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Winner

Facing long odds, Donald Trump rewrote the political playbook. November 9, 2016
Politics and law

Donald J. Trump, the winner he’d always claimed himself to be, is now America’s next president. Thus concludes the overture to the most improbable presidency in American history. How could this have happened? It’s a question that’s been asked again and again throughout the election season. But those asking it, whether they’re politicians, journalists, or pundits, have neither identified nor accepted the truth of the matter.

Too many on both the left and right have been willing to credit anything but Trump’s own skill for his success. They blame the fact that a large Republican field opened the door to Trump that never would have existed in a normal year, or that rival candidates preferred to engage with one another rather than Trump early in the primary season, or the media for giving him so much free airtime, or that old standby of the Left, racism.

But Trump’s win was no fluke. He has been talking about running for president since at least 1988, but never pulled the trigger. This time around, he saw the opportunity and went for it. A shrewd entrepreneur, he saw a vast sea of unhappy voters who wanted fundamental change to the status quo—particularly on trade, immigration, and interminable foreign wars, and he was able to disrupt politics by re-segmenting the political market to serve it.

Trump also understood that his massive brand and social-media presence—particularly on Twitter, which he mastered and where he had built up a huge following years in advance—allowed him to be his own media platform and bypass the gatekeepers. He could go directly to the public. “I love Twitter,” he tweeted in 2012. “It’s like owning your own newspaper—without the losses.”

Having been in the tabloid spotlight since the 1970s, Trump also knew the media perhaps better than they knew themselves. Though aghast at Trump, they could not resist covering him and letting him dominate the airwaves. Under no illusion that he would get a fair shake from them, he refused to beg for their approval the way Republicans have traditionally done. Instead, he stood his ground and walked directly into places like Stephen Colbert’s Late Show, and emerged not just unscathed but strengthened.

It’s easy to rationalize this after the fact, but Trump’s skills were identified and broken down well in advance. Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic strip, labeled Trump the “Master Persuader” and accumulated a vast archive of posts on his blog detailing Trump’s techniques (and applied some himself, becoming a bona fide election pundit on CNN and elsewhere). Indie-mindset writer Mike Cernovich recognized in Trump a kindred spirit who knew that “conflict is attention and attention is influence.” He pointed out the method in Trump’s apparent madness. Cernovich likewise applied Trumpian techniques to become one of the most influential social-media figures in this year’s election—even earning himself a profile in the New Yorker.

Unlike Adams and Trump himself, I did not predict a Trump victory, but I pointed out over a year ago that people had “dramatically underestimated the sophistication of Trump’s appeal,” and illustrated his trolling techniques.

Trump’s skill must also be evaluated against the backdrop of the incredibly hostile environment he faced. Start with the almost-unanimous rejection of Trump by the American elite (at least publicly). Not a single Fortune 100 CEO backed Trump. Of the top 100 newspapers in America, only two—in small-market Las Vegas and Jacksonville—endorsed Trump. As of the end of September, Hillary Clinton was outraising Trump 20-1 in donations from billionaires.

The media engaged in hysterics to stop Trump, immolating their own standards and credibility in the process. As Ken Stern, former CEO of National Public Radio, wrote in Vanity Fair, “[F]or the first time in my memory some of the major media organizations in this country have now abandoned all semblance of objectivity in furtherance of electing Hillary Clinton, or perhaps more accurately, in furtherance of the defeat of Donald Trump.” Some journalists for elite publications and networks became open partisans on social media. In their pages and TV shows, they did anything and everything to inspire fear at the thought of President Trump, up to and including suggesting that he was a tool of Russian president Vladimir Putin. Even by media-bias standards, some of this was over the top, such as when NBC issued a “fact check” saying that Trump was wrong when he said that Clinton had “acid-washed” her emails. “Clinton’s team used an app called BleachBit,” NBC wrote. “She did not use a corrosive chemical.” Like another exceptional politician, Bill Clinton, Trump used the overreach of his enemies to discredit them.

Anyone having the temerity to support Trump felt the backlash. Activists tried to get firms to cut ties with gay tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel, who spoke at the Republican convention in favor of Trump. They likewise attacked Palmer Lucky, founder of the virtual-reality firm, Oculus, which was acquired for $2 billion by Facebook, when it emerged that he was financing pro-Trump activism. NPR commentator Cokie Roberts labeled Trump supporters “morally tainted.” Trump staffers faced the threat of being blacklisted for working for him.

Yet despite this, Trump triumphed. Leveraging his direct pipeline to the public and his media mastery, he largely self-financed his primary victory, while spending far less than some of his opponents. (A fiscal conservative with his own money, he at one point quipped that his campaign was “$35 million under budget.”) Breaking radical new ground for a Republican, he cultivated an army of small donors, raising $100 million in October alone.

He also attracted a large new following of former blue-collar Democrats alienated by a party increasingly devoted to the elite and minority groups over the working class. He embraced the gay community throughout his campaign, at one point walking on stage at one of his rallies carrying a large Pride flag. He repeatedly pitched himself to the black community, maybe a first for the GOP. Exit polls suggest that he did much better among blacks than Mitt Romney did in 2012.

Romney, a man of tremendous decency and high character, was sunk by sound bites like “the 47%”, “self-deportation,” and “binders full of women.” In 2016, Ted Cruz never recovered from his “New York values” statement. But Trump repeatedly recovered from gaffes and gotchas, often even turning them to his advantage. When asked why, if the Clintons were so awful, Hillary had attended his wedding, Trump had the savvy and audacity to say that she was there because he paid her.

In short, while facing some of the longest odds of any candidate, Trump rewrote the political playbook and reconfigured the political landscape. He was right about the timing, right about the issues that would resonate with the voters, right about his understanding of human behavior (and, arguably, human nature), right on his rhetoric, and right about other aspects of his strategy and tactics. He brought his intense, high-energy style to the political arena; he never crumbled and hardly wavered in the face of vicious attacks that would have traumatized almost any other candidate. Yet few critics wish to acknowledge it.

In reviewing the unwillingness of the Left to acknowledge the success of Broken Windows policing, City Journal editor-at-large Myron Magnet said, “Some people can’t—or won’t—see what’s in front of their own eyes.” So it is with Trump. There’s a reason it’s called “blind hatred.”

This is not to say a Trump presidency will be favorable; that remains to be seen. But for today, at least, let’s acknowledge Donald Trump as a grandmaster of politics, in the aftermath of his delivering the most bravura performance in American electoral history.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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