Skip to main content

Clifford Orwin is a professor of political science and senior fellow of Massey College at the University of Toronto

How did it happen? Well, one of two very weak candidates had to win. Surprisingly to most people, including me, Hillary Clinton proved the weaker of the weak.

No matter that she was a woman in the supposed Year of the Woman, or that Democrats raised the preposterous claim that she was the best qualified candidate ever. No matter that she had so much more money to spend than Donald Trump (Hillary, meet Jeb Bush). No matter that President Barack Obama, supposedly so beloved of the American people, anointed her first term as his third. No matter that so many of the party faithful shrugged off her endless baggage as always someone else's fault.

Or rather, these things mattered, but they didn't matter enough. They carried her to a narrow win in the popular vote, but no further. She lost crucial states that seemed perfectly safe. She was an ordinary candidate in a year that required an extraordinary one.

Nor was she very good even at that. Her widely perceived insincerity, her obsequiousness to the plutocracy – this from a supposed fighter for the little guy – her disastrously bad judgment over her e-mail server, her Clintonian inability to separate philanthropy and public service from self-dealing: it's a long list.

My colleagues who monitor such things say that it wasn't high turnout for him but low turnout that sank her. Her vaunted ground game, her campaign's skill at microtargeting, the frantic efforts to foment fear of Mr. Trump – none of it sufficed. She needed an older technology modeled by the Royal Navy: press gangs to drag sluggish voters to the polls. A better candidate, battle ready and baggage free, could have beaten Mr. Trump. Tim Kaine, Ms. Clinton's best decision, could have beaten Mr. Trump – but not from the bottom of the ticket.

Yet Mr. Trump didn't win only because Ms. Clinton lost. True, he, too, was a terrible candidate. If her negatives were not the highest ever registered by a presidential candidate, it was because his were even higher. Nor should we begrudge him this honour: he had earned it. Barring the claims that he was a fascist or racist, every bad thing said about him was true – including that he wasn't a Republican.

This last was crucial to his success. Like Bernie Sanders, the Democrat who wasn't, he was a non-party candidate in a non-party year. Having shredded the Republicans, he proceeded with their help to mash the Democrats. As a candidate in the general election he aggregated the benefits of being non-party with those of enjoying the backing of a party. He lost some Republican voters, but apparently not many. As for those GOP leaders who refused to back him, they were of course banking on his defeat.

Beside being non-party, Mr. Trump was the Unpolitician, the very first man elected president without holding previous public office. He played the outlaw with conviction. It took many of us a while to grasp that his outrageousness was calculated. The more outré his utterances, the more taboo, the more downright indefensible, the more they served as his exclamation points.

Of course many bigots supported him, the dark underside of his campaign. Black, Muslim and Hispanic Americans have legitimate reason to worry, and other Americans the duty to worry with them. But you didn't have to agree with Mr. Trump to admire him for "telling it like it was." Many claimed to back him despite the particular things he said. Even disagreeing with these, they admired his defiance of the establishment fiat that one must not say such things.

This was the year that populism went viral in America. At every stage we pundits underestimated the breadth of Trump's appeal. It wasn't just his economic populism: the American electorate doesn't harbour 60,000,000 unemployed pipefitters.

This new populism was, for want of a better word, "cultural." Many of the college educated bought in. Populism as backlash, populism as whitelash, populism as hatred of both taxes and deficits, populism as resentment of the feminism of entitlement.

Let's not omit populism as irritation at preachy professors. To all these Mr. Trump sold himself as the antidote. In a world swathed in political correctness, the voting booth remains the final sanctuary where the people are free to speak.