How Donald Trump happened

Allen Abel criss-crosses America to find out how Donald Trump managed to make himself the GOP’s likely champion


 
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Donald Trump celebrates with supporters after winning the Nevada Republican caucus at the Treasure Island Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, Feb. 23, 2016. (RUTH FREMSON/New York Times/Redux)

Donald Trump celebrates with supporters after winning the Nevada Republican caucus at the Treasure Island Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, Feb. 23, 2016. (RUTH FREMSON/New York Times/Redux)

Donald John Trump declared himself a candidate for the Republican nomination for the presidency of the United States of America on June 16, 2015. On Feb. 25, 2016, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina declared that “my party has gone bats–t crazy.” That evolution required 254 days. This is what happened in between:

“They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

“A total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”

“We’ll have a great wall. We’ll call it the Great Wall of Trump.”

“She was favoured to win and she got schlonged.”

“I love the poorly educated.”

“How stupid are the people of Iowa?”

“I’d like to punch him in the face.”

“There was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming from wherever.”

“We will have so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with winning.”

On Tuesday, March 1—“Super Tuesday,” as Republican and Democratic primary voters in 12 states went to the polls or had millions of their early ballots tallied—Trump blistered his fractured opposition and strutted ever closer to the Republican nomination.

From Massachusetts to the Deep South, Trump swallowed the frustration and futility of Republicans and spat it out with bellicosity. Only in deeply evangelical Texas did rival Ted Cruz’s preacher-man ethos prove successful; only in the Ph.D.-heavy Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., did Marco Rubio’s comparative moderation garner more than a pittance of votes. In his victory remarks from a gilded ballroom in Palm Beach, Fla., Trump boasted of how he will write trade deals that will be “a thing of beauty,” create jobs like “you’ve never seen,” and outlined several other ways he plans to be a “unifier” and “make America great again.”

This happened even though, in the ebbing hours of February, Trump’s desperate rivals creatively and cravenly had attempted to associate him with everyone from the Grand Klaxon of the Ku Klux Klan to “Fat Tony” Salerno of the New York Mafia.

Related: Trump is for real. The establishment can only blame itself.

It’s not like the rout was a surprise. Pre-Tuesday polls showed Trump ahead by 30 percentage points nationally. He had cleaned up in New Hampshire and South Carolina and blew away Cruz and Rubio in Nevada. But none of this was expected 254 days ago, and so a reporter has been wandering and wondering: “Why did Donald Trump happen?”

“Because he is a successful businessman,” has been the answer most often heard.

“Because he is not a politician.”

“Because he believes in everything we’ve believed in for most of our lives and have been afraid to say—or if we did say it, we never had anybody listen to us,” explained a man in Dallas County, Iowa.

“Because I think that if I called him, he would answer the phone, and he would come to fix what is wrong,” said a woman who lives high in the vertical Russian colony called Trump Village—erected by the Donald’s father—in Brooklyn, N.Y. (The Village’s elevator was on the fritz. How many people—how many Democrats—sincerely believe that Hillary Clinton would know how to fix an elevator?)

“Because,” the Fox News commentator Juan Williams told Maclean’s one day last week in the nation’s capital, “he is telling the people, ‘I am rich and I know how to make you rich. I am a winner, and you can be a winner, too.’ ”

“Because there’s the celebrity factor,” said David Yepsen, a long-time newspaperman from Des Moines, now an educator in Illinois. “Because the media turned so quickly from ‘He’s a kook’ to ‘He’s inevitable.’ ”

“Because some people will vote for the last voice they heard on the radio,” sniffed a man waiting in line to see Ted Cruz speak in Dallas, Texas.

“Because it’s easy to say ‘Make America great again,’ ” sneered Ted Cruz when he took the stage. “You could even put that on a baseball cap.”

“Because he’s different,” said a young man scooping ice cream at a strip mall near the campus of Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas, “and people like different.”

“Because he’s being himself,” said 10-year-old Lizzie Abel of Maryland.

“Because we’ve become prisoners of our own reality TV,” said Rev. Al Sharpton. “We look for the show with the best train wreck before we go to bed, and then we wonder where our nightmares come from.”

“Because the American people can’t stomach watching senators fail to do the job they were elected to do,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York. (This was Schumer’s answer to a question pertaining to the Supreme Court. But it perfectly describes the frustration with gridlocked government that has fuelled axe-wielding outliers from Andrew Jackson to George Wallace to the Tea Party to Donald Trump.)

Related: Imagining a Donald Trump presidency

Former Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger gives the thumbs-up during a rally at P-R Farms October 4, 2003 in Clovis, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Former Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger gives the thumbs-up during a rally at P-R Farms October 4, 2003 in Clovis, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

In a way, what is happening with Donald Trump in 2016 is similar to the political rise of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who also had universal name recognition when he won election—and then re-election—as governor of California in 2003. But Schwarzenegger campaigned as a lucky Austrian immigrant who had been lifted and blessed by a welcoming, inclusive America.

In a way, it’s like the election of Jesse “the Body” Ventura, a professional wrestler, to the governorship of Minnesota in 1998 in a tight, three-party race with a promise to pile-drive “politics as usual.” But Ventura resigned, frustrated, after a single term.

In a way, it is like Ronald Reagan’s rose-coloured “morning in America” revolution. But Reagan had served two terms as governor of California and had sought the nomination several times before he finally succeeded in 1980, and Reagan never evinced anger at the failures of his own country, only the certainty that God would see America through. (Reagan’s campaign slogan was “Let’s Make America Great Again.”)

If the Trump phenomenon seems new and strange, it may be because John D. Rockefeller never ran for president. Nor did Vanderbilt, Edison, Disney, Hearst, Westinghouse or Henry Ford. Neither, in more modern times, have Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs, Carl Icahn or Bill Gates. As of Tuesday, neither had billionaire Michael Bloomberg, the three-term Gotham mayor. So, except for the success of businessman Ross Perot in 1992—he “succeeded” only in splitting the Republican vote and handing the White House to Bill Clinton—there is scant history here of tycoons deigning to enter the lesser game of politics.

“Would this have happened if Kim Kardashian had run, or Caitlyn Jenner, or Octomom?” Maclean’s asked Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at SMU. “No, because mere celebrity is not enough,” he replied. “Some people believe that celebrity, combined with accomplishment in another field like neurosurgery or developing real estate, can translate into politics. Those people are wrong.”


Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

In Washington, a couple of hours before Graham will observe that the Republican Party—his party—has gone nuts, he and Sen. John McCain are holding a news conference in the Senate’s sub-sub-basement to decry the Obama administration’s decision to close the terrorist kindergarten at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

(Graham’s own campaign for the 2016 nomination never advanced past the “kiddie table” stage. Now, like many other Trumpophobic Republicans, he fears that, should the Donald be duly nominated in Cleveland in July and then whipped by Hillary Clinton in November, Republicans will spend the next few decades hanging upside-down in a cave.)

Related: Inside Donald Trump’s unprecedented rise

“Our foreign policy is in complete free fall,” Graham is saying. “Everything is tainted by the fact that we have elections coming up,” notes McCain. This emboldens a Maclean’s correspondent to ask about the current Republican front-runner and his ruminations about Islamic State, to wit: “They don’t use waterboarding over there; they use chopping off people’s heads . . . I think waterboarding is peanuts compared to what they’d do to us.”

“I never thought I’d hear a presidential candidate say that he wants to withdraw from the Geneva Convention,” says Graham. “When someone says he would waterboard and torture, he is breaking the law,” scowls McCain. “A better idea than cutting people’s heads off is not cutting people’s heads off,” says Graham.


 

Workers walk away at the end of their shift from the site of the future Trump International Hotel, which is at the location of the Old Post Office Pavilion July 7, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Workers walk away at the end of their shift from the site of the future Trump International Hotel, which is at the location of the Old Post Office Pavilion July 7, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

On Pennsylvania Avenue, halfway along the inaugural parade route from the Capitol to the White House, there is a quotation from Walt Whitman, dated 1888, etched into the sidewalk: “I went to Washington as everyone goes there, prepared to see everything done with some furtive intention, but I was disappointed—pleasantly disappointed.”

Right across the street is a huge blue sign that says, without irony or subtlety: “TRUMP COMING 2016.”

This is the site where the Trump organization is turning an ornate and historic 19th-century post office into a hotel that Trump calls “perhaps the most luxurious hotel anywhere in the world and creating tremendous numbers of jobs.”

Taking a break for a Marlboro Menthol the other day is a sheet-metal worker named Will Gorman, who turns out to be one of those Americans who sees Trump coming to Washington not with furtive intention, but with the sincere aspiration to make America great again, as he and the men and women who support him have chosen to define greatness. “I know that America used to be the biggest producer of goods for the world, the biggest producer of food,” Gorman says. “Now, we’re the biggest consumer. To me, that needs to be changed. We need to become the biggest producer, and then America will be great again.”

Related: When did America stop being great?

The worker boasts that he has met Donald Trump several times during hands-on inspections—if not hands-on elevator repair—of the gilded new hotel. (The Washington Post reports that some of the workers on Pennsylvania Avenue are illegal migrants who are worried, as one man is quoted, that “he might come one day and pretty much tell us to get the heck out of here.”) But Gorman has never seen a single episode of The Apprentice. “I think he could phrase things better so people could understand what he’s trying to say and not get offended so quick,” Gorman says.

“How did we get here?” Gorman is asked.

“Because everybody knows Trump’s name,” he answers. “But why wouldn’t I want the president of the United States to be someone who has actually had a career that employs people in the United States?”

“The issue is: would Donald Trump be able to take advice and counsel?” asks Jillson. “The executive office of the president alone has a thousand people with deep expertise in their fields. Could Trump sit with these people and listen to them? He must have taken counsel from people in developing real estate. But so far, he has shown no political ability to do that at all.”

Kraig Moss, a supporter of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, outside a truck with a Trump painting in which he is touring Iowa on January 28, 2016 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

Kraig Moss, a supporter of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, outside a truck with a Trump painting in which he is touring Iowa on January 28, 2016 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

Across campus from the political science department at SMU is the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum. There is a perfect replica of the Oval Office, displays of golden, Trump-like gifts presented by foreign mikados to the people of the United States and exhibits devoted to Bush’s work on such issues as public education and the eradication of HIV in Africa.

And then, of course, there is the 9/11 room, with its twisted, rusted girders exhumed from Manhattan and its continuous loops of Bush’s speeches and his vows of revenge and justice. Here, on the eve of Super Tuesday, was a giant named Mo Bullock, a former professional basketball player from New Jersey who says that his sister was supposed to attend a meeting in the World Trade Center that morning, but a missed train saved her life. And then the big man begins to cry.

So now it may be necessary to envision Donald John Trump in the real Oval Office on a morning such as that, and what he would say, and what he would do.

“When I was young, Donald Trump was just a billionaire playboy,” Bullock is saying. “He had all that money and he was running New York. But that was 20 years ago. I think he has grown up a lot. He’s honest and he’s straightforward, and that’s what people like to hear. He’s selling you the dream.”

“He’s changing a lot of people’s minds who would normally not vote Republican. I think he’s changing mine.”


It’s the land of the free, and the home of those brave enough to wear shirts festooned in their political choice. The United States’ quadrennial orgy of partisanship, political rancour and plodding primaries to find out who has the mettle to win the presidency is in full swing. And Americans are clearly in the spirit of things—these photos of Americans emblazoned in the totems of their candidate of choice give proof through the night that their flag is still there. And there, on the lapel. And there, on the truck. And there…


 

How Donald Trump happened

  1. It’s unfortunate so many members of the media did not see Trump coming. It seemed very obvious from the beginning he was a force to reckon with. I think it simply comes down to a massive disconnect between journalists and voters. Reporters seem to be so far on the left politically or working with a company agenda based on the social crusade at the moment they’re utterly clueless to the silent majority’s concerns.
    This article itself exemplifies the divide … the reporter chose to interview Lindsey Graham for context. This man is so biased against Trump, so pro establishment and polled barely at 1% when running for President. Not a great person to speak objectively (or for the people) about the Trump phenomenon as he still doesn’t understand it himself. You just need to look at the main issues driving this election – illegal immigration, radical Islamic terrorism, poor trade deals/economy & PC agenda politics – all the issues Trump is campaigning on and you’ll see why he’s winning. Trump has major personality and isn’t afraid to speak out against anyone including The Clintons, The Pope, The GOP Establishment, the media, etc. This alone guarantees a winning strategy.

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