Donald Trump awakened a movement of angry working-class voters fed up with political insiders and desperate for change. On Tuesday, that movement propelled him to the White House.
Trump’s stunning, come-from-behind victory over Hillary Clinton served as a symbolic raised middle finger to the political establishment from his fervent backers.
But to millions of others, the billionaire businessman’s elevation to the presidency is a shocking, catastrophic blow that threatens the security and identity of a bitterly divided nation.
Many see the president-elect as a racist, a bigot and a misogynist unfit for the office.
“He scares the daylights out of me,” said Wendy Bennett, a Democrat and government worker from Reno, Nevada, who cast her ballot for Clinton. “I think his personality is going to start World War III. He reminds me of Hitler.”
Lisa Moore, a registered Republican from Glen Rock, New Jersey, crossed party lines to vote for Clinton, who would have been the nation’s first female president.
“As a woman, in good conscience, and as the mother of a daughter, I can’t vote for somebody who’s so morally reprehensible,” said Moore, an exercise instructor.
The 2016 election will go down as one of the most vicious in modern history, as Clinton tried to paint Trump as a reckless bully and Trump belittled his rival as a corrupt insider who belonged behind bars.
But the election also served as vindication for Trump, a former reality TV star whose appeal was underestimated from the start.
While pundits assumed his poll numbers would sink as soon as voters started taking the race seriously, Trump was drawing thousands each night to rallies packed full of angry, largely white supporters who felt ignored and lied to by Washington.
While statistics showed the U.S. economy improving overall, it didn’t feel that way in places like upstate New York, Pennsylvania’s coal country and former manufacturing towns across the Midwest devastated by outsourcing and globalization. Chaos abroad only added to the feeling that the country was sliding backward.
Together, those factors drove a yearning to return to a simpler time when America was the world’s undisputed superpower and middle-class wages were on the rise.
“We have our fingers in too many baskets,” said Joe Hudson, 49, an engineer and registered Republican from Virginia Beach, Virginia, who said he would be voting for Trump because “we’re not taking care of our own people.”
“We’re trying to be too involved in world politics. And our country is imploding from within,” he said. “We need a new direction, a new attitude, and people to stop arguing and letting the media affect how we feel.”
Trump’s vow was simple: He’d “Make America Great Again.” His outsider status, coupled with his personal business success, lent credibility to a populist message that emphasized recapturing manufacturing jobs, restoring American strength abroad and curtailing legal and illegal immigration.
Trump, early on, painted his supporters as a “movement” larger than himself.
“This isn’t about me; it’s about all of you and our magnificent movement to make America great again all over this country. And they’re talking about it all over the world,” he said at a rally in Miami last week during the race’s furious final stretch.
“There has never been a movement like this in the history of our country — it’s never happened. Even the pundits, even the ones that truly dislike Donald Trump, have said it’s the single greatest phenomena they have ever seen.”
But as he worked his base into a frenzy and locked down one primary win after the next, Trump was also repelling large swaths of the populace — including women, college-educated whites and minorities — with his deeply divisive rhetoric.
Trump launched his campaign with a speech that accused Mexico of sending rapists and other criminals across the border. He later questioned 2008 Republican nominee and former POW John McCain’s status as a war hero, saying he preferred people who hadn’t been captured. He mocked a disabled reporter. And he called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on” — a blanket religion test denounced by many as un-American.
After securing his party’s nomination, Trump questioned a federal judge’s ability to treat him fairly because of the judge’s Hispanic origin, repeatedly insulted a Muslim-American family whose son had been killed in Iraq, and got into an extended spat with a former beauty queen, at one point instructing his millions of Twitter followers to “check out” her non-existent sex tape.
Again and again, Trump appeared poised to close the gap with Clinton, only to go off on a tangent that would send his poll numbers tumbling.
Then came the release of jarring old video footage from an “Access Hollywood” bus in which Trump bragged about being able to grope women because he was famous. The video’s release was followed by a string of allegations from women who said Trump sexually harassed or assaulted them.
Trump denied the accusations, at one point threatening to sue the women.
But one October surprise was followed by another: a letter from the FBI director informing Congress that the bureau had found a new trove of emails potentially relevant to its investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server a secretary of state. While the FBI eventually announced that there was nothing in the emails to merit criminal prosecution, the damage appeared to have been done.