As non-Trump America works it way through the 7 stages of grief, pockets of outrage regarding aspects of the electoral process are busting out all over. Many folks are livid about the media’s failure to expose Trump’s true nature. Others are disgusted by the triumph of sound bites over substance (a perennial complaint). Still others, driven to distraction by the fact that Hillary Clinton’s won the popular vote, are itching to do away with the electoral college. And so on and so forth. With a process so warped and pathetic, the logic goes, small wonder we wound up with a race-baiting, reality-TV demagogue as our next commander-in-chief.
Except, in key ways, Trump’s victory wasn’t a product of the usual electoral dysfunction so much as an end-run around it.
While no one wins the White House on the cheap, Trump was not the candidate of big-money donors--or big-money period. His Republican opponents (along with some highly motivated super PACs) spent vastly more than he did in the primaries. And while Trump happily sucked up to billionaires like Robert and Rebekah Mercer for help in the general, his money machine was nothing compared to Clinton’s. Plenty of GOP money-men opted to sit out this presidential battle and channel their money into down ballot races.
Nor did Trump rely on saturation TV advertising or obsessive polling or cutting-edge data analytics. In fact, he gave the finger to high-priced strategists, ad-men, pollsters, and all those other shifty political pros that churn out the slick, poll-tested candidates that Americans love to hate. (For a scathing look at the entire consulting class, see Molly Ball’s piece from October. ) Just ask Jeb Bush (or Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz) whether the red team’s crack strategists were worth the money this cycle.
Trump did not win the endorsements of powerful media outlets or sparkly celebrities--or much of anyone for that matter. And more than any race in modern memory, his election was a victory of the grassroots over the political establishment. Forget the DNC’s minor machinations in boosting Clinton over Bernie Sanders; arguably never have a party’s leaders been as intent on derailing the chosen champion of the base as the GOP was when it came to Trump. Even those who, out of either cowardice or team loyalty, didn’t outright reject Trump made it clear they were holding their noses where he was concerned. (Looking at you, Paul Ryan.)
As for the substance of the election: The media exerted little to no control over Trump’s messaging. This is not to say that political journalists gave him a free ride. Especially as the race wore on, reporters dug into the endless controversies swirling around the nominee and kept a spotlight on his steady stream of verbal atrocities. But from the 30,000-foot perspective, Trump worked the media, both social and traditional, like the master carnival barker he is. He followed a direct-to-consumer sales model—his true nature graphically on display--kicking the usual middle-men to the curb.
And while you can complain about the sound-bite-driven nature of the race, it may be time to acknowledge that this is what a big chunk of the electorate wants. Certainly, it is what people respond to. Hillary Clinton is the definition of a wonk. Her team prepared detailed policy papers on every topic imaginable. Voters could not have cared less. They wanted big promises, declarative sentences, and slug-you-in-the-gut slogans. (Build that Wall! Make American Great Again! Trust me!) Which is, when it comes to presidential contenders, pretty much what they always want. (Hope! Change! Morning In America!)
So you can gripe about the shallow nature of the race, but there’s little point in blaming the candidates or even the supporting players. Trump delivered what so many voters crave, with vanishingly little interference from the media, big donors, pollsters, ad men, strategists, and the political establishment.
Looked at from this angle, the race was, in certain ways, more small-d democratic than many. Yes, it wound up saddling the nation--the entire globe really--with a president-elect considered temperamentally unfit for the office even by many of those who voted for him. But democracy is messy that way. Removing gatekeepers and flattening hierarchies have unintended consequences. (For a deep dive on this, see Jon Rauch’s July/August cover story.)
To be sure, Trump was a bit of a black swan, and his victory isn’t exactly a case study in the power-to-the-people, level-playing-field electoral system good-government types dream of.
“He’s a billionaire who from the outset said he would self-finance,” observes Paul S. Ryan, a Vice President of the liberal citizens’-advocacy group Common Cause. “And he did dump more than 40 million dollars into the campaign. Almost nobody in society can do that.” This is well short of the $100 million Trump pledged to spend, and the amount is hardly eye-popping in high-level politics. (Mitt Romney spent $44.7 million self-financing his unsuccessful 2008 primary; Ross Perot self-financed to the tune of $64 million in 1992; Michael Bloomberg spent $250 on his three campaigns for New York mayor; Meg Whitman spent $144 million on her failed 2010 bid for the California governorship.)
Still, the lesson here, says Ryan, “is that you still need immense personal wealth and/or access to immense wealth. That’s not how democracy should work: A billionaire versus a career politician very close with lots of special interests.”
Infinitely more important, Trump’s pop-cultural celebrity let him play by an entirely different set of media rules. “With the Trump personality, he had wall-to-wall coverage on media and social media,” observes Marge Baker, Executive Vice President at People For the American Way, a liberal advocacy group that pushes for campaign-finance reform.
“President-elect Trump received an unprecedented amount of earned media from the mainstream press, all the while berating the mainstream press,” says Ryan. “His ability to do that largely depended on his celebrity status––plus his fiery rhetoric.”
Further working to Trump’s advantage, his famous brand is associated with success in the business world, meaning he could sell himself to the American people as a savvy wheeler-dealer supposedly worth billions.
Still, Ryan and Baker also acknowledge that Trump’s popularity stemmed in part from the widespread sense that the political system is hopelessly rigged to favor insiders. (Just look at the Democratic side, they note: Clinton had the money, fame, and connections to scare off or stomp on pretty much all comers.) “The American public is fed up with feeling that their voices are closed out and that they don’t have the opportunity to fully participate in the Democratic process,” says Baker. “There’s no question Trump very cynically tapped into it.”
Whatever your feelings about Trump (excitement, vindication, horror, nausea…), his election is a reminder of the unpredictability of democracy. And it is worth keeping in mind that, while fixating on the process is all well and good, there will inevitably be occasions when the outcome fills you with shock and awe.