Donald Trump’s stunning victory represents a tectonic shift in American politics. Against every imaginable odd, and the combined opposition of the political and media establishments, Trump tweeted and elbowed his way to the most extraordinary electoral win in American history.
From the beginning of his campaign, Trump’s appeal was characterized as lacking substance, and his supporters as reality-television-besotted fools. Hollywood uber-liberals such as Rob Reiner sneered about the “Kardashianization of America,” and pundits waxed nostalgic for a lost time when serious debate instead of frivolous chatter dominated.
In reality, Trump’s campaign and appeal were always issue-based. From the start, he stressed three fundamental policy points that catalyzed a large base of support. Though he refined and shifted the specifics of how he would implement these policies, his essential message was articulated at least 15 months ago.
The first issue was immigration. The presence of uncounted millions of “undocumented” immigrants in the United States has long been a sore spot for many Americans. While the dogma of open borders has been received wisdom among the political and economic elites for decades, polls have consistently shown illegal immigration to be a serious concern for the population at large. True or not, open borders have been perceived as an attack on the existing population, and a source of downward wage pressure. It was only a matter of time before some astute politician recognized that the “national question” was an untapped, undervalued source of concern.
The second of Trump’s winning issues was security. The threat of terrorism, appropriately, terrifies Americans. It’s a matter of common sense and general perception that terrorism as we face it today is bound up with political Islam. Trump’s willingness to speak about Islamic terrorism—without constant hedging about the miniscule number of terrorists versus 1.6 billion good Muslims—appealed to the population as a recognition of the present danger. Though Trump initially spoke crudely about totally banning Muslims from America, he has softened his position to indicate strict limits on travellers from terrorism source-nations.
Trump’s third major issue was trade. Regardless of the merits of trade, it’s beyond dispute that great swaths of the country’s industrial regions have been hollowed out. Our transition to an information-based finance economy—Wall Street over Main Street—has created bi-coastal billionaires and left tens of millions of formerly aspirational Americans in the lurch. The perception that America, in Trump’s words, “doesn’t win anymore” on the global stage, rings true for people trapped in the lower depths of the service economy. Trump’s promise to bring his business prowess to bear on trillion-dollar trade imbalances struck the cognoscenti as hilarious, but the American people have always respected—at least in theory—an individual who understands business at first-hand.
Against Trump’s agenda of immigration, security, and trade, his opponents in the Republican primaries and then in the general election attacked his vulgarity, his quick tongue, and his irregular record in business. Hillary Clinton ran a negative campaign based almost entirely on Trump’s supposed racism and sexism, and presented herself with a halo of inevitability. The assumption that Clinton’s gender would drive turnout at Obama-like levels was a fundamental error: women have simply never occupied the same historical role as black Americans, and the ascendency of one woman to high office never carried the same symbolic weight as a black man becoming president.
Trump lost control of his narrative many times throughout the campaign. But he identified three crucial concerns of the common voter and hammered on them all the way to Tuesday night’s victory. Will he be a successful president? That’s another matter entirely. But his campaign was far more driven by substance than many have been willing to acknowledge.
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