US Elections 2016: Journey to the presidency

From Trump Tower to the White House

Businessman defies critics to emerge victorious despite candidacy marked by countless missteps

Mr Trump on stage with his family to celebrate winning the election in New York yesterday. No other presidential candidate has given offence so freely and been so battered by scandal, and lived to fight on and win.
Mr Trump on stage with his family to celebrate winning the election in New York yesterday. No other presidential candidate has given offence so freely and been so battered by scandal, and lived to fight on and win.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • Mr Donald John Trump defied the sceptics who said he would never run, and the political veterans who scoffed at his slapdash campaign.

He attacked the norms of American politics, singling out groups for derision on the basis of race and religion and attacking the legitimacy of the political process.

He ignored conventions of common decency, employing casual vulgarity and raining personal humiliation on his political opponents and critics in the media.

And in the ultimate act of defiance, he emerged victorious, summoning a tidal wave of support from less-educated whites displaced by changes in the economy and deeply resistant to the country's shifting cultural and racial tones.

In his triumph, he has delivered perhaps the greatest shock to the American political system in modern times and opened the door to an era of extraordinary political uncertainty at home and around the globe.


These are the forgotten men and women of our country... People who work hard but no longer have a voice... I am your voice.

MR DONALD TRUMP, who offered himself to the country as a tribune of white populist rage.


The slashing, freewheeling campaign that took him to the doorstep of the White House replicated a familiar pattern from his life, but on an Olympian scale.

The son of a wealthy real estate developer in Queens, Mr Trump, 70, spent decades pursuing social acceptance in upscale Manhattan and seeking, at times desperately, to persuade the wider world to see him as a great man of affairs. But he was often met with scoffing disdain by wealthy elites and mainstream civic leaders, culminating in a mortifying roast by President Barack Obama at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2011.

So Mr Trump fashioned himself instead as a proudly garish champion of the common man - a person of unsophisticated tastes but distinctive popular appeal - and acted the part in extravagant fashion, first in the New York tabloids and then on national television. He became a pundit of sorts, fulminating against crime in New York City and international trade and Mr Obama's legitimacy as president, often in racially incendiary terms.

His candidacy unfolded in much the same way: as the rampage of an aggrieved outsider, aligned more with the cultural sensibilities of blue-collar whites than with his peers in society.

On the first day of his run - June 16 last year - Mr Trump drew a direct parallel between his determined quest for success in New York and his entry into the political arena. Addressing a crowd made up largely of reporters in the atrium of Trump Tower, he noted that political seers had predicted "he'll never run". Seconds later, he mused that his father, Fred Trump, had urged him never to compete in "the big leagues" of Manhattan.

"'We don't know anything about that. Don't do it,'" he quoted his father as saying. "I said, 'I've got to go into Manhattan. I've got to build those big buildings. I've got to do it, Dad. I've got to do it.'"

Powered by that same grasping ambition, Mr Trump's candidacy was marked by countless missteps and grievous errors. No other presidential candidate in memory has given offence so freely and been so battered by scandal, and lived to fight on and win.

Amid all his innumerable blunders, however, he got one or two things right that mattered more than all the rest. On a visceral level, he grasped dynamics that the political leadership of both parties missed or ignored - most of all, the raw frustration of blue-collar and middle-class white voters who rallied to his candidacy with decisive force.

He rallied them less with policy promises than with gut-level pronouncements - against foreign trade, foreign wars and foreign workers. He left his Republican primary opponents agog at his dismissals of mainstream policy, and exposed a yawning breach between the programme of tax cuts and fiscal austerity favoured by traditional conservatives, and the preoccupations of the party's rank and file.

Ridiculed by critics on the right and left, shunned by the most respected figures in American politics, including every living former president, he equated his own outcast status with the resentments of the white class.

Even the invective and incivility that appalled the traditional guardians of political discourse seemed only to forge a tighter bond between him and his inflamed following. He dismissed American social norms as mere "political correctness", all to the applause of his base.

In sum, he offered himself to the country as a tribune of white populist rage, and pledged to defend "the laid-off factory workers and the communities crushed by our horrible and unfair trade deals".

"These are the forgotten men and women of our country," he said. "People who work hard but no longer have a voice."

He pledged: "I am your voice."

The message resonated especially in the Midwest, where a stunning victory in Ohio helped give him the electoral college votes he needed to win. But his ultimate triumph was driven less by region than by race and class. His winning coalition consisted of restive whites and scarcely anyone else.

Mr Trump's winding path to the presidency began 16km east of the spot where he would build Trump Tower, in the wealthy Queens enclave of Jamaica Estates, where his father's self-made real estate empire granted him an easy entry into the world of construction and development. He showed little interest in politics as a young man, obtaining deferments to avoid fighting in the Vietnam War but declining to participate in the protest movements of that era.

He found his way into the political arena by way of his commercial interests and social aspirations: He made himself a presence at fund-raising events and political conventions. But while Mr Trump earned headlines at that stage mainly for his romantic escapades and business failures, even then he gave hints of loftier political goals.

In the run-up to the 1988 presidential campaign, he travelled to New Hampshire to give a speech warning of foreign threats to American economic power. The next year, he stirred fierce controversy in New York by calling loudly for the death penalty, in the aftermath of a brutal assault and rape, though the five men charged with the crime were later exonerated.

Still, even as he began to campaign in the early presidential primary states, blasting Mexican migrants and demanding a shutdown of Muslim immigration, he never entirely shed his image as a boastful but ultimately benign showman.

Republicans of august political lineage, like Mr Jeb Bush, derided him as "an entertainer", and trusted, in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, that voters would discard him as such in the end.


Democrats, too, who viewed Mr Trump as plainly unelectable from the start, acknowledged at times that they might have been wrong to sneer at him early on. Mrs Hillary Clinton last winter noted that Mr Trump had initially provoked "hysterical laughter", before his call for a crackdown on Muslims.

"I no longer think he's funny," Mrs Clinton said.


Policies Trump has said he might execute

Mr Donald Trump, who will become the 45th President of the United States, has vowed while on the stump to unravel many of his predecessor's policies and implement several controversial ones of his own. A look at what he has said he would do when he gets to the White House:


•Renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement and withdraw the US from the "job-killing" Trans-Pacific Partnership, a pact signed by 12 countries, including Singapore.

•Impose trade tariffs of up to 45 per cent if China fails to drop its "predatory" practices.

•Impose a tax to deter US companies from shipping its operations - and jobs - abroad.


•Build a wall on the border with Mexico and make Mexico pay for it.

•Immediately begin the process of deporting illegal immigrants with criminal records.

•Introduce "extreme vetting" of people looking to immigrate to or visit the US, including a screening test to weed out those who do not "share our values and respect our people". The measure may involve a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country.

•Stop issuing visas to people coming from parts of the world where "adequate screening cannot occur". He named Syria and Libya as two such places.

•Resume the use of waterboarding and rely on other methods of "strong interrogation" in the US' fight against terrorist suspects.


•Review obligations to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Mr Trump said he may not guarantee protection to fellow members in Europe who come under attack, and would help only if that country had fulfilled its "obligations" within the alliance.

•Withdraw troops from Europe and Asia, including Japan and South Korea, if those allies fail to pay more for US protection.

•Strengthen the US military and deploy it in the East and South China Seas. "These actions will discourage Chinese adventurism that imperils American interests in Asia and show our strength as we begin renegotiating our trading relationship with China," Mr Trump has said.

•"Bomb the hell" out of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.


•During his first 100 days, Mr Trump said he would work with Congress to introduce measures to grow the economy by 4 per cent a year and create at least 25 million new jobs. One of the measures he has floated is deep tax cuts.

•Boost infrastructure spending by up to US$1 trillion (S$1.39 trillion) over 10 years through public-private partnerships, and private investments through tax incentives.


•Lift restrictions on production of US$50 trillion worth of US energy reserves, including shale, oil, natural gas and clean coal.

•Cancel billions in payments to United Nations climate change programmes and use the money to "fix America's water and environmental infrastructure".


•Repeal the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare. President Barack Obama's signature policy has brought health insurance to about 12.7 million people who would have struggled to afford medical cover but it has also pushed up insurance premiums for Americans not on government assistance. Mr Trump said he would replace this with another system that would give more power to states over how to handle funds. But Republicans could be hard-pressed to muster the 60 votes needed to win passage for a repeal effort through the 100-seat Senate.


•Amend the Constitution to limit the term of all members of Congress.

•Impose a hiring freeze on all federal employees, and limits on lobbyists, including a total ban on foreign lobbyists raising money for US elections.


•Appoint a special prosecutor to reopen the investigation into Mrs Hillary Clinton's use of a private e-mail server while she was secretary of state and put her in jail, although his Democratic rival has been absolved by the Federal Bureau of Investigation of wrongdoing.

Lee Seok Hwai

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 10, 2016, with the headline 'From Trump Tower to the White House '. Subscribe