Donald Trump remade the political map on Election Day. He tore through the “firewall” that Democrats relied on as a bulwark against Republican encroachment in the Rust Belt states and parts of the Midwest to claim an astounding upset victory — and therein lies the tale of this election.
He won states like Iowa and Pennsylvania that have helped Democratic nominees for decades and that twice backed Barack Obama. He won Wisconsin, which President Obama carried by 6.9 percentage points in 2012. When the dust settled, Trump had harvested enough electoral votes in the region to put him over the top, making him the president-elect.
The New York billionaire caught the media and political elites flat-footed. Very few saw this coming, just as very few understood the depth of resentment and frustration that so many in the white working class feel regarding what they see as condescension and disdain by the nation’s political establishment and the government in Washington.
Democrats should not write this off as a victory for misogynists and racists. Yes, Trump’s spiteful rhetoric drew their support — and not just from the fringe. But what made the ultimate difference is his message about a failed political system. It resonated with mainstream Americans who want something better than what they have.
They don’t want a handout, but they want government to look out for them, for a change. They want and deserve good jobs and a decent retirement. They want affordable college educations for their sons and daughters.
Hillary Clinton promised all this and more and, in fact, beat Trump in the popular vote. But turnout among her supporters lagged where it counted most. It did not help that she was a woman, or that she sought what would have been a third consecutive Democratic term — a rare feat.
Now it’s up to President-elect Trump to deliver on his smorgasbord of promises, lest he also wind up as the victim of the politics of grievance that he so adroitly exploited.
He faces enormous challenges, some of his own making. He urged Americans in a victory speech to “come together as one united people,” yet he ran a deeply divisive campaign. Those who became his targets — Hispanic Americans, African Americans, immigrants, Muslim Americans and others — are not likely to forget his blistering, spiteful attacks. So Trump himself will have to pave the way to unity, perhaps his first lesson in true leadership.
Other promises will be equally tough to keep. He may become the most powerful man in the world, but even he cannot roll back the tide and banish the laws of physics. Climate change is real, not a hoax.
And how can he fulfill a promise to balance the budget, invest in infrastructure to create jobs and reduce the national debt — all at the same time? Eliminate Obamacare, but ensure that all Americans have a healthcare plan?
Democrats, while licking their wounds, should take a cue from Clinton, who did her part to start the healing process with a gracious concession speech. She told supporters they owe the next president “an open mind and a chance to lead.”
President-elect Trump was equally — and uncharacteristically — gracious in saying the nation owed Secretary Clinton “a major debt of gratitude” for her years of public service. That’s a start, but it will take far more to bring America together after a victory by a polarizing candidate who waged an acrimonious campaign.
Despite the deep divisions exposed by this election, most Americans believe in the Constitution and its guarantees of due process and equal protection under the law. If Donald Trump can demonstrate that he shares this faith in the American creed, he can begin to unite America behind him.
If he fails, the support he found in this election can quickly disappear.