Victory achieved, but can Trump lead?
Columnist Dana Milbank weighs in on the stunning election result — and what comes next.
Baker Melissa Alt showed up unbidden at Trump Tower on Election Day with a 40-pound cake in the form of a Donald Trump bust, and Trump aides liked the likeness enough to display it in the ballroom at Trump’s election-night party.
But there was something wrong with the chocolate confection. Alt was aiming to reproduce Trump’s pout, but she wound up making him look startled and sad.
After Tuesday night, that’s the exact expression worn by tens of millions of Americans and countless more across the globe.
Just before 3 a.m., the unthinkable had become official. In the ballroom of New York’s Hilton hotel, the Fox News screens in the room carried the surreal banner: “Donald Trump Wins Presidency.”
The theme from “Air Force One” played. From a balcony above the ballroom, Trump appeared, in the fashion of British royalty or a certain Italian leader. He descended to the stage with family and aides, and the president-elect exulted. “It’s been what they call a historic event,” he said.
It shocked journalists. It shocked markets. It apparently surprised Trump himself. A petulant Trump on election eve told a crowd a loss would make this campaign “the single greatest waste of time.”
If only it had just been a waste of time. If only Trump’s candidacy hadn’t ripped the country apart by race, gender, religion and ethnicity. If only it hadn’t turned the proud Republican Party into a xenophobic amalgamation of angry, older white men. If only it hadn’t left the country bitter and all but ungovernable.
Seventeen months ago, Trump descended the elevator at Trump Tower, blocks from his victory party at the Hilton. He began with rapists and criminals, and closed with “bad hombres” and a “nasty woman.” In between, there was: his proposed ban on Muslims; violence at his rallies; groping allegations; Miss Piggy; his making scapegoats of minorities; vows to put his opponent in jail; encouragement of Russia’s hacking; and a threat not to honor the election results.
Finally, there was FBI Director James B. Comey’s October Surprise, reopening his investigation of Clinton and then closing it nine days later — an intervention that, exit polls suggest, may have tipped the balance.
Whatever the cause, at about 9 p.m. Tuesday, the world changed. The early returns had looked grim, even on Fox News, playing on all TVs at Trump’s party. But when Fox News began reporting a tight race in Florida, guests from the nearby VIP receptions filled the ballroom.
The billionaire candidate offered his supporters a cash bar for the evening, and his antielitist followers shelled out $13 for cocktails, $13 for glasses of wine and $11 for beer. The booze flowed. Scores of empty bottles of Jack Daniels and Stolichnaya and beer were carted out, and hundreds of new glasses carted in. More empty liquor bottles were removed, and more cases of wine wheeled in.
One Trump aide turned to another and said, “We may be going to Washington.” Rudy Giuliani and other surrogates filed in; Sarah Palin taunted a reporter about the results.
As the Trump wins dribbled in — Ohio, then North Carolina and Florida — the ballroom audience began to sound like a football crowd: chants of “USA!,” “Build a wall” and “Drain the swamp,” fists pumping in the air, and plastic cocktail cups (the hotel had run out of glasses) held high.
After Wisconsin and Iowa fell to Trump, almost all on the floor were in red Trump hats, lustily booing Juan Williams when Fox News’ liberal commentator, an African American, protested Trump’s false statements about black people.
When Clinton campaign chief John Podesta appeared from Clinton headquarters on the Fox News screens in the room to say Clinton wasn’t yet conceding, Trump’s supporters punched fists in the air and raised middle fingers at the screens. More cases of beer were wheeled in. Next to the bar, the Trump cake still looked worried.
Maybe the human Trump should worry, too. He stirred up racial and religious hatred and stoked gender and class resentments, validated conspiracy theorists and the racist alt-right, employed untruths and promised followers an unachievable agenda. How does he govern now?
When the race was finally called, Trump promised to be the “president for all Americans” and appealed for “common ground, not hostility; partnership, not conflict.”
Let’s hope for the sake of the country that he means it.