President Trump’s Perpetual Campaign

The election is over, but the president-elect is demonstrating he hopes to dominate Washington the same way he dominated his campaign rivals: by taking the case to his loyal movement of supporters.

William Philpott / Reuters

CINCINNATI—The campaign never ended, and maybe it never will.

So there was Donald Trump a few days ago, doing what he had always done—the thing he knew how to do—the thing that got him here and made him president-elect: standing on a stage, surrounded by the people who couldn’t get enough of him, letting them have what they wanted.

Trump was here, he told them, to say thank you to the people of Ohio. “We won the state by almost 10 points, which they say is totally unheard of!” he said. And then, just as he had during the campaign, he couldn’t resist taking aim at one of his critics, the Ohio governor, John Kasich, who opposed Trump throughout the election and voted for John McCain for president instead.

“We didn’t have much help at the top levels,” Trump said bitterly, swirling an index finger in the air. The crowd erupted in long, steady boos. “But you know what—it turned out it didn’t matter!” Later in the speech, Trump circled back to praise Kasich for a conciliatory post-election call—but the crowd booed again.

The election was more than three weeks behind him. Trump won it. The system is still in shock—his zealous supporters thrilled, his opponents horrified and disbelieving. Now he is going to be the president. What is that going to be like? What is he going to do?

“What are we going to do?” he asked the crowd. They stood on the unfilled floor of the chilly arena, a sea of upraised heads dotted with red hats, chins upturned to him in rapt attention, like flowers to sunlight; they sat or stood in the bottom tier of seats. It was, from the sight of it, a more suburban than blue-collar demographic, women in plaid scarves and men in fleece jackets. Trump answered his rhetorical question: “We’re going to make America great again—you watch!”

For a year and a half, since he began his presidential campaign, America has been watching Donald Trump, in awe or in horror, always in fascination. For a year and a half, nothing really changed: the gleeful, freewheeling style, the vulgar provocations, and the outrageous tweets; the perpetual war with enemies real and imagined, including, perhaps especially, his own party; or the manufactured facts, the bragging about the polls, the assertion, over and over, whether or not it was true in the moment, that he was winning—until it became true.

Trump is a salesman, and what he saw from the beginning was that politics was a sales game, just like business, where his name was worth as much or more than anything he built. He learned early on in the Republican primary that he could rile up voters and turn them on his rivals, and the other politicians would have to kneel before him or become irrelevant. As he assembles his administration, the same patterns are on display: feuding underlings, supplicants publicly vying for his favor, a divided country trying to figure out what he’ll do next. But the answer may be right in front of our noses: He is going to keep doing exactly what he’s always done.

More “thank you” rallies are scheduled for this week, in North Carolina and Iowa and Michigan. It is not customary for the winners of American presidential elections to continue campaigning after the election is over, just as it is not customary to publicly audition potential Cabinet members, to make phone calls that trample diplomatic sensitivities, or to include one’s children-slash-business-partners in presidential matters. But Trump always promised to upend the customary order of things, and to hear him tell it, he is already winning.

Just before the rally in Cincinnati, he had gone to Indiana and announced a deal with the makers of Carrier air-conditioning that would, he claimed, keep jobs in America. The quibblers quibbled, the critics criticized: In fact, they insisted, a bunch of jobs would still be going to Mexico; it was not a real win for American jobs like he claimed. Conservatives from the Wall Street Journal to Sarah Palin decried the deal as anti-market. Trump ignored them and made the sale. “What happened today in Indiana, we’re going to do all over the country,” he said, and the crowd cheered.

What do Trump’s people want from him? What do they expect him to do? Is there anything he could do to let them down? Trump grinned as the crowd chanted “lock her up,” even though he has already stated he does not plan to prosecute Hillary Clinton. They chanted “build the wall” and “drain the swamp.” Trump talked about repealing Obamacare, ending Washington gridlock, rebuilding inner cities, and putting coal miners back to work.

“All of it,” John G. Falk told me, when I asked him what he thought Trump would do. “I think he will do all of it.” A blue-eyed, stubble-faced 40-year-old in a Trump campaign shirt and hat, Falk said he had bet two friends bottles of whiskey that Trump would really build his promised border wall, which his friends do not believe.

“They voted for him, but they think he’s going to be just another politician,” he said. “I said, ‘No, he’s different.’ In three years, if he hasn’t built the wall, he’s done—he put his name behind that.” Falk paused and then qualified his statement: There could be some unforeseen obstacle that would prevent Trump from building the wall, and in that case, it would not be his fault.

Falk pointed to the Carrier deal and a similar Trump interaction with Ford as proof he was already making good on his promises. Most of all, though, Falk and others I talked to seemed to see Trump’s victory as an end in itself: a cry of defiance, a downtrodden people’s assertion of its voice. “It’s like being reborn,” he said of the election result. It was a rebuke to Clinton’s disdain for “deplorables,” a blow struck for Middle America.

Originally from Cincinnati, Falk was in town visiting; he now lives in New York and sells biometric-fingerprint technology, but he still saw himself as a citizen of the heartland. “Why is it that lesbians and gays and blacks and transgenders can vote for their interests, but when working-class people do that, they’re demonized?” Falk said. “Who’s speaking for us? There’s more of us. We’re America.”

Talking to Falk and a dozen others at the rally, I got the sense they would do exactly what they’d done throughout the campaign: follow Trump wherever he led, rationalizing his lapses and believing his claims of triumph, facts be damned.

“His transition is a lot different than people envisioned—it’s been pretty inclusive,” said Keith Rings, a 55-year-old Cincinnatian who works for a business finance company. “He’s reached out to people that were against him.” Rings looked forward to Trump “getting rid of the nepotism in Washington,” defined as the money-and-lobbying axis exemplified by Clinton.

Rings was a conservative who hadn’t always approved of Trump’s conduct but was tired of being “stomped on” by “elitists” in the media. He was relieved by the defeat of Clinton, who, he said, had been up to no good ever since she was kicked off the Watergate Commission. (This persistent rumor is not true.)

Trump, Rings contended, could not possibly have done all the terrible things his opponents accused him of, because “if he really did all those things, he would’ve been in prison a long time ago.” He was annoyed by the protests that broke out after the election. “When Barack Obama won, you didn’t see people burning cars and destroying businesses,” he said. “You can’t behave that way and think you have a right.”

In Washington, where Trump’s victory caught both parties flat-footed, uncertainty prevails about the road ahead. Republicans hope for an opportunity to undo the Obama years and execute their long-stalled agenda, including the fiscal plans of House Speaker Paul Ryan and regulatory changes sought by the business community. But Trump’s alpha-dog campaign was at odds with Ryan and the Republican establishment to the end; when they criticized him, as when Ryan stopped campaigning for Trump in October, he simply blasted them at his rallies, and his supporters sided with Trump against the elites. He did not campaign on their agenda, and he does not like to feel that anyone else is in charge.

All Trump has to do is never stop campaigning. He has his people, and he can turn them against whoever he pleases, and the politicians will have to do what he wants.

Outside the arena, a couple of dozen protestors held up their sad little signs. “No Human Being Is Illegal,” one read. “Be a Better President Than You Have Been a Human Being,” one pleaded. “We Will Resist.” A middle-aged white woman sang “We Shall Overcome” into a bullhorn. The surrounding night sky was lit by the towers of downtown skyscrapers. Walking past the protestors into the arena, a young man in a hoodie muttered to his companion, “He is too your president! Jesus Christ, that pisses me off!”

Inside, as the people waited for Trump, speaker after speaker reminded them of their glorious vindication, the people’s definitive refutation of everyone who’d said it couldn’t be done. “He did it, and we have you to thank!” exulted Mike Pence, the vice president-elect. And then the music boomed and the spotlights raked the crowd, and Trump strode out from the wings.

The campaign never ended, and maybe it never will.