Donald Trump did not think he was going to win the election against Hillary Clinton back in 2016.
Many around him acknowledged his candidacy was a brand-building marketing ploy, further moving up the stock value of his celebrity status, helping him to build another level on to his debt-laced real estate house of cards.
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Trump had gone bankrupt a number of times but had always worked out deals that largely kept him whole, giving him lavish spending allowances, as long as he continued to be the flamboyant, attention-drawing, playboy mogul that is Donald Trump.
He had become the human punctuation point of “too big to fail”. To his financiers, the real estate became peripheral – they were backstopping a brand, and that brand – his family name – is what Trump thought he was elevating even if he lost to what he characterised as the corrupt and cheating Clinton political machine.
But then he won.
Maybe it was Russian interference that moved at least 73,000 votes in the right places to tilt the electoral college Trump’s way. Or perhaps it was Cambridge Analytica interfering with Facebook.
Maybe it was Clinton not realising how damaging her image as a maven of the super-rich Southampton set was compared with her early days as a struggling social justice advocate in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Maybe it was then-FBI Director James Comey’s comments days before an election that Clinton was back under investigation for her email bungling and then, just as quickly, not. But the damage by Comey was done and could not be undone.
Some argue Bill Clinton on the campaign trail had harmed her with certain groups, that there was a grating air of entitlement, of the arrogant presumption that the presidency and the White House was their family domain. Folks I talked to in Bartlesville, Oklahoma and Dubuque, Iowa and Van Horn, Texas saw her as a queen wanting to return to her castle.
And then there was the unfortunate timing of the much-despised Queen Cersei murdering her way to the top in Game of Thrones that may have planted unflattering images in the minds of many HBO-binging voters. And maybe too many men were intimidated by a hugely accomplished, experienced and smart woman. Misogyny runs deep in the United States.
In 2016, then-Vice President and (from tomorrow) President Joe Biden, who, having decided not to run, gave me an interview in his office in the White House West Wing.
It is an interesting fact that vice presidents through most of US history had no office inside the White House itself. Walter Mondale, vice president during President Jimmy Carter’s term, was the first to insist on and receive an office in the White House.
Sitting in that office, Biden’s face grew tight, his brow furrowed, and he told me: “Steve, the Democratic Party has become a party of snobs.” He said people were in pain and did not feel heard. My guess is that is the primary reason Hillary Clinton lost and Donald Trump won.
Donald Trump the TV star
Victims of the 2008-2009 economic crisis, people whose savings disappeared, whose home values collapsed, who lost jobs; these people felt the New York Wall Street financial markets crowd had destroyed their economic foundation, and these folks were the friends of Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Billionaire Trump, a reality TV star who scored huge ratings nationwide in his show, The Apprentice, seemed like he was regularly wrestling against the finance crowd who were always trying to shut him down, forcing him into a series of bankruptcies. But, each time, “The Donald”, as Trump is called in New York, had emerged victorious, bigger and better than others, bigger than anyone in his situation in history.
Americans voted in greater numbers for Hillary Clinton. She received about three million more votes than The Donald, but not in the places that would have locked in her win. Trump seduced the angry American, the demeaned American, the white working-class American who was tired of being sold out in trade deals to other nations.
These Americans wanted a wrecking ball to move to Washington and start tearing up things. The substance of what Trump did, did not matter as much as the cries of pain and anguish from America’s political class.
Americans were angry that Wall Street seemed to be doing better than “real” Americans. They were upset that their jobs were being off-shored to India and the Philippines and that immigrants into the US seemed to be getting the high-paying, high-tech jobs while Americans, particularly white working-class Americans, were being laid off.
Many of these Americans, like my own large extended family, were military families where brothers and sisters and dads had served over many generations in the US’s wars. They believed they had fought the Cold War against the Soviets and against global communism, and that China had somehow won. A forever war in Afghanistan that rhymed with the humiliations of the US’s involvement in Vietnam rubbed hot jalapeño peppers into pulsating raw nerves and anxieties of the US’s white underclass.
Trump, a TV star who watched TV endlessly where his rivals read thousand-page biographies of the US’s previous presidents, knew how to connect with these Americans. Their grievances were readable and he had always actually been the rich kid with a chip on his shoulder, aggrieved at never being taken seriously by New York’s power set. For him, pugnacious nationalism was just another shade of himself and his views that he could effortlessly champion. And he did.
But here is the challenge in understanding why Trump became the biggest headline of our times. To many who felt betrayed by an America that seemed to be more concerned with illegal immigrants’ healthcare and rights than the living standards of its own citizens, Trump’s celebrity status and his colourful muscularity and, yes, his vulgarity, his misogyny, his bullying and name-calling, his constant fabrication of stories that were untrue, his dismissive treatment of allies like Germany’s Angela Merkel and Canada’s Justin Trudeau and his bro-to-bro pal-ships with Vladimir Putin, Mohammed bin Salman, Kim Jong Un, Viktor Orban, Jair Bolsonaro and other democracy-dishing bad boy leaders – all of this – made Trump seem like the one who would deliver a better life and nation and, if not that, then at least would be the terminator of what Washington had become.
Donald Trump the king
But the other side of the Trump coin is the narcissistic, self-serving side, the part of him obsessed with power and riches – his riches. Former Trump Deputy Campaign Manager Rick Gates wrote a Trump-friendly treatment of his time working with the candidate and then-president.
One of the consistent themes is the way Trump viewed party fundraising for the Republicans, or fundraising hundreds of millions for his inauguration, or raising other money to fund transition staff, planning that was headed by former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie who was later ignominiously shoved off the team by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner.
Trump saw all this money, dollars donated for big causes and the public interest, as his own bank account. He rarely saw the demarcation between where his personal financial interests were and what the government did.
Presidents are, in a way, contracted temporary monarchs with a lot of power. There are checks on their power, as we are seeing now in the second impeachment of this president, but the monarch part – the king part – was captivating and intoxicating for President Trump.
Where most presidents, like Obama and the two Bushes, Clinton, Carter and more, at least pretend to be humble amid such enormous power, Trump was audacious and wielded his power like a mad king. And his base supporters loved it; his enemies fled, cowered and made an industry out of using the words “disbelief” and “unprecedented”.
As The Atlantic’s David Frum wrote in early 2017 in a prescient piece titled How to Build an Autocracy: “The United States may be a nation of laws, but the proper functioning of the law depends upon the competence and integrity of those charged with executing it. A president determined to thwart the law in order to protect himself and those in his circle has many means to do so.” Frum’s observation of the early part of the Trump term became the primary scaffolding of a rules-be-damned four years of Trumpism in the White House.
Donald Trump the billionaire golfer
Frum offers another delicious insight into Trump’s core character and interest in being president that seemed not to irritate his base at all. They loved his crassness, his posturing comedically as a “boss” with a network of thugs and allies who could take on anyone who resisted him.
Frum writes: “Donald Trump will not set out to build an authoritarian state. His immediate priority seems likely to be to use the presidency to enrich himself. But as he does so, he will need to protect himself from legal risk. Being Trump, he will also inevitably wish to inflict payback on his critics. Construction of an apparatus of impunity and revenge will begin haphazardly and opportunistically. But it will accelerate. It will have to.”
Again, Frum nails early on what we saw when countries like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia tried to curry favour by renting out expensive rooms at Washington’s Trump Hotel, or when Trump tried to host a G7 meeting at his Trump National Doral Resort and Golf Course, or when he worked hard to get Ukraine’s president to do a personal favour for him and dig up dirt on Joe Biden and his son Hunter in exchange for releasing national security aid to Ukraine that had already been put into legal appropriations.
Trump golfed more than any other president, costing tax-payers tens of millions of dollars in security, logistics and lodging expenses for his entourage. Trump’s base saw Washington’s political and policy crowd, its media titans, steaming over Trump’s constant vacationing, his disregard for an inelastic truth, and they swooned over how angry official DC was becoming.
Trump’s spell did not last with all conservatives, of course. His national security adviser, John Bolton, a genuine architect of and believer in America First policies, told me in an Al Jazeera English interview on my show The Bottom Line, that Trump was essentially a Trump-First president, and that disqualified him.
Former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis described Trump as a true threat to the security of the nation. Since the Trump-inspired attack on the US Capitol amid his post-election denial of losing to Biden in November 2020, the secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, and secretary of transportation, Elaine Chao, resigned their jobs. So, too, Melania Trump’s chief of staff, Stephanie Grisham, and we know that other leading officials came close to resigning – including Trump’s latest national security adviser, Robert O’Brien.
Donald Trump the contortionist
Trump, unfiltered and raw is what the nation is seeing as he departs his office, but certainly not the political scene. The powerful in both parties are yet again dismayed and alarmed by Trump having instigated the first assault on the US Capitol in two centuries and his overt attempt to overturn an election that he, in an Orwellian twist, had convinced his followers was being stolen from him.
Trump is a master at the Big Lie, yelling “fire” when he himself started it; calling out fraud in the 2020 election when he was the one trying to get many leading Republicans in Georgia, Michigan, Arizona, Pennsylvania and even his own vice president, Mike Pence, to commit election fraud on his behalf. He accused the Democrats of propagating a swamp of swindlers and cheats in Washington, whereas the criminal indictments, prosecutions and convictions of his campaign team and his White House staff are unmatched by any US president in 150 years.
But it is too easy, and also incorrect, to suggest his followers were blind to these elements of Trump’s character. It is too much of a short cut to write an epitaph for his presidency that Trump lied, distorted, self-dealt, kowtowed to Russia, alienated allies, created a huge jump in national debt, made the rich richer and, perhaps most defining, completely bungled a credible response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite all of these behaviours, which would normally sink the credibility of a leader, Trump drew 74.2 million votes to Biden’s 81.2 million. Yes, there is a seven million vote difference between victor and loser, but 74 million Trump believers – despite Lysol Day when Trump said that perhaps people could inject disinfectant into their veins to rid them of COVID-19; despite his near love affair and failed nuclear diplomacy with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un; despite a stream of verifiable mistruths that he regularly spewed and passed on through Twitter – 74 million people still supported the Trump political franchise.
Historians and psychoanalysts will be deconstructing and studying these four years of populist convulsions for decades and, perhaps, centuries. Trump and this moment in time are an inflexion point, a moment of discontinuity in the past that perhaps the US needed.
The US was playing the role of global security guarantor in many parts of the world that were not cored to its interests. Even President Barack Obama lamented how nations like Israel, but also others, were able to develop domestic constituencies to essentially hijack parts of the US’s sprawling empire of military bases to serve their own ends, even if remote from its priority list of key threats in the world.
Trump strongly rejected the US intervening endlessly in foreign problems. He withdrew troops from Syria. He pounded on NATO allies to do more and carry a bigger part of the burden. He drew down US forces and was working to negotiate a full withdrawal in Afghanistan but did not achieve that before his term ended.
I think it is fair to say America’s tendency to easily and quickly militarily intervene in foreign security problems was disrupted by Trump, and this is something I think is healthy.
In addition, he focused a bright spotlight on China and its mercantilist trade and intellectual property practices. Perhaps he should have been more worried about Artificial Intelligence and quantum computing than steel and soybeans, but still, Trump and his team raised the DEFCON (defence and readiness condition) level and branded Huawei Communications a global national security threat. Perhaps Trump was unfair to Huawei – time will tell. But what is key is that no US president has had the fortitude to challenge China so relentlessly because it had so many allies in the domestic political scene in Washington.
Donald Trump the champion
Trump’s base of supporters identified with these steps on trade and China, and with his efforts to diminish American vulnerability to overseas military escapades. While he may have been interested in his own self-interests, Trump’s policies were also clearly a shift away from the international order and its obligations and constraints and more to a place where the US could “do whatever it damned well wanted to do”.
Some political analysts see the anger of the Trump voter, and the roar of Trump himself, culminating in the attack on Congress as well as the rise of white nationalist, neo-Nazi, and other strident, right-wing groups and conspiracy cabals like that of the QAnon crowd, as the last gasp of a white, male-dominated political order that is being forced by demographic realities to cede to a more inclusive, multi-ethnic political order. That may be the case, but the drivers of the US’s divides are not just racial.
Technology is disrupting the workforce, creating zero-sum games between the highly educated and power-networked versus those without those links and degrees. Public policy and tax frameworks are helping the rich amass more wealth while the rest of society competes for a smaller part of the economic pie.
The American dream of education and training yielding at minimum a track into the middle class is more true in China than in the US today. Manic, neoliberal trade and economic policies helped Wall Street go fast, stunted Main Street and gut-punched many hard-working Americans who lost jobs and had little help transitioning to something else.
Financial industry corruption showed that governance in Washington was also self-serving and corrupt and needed to be changed; Joe the Plumber did not get bailed out like Goldman Sachs and AIG did after the 2008-2009 financial crisis.
Trump for all his warts, his lies, his courtship with dangerous fringe groups, his adoration of foreign autocrats and disdain for democratic leaders abroad, his self-dealing – all of it – still made the case for and connected to a part of the American working-class that has seen its condition erode for decades.
The spark of Trump coming onto the political scene when he did, mixed with the anger of these Americans, has meant that trade deals in the future will be negotiated differently, that Main Street will receive support in COVID-19 relief bills, not just Wall Street, and a Biden-led Democratic Party will get a makeover and suspend what Biden called the party’s snobbery.
There is no magic wand that will heal the deep divisions in the US today over class and race, and racial anxiety is a very large part of the problem. But for too long, Democrats and Republicans alike ignored the pressures that working-class families were experiencing. This cauldron was created and now it must be undone if the violence is to subside.
Trump did not create this cauldron, but he did exploit it and he certainly fed it. Biden actually could do the thing Trump could not – and could be the one to dismantle the drivers of fear and hate inside the US and restore civic empathy and trust.