US Election 2016
One man has made this year’s US presidential
election the most extraordinary ever.
It has been an electric slugfest, democracy at its
most vibrant and shameful.
More mud has been flung around than is churned
up in that quintessential American sport of big
trucks with big tyres screeching through the
Georgia mud pits.
This was Donald Trump’s election, even if he
loses. Particularly if he loses.
The forces he has unleashed and validated won’t
go away. He is an incarnation of a mood, which
has become a movement.
The really startling thing about Donald Trump is
not how exceptional he is, but how much he is
part of an American mainstream.
This bitter battle won’t end on election day
The state that defines the race
America’s coal country feels forgotten
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Those who made headlines a few days ago,
threatening bloody revolution and a march on
Washington if Hillary Clinton wins, can be ignored.
But what they shout tells you something about the
mood of their milder fellow Trumpists.
The adage that a win by a single vote is a win, is
only partly true.
Battles are won and lost. Wars rage for years. In
the UK, “Brexit means Brexit” has been used to
encourage defeated Remainers to slink away and
Vanquished Americans, overflowing with a sense of
injustice and anger, won’t go so quietly.
If Mr Trump loses, he may stick around
complaining, issuing legal challenges and dire
He might set up Trump clubs across America to
further his cause, or fund a TV station .
But even if he disappears with uncharacteristic
humility, he would leave a legacy that could
transform American politics.
However, his fundamental attack against an elite
doing down the common folk isn’t new.
Back in 1891, the People’s Party argued for the
“plain people” against the “controlling influences”
dominating the political mainstream, and
demanded the expulsion of Chinese workers.
If you read no other political book this year, read
The Populist Explosion by John B Judis, which
brilliantly sets out the connection to present
The 1964 Republican presidential candidate Barry
Goldwater campaigned against civil rights,
opposed his party’s liberal elite and argued that
“extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice”. He
lost, but helped transform his party.
But more modern right-wing populism in America
may have begun with ex-Democrat George
Wallace, who campaigned as an independent in
His case was based on a ferocious defence of the
continued segregation of black and white,
combined with an economic appeal to white blue-
“There’s a backlash in this country against big
government,” he said. “If the politicians get in the
way, a lot of them are going to get run over by
this average man in the street: this man in the
textile mill, the man in the steel mill.”
He lost, but his supporters didn’t go away. And
those workers in the textile and steel mills saw
their standard of living and social position decline.
For years, Pat Buchanan – who tried to get on the
Republican ticket a couple of times but ended up
running for president for the Reform Party in 2000
– attacked not only transnational corporations and
global competition, but also trade deals that
benefited Mexican workers.
Sound familiar? By then, those steel and textile
mills were closing down and many of those
workers worked no longer. Mr Buchanan lost, but
Supporters and movements morphed and
overlapped. The evangelical Christian right waxed
After Barack Obama’s election, the Tea Party built
a movement that combined several different
resentments about bank bailouts, taxation and big
Mr Trump has put these concerns centre stage for
the Republican Party, linking opposition to global
free trade and widespread immigration to white
unease at a black president and minorities’
growing status and power.
Textiles and steel still resonate in the imagination
and the children of those workers who lost their
jobs struggle. But that’s not all.
Many middle-class Americans on fair wages are
burdened with huge college fees, face big medical
bills all their life, and risk an insecure old age.
Life doesn’t feel like it’s getting better and better
Add to the brew fears of a changing America, and
the belief their taxes go only to help the feckless
and illegal immigrants.
Mr Trump’s appeal is directly to these people. The
sharp intake of breath at the vulgarian on the high
wire disguises the strength and breadth of this
Donald Trump is an American archetype, the
huckster, the booster, the snake oil salesman.
What many forget in their liberal disgust is that in
the old Wild West many bought the snake oil off
the side of the wagon. When you’ve tried every
other remedy, why not give it a shot? What’s the
risk? Similarly in politics.
This is not just the territory of the right.
President Clinton II would face similar rumblings to
The sort of people who support Occupy and Bernie
Sanders may hate Mr Trump, but they agree with
his excoriation of the establishment, and his
assault on the arrogance of the rich and powerful.
They will agree that the US risks a third world war
if Mrs Clinton steps up military action in the
Middle East and confronts Russia.
This may not daunt her. But if she wins, her
legitimacy will already have been undermined by
the accusation that she succeeded only because
she was the candidate who was not Donald
The Republican Party would find itself with a
heightened dilemma that so far it has ducked and
In the UK, the day after the election, the losing
party has a stark choice – to ditch or support its
There are not just debates, but votes about where
they went wrong. Too left or too right – too much
of this policy, too little of that?
In the US, it isn’t quite so frantic.
The Republicans won’t be choosing a new
presidential candidate until 2020, and no-one can
guess now who it will be.
Before I became the BBC’s North America editor, I
asked a host of diplomats, politicians and
journalists who would face Mr Obama in 2012. No-
one said: “Mitt Romney”. Not a single
commentator dreamt it would be Mr Trump in
So the Republicans have time. But eventually they
will have to make a decision. It is not just about
embracing a populist rhetoric. Many do that
already. Trump was just better at it.
They have to decide whether to adopt the policies
that go with a conservative rejection of globalism
and economic liberalism, which would horrify their
remaining supporters in Wall Street and big
But if they don’t, although the two-party system in
America is immensely durable, it is possible that
an inchoate angry movement could spill outside
its boundaries, flowing who knows where.
The pitfalls are plain. The conservative political
establishment’s approach to the Tea Party was an
idiot’s guide on how not to do it.
Partly because of the system of primary elections –
which allowed the “deselection” of moderate
candidates – the party was all but taken over by
radicals who then became the mainstream.
There was a seemingly endless contest of
candidates pushed into a Dutch auction,
outbidding each other in outrage, moving further
to the right.
There seemed to be no thought given to building
an electoral strategy beyond the activist base, or
to forming an alliance with the less militant, let
alone figuring out how to turn ideologically driven
anger into a coherent policy platform.
Mr Trump has made this problem more acute by
making it appear like a sustainable strategy.
It may not matter for a good while – simply
saying: “No, no, no,” to the Clinton White House
would do for a bit.
But there is little glory in becoming the eternal
outraged opposition, shorn of serious ideas about
how to exercise power.
US Election 2016