It was 8:34 p.m. Tuesday at the Crowne Plaza in Dayton, Ohio, when Don Phillips, Montgomery County Republican Party bigwig and overall rich guy, ambled over to the bar at a GOP watch party.
He suddenly looked very pleased with himself. Donald Trump, the candidate who broke every rule in the book, his candidate, appeared to be about to pull off the biggest upset since Dewey vs. Truman. “He’s going to win it,” Phillips said to a Politico reporter. “He’s going to win it. Put it down.” “Why?” the reporter asked.
“I think what’s going to be the difference is the white male that didn’t care about voting and stuff. That’s what’s going to pull him through.”
That, it turned out, was about the size of it. No one, not the pundits, not the pollsters, not Hillary Clinton—and certainly not the Washington establishment that so confidently predicted her victory—knew just how deeply angry white males in America were. How dispossessed they felt. But not just American men: women too, even college-educated ones who went for Trump in surprisingly high numbers despite his well-documented taste for aggressive sexual groping as a privilege of celebrity.
On almost every level Hispanics in Florida alarmed by Trump came out in record numbers but not enough to counter the white working class, who were alarmed by four more years of the Clintons; educated, multicultural millennials in North Carolina might power the state’s growing economy but they were overwhelmed by older voters fearful of illegal immigrants; black voters in Philadelphia didn’t love Clinton more than the displaced steelworkers hated the people like her who dealt away their jobs to foreign countries. In the end, Trump gathered a coalition of the angry that added up to more votes than Clinton could pull together by demonizing him as a crazed enemy of the establishment.
And Don Phillips, once the very picture of a Midwestern establishment Republican, knew it why it happened. Or a good bit of it.
In September 2015, Phillips composed a kind of “Dear John” breakup letter to his fellow establishment GOP-er, the highest-ranking elected Republican in the country, then-House Speaker John Boehner whose district bordered Dayton. “No wonder people are so interested in TRUMP,” he angrily wrote. “Everyone is sick of electing politicians that do nothing and continue to go on vacations and work three days a week when the Country is in trouble.”
Phillips had it right. So, apparently, did Trump, a man who, tellingly, had never held elected office but has proven adept at reading public tastes over 30 years of celebrityhood and reality TV. The stunning results reveal a nation as divided and uncertain of its future as it has been at least since the Civil War. One of the greatest divides of all might be between the establishment wings of the two major parties and the electorate they nominally represent. Their complacency—expressed best in the staggeringly low odds of winning Trump was given by pollsters—made the reversal land with a physical shock: Many political and policy types around Washington actually spent the early morning hours of Wednesday sobbing, shaking or throwing up. Clinton supporters who began the evening fairly confident of victory and ended it in a collective fetal tuck.
Among the freaked-out was Amy Lee, a Clinton canvasser in Dayton, who earlier in the day had been planning on going over to a gay bar called Club Masque to celebrate Hillary’s win with some of her fellow Dem operatives.
But when a reporter called her up shortly before 10 p.m., she answered the phone in a whisper. She had just finished putting her kids to bed at their house in a historic district of Dayton. “Let me go downstairs,” she said. When she got downstairs, she stopped whispering.
“I actually turned it off a little bit ago,” she said, “because I’m too tense to watch.” Her husband, Nick Eddy, had just vomited in the bathroom off their kitchen. It was when he saw how close Florida, North Carolina and Michigan were.
“We are really, really, really scared,” she said. “I do think this election is about what America is. Obama treated us like adults. And tonight we are proving that we are not a nation of adults. I just can’t believe it.” She said: “I’m not going to sleep anytime soon.”
That in fact Trump, for all his personal flaws and foibles, had read more accurately than Clinton the distress of what used to be known as America’s industrial middle class, which had watched helplessly and with growing rage as both political parties sacrificed working-class jobs and futures to a gauzy economic dream called globalization and open borders over the past three decades. That reaction was expressed in the overall vote: Many voters found Trump personally objectionable, even unqualified in any traditional sense; but they also found Clinton an unacceptable continuation of that hateful status quo. In the end, voters on both sides felt forced to vouch for candidates they believed in much less than they despised the alternative.
Just as often the voters were divided against themselves. One such voter was Pat Clements of Chester County, Pennsylvania, who as the voting got underway on Tuesday sat pensively in an office in the small town of Phoenixville—ground zero of the eastern Pennsylvania suburbs. “I’m a Republican,” sighed Clement, a practicing estates lawyer in late middle age with a patient smile. Now, in 2016, she was a volunteer in the Hillary Clinton Victory Office, a refurbished brick storefront just off Main Street. And all she could do was to mutter about the deplorable state of the party she had abandoned—at least for this cycle.
Chester has long been a deep-red Republican redoubt, voting Democrat only once since 1964: Barack Obama’s victory in 2008. And until 10 days ago, Clements had never volunteered for a campaign. “It wasn’t an easy decision,” said Clements, who had been dialing strangers and knocking on doors for the past week. “It was the eleventh hour, and I couldn’t stand it anymore. It was too stressful not to do something.” It was Trump, Clements said, who summoned her worst fears about the party. It was Trump, especially after the Access Hollywood tape, who turned the college educated Republican women of Chester, like Clements, Democratic.
“The whole white supremacist, nationalistic, anti-Semitic, post-factual type of movement—I cannot support that in any way,” Clements said. She glanced around the room, as if she expected to be seen by someone; she was, after all still a Republican. She leaned in and lowered her voice. “And this talk of rigged elections and watching the polls in Philadelphia?” she whispered. “It’s horrible!”
This tone of negativism was largely the doing of the GOP candidate, who announced his insurgent campaign by setting fire to the make-nice with Hispanics plan crafted by the GOP after its 2012 humiliation. He called Mexicans “rapists” and “criminals” and staked out an anti-immigrant platform that he widened to Syrians and Muslims generally. No matter how much he was derided as a xenophobe and a racist, he never backed down.
Clinton wanted an election that made Americans “stronger together.” But she ran it as a referendum on one man and his temperament. And she banked that Hispanics, open-minded millennials and women eager to see a final glass ceiling shattered would stand up to the delight he seemed to take in giving offense at every turn. But Trump better judged the zeitgeist and it was not a forgiving one. So fired up were Americans to change the status quo—and here too Bernie Sanders’ success should have been a warning to Clinton—that many didn’t even seem to mind they had judged Trump to be unqualified for the presidency (some 61 percent of those polled).
The Election Day of our discontent was a replay of the entire year, a day of scattered dustups and fussing about voter suppression and rigging allegations by Trump—who by midday had reacquired control of his Twitter account and began floating unfounded suggestions of shenanigans in Utah. But the disruptions by vigilante poll watchers the media had fumed over never really materialized either. But the voters did.
The anti-the-other-candidate theme began to emerge in the early morning hours in places like rural Floyd County in southwest Virginia where lanky Orion Birch conducted an informal exit poll at Check Elementary School as deer hunters in camouflage and Republican retirees streamed by. “I have to say, the Democrats are not talking about who they voted for,” Birch said. “Republicans are proud to say it.” It showed up in Metairie, Louisiana, where the McInnis sisters cast ballots that sounded more like anti-Trump than pro-Clinton: “She’s not a racist,” Morgan, 24, said. “She’s not a bigot. She knows what she’s doing.” Emily, 22, was blunter: “She’s the lesser of two evils.” And it showed up in the small brick civic center in Moraine, Ohio, where one of the first to vote at 6:30 a.m. was Brandon Howard, 37, a union electrician that fits the angry blue-collar dispossessed stereotype Trump won over. Except he’s not that guy. He hates Trump.
“We have a reality TV star running for office who’s always looked out for himself,” he said. “I just can’t imagine him going to sleep in the White House at night.” Who did he vote for? “Hillary Clinton.” He called her “well-oiled.”
Indeed, one of the biggest stories of Election Day was just how thin support for Clinton really was, especially among Democrats who had avidly support Obama in 2008 and 2012. That was especially the story among many blacks, who had proved a critical firewall for Clinton in the primaries versus Sanders and also came out to vote for her in large numbers in the general.
“Hillary Clinton can win this thing, as long as people are not deterred from voting,” said Price, who is black like the major of Roanoke, wearing an American flag cap. “Let me put it this way—folks in the African-American community I’ve talked to, they’re enthusiastic but not like they were when President Obama was elected. This is more fear—and I mean fear—that Trump could be elected. It’s an absolutely scary thought, and I hear that from everyone both black and white.”