Donald J. Trump has pulled off the most stunning election upset in U.S. history, riding a wave of populist and nativist anger all the way to the White House.
Defying polls that consistently showed him trailing Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, and that also suggested he was more strongly disliked than any other major-party nominee before him, the New York businessman and reality-television personality became president-elect of the United States on Tuesday.
"America will no longer settle for anything less than the best," Mr. Trump proclaimed in an uncharacteristically restrained acceptance speech shortly before 3 a.m. on Wednesday, in which he vowed to "bind the wounds of division" after a deeply bitter campaign, and reassured an international community fearful of his aggressive campaign posturing that he will seek "common ground, not hostility."
Ms. Clinton – who conceded publicly on Wednesday morning– won the popular vote. But Mr. Trump carried almost every battleground state in which he was seen to have a chance – including Ohio, Florida and North Carolina – and some, such as Wisconsin, where he was given almost no chance at all.
Mr. Trump overcame his almost complete lack of support from his country's rapidly growing minority populations, as well as strong distaste for his candidacy among college-educated white voters, by tapping into disgruntlement with the political establishment among people who feel their country's changing economy and shifting demographics are leaving them behind.
Despite an unending string of controversies that would have been fatal to most candidates' ambitions – including the release of a videotape in which Mr. Trump seemingly boasted about sexually assaulting women – his white, working-class base was joined by enough more traditional Republicans, who set aside their reservations to put him over the top.
Mr. Trump will face very little of the political gridlock that Barack Obama has had to contend with, and an open path to implement his policies, because Republicans are poised to keep control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives. And he will be able to turn the Supreme Court in conservatives' favour by filling the vacancy that currently has the court deadlocked between the two sides of the ideological spectrum.
But he will face both massive challenges and severe doubts about his ability to meet them. And he will enter office with an agenda that is at once loaded with controversial promises, and less defined than that of any other president-elect.
He has promised to build a wall along the southern U.S. border, temporarily ban Muslims from entering the country, renegotiate or tear up free-trade deals, introduce large across-the-board income tax cuts while dramatically raising taxes and tariffs on imports and adopt an isolationist "America First" foreign policy. At points of the election campaign, he threatened to pull the U.S. out of NATO, repeatedly hinted at curtailing press freedoms and expressed admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Known for a lack of interest in policy specifics, however, he has been remarkably vague on how he will fix a country he has portrayed as being in a state of disaster. While attacking current U.S. strategy for fighting the Islamic State, he has refused to divulge his own, claiming he wants to maintain the element of surprise. Domestically, he has promised to complement his tax cuts with large increases in spending, saying sky-high economic growth will make for balanced budgets. Even his signature policy to build the wall is predicated on the premise that Mexico will somehow be made to pay for it.
Just as ambiguous is how Mr. Trump's temperament will cause him to handle the unforeseen policy challenges and crises that constantly cross a president's desk. Notoriously thin-skinned, he consistently showed a tendency during the campaign to escalate confrontations. And despite lacking any experience in public office, the oldest person ever to be elected to a first term in the White House keeps his own counsel more than most politicians, and is said to have extremely limited patience for policy briefings.
But for all the uncertainty around what his presidency will look like, what is clear is that in the 17 months since he launched his candidacy, he has demolished received wisdom about how to win the presidency – and about the United States itself – by ushering in a political revolution that none of the country's political elites saw coming.
When he launched his bid for the Republican nomination on June 16, 2015, by showily descending the escalator at midtown Manhattan's Trump Tower (and delivering a speech that tested out themes he would keep hitting on, including an assessment that Mexico sent "rapists" across the border), his candidacy was widely dismissed as a vanity project aimed at enhancing his business interests. He had supported both parties at points in the past, and rarely displayed strong or consistent policy views. He had flirted with running in the previous election, and instead settled for self-promotion in the form of leading the discredited "birther" movement against Mr. Obama.
Mr. Trump himself seemed surprised as his campaign gained steam, and by any normal standard was woefully ill-prepared to run a modern campaign. Operating a shoe-string campaign with a skeleton staff out of his eponymous building, he lacked operations for fundraising, communications, policy or voter engagement. Nor did he display anything resembling message discipline, delivering rambling addresses dotted with odd asides, boasts and insults.
Up against more traditional candidates for the Republican nomination, that unforeseeably proved enough. Mr. Trump was able to dominate media coverage by consistently saying shocking things at his events, on Twitter, or when he simply called up live news-channel shows. And in many debates during the primaries, he bullied competitors who initially did not take his candidacy seriously enough and were thus reluctant to hit him too hard, for fear of being unable to later attract his supporters.
One by one, he knocked off establishment candidates such as Jeb Bush, and by being so much unlike a typical politician, he managed to turn even heretofore renegades like Ted Cruz into perceived members of the establishment, as well.
Even more stunning was that it also proved sufficient during the general election. For most of the campaign, Mr. Trump had no discernible strategy to reach out beyond his base, and while Ms. Clinton's lead in the polls would narrow during brief stretches when Mr. Trump was unusually disciplined and she was on the defensive over her own ethics controversies, he would self-sabotage by saying or doing something offensive.
The Democrats were far more ruthless than his Republican competitors about dredging up things he had said and done in the past, and more adept at baiting him into losing his cool – most memorably provoking him into a feud with the parents of a slain war hero. And as he cycled through three sets of campaign managers, Mr. Trump seemingly lacked the operations to compete with the vastly more professional Clinton campaign in fundraising, advertising or get-out-the-vote operations.
But the more remote Mr. Trump's prospects looked, the more his base rallied around him. And in the campaign's final weeks, as Ms. Clinton battled the revived controversy around her use of private e-mail servers while secretary of state, more mainstream Republicans appear to have reluctantly rallied behind their nominee.
Having in recent weeks complained the election was "rigged" against him, even Mr. Trump himself appeared to expect he would lose. Now, all eyes will be on how he responds to winning.