This isn't about Democrats or Republicans, race or religion. This is about something Donald Trump apparently grasped all along: the frustration of a wide swath of Americans with what they see as wealthy, powerful elitists manipulating the U.S. economy for their own ends.
How the president-elect convinced those voters that he's an "anti-establishment" outsider who would be their advocate, though, is considerably less clear.
By his own admission, he's an establishment insider who uses his money and connections to build greater wealth and power. When people like Trump give donations, the self-described billionaire bragged during the campaign, politicians are willing to "do whatever the hell you want them to do." In other words, Trump can pay for the political outcome he wants.
And that, far from making his campaign or his election a populist departure from the norm, marks it as a continuation of a centuries-long status quo. The U.S. has, since its birth, danced between democracy and oligarchy, defined by Merriam-Webster as a government in which "a small group exercises control," especially for selfish purposes. Oligarchs often achieve their power through inherited titles, as in 19th-century Great Britain; wealth, military control or education.
"Donald Trump is and always has been an oligarch," Jeffrey Winters, a Northwestern University political scientist who specializes in the study of such systems, said in a phone interview. "His primary base of power until this point has been his wealth."
Indeed, Trump's entire public image is built around displays of pomp and riches, from his private helicopter, jet, and yacht to his Rolls Royce, mansions, penthouses and high-powered friends.
Although he championed populist causes such as halting free trade, slowing globalization and deporting immigrants, "it's almost unbelievable that anybody in society would actually think that this oligarch is going to deliver policies that threaten American oligarchs," Winters said. "There's no reason to think it."
Oligarchical policies in the U.S. have, to date, been blamed for slower growth and a widening chasm between the ultra-wealthy and average or lower-income voters. One often-cited gripe is "trickle-down" economic policy, under which benefits are funneled to the rich in the expectation that they will spend it in ways that create jobs and buoy the economy.