Donald Trump’s America was always there, just beneath the surface. You glimpsed it in the crowds, furious but patient, waiting to see him, no matter how long they had to stand in the sun. You heard it in the words of his admirers, who saw him not only as an improvement on our current leaders but as an antidote, a bend in history, an agent of revolution. In the final weeks, there were the accelerants to his fire—the intervention of the F.B.I. director, James Comey, in the Presidential race, a surge in health-plan prices under Obamacare—but none of them alone created his path. Only the people themselves could do that.
Clifton, Virginia, is a picturesque Washington, D.C., suburb less than thirty miles from the White House. The route into Main Street winds between stately, colonnaded homes and equestrian farms. The median household income in the surrounding area is $174,233, nearly triple the state average. Nearby suburbs are becoming more Democratic, as immigrants and yuppies move from the city, but Clifton has remained a proud pocket of limited-government conservatism; in 2012, the Clifton precinct favored Mitt Romney over Barack Obama by twenty-three percentage points.
For weeks, one of the main pieces of conventional wisdom about this election was that prosperous, traditional Republicans would, in the end, turn away from Donald Trump. In Clifton, it soon became clear, that was not the case. On Election Day, outside the polling place at Clifton Presbyterian Church, I met Sandra Bittner, a widow who looks younger than her seventy-nine years. She wore patriotic colors—a blue-and-white jacket over a red shirt—and a silver cross hung around her neck. Her late husband of fifty-six years had worked at Apple Computer, which provided financial security; beginning in the seventies, Bittner herself ran a building-and-construction firm. “And I ran it successfully,” she said. “So I understand what it takes.”
She was unmoved by the prospect of Clinton becoming the first woman President. “This woman has lied her way her entire life,” she said. “She and Bill Clinton are the most corrupt couple in politics today.” Her objections are, by now, well known—abortion, Benghazi, e-mail, the Clinton Foundation—but the depth of her antipathy took me aback. If Trump loses, she said, “I think there’s an undercurrent of anger that will be hard to restrain, I really do.”
I asked if she thought there would be unrest, as some Trump supporters have predicted. She paused for a long moment. “I have to be careful about how I answer this. I guess I don’t know, but, in a way, I hope so,” she said. “So, what do I mean by civil unrest? I don’t mean picking up your guns and going out and shooting people. But I mean people who will vocalize. Look at the illegal aliens that Obama said should be able to vote. We are losing our country in this respect. And I’m horrified by it, by what is going on. I’m a pretty old lady, and I won’t live to see the demise of this country, because I won’t live long enough. But I will live long enough to see the slow globalization, the effect of bringing all these Syrian refugees in. I will live long enough to see that, and it will sadden me. But Thomas Jefferson said that when the country gets riled, Katy, bar the door.”
Bittner smiled at an approaching friend, who touched her forearm and said, “That’s a cute jacket!” “Thank you!” Bittner replied, and turned back to the matter of civil unrest. “I feel like it is the most important election I’ve ever voted in, because I think that we’re at a fork—a serious fork,” she said. “It’s the most important election, and, in January, I will be eighty years old, so I’ve been through a lot.”
It was always falsely comforting to imagine that Trump’s supporters were far away, marooned in economically distressed corners of the country, places so battered that, frankly, it was easy to understand why Trump appealed. But that was always too simple. Trump appealed to many more people, partly because of the depth of antipathy toward Clinton and partly because he gave legitimacy to a vocabulary of fear—of “globalism,” of “international interests”—that had never enjoyed the main stage of Republican politics.
“It’s not a vote for him; it’s a vote against Hillary,” Ken Stulik, a real-estate agent, told me, after casting his ballot. Stulik is genial and articulate, a persuasive spokesman for the charms of downtown Clifton (“A five-star restaurant right here, a four-star restaurant right there”), but on politics he harbors deep worries. “I’m convinced that she is corrupt and a criminal, and I fear for our country if she’s elected.”
I asked him why he feared for the country. “There’s a strong possibility of not one but two liberal appointees in the Supreme Court. That could lead to, I think, in some convoluted way, an attempted repeal of the Second Amendment, which is really one of the last things we have to protect ourselves from a corrupt government. I have no idea what her fiscal policies really are. I honestly believe that she simply says whatever she needs to get votes and then, when she’s in, she’s going to pander to her corporate interests, her international interests.
“It’s almost certain to me that the Clinton Global Initiative has taken hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign investments. She may be indebted to these people in some way. So we may have certainly been sold out by her. I worry about that. I mean, what if someone’s, you know, Qatar or Saudi Arabia, says, ‘Hey, remember that five hundred million dollars I gave you? I’m calling it a favor now.’ “ He added, “I’m concerned that she’s a globalist and she doesn’t have the sovereignty of the United States in her best interests. I think she’ll be so mired in scandal and controversy that she’s not going to have a lot of time to get stuff done. So it might be a sort of lame-duck Presidency right from the get-go.”
It was easy to sense that Trump’s constant talk of a “rigged” system—rigged against him, rigged against “the people,” rigged against Republicans—has altered the chemistry of the electorate. Would Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio have encouraged voters to question the integrity of the Electoral College?
Trump’s experience in Virginia says a lot about his storm across America. The state was never supposed to be a close contest—in October, Clinton led Trump by nine points—but, with ninety-eight precincts reporting, she beat him by just two per cent.
It was never enough to say that the Trump phenomenon rested only on whites without a college degree. They were part of Trump’s surprise, but not all of it. The real shocks were the fence-sitters, the late-breakers, the Bush-family types, and the suburban women. They would, we were so often told, recoil from Trump. Outside the Silverbrook Elementary School, a polling station in the affluent community of Fairfax Station, I encountered Jaclyn Miller, a genial tax accountant in her mid-thirties. I asked how she voted. She winced and laughed. “I voted for Trump, begrudgingly,” she said.
“It was the lesser of two evils, in my mind. I’m definitely a fiscal conservative, and the corruption and everything from Hillary, just, I couldn’t do it,” she said. “She’s not trustworthy.” The “Access Hollywood” tape did not matter much to her. After all, she said, Bill Clinton was “with an intern in the Oval Office.” Of Trump, she added, “I’m sure there’s things that I’ve said that I would never want public.” Miller went on, “A couple weeks ago, I had decided, at that moment, that I was going third party. And I really wish that there was a valid third-party option. I think a lot of Americans don’t fall into one category.”
In the end, a third-party vote felt like a throwaway. So Miller—young, affluent, unsure—voted for Trump. “Trump is a wild card, and that scares me a little bit. Well, that scares me a lot, but I just hope that there’s enough checks and balances that will kind of save us.” She laughed nervously.
As polls began to close, I ended my reporting on candidate Trump with a call to someone I encountered sixteen months ago, Matthew Heimbach. Last July, he was an obscure white-nationalist activist, calling for the separation of the races; the Southern Poverty Law Center considers him an heir to David Duke. But early on, while others considered Trump a joke as a candidate, Heimbach described him as a visionary.
On Tuesday, Heimbach told me he was “vindicated.” Trump’s stunning success was, in his view, a gateway to the broader embrace of explicitly race-based organizations like his. “If you’re going to drink Coca-Cola, don’t drink Diet Coke; drink a regular. Really, I just think it provides a great opportunity for us,” he said. “I think the average American, regardless of your race, or, really, your political persuasion, has lost faith in the American experiment, in the American system.” He went on, “I don’t think anyone would disagree that the way our economy, and thereby our politics, whether it’s Citizens United, and lobbyists, the corruption within the political system, that we have a small amount of financial oligarchs that run American politics. Whether you’re Democrat or Republican. So let’s not just drain the swamp but let’s break the power of these institutions, and return power back to the people.”
Heimbach was speaking from his home, in Paoli, Indiana. “Here in the town I live in now, there’s one factory that employs the majority of the men in town, close to five hundred jobs, and it was just slated to close within the next six months. And everyone is wondering: What are we going to do?” he said. “The white working class is really starting to come into its own as a bloc and is seeing more in terms of ethnic and community consciousness. And that can’t be put back in the bottle.”