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2016 Person of the Year: Donald Trump

Time logo Time 12/7/2016 MICHAEL SCHERER

Even for Donald Trump, the distance is still fun to think about, up here in his penthouse 600 ft. in the sky, where it’s hard to make out the regular people below. The ice skaters swarming Central Park’s Wollman Rink look like old-television static, and the Fifth Avenue holiday shoppers could be mites in a gutter. To even see this view, elevator operators, who spend their days standing in place, must push a button marked 66–68, announcing all three floors of Trump’s princely pad. Inside, staff members wear cloth slipcovers on their shoes, so as not to scuff the shiny marble or stain the plush cream carpets.

This is, in short, not a natural place to refine the common touch. It’s gilded and gaudy, a dreamscape of faded tapestry, antique clocks and fresco-style ceiling murals of gym-rat Greek gods. The throw pillows carry the Trump shield, and the paper napkins are monogrammed with the family name. His closest neighbors, at least at this altitude, are an international set of billionaire moguls who have decided to stash their money at One57 and 432 Park, the two newest skyscrapers to remake midtown Manhattan. There is no tight-knit community in the sky, no paperboy or postman, no bowling over brews after work.

And yet here Trump resides, under dripping crystal, with diamond cuff links, as the President-elect of the United States of America. The Secret Service agents milling about prove that it really happened, this election result few saw coming. Hulking and serious, they gingerly try to stay on the marble, avoiding the carpets with their uncovered shoes. On his wife Melania’s desk, next to books of Gianni Versace’s fashions and Elizabeth Taylor’s jewelry, a new volume sits front and center: The White House: Its Historic Furnishings and First Families.

For all of Trump’s public life, tastemakers and intellectuals have dismissed him as a vulgarian and carnival barker, a showman with big flash and little substance. But what those critics never understood was that their disdain gave him strength. For years, he fed off the disrespect and used it to grab more tabloid headlines, to connect to common people. Now he has upended the leadership of both major political parties and effectively shifted the political direction of the international order. He will soon command history’s most lethal military, along with economic levers that can change the lives of billions. And the people he has to thank are those he calls “the forgotten,” millions of American voters who get paid by the hour in shoes that will never touch these carpets—working folk, regular Janes and Joes, the dots in the distance.

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It’s a topic Trump wants to discuss as he settles down in his dining room, with its two-story ceiling and marble table the length of a horseshoe pitch: the winning margins he achieved in West Virginia coal country, the rally crowds that swelled on Election Day, what he calls that “interesting thing,” the contradiction at the core of his appeal. “What amazes a lot of people is that I’m sitting in an apartment the likes of which nobody’s ever seen,” the next President says, smiling. “And yet I represent the workers of the world.”

The late Fidel Castro would probably spit out his cigar if he heard that one—a billionaire who branded excess claiming the slogans of the proletariat. But Trump doesn’t care. “I’m representing them, and they love me and I love them,” he continues, talking about the people of Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, the struggling Rust Belt necklace around the Great Lakes that delivered his victory. “And here we sit, in very different circumstances.”

The Last, Greatest Deal

For nearly 17 months on the campaign trail, Trump did what no American politician had attempted in a generation, with defiant flair. Instead of painting a bright vision for a unified future, he magnified the divisions of the present, inspiring new levels of anger and fear within his country. Whatever you think of the man, this much is undeniable: he uncovered an opportunity others didn’t believe existed, the last, greatest deal for a 21st century salesman. The national press, the late-night comics, the elected leaders, the donors, the corporate chiefs and a sitting President who prematurely dropped his mic—they all believed he was just taking the country for a ride.

President-elect Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a rally in Fayetteville, N.C. © Gerry Broome President-elect Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a rally in Fayetteville, N.C. Now it’s difficult to count all the ways Trump remade the game: the huckster came off more real than the scripted political pros. The cable-news addict made pollsters look like chumps. The fabulist out-shouted journalists fighting to separate fact from falsehood. The demagogue won more Latino and black votes than the 2012 Republican nominee.

Trump found a way to woo white evangelicals by historic margins, even winning those who attend religious services every week. Despite boasting on video of sexually assaulting women, he still found a way to win white females by 9 points. As a champion of federal entitlements for the poor, tariffs on China and health care “for everybody,” he dominated among self-described conservatives. In a country that seemed to be bending toward its demographic future, with many straining to finally step outside the darker cycles of history, he proved that tribal instincts never die, that in times of economic strife and breakneck social change, a charismatic leader could still find the enemy within and rally the masses to his side. In the weeks after his victory, hundreds of incidents of harassment—against women, Muslims, immigrants and racial minorities—were reported across the country using his name.

The starting point for his success, which can be measured with just tens of thousands of votes, was the most obvious recipe in politics. He identified the central issue motivating the American electorate and then convinced a plurality of the voters in the states that mattered that he was the best person to bring change. “The greatest jobs theft in the history of the world” was his cause, “I alone can fix it” his unlikely selling point, “great again” his rallying cry.

Since the bungled Iraq War faded into the rearview mirror, there has been only one defining issue in American presidential politics, spanning party and ideology. It’s the reason Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren thunders that “the system is rigged” by the banks, and Vermont’s Bernie Sanders got so much traction denouncing the greed of “millionaires and billionaires.” It’s what Marco Rubio meant when he said, “We are losing the American Dream,” and why Jeb Bush claimed everyone has a “right to rise.”

President Barack Obama identified it early, back in 2005, as a newly elected Senator delivering a commencement speech at tiny Knox College in Galesburg, Ill. Obama’s hymn to “the forgotten” was his ticket to the White House. “You know what this new challenge is. You’ve seen it,” he said. “The fact that when you drive by the old Maytag plant around lunchtime, no one walks out anymore … It’s as if someone changed the rules in the middle of the game and no one bothered to tell these folks.”

As Obama explained it, the American promise was being put up on cinder blocks, buttressed by massive economic forces. His vow, repeated in his final 30-minute-long television ad in 2008, was change for the struggling, help for those who needed it, security for the ones who felt themselves slipping. Four years later, he would return to the same playbook to defeat Mitt Romney, casting the Republican nominee as an obtuse private-equity moneybags aiming to bankrupt Detroit. A quote pulled from a focus group—”I’m working harder and falling behind”—became the watchwords of Obama’s 2012 re-elect, hung on walls and placed atop PowerPoints. He had identified the issue, and as long as his name was on the ballot, no one could beat him.

But Obama never fully delivered the prosperity he promised. There was certainly help on the margins, slowing cost growth for health care and providing insurance to millions, for example. He started some pilot projects for manufacturing hubs, increased incomes marginally in the past couple of years and led the nation to recover from a vicious recession, with the federal government directly creating or saving millions of jobs. An unemployment rate that peaked at 10% in October 2009 has been halved to 4.6% now, at the end of his term. But the great weather systems of global change continued under his watch. Ultimately, he grew resigned to the fact that there was only so much he could do in office.

The most recently available data tells the remarkable story: between 2001 and 2012, the median incomes of households headed by people without college degrees—nearly two-thirds of all homes—fell as they aged, according to research by Robert Shapiro, an economist who advised Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign. As American productivity and gross domestic product grew in the first decade of the new century, median wages for all Americans broke away, effectively flatlining. Most Americans making less than the median income, but not so little as to qualify for poverty benefits, suffered income losses of about 5% between 2007 and 2013, according to research by Branko Milanovic, a former World Bank economist.

If you lived in the nation’s great cities or held a college degree, you probably didn’t feel the full fury of these forces. Average income declines for top earners were closer to 1% during the postrecession years. Global change is tricky that way. It enriches those in the developed world who can handle bits and bytes, create something new or sell their work at a distance. And it elevates the fortunes of the global poor, largely in Asia, pushing about a billion people from poverty into the beginnings of a new China-led middle class.

But for the working men and women of developed countries, many of whom had made good livings in the 20th century, the price of others’ success could be seen all around, in peeling house paint and closed storefronts, in towns that went belly-up when one of the two big employers closed shop. The pressures pushed across the Atlantic Ocean. The size of the middle classes, as measured by those who earn 25% above or below the median income, dropped in the U.S. from the 1980s to 2013. It also dropped in Spain and Germany, the Netherlands and the U.K. It is no accident that all those countries now find themselves in the midst of political upheaval as well.

The reasons for the shifts are more complex than the simple offshoring of manufacturing plants to Mexico or China. Global trade and new technology also pressure wages on jobs beyond the assembly line. When combined with rising health-insurance costs and incessant shareholder demands, companies found themselves unable or unwilling to give raises. Automation also accelerated as factories turned to robots, checkout lines retooled with self-operated terminals, and engineers developed self-driving trucks and taxis. Political gridlock in Washington, and the mild austerity it created, weighed everything down.

‘I hoped for change and never saw it’

But properly diagnosing the problem doesn’t help much if you live in a place that has taken it on the chin. In Shiawassee County, Michigan, which sits like a pit stop between Flint and Lansing, Obama won comfortably in 2008 and by a narrow margin in 2012. Then Trump tromped to victory this year with a 20-point margin. Rick Mengel, a 69-year-old retired pipe fitter, was one of the union members who voted for the young Illinois Senator in 2008, after seeing him promise to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Obama once called “devastating” and a “big mistake.”

“I hoped for change and never saw it,” Mengel says of the Obama years. “I watched jobs go away, and any jobs that came in were at McDonald’s. I’m not knocking McDonald’s, but it’s a starter job. It doesn’t make the car or house payments.” When a friend bought him a Make America Great Again hat this year, Mengel took to wearing it everywhere he went. He never believed the polls that said Hillary Clinton would carry Michigan, because he can’t remember ever sitting down with a group of five or six people and finding more than one for her. “Hillary came along and she just never said what she was going to do,” Mengel explains. “She just talked bad about Trump.”

First he needed to define the bad guys. then he needed to knock them over.

Such voices were easy to find in central Michigan, northeast Pennsylvania and western Wisconsin in the days after the election. Here were historically Democratic counties that Obama had won twice, only to see Trump then win comfortably. They are mostly white parts of the country, with struggling Main Streets and low college-graduation rates, where the local beauty salons do better business than the car dealers. They are places where people start their life stories by recounting the good-paying jobs their grandparents held, or the long-gone second homes up on the lake where they used to play as kids. In the 1970s, the bumper stickers on trucks in Prairie du Chien, Wis., would read Live Better. Work Union. Now the sign in the local Walmart says, Save Money. Live Better.

Joseph Dougherty, a former Democratic mayor of Nanticoke, Pa. who manages an automotive paint store, switched his voter registration this year for Trump. He was one of many in Luzerne County, a gorgeous river valley of rolling hills and former coal mines, who had lost patience. Trump cleared 78,000 votes in these hills, 20,000 more than Romney. “The Democratic Party forgot about its base. It’s all less for us and more for someone else,” Dougherty said, explaining how he could betray the party he was born into. “People are tired of surviving. People want to go on vacation, improve their home, get a better car, invest in their children’s future.”

Economists looking at the voting patterns since Election Day have been able to draw clear correlations between the local effects of international trade and voter angst. In counties where Chinese imports grew between 2002 and 2014, the vote for Trump increased over the vote George W. Bush won in 2000. For every percentage-point increase in imports, the economists found an average 2-point increase for the Republican nominee.

In some places, the shift was even steeper. In Branch County, Michigan, near the Indiana border, about halfway between Detroit and Chicago, a 3% increase in Chinese imports coincided with an 11% bump for Trump over Bush. The message of renewed protectionism, new tariffs and scrapped trade agreements broke through. “His approach was much more visceral,” says David Autor, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist, who co-authored the study. “He seemed to say, ‘We don’t have to adapt to globalization. We can reverse it.'”

It’s hard to find any trained economist who believes that’s possible, at least in the terms Trump uses. The supply chains are too broadly dispersed, the pricing efficiencies too embedded in our lives, the robots too cost-effective. Then there are the dangers of massive disruption, the unquantifiable costs of trade wars, or the actual wars that could follow.

But Trump’s improvement on Obama’s sales pitch was never about the details. He communicated on a deeper level, something he has done all his life. His was not a campaign about the effects of tariffs on the price of batteries or basketball shoes. He spoke only of winning and losing, us and them, the strong and the weak. Trump is a student of the tabloids, a master of television. He had moonlighted as a professional wrestler. He knew how to win the crowd. First he needed to define the bad guys. Then he needed to knock them over.

The Presidency as Improv

On Dec. 1, just weeks after his victory, Trump traveled to Indiana to announce that United Technologies, the 45th largest company in the country, had agreed to his demands and would retain 800 Carrier manufacturing jobs in Indianapolis. This mostly fulfilled a campaign promise he had made after the factory became national news when video shot inside showed the despair of workers discovering their work was headed to Mexico. “Companies are not going to leave the United States anymore without consequences,” he declared at the plant.

Three days earlier, Trump met with TIME in his towering dining room. The Carrier deal was basically done, thanks to a mixture of $7 million in state tax breaks, presidential threats and promises of tax and regulatory reform. But it was still a secret. His running mate, former Indiana governor Mike Pence, declined to discuss the deal when a reporter ran into him in Trump’s high-rise kitchen. But Trump could not stop himself. “I’m going to give you this off the record,” he said. “You can use it if they announce.”

For both conservative and liberal ideologues, including Sarah Palin and Bernie Sanders, the deal Trump struck with Carrier was an abomination, an example of government using taxpayer money to pick winners and losers. But as Trump told the story in his tower, ideology had nothing to do with it. This was just another tale of a little guy getting his voice heard.

“So the other night, I’m watching the news,” Trump began. NBC’s Lester Holt had introduced a segment on the Carrier plant featuring a union representative and a plant worker talking in a bar. The man looked at the camera and spoke to Trump, saying, “We want you to do what you said you were going to do.” Trump claimed this shocked him: “I said, I never said they weren’t going to move, to myself.”

But of course he had, as the news segment demonstrated. So Trump says he had no choice. He had to listen to his people. “He energized me, that man,” the President-elect explained. “And I called up the head of United Technologies.”

Shortly after he spoke those words, Reince Priebus, the next White House chief of staff, walked into the room. With the tape recorders rolling, Trump began to issue new instructions. “Hey, Reince, I want to get a list of companies that have announced they’re leaving,” he called out. “I can call them myself. Five minutes apiece. They won’t be leaving. O.K.?”

He was talking as if he had just realized—at that moment, in the middle of an interview—that he had the power to do what he promised to do on the campaign trail. But it was just a show. At that point, Trump had already had a similar talk with Bill Ford of Ford Motor Co., and he boasted of putting out three other calls out to corporations with outsourcing plans.

This is the presidency as improv, as performance art, with good guys, bad guys and suspense. It’s a new thing for the United States of America. The reporters in the room, the voters who will read this article, the nation, the world—we are the audience. A quick study who grew up in Kenosha, Wis., Priebus is far too Midwestern to be mistaken for a showman. But he got what Trump was trying to do, and smiled. “It worked for you last time,” he told the boss.

Missing the Message

History will record that Clinton foresaw the economic forces that allowed Trump to win. What she and her team never fully understood was the depth of the populism Trump was peddling, the idea that the elites were arrayed against regular people, and that he, the great man, the strong man, the offensive man, the disruptive man, the entertaining man, could remake the physics of an election.

“You cannot underestimate the role of the backlash against political correctness—the us vs. the elite,” explains Kellyanne Conway, who worked as Trump’s final campaign manager. His previous campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, put it somewhat more delicately: “We always felt comfortable that when people were criticizing him for being so outspoken, the American voters were hearing him too.”

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