EVERYONE WAS WRONG! blared the New York Post Thursday about Wednesday morning’s election result. Not everyone; the people who voted for Donald J. Trump on Tuesday figured he had a fair chance. And the signs were there all along. Culturally, politically, and policy-wise, the country had a fair chance of choosing Trump, and not just in retrospect.
Consider the culture. In June 2015, the latest Jurassic Park film came out, just as Trump was announcing his candidacy and the conventional wisdom held that Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton were the presidential favorites. But there was a big difference between the Jurassic sequel and the original, which had come out a quarter-century earlier—the last time a Bush and Clinton had faced each other. In the original movie, corporations and the government were on the side of the public as they fled out-of-control dinosaurs. Rich people were incompetent but affable. In the 2015 version, corporations, the government, and rich people were all evil and incompetent. The supposed front-runners might have noted this vast change in Americans’ perception of the world.
Four months later, another movie came out: The Walk, about a 1970s-era tightrope walk across the old Twin Towers. People went to the movie not to see the circus performance but the movie’s digital recreation of the old towers. A decade earlier, Donald Trump had held a press conference, presenting an elegant plan for new Twin Towers, and lambasting the city, state, and federal governments for failing to rebuild them. Even then, Trump was tapping into a frustration and anxiety that the pols couldn’t see.
As 2016 dawned, the November election began looking a lot like 2008—people wanted change more than anything else. This time, though, it was Hillary Clinton who represented the status quo. She had taken millions of dollars in speaking fees from the financial industry when people were still struggling to recover from the financial crisis. Clinton could have lessened the damage by giving back the money she had taken from large banks for giving speeches, and releasing the speech transcripts. But she didn’t understand that this would be an enduring problem. She and her staff seemed to think that Bernie Sanders had created his movement, not that his movement had created him.
Another issue was trade. People made fun of Trump for giving simplistic answers on policy issues, but Trump made a sophisticated point in the primary debates: not all global trade is free trade; nations like China (and the U.S., sometimes, for that matter) can and do engage in unfair trade practices such as state support of industries and companies, dumping of excess products, and currency manipulation. Supporting trade means that you support enforcement of trade rules, too. Free-trade supporters ought to have noticed that failing to acknowledge these realities undermined free trade with the public.
Clinton also said that she wanted to put her husband in charge of the economy— a tone-deaf remark, when people have begun to realize that bipartisan economic policies over the past 30 years, including ever-more reliance on consumer debt to mask wage stagnation, have not worked out well for much of the population. Clinton had little standing to be a credible candidate on tougher trade rules after Trump had already run a year-long campaign on the issue, before she won her party’s nomination.
A related issue was the country’s slow recovery from 2008. Part of that slow recovery has to do with Americans’ high levels of debt. As spring turned to summer, Clinton began attacking Trump on his multiple bankruptcies. Not a good idea: millions of Americans had gone through bankruptcies and foreclosures after 2008, and the experience changed the way they saw debt and bankruptcy. The biggest states for debt defaults? Florida, Nevada, and Ohio—important electoral players all.
Trump devoted a whole night of the Republican Convention to the economy. One of his three sons, Donald Jr., gave the strongest speech. Trump the younger noted that Dodd-Frank, President Obama’s financial-regulation law, was “consumer protection for billionaires.” This was a brilliant line, cutting through most Republicans’ inconsistent rhetoric on the financial industry. Donald Jr. concluded by saying that it was too risky for Americans not to change the status quo. For people who hadn’t seen real income gains in decades, this critique resonated.
Finally, events matter—and one fall event, in particular, did not help Clinton. In September, Wells Fargo admitted that its employees had opened up millions of fake new accounts for existing customers so that those employees could appear to be performing well under the bank’s incentive programs for its workers. This mass-scale identity theft and fraud wasn’t just employee wrongdoing; the bank should have had procedures in place to prevent it. The bank’s colossal misdeed, which made national headlines and news stories, reminded Americans of the unfair way in which government protects the financial industry. The story broke just as early voting was about to begin.
Those who missed the signs of Trump’s likely victory did so because they also largely missed what has been going on with the nation’s culture, politics, and economy for years—especially since the 2008 financial and ensuing economic crisis. Trump’s victory, like the 2008 financial disaster that helped precipitate it, wasn’t unforeseeable, for those who knew where to look. Americans ought not to be surprised, though, that their democratic system worked; for years, voters have been saying that they want change from the bipartisan consensus. The elites didn’t listen. Enter Donald Trump.
Photo by Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images