No need for tears and hand-wringing, U.S. friends. What happened on Tuesday was not a collapse of your democracy — just a powerful blow to American exceptionalism and the misplaced arrogance of the U.S. elite.
Donald Trump won by using a mix that has been effective in Eastern Europe since the turn of the century: a combination of strong nationalism and an anti-corruption agenda.
At a hotel in an Orlando, Florida, suburb at 7 p.m. Tuesday night, a dozen Osceola County Republicans gathered around a TV tuned to Fox News. They were early comers to an event billed as a victory party — the Osceola Republican Party was going to celebrate some modest down-ballot wins — but these people were more interested in the presidential race.
They looked cocky and overconfident about Trump’s performance. “He’s going to run the table,” a gray-haired gentleman in an Air Force cap said as the first results came in. They toasted one another with beer. “To the wall,” said an olive-skinned woman who explained that she was herself an immigrant, from Romania.
They didn’t really feel this confidence. As the numbers changed on the screen, faces grew tense, and the body language betrayed anxiety. Mobile phones came out of pockets as the Trump fans perused the various online election maps and discussed their candidate’s paths to victory, still unlikely at that point.
Three hours later, a woman in a cowboy hat climbed up on a chair and screamed: “They’ve just called Florida for Donald Trump!” And she brandished a rubber mask of Hillary Clinton as a witch as if it was the Democratic nominee’s severed head. A huge cheer went up. It did turn out to be a real victory party, after all.
Many will say Trump’s victory was fueled by racism and xenophobia. It’s more complicated than that.
The pro-Trump Orlando crowd wasn’t an all-white, all-male audience. The day before, when Orlando government relations consultant Bertica Cabrera Morris, a Trump surrogate, told me the Republicans hadn’t really botched Hispanic outreach and would deliver plenty of votes to their candidate, it was all I could do not to show disbelief. Yet she was right: Spanish was heard in that hotel ballroom. Women, too, were well-represented. Clearly, enough Latinos and enough women didn’t believe Trump’s words about them had been particularly offensive.
This is just anecdotal evidence, of course, and so is the fact that, in my travels around the U.S. this year, I met far more people who were enthusiastic about Trump than about Clinton. But then, do we have anything but anecdotal evidence to go on anymore?
Clearly, most pollsters and pundits were so wrong that everything they said all year should have been disregarded. I am sorry I didn’t have the courage to do so, unlike some people I met — for example, Las Vegas lawyer Robert Barnes, who has, since the primaries, consistently predicted a Trump victory and who has now made hundreds of thousands of dollars for himself and the clients he advised to place bets on Trump with European bookmakers. The signs he and other gamblers saw — many of them rather unscientific — turned out to be more valid than the arrogant opinions and authoritative-looking calculations of pollsters, academics, political operatives and veteran commentators.
I should have listened to Barnes, and to dozens of ordinary Americans who explained to me why they preferred Trump to Clinton. Only a small number of them indicated they were xenophobic. Most were unhappy about their economic situation, particularly rising Obamacare premiums and the precariousness of their incomes, and every one of them considered Clinton corrupt. As one Trump supporter in Orlando put it Tuesday night, “I’d rather have the mafia run the U.S. government than Hillary Clinton: They are less crooked.”
That should have told me something important — or, rather, confirmed something I’d known from another part of the world.