The 2016 U.S. presidential election will go down as the most stunning political upset of all time. Donald Trump’s victory blindsided and gob-smacked virtually everyone. It was shocking for me because I was laboring under the assumption that Trump was taking the most plain to see dive ever in a presidential race but pulled off the win anyway. That’s the best way, in my view, to make sense of Trump campaigning like he was a contestant on a reality TV show that was going on in his head–“America’s Next Top President”–and constantly spouting outrageous statements and stirring up controversies to drive up that imaginary show’s ratings. You just don’t alienate entire constituencies and go after a gold-star family and realistically expect to get elected come November. So while everyone else is frantically asking why Trump won, the real question, I think, is why did he try his damndest to lose? If his heart wasn’t really in it, what was he out to accomplish?
Howard Stern was on the right track in the answer he gave to his own question of ‘why did Trump even want the presidency when his life was paradisiacal?’ which was that NBC was going to lower the pay he was getting for The Apprentice: “They were going to fuck with him on the contract. He [Trump] said, ‘You know what I’ll do, I’ll run for president. Even if I don’t win, I’ll announce, it’ll up my game, and I’ll get a better deal.’ Which is a smart move…I truly think the biggest shock in all of this is to Donald Trump. Because I think it was more of a, ‘Hey!’ a publicity kind of thing. ‘I’ll get my name out there. I’ll see what happens, we’ll have some fun. I don’t know that he could’ve imagined that this could’ve been the outcome.” An entertaining publicity stunt to add value to the Trump brand was part of it but there was another, more substantive explanation for him throwing his hat in the ring and it stemmed from a phone call the Donald had with Bill Clinton.
Clinton had rung up Trump just weeks before he decided to run and, according to the Washington Post, “Four Trump allies and one Clinton associate familiar with the exchange said that Clinton encouraged Trump’s efforts to play a larger role in the Republican Party and offered his own views of the political landscape.” Clinton “listened intently” as Trump spoke of his White House aspirations and he “then analyzed Trump’s prospects and his desire to rouse the GOP base,” and added that Trump “was striking a chord with frustrated conservatives and was a rising force on the right.” Clinton supposedly “never urged Trump to run” but nevertheless “was upbeat and encouraging during the conversation, which occurred as Trump was speaking out about GOP politics and his prescriptions for the nation.” I don’t think it was likely that Clinton wasn’t eagerly pushing Trump to go for it given the stratagem his wife’s campaign had cooked up a month before, as Ben Norton writes:
“What was not often acknowledged in Trump’s heated race against Democrat Hillary Clinton, however, was how her campaign fueled his rise to power. An email recently released by the whistleblowing organization WikiLeaks shows how the Clinton campaign and Democratic Party bear direct responsibility for propelling the bigoted billionaire to the White House. In its self-described “pied piper” strategy, the Clinton campaign proposed intentionally cultivating extreme right-wing presidential candidates, hoping to turn them into the new “mainstream of the Republican Party” in order to try to increase Clinton’s chances of winning. The Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee called for using far-right candidates “as a cudgel to move the more established candidates further to the right.” Clinton’s camp insisted that Trump and other extremists should be “elevated” to “leaders of the pack” and media outlets should be told to “take them seriously.” The strategy backfired—royally.”
But let’s give the former President the benefit of the doubt that he merely wanted Trump to assume a prominent role in the GOP. What was that role to be? I’d bet that Clinton and Trump discussed the latter becoming a pied piper for populists in the Republican Party who leads them in a positive, business-friendly direction. Both Clinton* and Trump could see there was a working class ferment ahead that could define politics for a generation and that careful action had to be taken to counter and de-radicalize it. So, no matter how far he got in the presidential race, as a “rising force on the right” Trump’s task was to go about gaining a ton of credibility among anti-establishment voters by saying exactly what they were thinking regarding the economy and the Washington status quo. Then, once Trump changed his tune and moderated his views (to what they were all along) after looking thoroughly at the issues, the disaffected would follow him into the political mainstream. This process is already unfolding with Trump as President-elect shifting in his view of climate change. “Trump said he would study the issue “very hard,” reports Tom Friedman, “and hinted that if, after study, he was to moderate his views, his voice would be influential with climate skeptics.” This can obviously apply to any other topic he ponders. Trump being convinced by the necessity of certain things will sway his supporters and lead them to the centrist light and it’s huge that Trump himself suggested that this would be the case. Thus will Trump expedite the GOP’s evolution—another thing he and Clinton must have addressed in their survey of the political scene—and saved it from extinction. So, overall, it seems Trump ran, as I wrote before, as a favor for the establishment