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The Making of President Donald Trump

22 minute read
Updated: | Originally published: ;

It was almost 3 a.m. when the President-elect finally took the stage, his blue suit, white shirt and red tie perfectly matched to the phalanx of flags arranged behind him. The polls and the experts and the data modelers predicted it would be a woman for the first time in the nation’s history — but no, it was another man, another blue suit, another red tie.

And yet, if it had been the woman, everyone would have known what to expect.

Donald John Trump, political novice, self-promoter and gleeful provocateur, was elected the 45th President of the United States on Nov. 8 in one of the most extraordinary and unforeseen developments in American history. Universally dismissed as a vanity candidate when he entered a field crowded with Republican talent, the former Democrat and former Independent mowed down 16 challengers while breaking every rule in the book. Then he pivoted to take on one of the most seasoned and famous politicians in the world, a former Secretary of State, U.S. Senator and First Lady, lost three straight debates to her (according to opinion surveys) and earned the disapproval of roughly 60% of all Americans. A dozen women accused him of sexual assault. He bragged about earning tens of millions of dollars each year while never paying income tax. His margin of victory in the Electoral College was on track to be the largest any Republican has achieved since 1988.

What would he say?

What could anyone say?

Of Hillary Clinton, the opponent he threatened to put in jail if he were elected, Trump said: “We owe her a major debt of gratitude for her service to our country.”

Of the nearly 60 million Americans who voted for Clinton after she denounced Trump relentlessly as a racist and sexist, Trump said: “I’m reaching out to you for your guidance and your help so that we can work together and unify our great country.”

Of the global community whose trade treaties he vowed to dismantle and whose alliances he called into question, Trump said: “I want to tell the world community that while we will always put America’s interests first, we will deal fairly with everyone.”

Of his plans, which have always been lightly sketched, at best, Trump said: “America will no longer settle for anything less than the best.”

Donald Trump President-elect Election Time Magazine Cover
President-elect Donald Trump addresses supporters at his victory night party at 2:52 a.m. on Nov. 9, 2016, in New York CityPhotograph by Chelsea Matiash for TIME

That is what he said, in a speech so subdued and low energy that it could have been a hospital director’s annual message to the medical staff. Left unsaid was how he could make himself into the gentle, unifying and effective force he spoke of on that victory stage. It will be a long, steep hill to climb.

Why? Because candidate Trump either insulted women, Hispanics, Muslims, blacks, disabled people and so on and so on — or else spoke so loosely and carelessly that millions of people misunderstood him. In a President, either one is bad.

He’ll be trying to heal the country in a climate of utter contempt for government. Throughout his campaign, Trump heaped abuse on Presidents from Obama to Reagan, on Congress and the courts, on America’s military leaders and foreign envoys. The entire apparatus, he preached again and again, is “a rigged system.” That’s the government he now leads.

He’ll be seeking to win the trust of black and brown Americans, of American Muslims and Jews, while white nationalist bigots and anti-Semites are cheering his victory. Trump picked at sores in this election that will bleed before they heal.

He will be trying to define a mandate despite his possible failure to win the popular vote.

President Trump will be trying to strengthen the U.S. while at the same time extricating it from the network of security alliances and free-trade agreements that underpin the world order. News of his victory sent markets into a brief swoon from Tokyo to New York City. The Mexican peso plunged to its lowest value in more than 20 years. Amplifying the shock of the Brexit vote in June, which might be the first step in breaking up the European Union, Trump’s win could shatter the fragile world recovery.

He’ll be facing in Congress a Republican Party that he took by force, not by persuasion, and dealing with the wreckage. In victory, he lavishly praised Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, but that alone won’t mend the damage done. A party supposedly pledged to conservative values has elected a radical President who promises to tear up treaties, overturn laws, jail his opponent and sue his critics. On the morning after, House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Trump skeptic, glossed over the fact that the winner’s campaign was thick with his enemies. Instead, he proclaimed a Republican dawn. With the GOP in control of the White House and Congress, he said, the party will heal around a mission to repeal Obamacare.

Trump will be expecting Americans to trust his family as they run the large international business he built, the one that rests mainly on selling the family name, after he devoted his campaign to attacking his opponent for commingling the national interest with personal gain.

He will be asking Americans to have faith in his choice of people, when he allied himself with the Inter­net’s noisiest conspiracy theorist. To have faith in his prudence, when he attacked a former beauty queen on Twitter at 3 in the morning. To have faith in his temperament, when he repeatedly allowed himself to be goaded during debates.

Perhaps no other presidential election raised so many questions with so few answers. The President-elect has no track record, few associates, very little in the way of policy positions. He believes America is broken. He said at his convention: “I alone can fix it.”

We’ll find out.

Read More: Donald Trump’s Roots: His Life in Pictures

A bloodied veteran of the casino business, where he built an empire and lost a fortune, Trump knows what it means to push all your chips into the center of the table and blow on the dice. That’s how he ran his unprecedented campaign, gambling that Americans would elevate a man who toyed with their prejudices, tickled their ids, dodged his taxes, exaggerated his philanthropy, skimmed over policy and flouted the truth. He took people seriously when they told pollsters, year after dismal year, how sick they were of politics as usual. Nothing in politics is more unusual than Trump.

Trump’s favorite bets are on himself. The man hates to finish second. Second is for “losers” — a favorite Trump epithet — and life presents endless chances to win or lose. Who but Trump would have mentioned, on the very day the Twin Towers were destroyed, that he now owned the tallest building in lower Manhattan? Who else would think to create a hierarchy of Vietnam heroes, and say of former POW John McCain, “I like people who weren’t captured”? Finding himself late in the campaign in a room with Medal of Honor winners, he entertained the idea that they might be braver than he. Then he dodged the implication by redefining the competition: “I am financially brave,” he concluded.

In this ultimate victory, Trump credited himself with leading “the single greatest movement in the history of this country,” as he put it in the final hours of the campaign. His promise: to “win, win, win and win.” His aim: to “make America great again.” His genius: to convince people by the millions whose lives are utterly unlike his that he alone could be trusted with their grudges, their passions, and their resentments.

The thrice-married former playboy who spoke on video about assaulting women persuaded evangelicals to turn out as never before. They accepted his conversion to pro-life fervor and relished his pledge to push the Supreme Court to the right. “God uses the least likely,” South Carolina televangelist Mark Burns explained, “from myself to Donald Trump.”

The former Democrat from Manhattan and longtime donor to liberals persuaded the hardest right-wingers to fall into line. The billionaire channeled anti–Wall Street energy. The Wharton graduate found the wavelength of noncollege voters. And Trump rode this movement, exactly as he said he would, on a straight line from the edge of Philadelphia to the streets of Green Bay, Wis., winning Great Lakes states that Republicans have not won in years, or in some cases decades.

His triumph was the Rust Belt’s revenge, an expression of the same economic and racial unease that gave these states to Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s. The supposed job stealers were in Japan in those days; now they are in China and Mexico. The children of the Reagan Democrats are Trump Republicans now, and that fact was fatal to Clinton.

He called plays no quarterback had ever called and executed them for touchdowns, yet Trump should not be viewed as a tactician, his former adviser Corey Lewandowski explained in an interview with TIME, nor as a performer, though he held his audiences spellbound for more than a year. Trump won because he is a tribune, as all wave-catching leaders must be, Lewandowski said. For all the strange originality of Trump’s triumph, the essential element “is what it always is” for one winning the White House. “It’s a snapshot in time that says, ‘I’m the messenger. I’ve harnessed what the American people are tired of and sick of, and I’m just going to give that a voice.’”

That voice was thunderous, but it spoke a familiar language. Trump made himself the messenger for a faction of Americans that has cried out at irregular intervals down through our history. Suspicious of governing elites, opposed to open immigration, resistant to free trade and international entanglements, this faction was Jacksonian in the 1820s, populist in the 1920s and now Trumpist in 2016. He brought them out of the shadows of the Republican coalition, where they have been neglected stepchildren for half a century, fed on scraps of anti-Washington rhetoric. Trump’s crude and reckless style signaled that he shared their contempt for established order. He chose one of their clarions, Steve Bannon of Breitbart.com, to serve as his right-hand man. Trump’s closing message, conveyed in a two-minute television ad, could have been written at almost any time over the past two centuries for consumption by this audience: international bankers and their Washington puppets are conspiring to weaken the nation and rob the American people.

Many GOP leaders refused to be found in such company. Only one of Trump’s living predecessors as Republican standard bearer, 1996 nominee Bob Dole, was on record supporting him. The two living Republican Presidents — the George Bushes — refused to vote for him. Judging from the returns, though, whatever Republicans he lost through his bluster and carelessness, Trump more than made up among alienated voters who would normally have opted out. By ringing the chords of gun control, abortion and Obamacare, “we really started bringing Republicans home,” the campaign’s senior communications adviser Jason Miller told TIME.

The election of Donald Trump has no historic parallel. Having never served in government or the military, he is the least conventional choice the American people have ever made. He’s not a lawyer, as 26 of the 44 Presidents have been. As a builder, he might share something in common with the engineer Herbert Hoover and the architect Thomas Jefferson — if you squint hard enough. But as the overstretched operator of bankrupt New Jersey casinos? A promoter of international beauty pageants? Star of a long-running reality-TV show?

It might seem that the choice of such a man reflects a steep drop in the level of respect Americans have for the demands and the office of the presidency. But should that be a surprise? Over the past quarter-century we’ve had a President who — whatever good things he was doing — found time to play sex games with an intern in the Oval Office. He was followed by a President who — however well-intentioned — committed the nation to a foreign war with no post-invasion plan and left the economy in the deepest pit since the Great Depression. That man was followed by a President who — though his approval ratings have been rising sharply of late — took office with a résumé so thin, you could see through it.

They were very different men, but they shared an inability to convince a majority of the public that they had a firm grip on a rapidly changing world. All three talked about saving American manufacturing jobs, but the jobs kept bleeding away. They talked about lifting impoverished children out of desperate lives, but the children seemed just as desperate. They promised to heal divisions between left and right, but the polarization felt more acute. They pledged to hunt down and wipe out terrorists, but terrorists sowed chaos in the Middle East, crisis in Europe and fear from Orlando to Boston to San Bernardino, Calif.

True, there was a parallel reality unfolding at the same time. Over those three consecutive two-term presidencies — two governors and a Senator, two Yale men and a Harvard grad, three suits in different styles from the same Establishment rack — the U.S. economy grew from $9.5 trillion to more than $16 trillion in real-dollar terms, U.S. scientists and inventors dominated the rise of digital technology, and the 47-year interval without a war between major powers extended to 71 years — the longest peace since the days of the Roman Empire. But it was not in the nature of politicians or pundits to dwell on that sunny side of the story. Especially after Iraq and the recession, the felt story, the lived story for tens of millions of Americans, the story leaked out through hacked NSA files and shamefaced congressional testimony, was a story of excess, impotence and decline.

Trump could not have won without that back­ground. No doubt there were many Trump voters who looked at the skyscrapers and jets and helicopters with his name emblazoned on them and figured any man who could do that could do anything. These same folks may have nodded when Trump adviser Rudy Giuliani cited Trump’s loss of nearly $1 billion on a single year’s tax return as a sign of “genius.” But to win the grand prize he needed more than just those votes; he needed the people who figured that he was bluffing his way through the race and decided it didn’t matter — the people who had come to suspect that being President might not be so hard after all, if what it mainly entails is reading botched intelligence reports, muddling through intractable crises and making promises you have no way of keeping.

And there was a deeper current that also ran toward Trump. For all their Davos conferences and TED talks, world leaders are flailing around for an agenda. No one really knows how to cope with the revolution sweeping the world. It is a technological revolution, yes, and the lords of Silicon Valley spin endless hours of jargon about its magical possibilities. But its social and political impacts — already overwhelming and rapidly multiplying — are coming much faster and more furiously than governments can digest them.

What does it mean to put a computer in the palm of every human being, and to link each palm instantaneously with every other? When Gutenberg’s revolution of movable type first made it possible to share ideas widely across space and time, the political and social follow-on effects included the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the rise of democracy and the industrial and scientific revolutions. In other words, everything from daily routines to international order was scrambled and re-scrambled. How much change, and how rapid, will this massively more powerful technology cause? Elites have been riding high on the back of this beast, and have not yet seen its teeth or felt its claws. But many millions more Americans, living outside the best zip codes, feel it breathing down their necks.

This matters for Trump because he lasered in on the dislocations that technology is causing, in concert with globalization: the manufacturing jobs lost not just to China or Mexico but to robots. The coal jobs lost not just to green liberalism but to higher efficiency in generation and consumption. The asymmetrical warfare made possible not by American weakness but by social media. The retirement and health care time bombs set ticking by more people living longer lives, which is in part made possible by computer power unraveling disease. Trump tapped the pain of dislocation, though he misplaces the blame. The failure of American leaders to solve these mind-boggling questions helped get him elected—but now he is the leader, and it’s his turn to be baffled by them.

The technology revolution mattered for another reason too: Trump was the first successful candidate to realize that these same forces must disrupt the political sphere. Communication is the wiring of democracy; the more communication you have, the easier it is for people to find what they want, and to organize with others who are seeking the same thing. This is true whether the people want the right thing or the wrong thing, whether they seek evil or good. For this reason, many of the Founding Fathers feared an excess of democracy.

But one voter’s excess is another voter’s just-enough, and Trump was able to connect with just enough voters to win the election. Much as Amazon has barreled over the retail giants and Facebook is gobbling up the media, Trump used technology to cut out the middlemen of politics: the reporters and editorial boards, endorsers and political parties, even the mega-armies of door knockers and phone bankers who were the fabric of analog democracy. His relationship to the voters was direct—or felt direct—through the digital idioms of Twitter, Facebook and reality TV. The people wanted him, even when the intermediaries did not, and in the hyper-democracy of the smartphone age, the people can get what they want, when they want it.

And some of them may have wanted it desperately. In some neighborhoods that still looked middle class a major issue in 2016 was opioid addiction. A recent Princeton report noted that 44% of men who had dropped out of the labor force had taken pain medication the previous day. If they did not always vote, the everyday reality of them informed many who did.

Trump understood that campaigning is a performance, and he geared his star turn to a particular audience. His convention in Cleveland told the tale. Experts panned the event as a train wreck, but Trump understood that train wrecks are interesting to watch. Every day a new member of his family appeared, every night ended on a cliffhanger. The leading man normally steers clear of the hall until his speech, but Trump was a hovering presence all week, stalking, glaring, emerging from billowing smoke.

Trump disclosed the meaning of his method earlier this year in an interview with TIME as he winged across America on his private jet and watched himself dominate the news on a giant flat-screen TV: once you build an audience, “that gives you power,” he said. “It’s not the polls. It’s the ratings.”

His rambling late-night Twitter rants and his loose-limbed, jazz-riff, fact-free speeches would have killed his chances if the middlemen still reigned. Instead, by some strange alchemy, they made him more real to his followers. More real, obviously, to the bigots and trolls who made him a hero of the so-called alt right. But also more real to voters for whom Trump’s style signified freedom from worn-out conventions and a refusal to toe the line. Trump’s supporters didn’t take him seriously, except when they did. He was like the guy at work who makes inappropriate jokes but never misses his monthly sales quota.

A man cast his early vote last week in Kansas. As he walked from the polling place, he confessed to a friend, “I feel like I need a shower.” That feeling, so widespread in this election, was not solely the fault of the President-elect. It was common to hear people marvel disgustedly that so broad and abundant a nation somehow managed to produce two deeply unpopular candidates.

Hillary Clinton ran in spite of an electorate clamoring for change, which no 25-year veteran of national politics can represent no matter what gender she is. She ran in spite of souring polls that would show that a majority of Americans neither liked nor trusted her. She ran in spite of nagging questions about her e-mails and enormous wealth. She kept running in spite of a fainting spell at a public ceremony and all the questions about a 68-year-old woman’s stamina that followed. She ran in spite of a last-minute intervention by the director of a mutinous FBI.

Her campaign wasn’t pretty, or edifying, or entirely uplifting. She spent most of her time on the attack, as she’d planned to do all along. Long before she knew whom she would run against, Clinton looked at the partisan divisions of the nation and the shifting demographics that usually gave her party an Electoral College head start. Figuring that she could win simply by surviving, she built a machine specifically geared to that purpose, all fail-safes and firewalls, but no passion. She signed up party insiders to protect her from primary challengers, hired data analysts to target the voters she could not win by personality alone and surrounded herself with rugged pros who would never flinch under fire. Then she did what she does best: gritted her teeth and stuck to the plan. “You can count on this,” she promised in her final televised campaign appeal. “I’ve never quit, and I never will.”

In the wee hours of Nov. 9, after Clinton called Trump to congratulate him on his win, the stragglers at her thwarted celebration in New York were stupefied by the result. It’s hard to exaggerate how convinced they all were—from the candidate on down — that the election was in the bag. The entourage was nothing but cheery in the final days before the election, as Jay Z and Beyoncé and LeBron and the Boss and Bon Jovi and a flock of celebrities too numerous to mention joined the bandwagon to bring out the vote. Many of her senior aides had moved on to the agenda for the first 100 days.

All their polls. All their models. All wrong.

Clinton wore the enemy uniform for the Trump campaign as if it were custom tailored. She was the Establishment he promised to purge. She profited from the cronyism that he dared to call out. She embodied Washington, the swamp he pledged to drain, in all its mansions and motorcades and mendacity.

And so for the second time in her remarkable career, Clinton had given her all and fallen just short against a less experienced, less accountable, more confident man. Her concession speech, the morning after, was somehow graceful and gritty at the same time. “Donald Trump is going to be our President,” she said. “We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.” There will be a Madam President, after so many female governors and Senators and Prime Ministers, so many female entrepreneurs and CEOs, so many female judges and chancellors. It will happen soon. But she won’t be Hillary Clinton.

A veteran of decades of Washington politics stared at his television on that dumbfounding night as a question took shape in his mind. “What is it that has won?” President Trump represents a victory for seismic forces roiling under the mantle of history, the same forces that are shaking Berlin and Beijing, Paris and Mosul, Scranton and Flint. He is a symptom, not a cause, but he is the symptom that cannot be ignored. “America was always a pillar of stability,” says Dhruva Jaishankar, an expert in U.S.-India relations who, like all experts everywhere, was trying to get his arms around the news. “Suddenly we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Let that be the lesson of Trump’s feat and a motto for our future—America’s, the world’s, for a long time to come. Suddenly, we don’t know what’s going to happen. We probably never did, but in times of slower, smaller change we could lull ourselves into believing that we did. We could organize ourselves around elites who claimed to know. We could entrench ourselves for endless political battles over years and decades, play self-serving games with our institutions, ignore nascent threats as we feathered our nests, all because we thought we knew what would happen. We must reorganize ourselves around creativity, flexibility, experimentation and goodwill.

We don’t know what will happen. But we can know what matters. Freedom matters, dignity, opportunity, kindness. The list goes on, and for most people it is written in their hearts. The list got lost in this election, yet there it was in everyday lives, in families, schools, neighborhoods.

And there it was in the first official message of the newly elected President Trump. He spoke of teamwork, gratitude and mutual respect, and promised: “I will not let you down.” So much hangs on his ability to live by it.

— With reporting by Sam Frizell and Zeke J. Miller / New York; Nikhil Kumar / New Delhi; and Elizabeth Dias / Washington

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