TIME politics

A Habitual Liar Turned Out to Be the Ultimate Truth Teller

President-elect Donald Trump meets with US President Barack Obama during an update on transition planning in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, DC, on Nov. 10, 2016.
Jim Watson—AFP/Getty Images President-elect Donald Trump meets with US President Barack Obama during an update on transition planning in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, DC, on Nov. 10, 2016.

Elise Jordan is an NBC News/MSNBC political analyst. She has worked for the Department of State and the National Security Council.

Many Americans don't care about 'rich white people problems'

Make no mistake: President-elect Donald Trump’s victory on Tuesday happened not because of the Republican Party but in spite of it.

Though Trump owes great credit to the Republican National Committee for providing a ground army and data, his is not a party win. Trump’s victory is not a triumph of Republican or conservative principles; it’s a collective indictment of a bi-partisan political class of elites.

Perhaps the greatest irony of modern American political history is that the most factually challenged presidential candidate of all-time was elected because he expressed the big truth more effectively than one cautious competitor after another.

This inherent contradiction—that a habitual liar was the ultimate truth-teller for a majority of voters—is why Trump won.

I experienced it in my own behavior, and through my work with the British polling outfit Lord Ashcroft Polls, listening to voters during 32 focus groups in seven battleground states for a research project to hear how Americans from all walks of life viewed the election, the candidates and their lives in 2016. We were also watching for echoes of a possible Brexit effect before it struck here or failed to spark.

I am a libertarian Republican who opposed President-elect Donald Trump’s candidacy from the moment he entered the race. I couldn’t vote for Trump after his blatant bullying, misogyny and racial dog whistles, but I couldn’t in good conscience support a career politician who excelled more at expanding her wallet post-service than enacting sound policies while in office. So I wrote in former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.

It’s clear why Trump won: Republican elites attempted to shove former Florida Governor Jeb Bush down its primary voters’ throats, but Trump prevailed. Democratic elites actually succeeded in forcing Clinton on their electorate, and that’s why she ultimately lost.

After listening to hundreds of voters in the focus groups, I still wrongly predicted a Clinton win but saw two wild cards on the political table: a potential enthusiasm gap for Clinton, and the possibility that unlikely voters would actually vote.

“I just don’t know what her vision is for the country for the next four years. The status quo?” said a teacher in Ohio said last week. Though frightened by Trump’s description of Russian President Vladimir Putin as a strong leader, he still doubted he could actually vote for Clinton.

What an older female African American administrative aide in North Carolina had to say after the second debate portended Clinton’s challenge. Questioning what Clinton stood for other than her opposition of Trump, she referred to the second debate as a discussion of “rich white people problems” like transgender bathrooms and climate change that were irrelevant to her life. This group of African-Americans voters quickly shifted the conversation to real problems in their community—our real problems as Americans—their desire for educational reforms like school vouchers and criminal justice, specifically ending “stop and frisk” and police targeting they described as “driving while black.”

Yet liberal pundits saw the debate global warming omission in the inverse: the absence of real discussion of climate change was a travesty neglecting an issue, reported the New York Times in a hard news story on the omission, that “most Americans” care about.

This is just one example of the profound divide in priorities between Clinton’s steadfast supporters and rank-and-file Democrats she needed to turn out and vote.

Meanwhile, even though Trump’s supporters doubted he would actually win because of a widespread belief that the media had rigged the election against him, they were passionate about the appeal of his unorthodox background.

“He’s not going to be a typical politician,” a factory worker in Wisconsin voting Trump assured us. “He’ll actually try to do something. I’d rather have someone who walks and talks like that than someone like Obama who says ‘yes, sir’ and lets other countries step on us.”

To these voters, Obama exemplified the complacency Clinton would continue.

“What I love about Trump is the chaos factor,” said a Florida woman and registered Democrat who dismissed Clinton as a conventional politician. “It’s scary … but I find it fascinating.” She was unsure if she would vote.

Voters this year didn’t buy elite explanations for why they should accept that things were better when their perception was that their lives were worse off. Though elites may trust in studies that show free trade is supposed to make life better overall for more Americans, uneducated workers in places like Michigan have seen non-existent job prospects at good wages after their plants moved overseas. They voted accordingly.

Trump told a million little lies, but Clinton actually bought into the big lie—that 21st-century progress was actually helping millions of Americans who in fact feel like they’ve gotten the shaft. When Clinton bragged about the miles she logged on her government jet as Secretary of State, voters wondered why they footed the government gas bill if the world was more dangerous than ever.

Trump voters gave more leeway to Trump’s grandiose statements belied by reality, like dismissing his predatory comments about grabbing women without consent as locker room banter. They viewed his statements as a refreshing protest against political correctness, the same yoke stifling the way they talked, worked and generally existed.

Hyperbole—or outright lying—has been Trump’s most consistent characteristic as he canvassed the nation, which is why I was again highly skeptical when Trump proclaimed that his election would be “Brexit all over again.” Since Trump didn’t know what Brexit was a few weeks prior to the referendum, I doubted Trump when he said he would deliver new voters to the Republican Party on election day, simply because it hadn’t been done like that ever before. Politicians who claim they were going to win because they active unlikely voters usually have one commonality—they lose.

And now that Trump has changed the way we elect our leaders, I’m taking a hiatus from making predictions about a truly unpredictable character who will soon be our 45th president.

Here’s what we do know: Trump has a few highly specific proposals, like building the $26 billion border wall. Good luck getting Mexico to pay for it. Good luck getting Congress to foot the bill till they do. After that, he enters the Oval Office with vague proposals, but a Congressional majority that will be predisposed to promote his agenda. While the country may not be united on a specific candidate, my tour of battleground states impressed upon me widespread loathing of Obamacare, making it another prime first target.

It’s very unlikely that Trump ever expected to win, or gave much thought to governing. He paid far less attention to his transition team than most losing candidates before him. He didn’t expect to be here. Now he is.

To his supporters, Trump spoke truth—and when in office we’ll see if he told them what they wanted to hear or if he can actually deliver.

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