Donald Trump rode down a golden escalator in the lobby of Trump Tower and launched his campaign for president on June 16, 2015 — a campaign that would depart from long-standing Republican orthodoxy and upend the GOP establishment.
From the outset, the businessman turned reality TV star connected with an electorate that was angry with the direction of the country, and who felt betrayed by Washington. Trump highlighted his status as an outsider who could fix a dysfunctional government.
His entry to the campaign came as Republicans were fighting internal fissures, with power and policy struggles playing out between party leaders and more ideological members from within the ranks of the Tea Party and the Freedom Caucus.
Defying expectations, Trump toppled 16 Republican rivals en route to becoming his party’s nominee, and ultimately, winning the election. While his victory returns the Republican Party to the White House, it also leaves the GOP with a standard-bearer whose own positions are often at odds with many in the party.
This oral history looks back at Trump’s candidacy, examining how he seized on the mood in the GOP electorate to win the party’s nomination. It’s drawn from hours of FRONTLINE interviews — most recently for the documentaries Divided States of America and The Choice 2016. It includes accounts from top Republicans in Congress, Trump confidantes, GOP strategists and veteran Washington journalists.
Note: The following interviews have been edited for clarity and length.
author, TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald
[Trump] comes out in the summer of 2015 and he taps into some very real emotional needs — a Middle American electorate that’s still deeply affected by the long arm of the 2008 financial crisis, whose livelihoods are at stake, whose pensions have blown up, who may lose their home, whose children may not enjoy the same future that they did. And they feel that the establishment has ignored them, the media and the political and corporate establishment has ignored them.
The Washington Post
What he’s able to do is speak directly to a constituency that we thought in the past was almost purely ideological, but is much more purely protest — a protest against the elites, an anti-establishment movement that probably cuts across political lines, but is more lodged in the Republican Party right now. He figures out that there is a white working class constituency that has enjoyed no benefits from the recovery, whose wages have been stagnant for decades, who see Wall Street executives not going to jail after the Wall Street collapse of 2008, who see Republican leaders as having been accommodationists, or in Trump’s estimation, just weak. They have not had the strength. So at a time of terrorism, economic anxiety and frustrations with Republican leadership, he kind of hits all of those buttons. And it’s not in any way the classic conservative challenge to the Republicans. It’s the anti-establishment rising up.
There’s a lot of people I [met] at Trump rallies who never voted in Republican primaries because no one was speaking for them, no one was speaking to their grievances. No one was voicing the discontent that they felt, which was economic discontent. These are people who, you know, ex-manufacturing workers, who’ve been sort of left behind by the changes in the American economy and by globalization. Social and cultural resentment, feeling that their attitudes have become politically incorrect and that the sort of new identity politics of the civil rights and feminist movements has left them out and nobody’s advocating for their interests. And so, this whole other force has been summoned by Trump.
He was speaking straight to tens of millions of Americans who think that they’ve been betrayed — not anger, betrayal by both Washington and Wall Street. And they were looking for someone who spoke their language, and had their passion and wouldn’t back down. And the fact that Trump was willing to say the most insane things — He made fun of a guy who has a neurological disorder. He wouldn’t back down. He said that John McCain wasn’t a war hero. He wouldn’t back down. He said that Mexicans, some Mexicans were rapists and murderers. And he wouldn’t back down. He said things about other candidates — and “Little Marco” and “Lyin’ Ted” and “Crooked Hillary.” And he won’t back down. And for tens of millions of Americans, that willingness to fight political correctness and not back down told them that he was the only candidate who would really blow things up in Washington.
It’s hard to explain the Trump phenomenon without explaining the fact that Donald Trump was willing to go where previous leaders wouldn’t go … He spoke to a part of the population that was really angry about the direction of their country and didn’t think anybody else was addressing that. Those voters are not all irresponsible and racist and xenophobic. They are genuinely concerned about what’s happening in their culture, what’s happening in their economy, what’s happening in their communities. And they didn’t feel anybody else was speaking to them, and Trump did.
The New York Times
It makes no sense, right? That a rural-based, outside the east coast, populist backlash would choose a New York billionaire who invites Hillary Clinton to his wedding. And yet, Trump gave voice to this part of the party that felt that it was ignored. If you had been in office, you must be complicit. Trump had never been in office. Trump had always been a businessman and he seemed to be speaking to this part of the party. It didn’t matter that their positions on issues actually weren’t in line. He didn’t actually agree with them on a lot of things. He said nice things about Planned Parenthood, even though he said he was against abortion. He said nice things at one point about part of the health care plan, even though he says he didn’t like it. He clearly is not a religious conservative in a sense that the Christian right would normally embrace multiple marriages, and so forth. And yet somehow he taps into this vein of resentment and anger out there and gives voice to it. His sort of blunt talking, “I’ll say whatever is the right thing to say without regard to political correctness,” rings a bell and really energizes people who think, “Finally, for once, we’re going to get somebody who’ll shake up the system, who will do what he says he will do and won’t just go along to get along.”
Voters in Republican primaries were not just angry and anxious. They had grown tired of dysfunction in Washington, fed both by partisan gridlock and struggles between the ideological and establishment wings of the Republican party. Trump seized on the anti-establishment sentiment.
The New Yorker
One of the features of American politics is that you are supposed to distrust the central government, the federal government. It’s sort of who we are. But in the last few years it took this radical step where all of a sudden there was almost nothing that was coming out of Washington that was fortifying its reputation. In fact, everything that people in Washington did, either on the Democratic side or on the Republican side, fed the feeling among some that it was time to change the system fundamentally … After the Tea Party generation that came to Congress was unable to accomplish many of the radical things that they had promised their constituents — roll back Obamacare, stop Obama in his tracks — there was a feeling out there that the only conceivable solution was an outsider, that none of the people who had been talked about and anointed as perhaps the next generation of Republican leadership, whether it was Scott Walker in Wisconsin, or Jeb Bush, who was talking about running for president from Florida, or John McCain or Lindsey Graham, any of the figures that had been so prominent for the last 10 or 20 years, none of them were going to satisfy this growing need for somebody who was not just going to challenge the establishment, but was going to threaten to burn it down in a sense.
He wouldn’t call himself a politician and that’s a huge part of his appeal … The last however many years have so debased and so discredited politics, that by not being a politician, that’s a whole appeal of your brand and a reason to vote for someone.
You had this sense, not just among these hardcore Tea Party House members, but among voters around the country, this sense of great just betrayal and disappointment that they elected people that were going to stop this stuff that they were so angry about, and in fact, that did not happen. Not only did they not stop, not disband Obamacare, but they really ground Washington to a halt entirely. So if you’re a voter out there around the country, you see a Washington that for the last four or five years has done nothing at all, nothing. Nothing has gotten done in Washington. It’s very hard to think of any one major initiative, accomplishment that our elected government in Washington has gotten done for years now. So if you’re sitting at home, it looks like they’re not doing their job. So if they’re not doing anything, if they’re getting paid and not doing their job, why not bring someone in who is just going to blow it all up?
House Majority Leader, 2011-2014
I think the reason why we are where we are is there’s too many promises made that have never been delivered upon, that have been broken. You know, all these promises for these great big deals and these great big things that we’re going to do, and you know going in they’re not getting done. … If you keep saying it and you don’t deliver, what do you think happens? You erode the trust of the people. And that’s what’s happened. They don’t have faith in the government anymore, which I think is why Donald Trump has had the support he has, because he’s an outsider and he can say, “Don’t blame me for that mess, I’m the one who can go in and fix it.”
The New Yorker
A yawning gap opened up between the agenda of the grassroots of the Republican Party and the elites in the Republican Party. That is what Donald Trump took advantage of. … If you look at the issues that thrust Trump onto the scene and that really helped him just destroy opponents, it was immigration, it was taxes. It was “don’t touch entitlements,” right? It was free trade’s not actually helping average people. So that is the opposite of the entire agenda of the RNC, the Paul Ryans of the world, Eric Cantors of the world, the Mitt Romneys of the world. They are free trading, pro-immigration reform, pro-we’ve got to deal with entitlements, pro-upper income tax cuts. Trump just says, “You know what? I’ve looked at the polls” — maybe he didn’t look at the polls, but he just knew intuitively that the whole base of the Republican Party didn’t actually support any of that. And once you get a gap like that between the elites and the base in a democracy, you can have a figure like Trump come along and just completely hijack a party because the elites weren’t paying attention to what the grassroots actually cared about.
The GOP establishment, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and all these folks, are just out of touch with working, average American men and women, folks trying to put their kids through college, getting by on a minimum-wage job … I think the immigration issue is one that struck right at the heart of it. It got to the issue of wages. It got to the issue of unfairness. It got to the issue of those folks in Washington, of not trusting them. In a way, I think he got lucky he picked that issue.
The New York Times Magazine
The Republican establishment was thrilled with the field that seemed to be congealing by the middle of 2015. It was a field of 17 and it looked a lot more solid, a lot more deep and full of promise and variety than the Star Wars bar field that constituted the 2012 group. It had not only a lot of very well-thought of governors, ranging from Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, to John Kasich and others, but it also had up-and-coming senators, from Marco Rubio, who seemed to many to be the personification of the future of the Republican Party, to Senator Ted Cruz, who seemed to others to be the personification of [what] the conservative base wanted most. Donald Trump entered that field pretty late in the game on June 16th of 2015 … And no one at that point really believed that Trump was going to be anything more than a sideshow, and his numbers indicated that.
What the Republicans didn’t understand going into the primary process is that if you had held office, you were automatically guilty — the jury has already passed judgment and the sentence is you don’t get to be president. If you were a senator, it didn’t matter if you’d only been a senator for a couple of years, you’re part of the system. And it was a complete rejection of everything Washington, and Republicans have been part of Washington, and so they were rejected.
The Republican Party, if you looked at every single state that had a primary, over 60 percent of the Republicans felt that they had been betrayed by the Republican Party … Not even Ted Cruz — if you think about it, Ted Cruz is one of us. Ted Cruz is a conservative person … and the party felt that even he was too tainted because he was a sitting senator. That the party was so bad that they wanted a complete outsider, who ironically has never been a Republican, has never been a conservative, has never really stood for all the things and all the fights that we have been fighting for. But what the American people, especially Republicans feel, is that they either want to fix Washington, D.C., or they want to blow it up, and they don’t care what Trump does. He’s either going to fix it or he’s going to blow it up, and they’re OK with that.
The New Yorker
Look at the difference ideologically between Ted Cruz, for example, who is putatively the second place finisher, and Donald Trump. Ted Cruz is all about social conservatism, about strict financial conservatism, about a very kind of hardened version of Tea Partyism. That’s not Trump, unless he needs to be. Unless he needs to borrow from it, unless it’s useful to him. Trump is driving the Republican Party elders, not the electorate, the elders, nuts because of his ideological inconsistency, because of his thousands and thousands of contradictions, because of his wing it as you go, his lack of reliance on the party elders.
The debate in South Carolina, I thought, was one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen in politics — where he violated every taboo of Republican politics in the span of 60 minutes. I mean, he blamed 9/11 on George W. Bush and he was cheered for it in the most sort of conservative primary state on the map. He did everything a Republican’s not supposed to do. And not only was he not punished, he was actually rewarded for it. It was really a remarkable 60 minutes of television, or 90 minutes, or whatever it was. I think it was at that point that, at least when I was watching it, that I realized he was going to win. I mean, if there were no consequences for what he was doing there, and in fact, if people seemed to support it, it meant that all the old rules and all the old assumptions were no longer operative. He was working under a completely different set of expectations. And just the political terrain had completely shifted that he was able to do that.
The fact is, this was not the election year for Mitt Romney or John McCain or Jeb Bush. Jeb Bush, there was a time when Jeb Bush was voted the greatest governor in America. Republicans loved him because of all the changes that he brought to Florida. … When Trump labeled him as being low energy, and then you cut to Jeb and he’s staring at him, without a response, Trump knew how to label. He knew how to market. He knew how to define. And each one of these candidates, when they went up against him, every one of them got destroyed.
The Apprentice, Trump 2016 campaign
It’s just like one by one they fell. One by one he took them out. It was incredible … To watch him stand on the stage with other competitors who had vastly more experience, political knowledge, depth, domestic policy experience, international and foreign policy experience, serving in the Senate, in the House, as governors, and Donald Trump stood there tall, as if, “Hey, I could do this. I’m Trump. I could do anything.”
Trump’s whole campaign took a wrecking ball to the Republican Party … You know, insulting all of his opponents. Not understanding kind of the basic civility that you need to have in a nominating process so that you can bring the party together after the nominating process is over.
The really interesting thing about the Trump phenomenon is how it has reordered all of our assumptions about the split within the Republican Party. Ever since the rise of the Tea Party, we’ve seen the divide in the Republican Party as this establishment-versus-base dynamic, right? You have the conservatives on the one hand and the establishment on the other hand, and they’re in conflict over the degree to which they’re going to pursue a conservative agenda, and the tactics they’re going to use to advance that agenda … I think Trump has done one of two things. Either he has revealed that the conflict within the Republican Party wasn’t about what we thought it was about, that the anger in the Republican base was much more about white identity politics and class resentment and race resentment and a sort of white working class anger. That’s one interpretation, that Trump saw a force that wasn’t one of the forces in the Republican Party that we thought we saw. Or, at least that there was a third faction: There was a Republican establishment, there was a conservative or Tea Party base, but then there was this third faction. And maybe they weren’t voting in Republican primaries.
It’s a reminder of how fractured the Republican Party is, and I don’t think we know what happens as a result of Donald Trump to the Republican Party. … What’s been set up is, there is Donald Trump on the one hand, and there’s Paul Ryan on the other hand. I mean, they have become the two poles of a debate within the Republican Party that will be unresolved for some time. I mean, it’s not going to be resolved by the outcome of the 2016 election. This is a battle that’s going to go on in one form or another for some time.
The Washington Post
Trump is going to inherit much of what bedeviled President Obama. He is going to inherit a Republican Congress that wants to do things its way, and that doesn’t have much faith in this new, non-ideological president. Because what Trump brings to the presidency, a lack of conservatism. He’s a Republican and he won, but he does not have the roots with the conservative wing that dominates the House and the Senate. And so if he wants to get something done and cut the deals, well, he’s going to have to cut the deals with the conservatives who have dominated.