The former reality-TV star and real-estate developer, a Republican, managed to defeat his more traditionally experienced Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, a former first lady, United States senator, and secretary of State, winning not only Republican territories but states where Clinton was expected to prevail, like Pennsylvania and Michigan.
Close to 3 a.m. Wednesday, Trump arrived onstage at the midtown Hilton, with his family, campaign staff and surrogates alongside him. “Sorry to keep you waiting,” he said, “complicated business.”
The line got some laughs, but mostly those in the audience screamed with guttural glee and sobbed into one another’s suit jackets.
The president-elect sounded unlike the man the American public has gotten to know over the last several decades. He struck a subdued tone and, uncharacteristically, didn’t insult anyone. He said during his victory speech: “I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all Americans. For those who have chosen not to support me in the past—of which there were a few people—I’m reaching out to you for your guidance and your help so that we can work together and unify our great country.”
Trump, a former Democrat who had been personal friends with Bill and Hillary Clinton prior to his lurch to the far-right, is the first politician to become president of the United States without previously holding elected office since Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was at least a five-star general in the United States Army.
Trump, in contrast, deferred the draft.
Trump’s victory is in defiance of virtually all national polling since the nominating conventions in July, which showed Clinton with a consistent, if narrowing, lead. FiveThirtyEight, the poll-analysis site, was the most bullish of its kind on a Trump victory, and their projection was that he had just a 35 percent chance of winning.
Other publications analyzing the polls gave him even less favorable odds—The New York Times’ Upshot said he had a 15 percent chance, while The Huffington Post said the likelihood he’d become president was a mere 2 percent.
Even the Trump-shaped cake at the party was scowling early Tuesday night.
The hotel is a dark place lacking in style, but Trump's fans flooded onto the carpet in their cocktail attire, stopping to pose for photos before a backdrop stamped with the nominee's name, like they were at a movie premiere or a cheesy nightclub.
Bo Dietl, the former NYPD detective who is currently running for mayor of New York as a Democrat, has known Trump since the 1980s. He wore a small Trump-Pence pin on his expensive suit. It was too early, he told The Daily Beast, for people to get excited here. He was concerned they would be disappointed once battleground states started turning in results for Clinton. He posed with the frowning confection shaped like the mogul’s bust, and then he made his way over to the bar.
Omarosa Manigault, an Apprentice contestant and longtime Democrat who likes to advertise her time working on behalf of Al Gore, initially told a gaggle of reporters that she was confident her former TV boss would win. If he lost, she said, she didn’t think he should concede. There had been too much “shady” stuff going on, and besides, she’d seen Gore learn that lesson the hard way.
Not even an hour later, though, her mood had changed. She’d put a Trump-branded vest over her sparkly cocktail dress and was walking through the party in something of a daze, to the extent that she didn’t seem to recognize this reporter, who had just been asking her questions. “I’m a nervous wreck,” she said, confidingly, when I asked how she was doing.
But his caution was unnecessary. Trump’s luck only improved throughout the night. By 9 p.m., the mood had lightened. Things were going better than expected.
Since June 2015, when he announced his candidacy, Trump has been a controversial and divisive figure. He has the distinction of having offended almost all demographic groups across the board, from the physically disabled, to African Americans, to Hispanics, to women, and even babies. His policy proposals, to the extent that he had any at all, were opaque and contradictory. And his own grasp of the issues, domestic and international, proved unsatisfactory at best.
Throughout his campaign, Trump was the subject of aggressive coverage by the media, which turned up gruesome discovery after gruesome discovery about his past. In early October, an audio recording in which he bragged about sexually assaulting women and getting away with it by virtue of his star power, became public. A dozen women subsequently came forward to accuse him of sexual assault or misconduct. It was an unprecedented stream of consistently bad news, and it didn't matter to the American voter.
For many more voters than the pollsters, the experts and the Democrats anticipated, Trump was the populist hero they had been waiting for. He is a rigid throwback to a United States that only exists in the imaginations of a certain type of conservative, and what he was offering—a refuge from change, in particular the kind of change caused by immigration—was appealing.
In the end, it seems, Trump was correct when he predicted this election would mirror Brexit, Britain’s exit from the European Union, which was driven by white working class angst directed toward immigrants. America’s white working class exceeded turnout expectations and put him over the edge.
After months of ruthlessly campaigning against “Corrupt Hillary,” at times invoking nasty conspiracy theories involving his rival and her husband’s political past, Trump shockingly thanked the former secretary for her public service.
“She fought very hard,” he said. “Hillary has worked very long and very hard over a long period of time, and we owe her a major debt of gratitude for her service to our country. I mean that very sincerely.”
At his victory party late Tuesday night, his fans smiled and drank cocktails from the cash bars, Make America Great Again hats festooned on their heads. Figures from the far-right fringe, like Charles Johnson and James O’Keefe, strolled around offering interviews to the media.
They were right, and they were triumphant. Though not as triumphant as the candidate.