Who is to blame for Donald Trump's victory?

A narrative that attributes Trump's triumph to the "working class" forgets the role of racism, sexism and the right-wing media. 

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As it became clear that Donald Trump had won Pennsylvania, putting the presidency in the grasp of those tiny hands, the activist and academic Van Jones looked crushed. “It’s hard to be a parent tonight for a lot of us,” he told CNN viewers. “You tell your kids: ‘Don’t be a bully.’ You tell your kids: ‘Don’t be a bigot.’ You tell your kids: ‘Do your homework and be prepared.’ And then you have this outcome.”

There are many ways to read Trump’s victory, but all of them should acknowledge just how improbable it would have seemed even a few years ago. The real-estate magnate has been both a registered Democrat and a Republican; he has married three times and had numerous girlfriends; he was initially progressive on subjects such as abortion. Hell, he might even believe in evolution. Normally these would have been seen as disqualifying characteristics for anyone seeking the Republican nomination.

Instead, he carried all before him, sweeping away the $130m operation of Jeb Bush, the creepy and universally loathed Ted Cruz and the allegedly moderate Marco Rubio, borne on a great crest of free airtime. Every news show wanted Trump on air: he would call in, chew the fat, throw out a few incendiary remarks, and suck all the oxygen out of the news cycle. He was a spectacle: like in a car crash, no one could help themselves from slowing down to look.

It was too easy to treat him, and his candidacy, as a joke. Born in Queens, the heir to a small fortune made by dubious means, he was a prominent figure on New York’s social scene in the 1990s. He was known for his vulgarity, his divorces and his improbable hair. His next act came as a reality-television star. Among his other crimes, he once crowned Piers Morgan the champion of Celebrity Apprentice.

He made the leap to electoral politics by endorsing the right-wing conspiracy known as “birtherism” – the idea that Barack Obama was not born in the United States, and was therefore ineligible to be president. Obama eventually released his long-form birth certificate in 2011, in the hope of quelling the faux-scandal, and mocked the egotistical billionaire mercilessly at a White House Correspondents’ Dinner that year, in front of the Washington media. “I know that he’s taken some flak lately,” Obama said. “No one is prouder to put this birth-certificate matter to rest than the Donald. And that’s because he can finally get back to the issues that matter, like: did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?”

Adam Gopnik, a New Yorker writer sitting a few tables away, recorded Trump’s cold-faced, furious response: “His head set in place, like a man in a pillory, he barely moved or altered his expression as wave after wave of laughter struck him. There was not a trace of feigning good humour about him.” By legend, this is when Trump decided to run for president. He had been humiliated in front of the political class, and now he wanted revenge.

Never mind that, by any reasonable definition, he was part of the establishment: he owns a gold-plated penthouse apartment in Manhattan, and the Clintons were guests at his third wedding in 2005 to the new first lady, Melania. (The former model hails from Slovenia, while Trump’s grandfather was born in Germany. Clearly, some immigrants are OK in Trumpworld. What on Earth could be the judging criteria?)

As the race went on, he used language that hasn’t been heard in mainstream politics for years. The Mexicans who moved to the United States were largely not “good people”, but “rapists”, drug-pushers and criminals. A US judge ruling on a class-action lawsuit against Trump University could not be impartial because he was “a Mexican”. (In fact, the man in question, Gonzalo Curiel, was a US citizen, born in Indiana.) After the San Bernardino shooting last December, carried out by Islamist terrorists who were US citizens, he called for a “total and complete shutdown” on Muslims entering the country. Although he declared repeatedly that he was not a racist, Trump’s rhetoric called to mind Molly Ivins’s comment about a speech by the conservative evangelical Pat Buchanan: it “probably sounded better in the original German”.

What wasn’t inflammatory was largely unintelligible. To read transcripts of his speeches is to be confronted with a man who trails off, interrupts himself and is prone to long, meandering diversions on any subject under the sun. (In one speech, there was a minutes-long riff on how hairspray wasn’t as good as it used to be, with the subtext that the ban on CFCs to protect the ozone layer was to blame.)

Still, none of this mattered. Neither did his lying. He lied and he lied and he lied. He lied about small things – claiming just this week that his rallies attract bigger crowds than Beyoncé and Jay Z – and he lied about big things. He claimed that he never supported the Iraq War and that he had given millions of dollars of his own money to charity. One dogged reporter, David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post, phoned hundreds of organisations to see if they had received any of this largesse, and found that Trump mostly recycled other people’s donations through his foundation. Fahrenthold was also the reporter who found the rushes from an old, fawning TV profile of Trump, in which he boasted of how he would “grab [women] by the pussy” and they would “let him” because he was famous.

Tellingly, the television presenter who chuckled indulgently along with these boasts of sexual assault left his job after the tape came to light. Donald Trump sailed on. If there is anything this year has taught us, it is that public shaming works only if the object of it has the capacity to feel shame. Trump does not.

Trump’s misogyny is undeniable – and irrelevant to his supporters. After the tape emerged, a dozen women came forward to say that its contents weren’t just idle boasting and they had been on the receiving end of this behaviour. (Trump threatened to sue them.) Despite this, white women turned out in droves for the Republican candidate. Wild, pre-emptive condemnation of the possibility that women would “vote with their vaginas” for the first female nominee proved pointless.

The early voter breakdown suggests other surprising facts, and provides a corrective to Trump’s own narrative of speaking for the jobless, penniless and disenfranchised. Under Obama, unemployment fell sharply. What has changed is that white people are close to becoming a minority in the US; some of them feel that minorities are getting special treatment, through affirmative action and identity politics. Economic anxiety is clearly part of the picture, together with a sense that no one on Wall Street was held accountable for the financial crisis of 2007/2008. But there is also a “whitelash”, as Van Jones described it on election night. We must not be too polite to mention it. At the very least, the economically anxious were willing to overlook open racism. A minority appeared to revel in it: they liked the bully, the alpha male, striking back against those overmighty women and uppity minorities.

In the coming days, mentally insert the word “white” into any commentary you hear about the “working class” or the “left behind”. African Americans, not a well-off sector of the population, voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton; she had a lead among Hispanic voters. The group that voted Trump is the same demographic that brought us Brexit: older, white, living outside the big cities, with not much, but something to lose. Many feel ill-equipped for the future: Trump scored a landslide among white voters without a degree.

The racism was there from the start. Trump’s candidacy was born through questioning the legitimacy of the first mixed-race president. Some of his supporters post anti-Semitic abuse on Twitter and shout “lügenpresse”, a Nazi-era term meaning “lying press”, at journalists. The campaign turned a blind eye to this. At rallies, Trump always included his own version of a two-minute hate directed at the media, which were confined to a press pen. His final campaign video named prominent Jewish public figures – Janet Yellen of the Fed, Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs – alongside classic tropes of “global special interests” that “control the levers of power”. Although many conservative local newspapers turned against him, Trump did secure one coveted endorsement: from the Crusader, the official publication of the Ku Klux Klan.

There will be much soul-searching by the media in the next few weeks. Did they focus too much on the non-scandal of Clinton’s email server? Yes. Did they treat Trump as a joke for too long, making it impossible to pivot to worrying that he might be a fascist? Yes. But this ignores the fact that part of Trump’s success came from bypassing the media. This might be the first election of the post-media age. Trump’s 3am tweets gave him unfiltered access to millions of voters. The websites of the “alt right” – the logical extension of Limbaughian talk radio and Fox News – provided vocal support and, in the case of Breitbart, a strategic mastermind for his campaign. And Facebook made millions of dollars hosting ultra-partisan pages pushing the dirtiest, stickiest conspiracy theories about Clinton. It presented these to its users with the same appearance as reports from PBS or the New York Times.

Donald Trump now has the full set: the House of Representatives, the Senate and the ability to appoint a Supreme Court judge. He can oversee the repeal of Obamacare, help roll back access to abortion and ruthlessly attack Black Lives Matter protesters from his bully pulpit. He can look the other way as Russia grows ever more imperial. He can launch a nuclear strike. He can take the pain and rage of white America and unleash it on the world. There are dark days ahead. 

Helen Lewis is a former deputy editor of the New Statesman, who is now a staff writer on the Atlantic. She is the author of Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights (Jonathan Cape).

This article appears in the 10 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump apocalypse

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