The 2016 US Presidential election is finally upon us, but the contest has already unleashed political havoc. Donald Trump, a celebrity businessman, confounded pundits when he captured the Republican nominee. Since then, he has managed to come close enough in the polls to his far more polished rival, Hillary Clinton, to set the world’s nerves a-jitter.
With the result yet to come in, there could still yet be surprises to come. But here are some of the ways that the 2016 election changed our assumptions about politics.
1. Who needs a growing demographic?
In 2008, after Barack Obama swept to victory with overwhelming support from young, African-American and Hispanic-American voters, the path to the White House seemed clear, especially as the latter group is one of the fastest-growing demographics in the country. The 2012 Republican hopeful, Mitt Romney, was caught on camera joking he’d have a better chance of winning if he was Hispanic. As a spokesman later put it more diplomatically: “Hispanics are critically important to the future of the Republican party”.
Fast forward to the next Republican primaries, and it looked like the party had its pick of Hispanic-friendly candidates. As well as Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, there was Jeb Bush, whose wife was born in Mexico.
But instead, Republican grassroots threw demographic logic to the winds, and opted for Donald Trump, the man who described Mexicans as “criminals” and “rapists” and whose most famous policy is to “build a great wall” on the US-Mexico border.
2. We’re all interventionists now
For decades, the economic policy divide between the Republicans and Democrats was fairly predictable. Republicans wanted a smaller state and lower taxes. Democrats wanted the state to step in to protect the vulnerable. Both sides subscribed to a view of the world that acknowledged the importance of free trade.
In 2016, though, Trump has amassed supporters by promising a more protectionist economy, even if it risks trade wars with China and other major economies. His anti-globalisation message is resonating in towns where jobs and opportunities have gone overseas. Meanwhile, a Democrat nominee, Bernie Sanders, enjoyed a surge of popularity thanks to a brand of democratic socialism far to the left of the centre of US economic policy. The debate has moved so far towards intervention and against globalisation that Clinton has even found herself disavowing trade deals her husband signed while in office.
3. The godly love a bit of smut
In the last three Presidential elections, the Republican candidate has captured roughly three-quarters of the influential evangelical vote. In 2012, commentators continually questioned whether Romney’s Mormon faith would pass muster with the god-fearing electorate. But at least he had faith. As an atheist Republican supporter joked in 2014, “I sometimes wonder if I could be covered by the Endangered Species Act”.
But while politicians of all stripes stumble over themselves to be photographed at prayer breakfasts, that’s not the case for Trump. The man who has divorced twice and called the communion wafer “a little cracker” saw off the preacher Mike Huckabee and evangelical Rick Santorum in the primaries.
Even after footage emerged of Trump boasting about hitting on a married woman, evangelicals are expected to back him. An anti-abortion stance, and a promise to protect Christianity, is worth at least two marriages and some “locker room” smut, it seems.
3. Treat half of voters like sh*t
The basic maths of democracy suggests that, at least since universal suffrage, it’s a good idea not to piss off half the electorate.
Back in 2012, the Republican candidate Romney was the butt of a joke for telling a story in which he tried to boost the number of female employees at his firm by reading “binders full of women”.
These days, such well-meaning blunders seem almost quaint. Trump, the man who once said you had to treat women “like sh*t”, publicly rates professional women on their appearance and privately boasted about how, after encountering one, “grabbed her by the pussy”. After his comments emerged, women came forward alleging they had, too, been sexually harassed.
In 2012, 92 per cent of Republican-supporting women voted for Romney. In 2016, just 79 per cent of that group are expected to back Trump.
4. Nothing looks as Presidential as a Twitter spat
Presenting a well-honed image is a basic rule of US politics. Satires like Veep and House of Cards play on the tensions between a President’s public image and their private opinions. Obama’s own victories came after two books setting out his background and vision, and speeches that drew on years of negotiating the country’s racial tensions.
By contrast, thanks to Twitter, Trump has shared a stream of consciousness with the world which included a 3.20am unproven allegation that a former Miss Universe appeared in a sex tape, and his smugness on “being right” after an Isis-supporting gunman shot clubbers dead in Orlando.
Then there were the Presidential debates, where Trump responded to Clinton’s accusation he was a puppet by declaring “you’re the puppet” and calling her “a nasty woman”.
However, the tide may be turning against such unhewn rhetoric – Trump’s team has reportedly revoked his access to his Twitter account.
5. You can always redefine oppressed minority
Not that long ago, the idea of an oppressed minority might have applied to an African-American descended from slaves, or a member of the First Nations whose ancestral tribal land was stolen. But these days, if you inhabit a certain section of the internet, the real oppressed minority is white men.
And the saviour of those white men? Donald Trump. His involvement in dog whistle rhetoric predates the presidential campaign, having been a champion of the “birtherism movement” which suggested Obama was a Muslim. While Trump himself has focused this time on insulting Mexicans, his rise has emboldened white nationalists. David Duke, a former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, endorsed him in the election race.
In sum, Trump has ripped up the rules of the Presidential handbook and got within grabbing distance of the White House. But will it work? We will soon find out…