Washington may never be the same again. And neither will American politics after billionaire businessman Donald Trump stunned the nation’s financial, political and media establishments by capturing the presidency.
After a distinctly untraditional campaign that ignored the normal rules and challenged the political establishments of both parties, the 70-year-old political neophyte rode a tide of disaffected, rural white voters to edge former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the biggest presidential upset since President Harry S. Truman unexpectedly won re-election in 1948.
The relatively close vote — and GOP retention of both houses of Congress — will mean a dramatic change in national direction by giving Republicans control of the entire federal government, with enormous impact on the nation’s economic, social and foreign policies. It left the defeated Democrats in their weakest national position in nearly a century.
Trump’s self-styled movement to “make American great again” by placing new restrictions on global trade and illegal immigration overcame a deficit in the polls and a number of self-inflicted wounds, though Clinton spent more money, had a better organization, won all three televised debates and had the support of the popular outgoing president, Barack Obama.
But after receiving Clinton’s post-midnight concession phone call, Trump hailed his victory in a most traditional manner, declaring “it is time for us to come together as one united people” and pledging to his cheering supporters to be “president of all Americans,” including the millions who voted against him.
Still, the enormous challenges facing the nation’s unexpected new president-elect were illustrated by the fact that, as his election became increasingly evident Tuesday night, global financial markets sank sharply, underscoring the uncertainty his election will create both at home and abroad.
That stems from his lack of governmental experience, his oft-displayed ignorance about public policy issues and his call for sweeping changes without detailing how he'll implement them. Fears that his bombastic campaign showed he lacks the balanced temperament for one of the world’s most difficult jobs also weighed on investors, though markets did recover after the initial shock.
Besides, he'll have to lead a country that remains sharply divided on racial and political lines. It appears that when all votes are counted, Clinton will emerge with a majority of popular votes, the second time in five elections for such a split result, including the strong support from African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans and a majority of women — groups that Trump angered in his campaign.
His initial response suggested he recognizes the enormous burden he faces to ease those concerns and show he can be the steady leader and generous, caring person his family members and business associates portrayed, rather than the racist bully he often seemed to be on the political stump.
Still, the Republican victory may spell the end of Obama’s most significant initiatives, the Affordable Care Act, the nuclear agreement with Iran, diplomatic recognition of Communist Cuba and the Dodd-Frank securities market regulation law. Democrats retained enough Senate support to block some Trump initiatives, and the election also left the GOP with its own divisions. Many top Republicans refused to back Trump’s candidacy and others, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, gave only lukewarm support, though the Wisconsin congressman quickly phoned congratulations to Trump.
But Trump will be helped by their realization they may finally be able to follow through on some of their long-standing promises such as repealing the unpopular Obamacare law.
Besides, the election means they can extend the 45-year conservative control of the Supreme Court and reverse Obama’s course in protecting minority voting rights and allowing millions of illegal immigrants to stay in the United States. Trump promised to deport many of them and erect a wall to stop the inflow from Mexico and other countries to the South.
To heal the election wounds, Trump needs to reach out to the millions who voted against him, including his defeated Democratic rival, the former first lady who hoped to become America’s first woman president.
One step could be to drop his threat of calling for a special prosecutor to re-investigate the issues stemming from the private email server she used as secretary of state and her family’s charitable foundation, leaving those matters with the career Justice Department prosecutors.
He should also abandon his plan to sue the women who accused him of sexual harassment during the campaign, closing as much as possible that unpleasant chapter in his own life.
It would also help if he showed inclusiveness in staffing his administration by naming one or more Democrats to his cabinet. The initial reports of projected cabinet choices — Newt Gingrich as secretary of state, Rudy Giuliani as attorney general — will hardly provide reassurance to those who fear Trump might govern in the same highly partisan way he campaigned.
Besides, as Trump himself noted, “To be really historic, we have to do a great job.”
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News; carl.p.leubsdorf@