Donald Trump won the presidency. He didn’t win America. Arguably, he didn’t really even try.
Part of the ritual of American politics — the performance of the peaceful transfer of power — is the point after the presidential election when the winner reaches across the aisle to the losers, when he (always he) promises to be a president not just for the people who voted for him but for all Americans.
Donald Trump has never had much patience for the rituals of American politics. In general, he’s preferred to play to his most enthusiastic fans. But on occasion, he has made small genuflections to the unifying rhetoric candidates and presidents are expected to engage in.
“Now it is time for America to bind the wounds of division,” he said during his victory speech Tuesday night. “To all Republicans and Democrats and independents across this nation, I say it is time for us to come together as one united people. It is time.”
“I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all of Americans, and this is so important to me. For those who have chosen not to support me in the past, of which there were a few people, I'm reaching out to you for your guidance and your help so that we can work together and unify our great country.”
The fissures that opened up during Trump’s run for the presidency — fissures he himself helped dig — aren’t going to be healed with a few rhetorical gestures. More than most presidents-elect, Trump would have to make an active and sustained effort to unify America behind him in order to fill the role a president is expected to fill.
How Trump won means a lot for what kind of president he could be
But from the very beginning of his long, improbable campaign, he’s found success by energizing his fans and antagonizing his enemies — indeed, he’s energized his fans by antagonizing his enemies.
Donald Trump will be the very first president of the United States to come into office with neither political nor military experience. But he is not an empty vessel for the policies and ideas of more seasoned politicians, or a mute figurehead for the party that reclaims the White House by electing him.
He is a man who won the vocal loyalty of millions of Americans by promising to make America great again, to protect it from immigration both legal and unauthorized, to restore its traditional Christian values, and to get “criminals” off its streets by empowering police officers to do what they deemed necessary.
Many of the people who voted for Trump may not have voted for him to accomplish these things, or even taken such promises seriously. But the people who love Trump most do.
Trump has always played to the people who love him most. If he’s going to be a president for all Americans, he has to stop.
The America that elected Trump doesn’t look like the America he has to govern
We won’t know the exact contours of the coalition that elected Donald Trump for some time, if ever. But the national exit polls — which projected Trump would lose the popular vote 42 percent to Hillary Clinton’s 45 percent — suggest that the Americans who propelled Trump to the White House were overwhelmingly white.
But this actually understates the gap between the America that elected Trump and the America he’ll have to govern. The population of Americans eligible to vote is more diverse than the population that actually voted (in 2016 or any other election). Americans under 18 are more diverse than those of voting age.
And in meaningful ways, it doesn’t even end there. The president of the United States doesn’t just make policy for American citizens. He makes policy for everyone living within the nation’s borders. And that is a population that is more diverse still.
Even in Trump’s most inclusive rhetoric — his promises to uphold “American values,” to represent all Americans, to start each day as president thinking about the well-being of Americans in places like Ferguson, Missouri — he’s always been promising to defend “Americans” against somebody else. And as often as not, that “somebody else” is within our borders — unauthorized immigrants; Somali refugees in Minnesota; the criminals who supposedly lurk behind every “inner-city” corner.
Those people are also living in America — and are often, by their own definitions, American.
Their exclusion from the coalition that elected Trump isn’t an accident of politics. They did not vote for him. White Americans (even those who didn’t publicly admit to it) found something inspiring or at least acceptable in his message; people of color did not.
They took his policy promises seriously. They believed that he could reinstitute widespread deportations and immigration raids, and restore the daily fear upon millions of parents that they’d be separated from their children. They believed he could help empower police officers to use deadly force without concern that the Department of Justice would investigate their departments. They believed he could encourage the FBI to put Muslim American communities under more scrutiny and make it much, much harder for Muslims elsewhere in the world to come here.
They were right. These things are eminently possible. They would have been possible even if Trump did not have a unified Republican government at the federal level, even if many states weren’t also under Republican leadership. But he does, and they are, and there is nothing to stop him except the belated and relatively easy-to-evade clampdown of the federal judiciary.
The president people of color most fear is also the president Trump’s foremost supporters most expect
To be clear, it is probable that a bunch of people who voted for Trump were not voting for these reasons. In the late days of the campaign, Trump consolidated support from wavering Republicans; party leaders like Paul Ryan campaigned for him as if he were any other Republican, there to rubber-stamp policies the party had agreed to enact long before Trump descended the Trump Tower escalator.
Many of these people probably voted for him despite the divisiveness of his message. Some of them probably didn’t even believe Trump himself was serious about it.
But if there’s one lesson of the improbable election of 2016, it’s that the power of a vocal minority is a very powerful one indeed. And it’s impossible to deny that a lot of people affirmatively turned out to vote for the Trump that Trump himself promised to be.
Since the beginning of Trump’s campaign, he’s inspired a nearly fanatical amount of support from Americans who believe he speaks to them. They think he will Make America Great Again.
These are the people who have robust expectations for a Trump presidency — a vision for what President Trump would be. And they are excited about it.
It might not be wrong to say that Trump’s supporters want to return to an earlier time of American power (and of the power of white people within America). But that slightly and crucially misunderstands what his fans want of him. They don’t want a conservation or even a retrenchment; they want a revolution. They want someone who will tear down what they see as a corrupt and rotting political infrastructure, who will sever the chains that restrain Border Patrol officials or military intelligence officers in the name of human rights or law. They want not just change but liberation.
The Americans who had the most skin in the game agreed on what a Trump presidency would look like — and what a big deal it could be. Those who had less to lose, or gain, disagreed with them. But the choice was not ours to make.
If Donald Trump wants to be a president for all Americans, he will need to stop being everything his supporters loved
Most politicians go through their lives with an eye toward maintaining a majority governing coalition. Given the choice between being liked by the many and loved by the few, they usually select the former.
You can deride this as acting on politics rather than principle. But it ensures that republicanism remains democratic: that elected officials are acting, on the whole, on behalf of a majority of the country that elected them.
Donald Trump, throughout his campaign, has chosen being loved by a few over being liked by many. It’s a logic that makes perfect sense for Trump as a brand, building a passionate market for his product. Even in the last weeks of the campaign, when it looked like he was losing, it appeared that he was building serious market demand for whatever came next.
But he didn’t get whatever he was building toward. He got America. The country. All of it. The parts that voted for him, the parts that didn’t, the parts that couldn’t vote: all at once.
We know that Donald Trump is capable of paying lip service to inclusivity when he recognizes it’s something that would be good to do. But we don’t know what it looks like when he has to make a hard choice between being the figure his fans desire and a figure that a larger share of the public might accept.
We don’t know what it looks like for Trump to extend an olive branch; to try to heal a divide; to attempt to restrain, much less disown, his most deplorable supporters.
There are plenty of things that President Trump will not have to concern himself with — that he will just be able to appoint other people to take care of. This is not one of them.
For one thing, these are the foremost policy promises of his presidency. If he is going to back down on, say, banning anyone from entering the United States who doesn’t share “American values,” only he will be able to communicate that — and he will have to communicate it unequivocally, without winking or hinting that he’d really prefer it if federal employees quietly started doing it anyway.
For another thing, though, Trump is such a potent symbol that he has already changed the way that Americans interact with each other in substantial ways. Even if you don’t believe that a president has to lead a national conversation on race, for example, by virtue of being president, it’s impossible to ignore that the name of our president-elect has been used as a taunt against high school athletes of color and a way to bully young children.
No one else will be able to change this. But for Trump to do so, he’s going to have to risk angering his most passionate fans — or at least disappointing them.
America elected a man who promised to make America stand up for itself again. But Donald Trump has shown very little willingness, yet, to stand up for America. If he is to be a president for all Americans, it’s the first thing he’s going to have to do.