It will take a long time to analyze exactly what happened in the extraordinary election of 2016. It is already clear, though, that what propelled Donald Trump to the presidency was his grasping, before others caught on, that the contest was far less about right versus left, or even Republican versus Democrat, than about the country versus Washington.
He is now President-elect Trump. On Monday, however, he seemed a likely loser. In his pre-mortem, Charles Krauthammer opined that, even in defeat, Trump would remain the de facto leader of the Republican party because he had “created a movement.” I think, though, that the movement actually created the Trump candidacy.
In the Obama years, as the divide widened, the political establishment took on a post-American cast. But the American people, it turns out, still like being the American people. The electoral blowback, beginning in 2010, has been intense, notwithstanding Obama’s 2012 reelection (in which he lost nearly 4 million voters from his 2008 victory). Equally intense has been the opposition to Washington’s way of doing business. While the media have been unable to hide their disdain for what the narrative holds to be the divisive forces that prevent Washington from “getting things done,” increasing numbers of Americans, across ideological lines, objected to the things Washington was doing.
Donald Trump saw an opening to become their champion, and that is what he made — or remade — himself into. For a very long time he was not taken seriously, just like the alienated forces he represented were not taken seriously. I certainly did not believe he was for real until very late in the game — and I say that as someone who has been aligned with the anti-ruling-class temper from the outset; I simply never thought Trump was the right vehicle for the movement.
Again, it will be a while before we get an accurate picture of the dynamics in the electorate. I feel confident, though, that Trump’s success — particularly in redrawing some of the electoral map — is due to breaking the consultant mold. I am no expert in this field, but it seems that our elections for the last generation have been about appealing to segments of the country at the expense of other segments, with the goal of getting to 50 percent plus one. I do not mean to suggest that Trump did not have segments of the electorate to which he strongly appealed — obviously, he did. But I do think that Trump, especially in the last months of the campaign, did a better job than recent Republican nominees have done in appealing to blue constituencies.
Some of this featured more pandering than I am comfortable with. I would rather see conservative candidates trying to convince individual Americans that conservatism is how they will prosper — as opposed to trying to repackage conservatism into something that it is not, in order to appeal to groups as groups. The point, however, is that Trump took his case to black voters, Hispanic voters — traditional Democratic voters who have been failed by Democratic policies.
Trump, especially in the last months of the campaign, did a better job than recent Republican nominees have done in appealing to blue constituencies.
That brings me to a final thought, about caricature. Because the media lean left, they depict progressive activists as representative of the demographic group to which they belong — such that, for example, you are led to believe all American Muslims think like CAIR, all Hispanic voters oppose enforcement of the immigration laws, all women are pro-abortion, and so on. Because progressive activists are quick to smear their opponents as racists, sexists, homophobes, etc., the media echo the smear and often make it stick.
Yet, it is not only possible, it is essential, to appeal to traditional Democratic constituencies as Americans, rather than as members of groups too immersed in progressive dogma to hear a conservative, pro-American message. And even if they aren’t won over, Americans will respect and appreciate the effort. That’s how inroads are made.
I don’t know what the Trump years will bring, but I think there is a lot we can learn from how he made his way to the White House. Meantime, though there is lots of water under the bridge, let’s remember that he ran as a conservative. Whether that is because he has become one or because he recognized he needed to adopt some conservative positions to be viable, we will find out in due course. What we owe our country is to be receptive and to try to help him be the best president he can be.
— Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior policy fellow at the National Review Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.