His candidacy was born in spectacle, nurtured on controversy, and careered from one self-inflicted disaster to another, overturning every rule of modern American politics along the way. With virtually no on-the-ground organization, lackadaisical support at best from the leaders of his own party, and outspent by a large margin in advertising, Donald J. Trump won the presidency with a campaign built around raucous rallies and a visceral appeal to a shrinking slice of the American electorate, the rural and small-town white working class. To say he did it his way is almost an understatement.
He was helped by running against a deeply unpopular opponent. Historians will debate how much damage was done to Hillary Clinton during the week that the FBI kept the country in suspense over a renewed investigation of her emails, but her troubles with the electorate began long before and ran deeper. She took a hit in the primary from the left wing of her party, and analysts will be poring over exit polls to figure out whether the Sanders voters defected in numbers large enough to affect the outcome. But in the end, Americans just didn’t like or trust Clinton, and the chance to make history by electing the first woman president of the United States didn’t bring enough women to her side to offset Trump’s huge advantage among white men.
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump speaks at his election night rally in New York, on Nov. 9, 2016. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)
Ad-libbing his way through speeches and firing off random tweets, Trump was riding a historical wave that almost no one saw coming: a resurgence of economic and ethnic nationalism sweeping the Western democracies. Even those whose job it was to detect it — public-opinion pollsters — were caught by surprise. Trump’s victory was an echo, amplified a hundred times, of the Brexit vote that opted to take Britain out of the European Union. Right up through Tuesday night, most polls put the odds of a Trump victory at well below 50 percent — vanishingly small, in a some cases — and media organizations that had planned their coverage around a Clinton victory scrambled to get a handle on the new world they found themselves in.
Even some in Trump’s inner circle were “shocked,” as one aide put it, watching the results roll in to the candidate’s headquarters in Trump Tower. “I had hoped for this,” one campaign source said. “I knew there was a chance for this, but I gave it a 30 percent chance. I thought we would come up just short.” His indefatigable campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, had begun the evening making pre-emptive excuses for a loss, complaining to Chuck Todd of NBC that “We didn’t have the support of the full Republican infrastructure.” But midway through the night, she was revising that opinion, telling reporters that the Republican National Committee had been an “excellent partner” to the campaign. “Absolutely buoyant. We can smell the win,” Conway texted to Yahoo News.
The mood was jubilant at Trump’s victory party at the New York Hilton, where cheers were punctuated by shouts of the de-facto Trump campaign slogan — “Lock her up!” — and, in honor of FBI Director James Comey, who may have helped turn voters away from Clinton: “Comey! Comey!”
Did the Clinton campaign sense the unfolding disaster? In the late afternoon, Clinton campaign manager John Podesta was spotted stalking through Times Square with a grim frown. The mood at the Javits Center — where Clinton expected to give a victory speech under New York City’s largest glass ceiling —shifted from confident celebrati