Off the trail and in transition

The U.S. presidential election is finally over and close to half of those who voted decided to place their faith – not to mention the future of their country – in the hands of Donald Trump, a billionaire real estate mogul and reality TV star. On Jan. 20, 2017, he will be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States.

As millions of admirers relish the moment when Trump places his left hand on the Bible while taking the oath of office, millions more in the United States and around the globe will be putting both hands together praying the man Hillary Clinton claimed is “temperamentally unfit to be the president of the United States,” far exceeds their expectations.

Over the next several weeks, as President-elect Trump thinks about his transition to office, some of his time will be well spent reflecting on how and why he is being propelled into the Oval Office. It is certainly not because of his vast political experience (he doesn’t have any), or because he is particularly knowledgeable about the intricacies of domestic and foreign policy. Based on what he has said he would do in his first day in office, it is also highly unlikely he understands how the U.S. system of checks and balances functions.

trump-caricature

Put simply, throughout the highly toxic and divisive Republican primaries and general election, he revealed to millions of people that he is strong on rhetoric and terribly weak on substance.

While pollsters and pundits continue to scratch their heads in search of an explanation as to how Trump pulled off the deal of the century, the president-elect knows exactly what happened. To his credit, he was able to tap into the growing resentment and anger among white working-class voters (the largest demographic in the United States), who were desperate to find someone who would be willing to challenge the Washington establishment, and put an end to the political gridlock that has paralyzed the nation for years.

Even more, this demographic was searching for someone who cared less about political correctness, and more about targeting the individuals, organizations and policies they believed were responsible for holding them and their country back. This growing frustration also explains why Sen. Bernie Sanders captured the attention and imagination of millions.

For Trump, the challenge wasn’t identifying what was bothering a large swath of Americans; it was how to exploit their anger. As many populist candidates have done before, he did so by blaming minority groups, castigating the media, criticizing the electoral process for being rigged and undermining the credibility of former Secretary of State Clinton and President Barrack Obama.

But being an equal opportunity offender wasn’t enough.

Despite  being born into a world of privilege and amassing his own personal fortune, Trump, through his words and deeds, reminded his faithful followers he was really just like them. He didn’t need a Yale Law degree or years of experience in Washington to impress upon them he was qualified for the highest office in the land. He could just tell it as it is – and he did.

Whether boasting about how he would build a wall on America’s southern border to keep “rapists and murderers” from entering the country, or placing a ban on Muslims from certain countries coming to the United States, Trump felt no topic was out of bounds. This became painfully clear when audio recordings were released that exposed his darker side. Captured on tape making derogatory, sexist and misogynistic comments, during which he admitted he sexually assaulted women (several women came forward to corroborate this), Trump simply sloughed it off as “locker room talk.” What was more obscene than his despicable comments, Trump claimed, was the Clinton email scandal.

In most U.S. presidential elections, revelations a candidate had made sexist, racist and other forms of derogatory comments would have derailed their candidacy. Indeed, revelations candidates had received the endorsement of white supremacists, including one from David Duke, former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, would have all but ended their political aspirations. But not Trump, who claimed he had never heard of David Duke – Daisy Duke, perhaps – but not the one wearing a white sheet with eye holes over his head.

Having insulted his way to the White House, as Bill Clinton predicted he might, Donald Trump must now become more presidential, not an easy task for someone who will likely require a teleprompter to take the oath of office. But as hundreds of protesters take to the streets in major U.S. cities to protest his election victory, and as Democrats and key members of the Republican establishment try to figure out how they are going to work with the narcissistic Trump, the president-elect has no choice but to reach out to over half the country who would have much preferred he remain in his tower than take up residence in the White House.

If Trump has well-honed leadership qualities, if he is truly the best at everything, as he has often reminded us, then prove it. Assume responsibility for dragging the United States through a toxic campaign, apologize to Americans for the rude and abrasive manner in which he has conducted himself and lay out a concrete plan for cleaning up the country.

He must earn the trust of those he has ridiculed and disparaged, those he has verbally attacked and maligned and those who still believe America holds out great promise.

Once he has cleaned up the mess he has contributed to at home, hopefully, he will be able to turn his attention to working with world leaders, many of whom are still deeply concerned about the election results.

In the end, the test for Trump will not be figuring out the challenges confronting the United States; it will be accepting the reality he alone cannot address them. For Trump, winning the presidency should be a humbling experience, not a constant reminder of how great he thinks he is.

Department of Political Science Chair and professor Don Abelson specializes in American Politics and U.S. foreign policy. His work focuses primarily on the role of think tanks and their efforts to influence public opinion and public policy.