some group used publicly available malware to take over refrigerators and baby monitors and other connected devices to launch a distributed denial of service attack on one of the companies that manages domain names for some of the biggest players on the net. At the time, the fear was that this was a rehearsal for a bigger, broader attack on election day. That didn’t happen, and it didn’t need to happen for democracy to be undercut by the increasingly routine practices of our digital life.

November 11, 2016, 1:43 pm
Brophy Tuesday 06 December 2016 - 5:23 pm | | Brophy Blog

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