Trump’s victory is an incredible finish to a campaign that often beggared belief. When Trump began his campaign in June 2015, proclaiming that Mexican immigrants were “bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists,” he was widely viewed as a curiosity, a garish entertainer whose repeatedly unfulfilled political flirtations were the butt of jokes. Despite billing himself as a businessman, he garnered little respect within the business community. But Trump demolished what was touted as the most talented class of GOP politicians in a lifetime, winning the primary over the objections of most elected Republicans.
It is difficult to overstate the surprise of a Trump win, except perhaps with recourse to the infamous “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline of 1948. Polling averages never showed him leading, or only leading for a fleeting moment after the Republican National Convention. He centered his campaign around a promise to build a wall on the border with Mexico that practically no serious analyst believes is possible, and to force Mexico to pay for it, a remote possibility. He lost all three presidential debates. He rejected several key pillars of the Republican Party, including free trade, projecting American power abroad, and social conservatism. He broke longstanding tradition by refusing to release his tax returns, but bragged about having paid no income taxes for extended periods. During the campaign, The Washington Post published a video in which Trump boasted about sexually assaulting women, and about a dozen women came forward with allegations of sexual assault and harassment stretching across decades. He was a historically dishonest candidate, lying publicly on matters large and small, important and not, easily debunked and not. He would not commit to accepting the results of the election if he lost.
Trump’s campaign borrowed its tactics from Europe’s right-wing populist parties, eagerly leveraging race for political gain. He blamed immigration, whether from Latin America or from the Middle East, for many of the country’s ills, openly demonizing Hispanics and Muslims and railing against “political correctness.” He drew support from a resurgent white supremacist movement, passing along messages from anti-Semites and those who argue that a “white genocide” is occurring. He was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan and wavered before rejecting the support of former KKK Imperial Wizard David Duke. These choices, along with his comments about women, produced a lopsided demographic result, with African Americans, Hispanics, and women backing Clinton by wide margins and white voters carrying Trump to the win.
Trump broke nearly every rule of political campaigning on the way to his win. He survived an unprecedented abandonment by members of his own party; even GOP officials who endorsed Trump often did so through gritted teeth. He lost the endorsements of even the most staunchly Republican newspapers. He barely engaged in fundraising for his race, beginning to ask for money only late in the game. Ultimately, Trump raised scarcely half of what Clinton did, and he hardly purchased ads to combat her onslaught of television spots, relying instead on social media and his own Twitter account. He eschewed traditional campaigning, from the construction of a field organization to the use of polling to the deployment of a carefully calibrated data analytics team, a tool that Obama’s two wins had established as a must. His unfavorable ratings lagged far behind even Clinton’s shoddy numbers, and national exit polls found a majority of Americans did not believe Trump was qualified to be president. He expressed a profound disgust for the First Amendment and a free press.