Midway through the 2016 presidential campaign, when it became clear Donald Trump would claim the Republican nomination, a rueful joke circulated among disbelievers: “Can we just admit that we may have taken this ‘Anybody can grow up to be president’ thing a bit too far?”
The disbelievers have gone from laughter to shock. On Tuesday, Americans put the future of their nation in the hands of Donald Trump, an untested leader with deep character flaws and no experience in governance or national security. Voters delivered a humiliating rebuke to America’s political establishment and to the hangers-on — the pollsters, the pundits, the media elites, the celebrities who surrounded Hillary Clinton on stages even as Trump stood alone.
Humbled Democratic leaders and others who had predicted Clinton would win 300 electoral votes or many more instead watched, agape, as Trump picked off states that Barack Obama had won handily. This wasn’t a landslide, but it buried Democrats under plenty of rubble. All that talk of taking back the U.S. Senate and just maybe the House? The assumption that a Democratic president would reshape the U.S. Supreme Court? All gone. Let the Democrats form their circular firing squad for the volleys of blame that now commence.
It’s a monumental win for a candidate many Americans didn’t take seriously. How did he do it?
Trump, a brash real estate billionaire and media personality whose biggest previous achievement was building his glitzy Trump brand, has pulled off the greatest marketing feat of all time: the creation of Donald J. Trump, president-elect of the United States of America.
Shudder if you will, but recognize Trump’s talents as a communicator. With his defeat of Clinton, his vision — his branding of the country — is now America’s chosen path. The people have spoken. The next president will be an ego-driven outsider, a name-caller who struggles to control base impulses, who avoids self-reflection, and who shows little interest in policy, diplomacy or the accuracy of his statements.
Trump’s crowning ability, which led him to victory, is salesmanship. Our brightest hope is that the president-elect will harness his gift for connecting with disaffected voters in the service of all Americans. It will be a tremendous stretch; we do not see in Trump the capacity to lead or commit to any cause beyond his own self-interest.
His appeal is rooted in a long-standing fantasy about how to improve our imperfect republic: Wouldn’t it be great, many voters came to believe, if they could elect a hard-charging business executive as president, someone who knows the value of a buck, has no patience for politics as usual and just … gets things done?
But will much of anything get done? Both parties are divided internally; Democrats surely will try to thwart this new Republican monolith in Washington. Think back to Obama’s first two years, when Democrats held the Congress — until the tea party movement rose from the ashes of Republican defeats.
The last eight years have seen politics outmuscle policy and gridlock imperil growth. We have no illusion about the challenges Trump will face. But surrendering to divisiveness, with a shrug and dim hope for the future, would condemn America to more of the same.
None of Trump’s grandstanding would have worked if Americans were united in their optimism. But ours is a fractured country. On Tuesday, many voters declared themselves frustrated — worried that their standard of living is falling, angry at politicians who put their own interests first. Voters rebuked that political establishment. Beyond the usual divides between conservative and liberal, religious and secular, urban and rural, Americans signaled deep fears about the prosperity and security of their nation.
So Donald Trump will be president. And it is up to all America to accept the decision of the voters, because that is the keystone of our democracy. In return, the president-elect should relinquish his identity as an impetuous, tactless force of destruction and accept with newfound humility the grave responsibility he has been given.
This is a new day. Let it be a healing day for America.