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Opinion

Editorial: President Trump? How did that happen?

Shocked Clinton supporter
Debbie Santacroce, of West Bend, Wis., rubs the side of her head while watching election coverage at the Democratic Party of Washington County office on Nov. 8.
(John Ehlke/Associated Press)

Even as we congratulate Donald Trump on his victory, and even as we hope — perhaps against hope — that he will govern in a more inclusive way than he campaigned, we can’t conceal our disappointment that such a candidate was rewarded with victory.

How did we get here? How did an opinionated billionaire with no political experience and a willful ignorance about government wrest the nomination of a major party away from a large field of senators and governors and then prevail in a general election against a former U.S. senator and secretary of State? Why didn’t he hemorrhage support when he was caught in lies big and small and revealed to be a bully, a racist and a misogynist?

It was only four years ago, after Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss, that the Republican National Committee commissioned a study which came to be known as the “autopsy.” The report was brutally frank in describing the party’s unpopularity with young people and racial minorities. With an eye toward 2016, the authors advocated comprehensive immigration reform and a willingness to tolerate alternative points of view.

But Trump rejected that advice. Instead, he called Mexican immigrants rapists. He compared African American and Latino neighborhoods to war zones. He promised a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”

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While some prominent Republicans bravely refused to endorse him, others cynically backed Trump on the pretense that Clinton was worse.

These offensive comments served as the caffeine in Trump’s campaign, energizing supporters who accepted his insult-driven politics as a sign of “authenticity.” It’s often argued that many Trump supporters backed him not because of his bigotry and volatile temperament but in spite of those qualities; their vote should be interpreted, the argument goes, not as an endorsement of Trump but rather as a poignant expression of their economic anxiety and frustration with dysfunction in Washington.

Of course there’s some truth to that; Trump clearly struck a chord with many voters — especially non-college educated white males — who had legitimate grievances. But he also effectively exploited anxieties about the changing racial and religious demographics of the country — anxieties that in some cases crossed the line into bigotry.

Clinton may have overstated the percentage of “deplorable” Trump backers, but she was absolutely correct that some of his support came from “the racists and the haters and the people who are drawn because they think somehow he’s going to restore an America that no longer exists.” How else to explain the racial slurs at his rallies, the violence, the chants of “Lock Her Up”?

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Trump also was supported by voters who were free of bias but who were angry at Washington, various elites, the media and “political correctness” — so angry that all they cared about was shattering the system. Nothing else — not the issues, not the candidate’s qualifications, not even his moral character — mattered. That’s an irresponsible way to select a candidate.

Trump had help from unlikely allies. Some prominent Republicans flattered him as a plausible president from the beginning. Then, when he became the front-runner for the nomination, party leaders failed to coalesce behind a better qualified rival.

Trump also was buoyed, especially in the early months, by uncritical saturation coverage by cable television news channels.

Once he seized the Republican nomination, Trump won the support of party loyalists who were encouraged by party leaders — and vice presidential candidate Mike Pence — to believe that Trump would govern as a conventional Republican.

While some prominent Republicans bravely refused to endorse him, others cynically backed Trump on the pretense that Clinton was worse. Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell and others knew it was craven and dangerous to do so, but calculations of their own self-interest won out.

Trump was helped by a widespread belief — which he fanned — that Clinton was not just untrustworthy but was corrupt. It is true she shouldn’t have used a private email server as secretary of State, but it was only in the fun-house mirror held up by Trump and other Republicans that her misjudgments looked like crimes.

We will be the first to praise Trump if he governs in a way that departs from the aggressively divisive campaign that has brought him to the highest office in the land. But the campaign, and the candidate, played to the worst in America, and it has left the electorate scarred.

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