onald Trump, America’s first postmodern president, mocked and then broke every rule about how to run for office. To liberals and Never Trump conservatives, he was a political nihilist. To his legions of followers, he was a political savior.
Trump was crass, arrogant, narcissistic, buffoonish, bombastic, ruthless, and mean-spirited. He made fun of several Republican opponents’ intelligence or physical appearance, delivering insults with the zest of comedian Don Rickles. He dishonestly criticized others’ dishonesty, calling Senator Cruz “Lyin’ Ted,” for example, while accusing Cruz’s father of being involved in John F. Kennedy’s assassination. He bragged on national television about the size of his bank account and his … hands. Seriously—who does that?
And yet, there was another Donald Trump, more enigmatic and interesting. There is the teetotaler, beloved, respected, and admired by family, friends, and employees. Trump speaks with genuine reverence about his deceased brother, and expresses unaffected concern for those who suffer through no fault of their own. He’s a billionaire who empathizes with the unemployed, a TV celebrity who disdains the hoity-toity, artsy-fartsy, and namby-pamby. Many people have achieved fame and fortune in Manhattan but few of them, like Trump, invariably stand up for veterans, police officers, and their families. The iconoclastic Trump always dresses formally and insists on decorum. He’s a businessman who lost a fortune then built an empire; a developer who erects genuinely impressive skyscrapers; a man proud of his riches who wants every American to have the same opportunity to succeed.
How do we approach the interconnected challenges of understanding Trump’s personal contradictions and his extraordinary political achievement? He is the first American to win the presidency without ever having held an elective or appointed government position, including a military one. He defeated 16 Republican competitors in the primaries, then beat the Democratic nominee hailed by the Democratic incumbent as the “most qualified person to ever run for the presidency.” Journalists and professors were stridently opposed to him. And yet, against all odds, Trump won.
Trump’s campaign tactics made no sense to political professionals. Like Forrest Gump, he seemed to get everything wrong, only to have his “blunders” work to his advantage. It sometimes appeared that the rumors about Bill Clinton putting him up to run for president, thereby guaranteeing Hillary Clinton’s election, were true.
We must now carefully consider the possibility that there was, all along, more method and less madness in Trump’s campaign than he was given credit for. There are many good reasons why Hillary Clinton lost the election, but the real story is what Trump did to win. His tactics, unprecedented in American political history, were radically unconventional in several ways.
- The revolution was tweeted, not televised. Trump reached millions of Americans directly, on his schedule and without the mainstream media’s distortion filters. The turning point came in October 2015, when he realized he could speak directly to voters without intermediaries, reaching 25 million people on Twitter and Facebook for free. This technology allowed him to fill stadiums with 25,000 people in rural Alabama.
- By being utterly unpredictable and outrageous, Trump “gaslit” the mainstream media. Sending out his first provocative tweet at 6:00 a.m. meant that the media would follow him for the rest of the day. He thereby received millions of dollars’ worth of free publicity from a media establishment that clearly wanted him to lose. Every day he fed and taunted the drooling beast, and then made it chase him.
- Trump played offense 24/7. He took a line from President Obama’s playbook—“If they hit you, hit back twice as hard”—and then radicalized it. Consider his demolition of Jeb Bush, who knows how to play hardball but he was crushed by Trump. Then, during the general election, Trump out-Alinskyed an Alinsky protégé.
- Trump dared to say that the Republicrat Establishment had failed. An anti-politician who called America’s politicians losers and failures, he said that America was in a state of decline but that he would restore it to greatness.
- Trump’s unrelenting attack on political correctness appealed to millions of Americans who were sick and tired of being corrected and scolded by feminist dance therapy majors from Bennington College. As a great bonus, his aversion to political correctness set Trump apart from the bland, formulaic, risk-averse rhetoric and policies of establishment Republicans.
- Trump outworked Hillary Clinton. In fact, he may be the hardest working campaigner in American history, while she may have been the laziest politician to ever run for president. It is reported that Trump appeared at 132 rallies speaking to 963,155 people in the last 15 weeks of the campaign. By contrast, Clinton held 63 rallies in which she spoke to 109,220 people. Like Thomas Dewey in 1948, Hillary Clinton treated the election as a formality, a foregone conclusion. The voters made clear to each that they resented being taken for granted.
- Trump uttered the three best words of the campaign: “Drain the swamp.” By contrast, Hillary uttered the three worst: “Basket of deplorables.” The election was no longer Republicans vs. Democrats, or conservatives vs. liberals; it became “We the People” vs. “We the Government.”
- Instead of running to the center in search of moderate Republicans, Trump ran to his Tea-Party, right-wing base. Instead of looking for consensus, he provoked dissension and division. Instead of appearing moderate and judicious, he was provocative and outrageous. Instead of looking to the Establishment for support, he attacked it. Instead of courting the press, he mocked and insulted it. Instead of being a Teflon candidate like Bill Clinton, he wanted everything to stick to him.
Now that Trump is president, he must forge a governing philosophy beyond incendiary tweets, folksy slogans, and fiery campaign speeches. The contours of Trumpism—hitherto only vaguely known—are now evolving at breakneck speed through a series of daily executive orders. Thus far, Trump has simultaneously been the most libertarian president since Thomas Jefferson as well as the greatest proponent of economic nationalism since Theodore Roosevelt. But as Abraham Lincoln noted in 1858, “A house divided against itself cannot stand. . . . It will become all one thing, or all the other.” Only one path, however, can make America truly great again and that is the path to freedom. Let us hope that President Trump follows it.