When this race became a referendum on what it means to be an American, Hillary Clinton thought she had victory in her sights.
But voters had a different idea than the wily veteran of over four decades of American political life. In far greater numbers than expected, voters rejected her in favor of Donald Trump, an erratic tycoon whose mean-spirited campaign attracted unprecedented criticism for a major-party nominee. In the end, Clinton’s fraught history—symbolized by the baroque investigations into her private e-mail server—overcame whatever advantages her centrist agenda, critiques of Trump’s outrages, and well-funded, professionally run campaign could give her.
Soon after Pennsylvania’s 20 votes in the electoral college were called for Trump by the Associated Press early Wednesday (Nov. 9), it was clear the path for a Clinton victory had disappeared.
Indeed, Trump’s bet that white voters would turn out and surprise the pundits seems correct: Rural white voters in states that Democrats were counting on turned out to deliver for Trump, while Clinton could not find the language to win them over. Fears that she had not campaigned hard enough to defend the Democratic firewall late in the race proved true, as Trump outperformed the polls to win a series of close victories in the midwestern states, in addition to taking the key swing states of Florida and North Carolina, where Clinton failed to do as well as president Barack Obama did in 2012.
Trump owes his victory to the polarization of American politics—the final difference in the vote will likely be less than two percentage points. But enough voters ignored warnings about Trump’s threat to US democracy to propel a man who embodies some of America’s most deep-set historical vices to the presidency. Why? He promises a return to a fantastic past where the social and economic turmoil of the 21st century can be avoided.
It does not seem likely he can deliver on those promises, but voters appear all too used to politicians who don’t keep their promises. White Americans heard Trump’s voice, not Clinton’s, and came out to make him president.
Eight months ago, in Michigan, Clinton lost the Michigan Democratic primary, a surprise defeat that pollsters hadn’t been expecting and one that today seems even more telling. The victor was Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, an independent whose primary challenge would highlight Clinton’s electoral weaknesses among white voters.
Before she became the standard bearer for a movement against Trump, Clinton’s campaign—a multimillion-dollar effort with the most talented operatives and innovative tech available—had a problem explaining what she stood for. Not in terms of the issues, where Clinton’s wonky record set the tone, but in terms of, “why her, why now?”
The primary electorate was shaped by Democratic frustration with the Obama administration’s turn into deadlock. Voters were looking for something more strident than Obama’s incrementalist agenda.
The rifts in the Democratic coalition that had been mostly subsumed during the past eight years broke to the surface, as the capital-loving wing of the party with its branches on Wall Street and in Menlo Park clashed with those to whom economic recovery came less swiftly: Students and young graduates with their accompanying debt loads, and middle-class workers confronting wage stagnation.
Though Clinton carefully cultivated the influential progressive senator Elizabeth Warren to forestall her potential challenge from the left, Sanders was dead set on mounting what he thought of initially as a protest candidacy. He channeled American frustration with his endless criticisms of “the millionaire and billionaire class.” He called for major expansions of the US government to help students with their debt and workers get a fair shake. His unpolished presentation couldn’t have been more of a contrast with Clinton’s poise.
Sanders made hay of Clinton’s retreat on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a landmark free trade agreement she had backed in theory while working for Obama but rejected after its full details were made a public. Even more so, he went after her as an ally of Wall Street whose judgement was compromised by her time among the US elite, giving paid speeches to bankers that she wouldn’t share with the public. Clinton, he said, was the establishment, and what was needed was a political revolution.
Yet Sanders faced several limitations as a candidate. Despite his own history in the civil rights movement, he found it difficult to speak directly to minority voters’ concerns about racism. At a time when Black Lives Matter and police violence dominated the news, he was hampered by his overwhelming focus on economic disparities. While his rhetoric would improve over time, his inability to pull black voters from Clinton allowed her to dominate voting in southern states.
And Sanders could never quite land a foreign policy critique against Clinton despite her fraught record as US secretary of state, in part because any criticisms of her would naturally reflect on the popular president she had served.
Perhaps most notable, Sanders famously declined to make Clinton’s handling of the e-mail server she used for official and personal business during her tenure as secretary of state an issue early in the campaign. The server become public in 2015, during a series of obviously politicized Congressional investigations into the Benghazi attacks on US personnel in Libya. In June, an FBI investigation would determine that Clinton had not illegally mishandled classified material.
Sanders, unable or unwilling to deploy the most telling arguments against Clinton, soon found himself in a losing position. Despite raising more money than her campaign for several months, he could not win over enough minorities or women to break Clinton’s growing lead in convention delegates.
The Clinton team’s disciplined strategy—reflecting lessons learned during her loss to Obama in 2008—gave her a lead she would never relinquish until the final day of the race. By the time the primary cycle ended in June, she was the Democratic nominee. But critics and journalists alike, noting Clinton’s high unfavorable rating, would continue to wonder whether Sanders, a relative outsider who out-polled her with white men, could be a stronger nominee in an unsettled electorate.
Donald Trump, erstwhile Clinton supporter, emerged from the wreckage of the Republican primary as the voice of a growing nationalist movement. Rather than a conventional GOP politician, Clinton faced an undisciplined builder who had begun his campaign by insulting Mexican immigrants and hadn’t stopped since. He had no qualms about launching attacks directly at Clinton’s weak points, whether the email server or her ties to Barack Obama, still anathema among Republicans.
There was no shortage of predictions that Trump would be easy pickings for Clinton, but that belied both the strength of Republican loyalty to their party (antipathy to Clinton) and his particular strength: He emboldened a hard core of enthusiastic conservatives to express racist and sexist sentiments the Republican establishment had previously limited to dog-whistles, channelling the political voice of Pat Buchanan and building on the Tea Party and the racist backlash spurred by Obama’s historic presidency. His willingness to abandon the party’s free markets orthodoxy in favor of a welfare-for-whites approach allowed him to reach across party lines more effectively than past Republicans.
Before the two party conventions in late July, Clinton and Sanders were still repairing their relationship, and the party along with it. A haze of official sanction still trailed in her wake. When the FBI recommended no charges against Clinton for mishandling classified information on her email server, FBI director James Comey still held an unprecedented press conference to call her behavior “extremely careless.” Journalists, meanwhile, pored over the contents of the server, which showed the sometimes unsavory side of a philanthropic operation that relied on access or the illusion of access to raise money for good causes around the globe. While her critics called it corruption, there was never any evidence of a quid pro quo with any donor or associate.
The media’s obsession with the scandals and the party’s slow reunion allowed Trump to stake early leads in key polls. His raucous nominating convention in Cleveland, Ohio, was a mad four-day paean to the candidate that included the spectacle of plagiarized speeches, intra-party rivalry, controversial gay billionaire endorsees, and the truly terrifying scene of scandal-tarnished governor Chris Christie leading the crowd in chants of “lock her up.” Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, was a sop to a nervous Republican establishment, and brought with him one of the most conservative records in the country. The event culminated in a quasi-fascistic speech wherein Trump, accepting the party’s nomination, promised, “I alone can fix it.”
He would never have a better chance of winning the election, according to poll aggregators like FiveThirtyEight, until it was clear that victory was in his hands.
Clinton’s convention was scheduled to begin just days after Trump’s ended, and organizers feared that Sanders holdouts would take over the floor to force protest votes. Emails stolen by Russian hackers and made public showed Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz had worked to back Clinton, the party’s favored nominee, over Sanders. She would resign over the conflict, adding to the pall over the convention. (Ironically, her replacement, Donna Brazile, would later be forced out of a job at CNN when further hacked e-mails revealed she shared debate questions with Clinton and Sanders ahead of time.)
The moment seemed poised for some kind of 1968-style tearing apart of the party by faction, age, and class. It didn’t happen. Sanders protesters made themselves heard on the floor from time to time, and took over a media filing center to underline their complaints about the primary. Mass conflict was averted by careful concessions made to Sanders’ camp on the party platform and in his role at the convention, a marquee first-day speech in prime time that allowed Sanders to endorse Clinton on his own terms.
But Clinton’s team took a risk: Rather than focus entirely on uniting their own party, as Trump did at his convention, Clinton’s team would adopt the more traditional tactic of using the nationally-televised spectacle to highlight the broad appeal of their candidate.
Her vice presidential pick was the moderate governor of Virginia, Tim Kaine, not a darling of the progressive movement. Bernie Sanders’ valedictory on the first night of the convention, intended to put a stamp on their rivalry, was followed by Michelle Obama, the standout rhetorical star of this election, who delivered a widely hailed speech that made the case that Trump was simply too offensive to be president.
“This election, and every election, is about who will have the power to shape our children for the next four or eight years of their lives,” the US first lady said, echoing a message that Clinton’s team would spend millions to broadcast around the country.
This convention was the ultimate big tent: New York Republican-turned-Independent mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose backing of stop-and-frisk had not made him a favorite of the Democratic base, appeared to assure moderates that Clinton was by far the better choice than Trump, even as the Mothers of the Movement, women whose children were lost to police violence, told black voters that Clinton understood the perils of systemic racism.
But this chorus of elites and minorities and progressives coming together seemed to be less than the sum of its parts on election day. Clinton underperformed Obama’s 2012 numbers with minorities, while only moving college-educated white voters toward her by a few percentage points. But more importantly, the convention seemed to miss one key constituency: White voters, especially in rural areas, who felt left behind those same elites and convinced that those minority groups were getting ahead of them in line for the American dream. Clinton’s convention appeared to have something for everyone, but very little left for working-class white voters.
The first presidential debate in late September was a final chance for Trump to change the game, the first time he would appear next to Clinton and have an opportunity to prove arguments about his erratic behavior and angry persona false.
Clinton was once again in the midst of deepened scrutiny. She left a 9/11 memorial event after feeling faint, leading to a wild surge of internet rumors about her health. She hadn’t given a proper press conference in months, leading to a barrage of press criticism (which was never matched when Trump began avoiding the press in the final two months of the campaign). Her campaign chairman, John Podesta, had his e-mail inbox hacked, and his messages leaked by Wikileaks, revealing embarrassing internal deliberations and casting more light on Clinton’s connections to wealthy individuals and corporations.
Trump, sensing his improving position, declined to prepare for his debate, beyond holding bull sessions with a coterie of disgraced politicians, generals, and even media executives, once ousted Fox News chief Roger Ailes briefly found his way into the camp. On his third set of campaign leaders, Trump became ringmaster of his own destiny.
The most important moment came at the close, when Clinton mentioned Trump’s treatment of women, citing a former pageant star named Alicia Machado, who Trump had mocked as fat. Trump’s blustery response was hardly elegant, and he spent the next several days attacking Machado in late-night tweets and falsely saying she had appeared in a sex tape.
That would come back to haunt him days later, when a video tape of Trump on Access Hollywood was published by the Washington Post. The tape featured Trump talking about his treatment of women, how he kisses them without asking and boasting he could do anything, even “grab them by the pussy.” At the next debate, pressed by CNN’s Anderson Cooper on whether he had ever done those things, Trump said no. Soon, more than a dozen women would come forward to allege that Trump had sexually assaulted them by kissing or fondling them without permission. One woman is currently suing Trump in a civil case, alleging that he raped her when she was 13 years old.
Through it all, there was no sign that Trump would change his approach to the contests. Each time he would start with a subdued mien, speaking a husky undertones, before rising to issue a soundbite—”Nasty woman!“—that would echo for days on social media. He doubled down on the alt-right influences in the campaign, now managed by CEO of Breitbart Media, Stephen Bannon. He paraded a line of women who accused Bill Clinton of sexual harassment at the second debate, and promised that he would put Hillary Clinton in jail if he were president. In the third debate, he refused to say he would accept the results of the election if he lost.
His sheer intransigence frustrated elites in both parties, and left many women baffled at his ascent. But another segment of voters appear to see him hectored by these women and, by extension, a victim of Clinton’s political attacks. Some clearly saw hypocrisy in Clinton’s criticism of Trump given her own husband’s past behavior. As Trump gave voice to resentment against new social codes that denigrate casual sexism, Trump won the overwhelming support of male voters in the 2016 election. Clinton’s name on the ballot was a red flag that attracted a bull.
A final dramatic interlude would give ulcers to her supporters. Twelve days before the election, the FBI’s Comey sent a letter to Congress saying that the investigation into the sexting habits of disgraced former Congressman Anthony Weiner led to the discovery of e-mails from Clinton’s server, likely sent or received by Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin, Clinton’s closest personal aide.
The letter shocked the media and launched a breathless reassessment of her chances. Though the announcement contained no real content, and a week later, Comey would come forth to say that no new e-mails were found, the news provided traction to fears that Clinton’s continued political career would continue to be a never-ending parade of investigations and leaks. Republican-leaning independents and outright partisans came home to Trump, perhaps experiencing flash-backs to the 1990s and the media’s public obsession with Clinton scandals.
Indeed, Comey’s role in the campaign underscored how little attention traditional policy issues received compared to hyped-up scandals. Trump’s agenda promises little real help to those voters who backed him, but plenty of assistance to wealthy Americans. Yet there was a single issue in this race that dominated everything else, and it was this: Who is an American?
Trump’s flirtation with white supremacists, the anti-semitic nature of his campaign rhetoric, his constant bashing of immigrants generally and specifically Mexicans, his treatment of women and vision of their role in society, all made him a throwback to a time before the US debate over the virtues of social diversity.
In his criticisms of political correctness and depiction of an apocalyptic America, Trump found a constituency—of white voters in communities threatened by the all too real changes facing the United States—that Republicans had represented before but never with such alacrity. Their reaction to a changing America, catalyzed by Trump’s demagogic appeals, generated an electoral firestorm that few foresaw. Clinton’s more optimistic vision that emphasized the new picture of America clearly didn’t resonate with working class white voters who once reliably pulled the lever for her party’s previous nominees.
For all the demographic changes the United States has seen in recent years, white voters remain the largest single constituency and now, in the words of one electoral analyst, they are voting like a minority group. Trump’s ability to drive them out echoes the leverage of enthusiasm used by Obama to deliver his majorities in 2008 and 2012. The question that will haunt Democrats, at least into 2020, will be whether a different candidate—one without Clinton’s unique and overbearing history—could have held the center.