A rancorous campaign means huge problems for the winner

By Dan Balz analysis

Democrats react to numbers for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at the Arizona Democratic Party's election night bash in Phoenix. Photo / AP
Democrats react to numbers for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at the Arizona Democratic Party's election night bash in Phoenix. Photo / AP

The newly elected 45th president, whose identity remained unknown this afternoon, will arrive in the Oval Office carrying the usual checklist.

Boost the economy. Protect national security. Resolve knotty issues of immigration and healthcare.

All those pale in the face of the real challenge, which will be to deal with the after-effects of the rancorous and traumatic journey that was election 2016.

The obstacles for the new president are enormous. The political system is broken. Goodwill has all but disappeared. Suspicion and hostility - so prevalent throughout the campaign year - provide the backdrop. In years past, Americans have generally greeted the results of presidential elections with a sense of hopefulness. This time, even before the votes were cast, battle lines were forming for the days ahead.

There was nothing normal about the campaign between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Election Day arrived amid a stew of emotions: fear, hope, anger, passion, frustration, nervousness and, above all, relief and nervous anticipation. For most Americans, the 2016 campaign was a long and dispiriting contest that tested the strength and resiliency of a deeply divided nation.

This was an election about fundamentals and first principles, bringing to the surface an acrimonious argument about the values and beliefs that provide the underpinnings of any society.

It was an election that involved big questions about race, gender, religion and economic inequality, as well as the relationship between the central government and an increasingly distrustful people. It highlighted the gulf between society's elites - political, economic and cultural - and the rest of the population.

Above all, it was a campaign about the identity of a nation, a reckoning the likes of which no one had predicted when this long cycle began with the candidates' first stirrings in early 2015. Month by month, the debate accelerated and intensified.

The campaign brought to the fore the tensions of a nation in transition and the pull and tug felt on each side of a series of dividing lines that define far more than just our politics. At its best, this can produce a conversation in which different sides bring heartfelt attitudes about what makes America the great nation it was, is and will be. At its worst, it can give voice to racism and misogyny, anti-Semitism and religious bigotry.

The election exposed the rawest edges of a diverse and changing America. The campaign pitted group against group, injected tension into everyday interactions even among friends and neighbours. Social media stoked those tensions and widened the divisions. Anyone who had suffered from the stings of discrimination over race or gender or religious identity was caught up in the middle of a national discourse that rattled nerves and left unsettled an already imperfect status quo.

Trump generated much of this with his words and actions. The New York businessman offended Hispanics, Muslims and women. He insulted a prominent veteran and former POW, and a disabled reporter. He was reckless with his words and undisciplined as a candidate. He had no fixed ideology and little command of the details of the issues that any president must master. He divided his own party and scorned its leaders.

Yet he attracted an army of followers, loyal and believing, who saw in him the mechanism to break the hold of the elites and to shake Washington to its core. It was their power and passion that were on display today, producing cliffhangers in one state after another and nail-biting among partisans on both sides.

At one point in the campaign, Clinton called part of Trump's army "a basket of deplorables". Yet even she acknowledged that part of what fuelled his candidacy was the feeling of alienation on the part of a wide swath of the population.

One Clinton adviser described the power behind Trump as a "quiet rage" that exists in the privacy of living rooms and around kitchen tables about the political system and the lack of tangible results from government's actions for many hard-working Americans. Trump said those sentiments could produce an American Brexit - a rejection of the elites and a toppling of the pollsters.

Clinton ran a campaign she could never have anticipated as she first thought about what 2016 would be about. She was thrust into the maelstrom of a Trump-generated cyclone, and she and her campaign tried to adapt on the fly. She represented history in the making, but through much of the campaign the possibility of breaking the gender barrier provided a far more modest lift than Obama received on his way to becoming the nation's first African American president.

Clinton was no Trump, and yet, were it not for him, she would have been the least popular major-party nominee in history. Scars of a quarter-century in public life made her a polarising candidate the minute she stepped into the presidential arena, and it grew worse through much of the year. Her candidacy generated hatred from many of those who opposed her, as the chants of "Lock her up" at Trump rallies testified.

For months, Americans have been apprehensive as they neared Election Day, never able to turn away from the spectacle that was on their television screens and smartphones. Record numbers watched the debates during the primaries, and the biggest audience ever tuned in for the first of three Clinton-Trump faceoffs this fall.

Everyone knew the campaign was unlike anything they had seen in the past. Everyone wanted it to end. No one is eager to see it come again. It will fall to the winner to deal with the aftermath.

Recent past presidents have faced what might appear to be similar challenges of binding up a nation after a discordant campaign. George W. Bush arrived in the White House in January 2001 after a contentious 37-day recount in Florida and a controversial Supreme Court decision that awarded him the presidency. President Barack Obama was returned to office four years ago after a campaign that highlighted as perhaps never before the sharp red-blue divisions that have defined politics for the past dozen or more years.

Neither of those two recent experiences compares with what the country lived through during the past two years. The election turned far less on traditional issues of peace and prosperity. Little time was spent debating the visions of the two candidates. Whatever differences there were on economic issues or national security challenges were overwhelmed by a far noisier argument about the limits and breaking points of a democracy.

Big elections are supposed to help settle some of these disputes, or at least point a direction for the new leader. Yet, as the campaign ended and the counting was underway, the question remained as to what had been resolved, if anything. Four years ago, Obama hoped that victory would ease the solid wall of opposition thrown up at him by Republicans, but he was quickly disabused of that notion.

Jake Sullivan, Clinton's senior policy adviser, described the opportunity lost by the way the campaign unfolded these past many months. "These presidential campaigns are long," he said in an interview. "They are painful for everybody after a fashion. But one positive thing that has tended to come out of them in the past is a real airing of policy differences. . . . You ventilate ideas. You test them. You probe them. You find the weak points and strengthen them. And that hasn't really happened in this general election."

No one was prepared to predict in advance what kind of presidency Trump would fashion, only that if it followed the patterns of his campaign, it would continue to divide the country and, at its start, certainly, alarm allies around the world. The only predictable thing was that a victory by Trump would represent the biggest political earthquake in generations, with reverberations across the system.

Supporters for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a Republican election night party in Phoenix. Photo / AP
Supporters for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a Republican election night party in Phoenix. Photo / AP

Clinton, in the closing hours of the campaign and anticipating what awaits her if she is the next president, began to turn toward a softer message, one in which she spoke repeatedly about healing, reaching out, working across partisan lines and doing her best to represent those who voted against her. Her opponents were speaking - perhaps seriously, perhaps not - about renewed investigations into emails and the Clinton Foundation.

Some have even mentioned the word "impeachment." Those are doubtless careless comments that reflect nothing more than deep frustration, but they provide a measure of the lasting hostility that could greet her.

Beyond that, the new president will be dealing with a Republican Party that faces its own moment of reckoning, whether Trump is president or not. If Clinton is president, she will be trying to do business with congressional leaders who must weigh cooperation against the demands of the 2018 midterm elections and a 2020 presidential nomination contest that will start too quickly and will be defined in part by opposition to the White House incumbent.

Appearing in behalf of Clinton at her rally in Philadelphia, Obama recounted a recent interview in which he was asked whether he believed in the optimism he expressed when he first came onto the national stage at the 2004 Democratic convention.

"I had to acknowledge that I hadn't fully counted on the obstruction we'd see when I first came into office," he said. ". . . I didn't anticipate the way social media would magnify our divisions and muddy up facts. None of us knew [when he took office] how deep the Great Recession would cut and how many people would suffer and how it would make so many people anxious about their futures and their kids' futures, even after the economy recovered."

The President said he was, nonetheless, optimistic about the future of the country, about the power of the American people to overcome whatever is the challenge of the moment.

But the future will not be in his hands. It will be left to his successor - and all the will and guile and leadership she or he can muster to help guide the country through its next, uncertain chapter.

- Washington Post

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