With four more months until Election Day, be prepared for chills and spills.
Hillary Clinton has outspent Donald Trump in unprecedented fashion. Her endorsements bury Trump’s. The Obama administration is doing its best to restore her viability. The media are outdoing their 2008 liberal prejudices. And yet in John Connally delegate fashion, Clinton’s vast expenditures of $100 million plus have so far earned her only a tiny, if any, lead in most recent polls. If each point of approval is calibrated by dollars spent, Trump’s fly-by-night campaign is ahead.
Nor has Trump matched Clinton’s organization or voter-registration efforts. He certainly has blown off gifts from a number of Clinton gaffes and misfortunes, usually by gratuitously riffing on off-topic irrelevancies, from the Trump University lawsuit to the genocidal Saddam Hussein’s supposedly redeeming anti-terrorist qualities. Pollsters, gamers, insiders — everyone, really — have written his political epitaph for over a year. Rarely have conservative voices at mainstream-media outlets vowed not to support the Republican nominee. And yet the longer he stays viable, the more likely it is that Trump has a real chance at winning the presidency, which may already be a veritable 50/50 proposition. So why is the supposedly impossible at least now imaginable?
1. Not a Typical Populist
When critics are not slurring Trump as Hitler or Mussolini, they write him off, in sloppy fashion, as a dangerous populist — at worst an hysterical, demagogic Huey Long, at best a quirky Ross Perot: in other words, a flash in the pan who capitalizes on occasional but brief surges of Neanderthal isolationism, protectionism, nativism, xenophobia, and collective insecurity among the lower middle classes.
That diagnosis is rehashed groupthink. By any definition, Trump is not a classical populist. His traction derives from opposing unchecked and cynical illegal immigration, not diverse and measured legal immigration. And he is rebelling not so much against a flabby, sclerotic status quo as against a radical, even revolutionary regime of elites who are now well beyond accustomed norms. It is hardly radical to oppose the Confederate doctrine of legal nullification in more than 300 sanctuary cities, or a de facto open border with Mexico, or doubling the national debt in eight years, or ruining the nation’s health-care system with the most radical reconstruction in the history of American health-care policy, or systematically running huge trade deficits with an autocratic China that does not adhere to international norms of free trade and predicates expanding political and military power in the South China Sea on its commercial mercantilism. Trump seemed incendiary in the primaries, but as he is juxtaposed to the official Clinton extremist agenda, he will likely be reinterpreted increasingly as more mainstream — a probability enhanced by his selection of Mike Pence as his running-mate.
2. Obama Nihilism
Do not underestimate the volatility of Barack Obama’s popularity. As long as Obama keeps silent and out of the limelight, he nears 50 percent in approval ratings. The moment he returns to the fray (and he always does, as a June bug to a patio light), he instinctively reverts to his natural divisive and polarizing self, as evidenced in his disastrous reactions to the Dallas police shootings, and his politically suicidal post-Dallas courting of Al Sharpton (who used to call on supporters to “off” police) and of the architects of Black Lives Matter. It is likely that Obama, to cement a hard progressive legacy in the next four months, will only double down on his gratuitous pandering, and therefore will see his poll numbers return to the low or mid-40s. That may help Trump seem an antidote rather than an obsequious continuance.
3. Two Sorts of Elitists
Both Trump and Clinton are elitists in an anti-elitist year. But elitism is not all the same. The popular furor is not directed at the rich per se, but rather at the perception of cultural snobbishness and hypocrisy among those who romanticize the always-distant poor, as they favor the always-proximate rich, and caricature the despised middle class that lacks the taste of the latter and the appeal of the former. Trump’s in-your-face tastes and brashness are vulgar in the pure Roman sense, and his accent and demeanor are not those of the cultural elite, or even of the dignified Mitt Romney–type moneyed bluestockings. In contrast, Hillary, like Obama, talks down to Americans on how they ought to think, speak, and act. Trump seems to like them just as they are. In turn, middle-class hatred of the elite is not aimed at Trump’s garish marble floors or the narcissistic oversized gold letters plastered over the entrances to his buildings, but rather at the rarified self-righteous. Like it or not, Trump can square the ridiculous circle of a raucous billionaire as man of the people far better than Hillary can handle the contradictions of a Wall Street–created crony multimillionaire pandering to the Sanders socialists.
4. Election Formulas
It is not assured that Clinton can replicate Obama’s formula of record-high minority-voter turnout and bloc voting. More importantly, in a few key states Trump may win 25 to 28 percent of the Latino vote and perhaps 10 percent of the black vote, while Clinton might not capture even 35 percent of the so-called white vote. A surprisingly high minority of blacks and Hispanics do not feel Trump is a nativist or xenophobe, given that illegal immigration is often perceived as putting a strain on scarce social services, imperiling already poor schools, and driving down both wages and the availability of entry-level jobs. Trump’s El Jefeism plays well when juxtaposed to Clinton’s suburban namby-pamby falsity or her unhinged demonization of coal miners and gun owners. The numbers of minority voters in key states who quietly vote Trump need not be great, but rather only must top by 2 or 3 percentage points the disastrous McCain and Romney levels of 2008 and 2012, given the likely historic percentage of white voters that Trump may win. Media elites are in denial over this possibility. Racial hyphenation and bloc voting, along with prophecies of continual white irrelevance, should by their reckoning have long ago doomed Trump in the general election.
5. Crimes and Misdemeanors
Trump struggles with embarrassing misdemeanors, Clinton with high crimes. She may be delighted at not having been indicted, but FBI Director Comey confirmed to the nation that she was an inveterate liar, paranoid, conspiratorial, and incompetent. That she was not charged only made the FBI seem absurd: offering a damning hooved, horned, pitchforked, and forked-tailed portrait of someone mysteriously not a denizen of Hell. Add in the Clinton Foundation syndicate and the fact that lies are lies and often do not fade so easily, and Hillary in the next 15 weeks may average one “liar” and “crooked” disclosure each week — at a rate that even the Trump tax returns and Trump University cannot keep up with.
6. Four Months until the Election
The tumultuous news cycle — Dallas, Paris, Turkey, Baton Rouge — creates anxieties and a general sense that the nation and indeed the world are in chaos — and without any guidance from the White House. Such a vague foreboding that something has to give to avert catastrophe may favor Trump abroad and at home — especially if he can muzzle himself in times of enormous gift-giving from the Clinton campaign. Obama is a lame-duck president who is perceived as weak, vacillating, and ambiguous about his own country’s role in the world — a world that includes Russia, ISIS, China, North Korea, and Iran. The odds are even that at least one of the above in the next few months will feel that it has a rare opportunity to readjust the regional status quo, or at least will have a psychological impetus to try something stupid to humiliate Obama and the U.S. as payback for seven years of his empty sanctimoniousness. Either way, Trump could benefit, given that Hillary is a perceived tool of Obama’s therapeutic foreign policy. Tragically, at home, in the next few months ISIS may re-emerge, and racial relations are not likely to ameliorate, as Hillary straddles a politically correct tiger that she can neither dismount nor safely ride. Self-described leftists are cannibals who always end up devouring their own, given the never-enough trajectory of their equality-of-result creed.
Trump seems extremist in speech, but as the campaign wears on, Hillary may confirm that she is more extremist in fact. It may well be that voters would prefer a brash-talking pragmatist to sober and judicious ideologues. Sloppy talk about temporarily limiting immigration from the Middle East is not so injurious as contrived efforts never to utter the phrase “radical Islam.” Clinton, Obama, and Sanders have moved the Democratic party radically to the left; Trump in some areas has pushed the Republican party to the center. The voter terrified of ISIS, record debt, the spiraling cost of his health care, perceived U.S. decline, and the seemingly violent racial Balkanization of the country — but not terrified of gay marriage or tough trade talks with China — may find Clinton, not Trump, the true radical.
If the polls are off a bit in this warped election year, they are more likely to err on Hillary’s side. Republicans who will vote for Hillary or no one rather than Trump will do so in part out of perceived moral principles, and thus they will not be so shy in showcasing their not-in-my-name ethos. But those who see themselves more as pragmatists, who will eventually hold their nose and vote for the embarrassing Trump, are more likely, in Brexit style, to keep quiet about it and stay under the polling radar. I think that to be truly ahead on Election Day Hillary will have to top Trump by 1 or 2 points in the polls — even with traditional Democratic massaging of voter rolls.
9. Converts and Apostates
The relative closeness of polling in key swing states already suggests that the Reagan Democrats and other Trump converts may either be more numerous than the Never Trump establishment or at least more numerous outside of coastal, and electorally irrelevant, blue states like California and New York — and thus more significant as swing-state adjudicators. In addition, traditional media, in which Never Trump views are most frequently aired, are themselves growing ossified and do not reach voters to the same degree as outlets like the Drudge Report, Breitbart News, and talk radio. In my rural California community, when I meet pro-Trump welders, farmers, and tractor drivers of all races and backgrounds, I try to ask them just one question: Did you vote for Romney? So far 0 percent of that cohort of probably over 100 Central Valley residents said they had turned out for Romney in 2012. Again, the new Trump voters may not be numerous nationwide, but they may be able to swing one or two purple states. Also, it may be more likely that a Never Trumper will weaken and quietly vote Trump in November as he grows aghast at the weekly Clinton circus. The Trump buffooneries may well be more than matched by Clinton’s ideological insanities.
10. The Screech-Owl Factor
For all his lack of discipline, the media-seasoned Trump is still the better and more robust campaigner. His liabilities — bouts of outer-space incoherence, unfamiliarity with basic issues, sloppiness in diction, a personal cruel streak — are balanced by a TV host’s sense of audience, timing, and cadence.
Hillary is the far more disciplined politico, but she is not so much uncharismatic as downright off-putting. Even on those rare occasions when she listens to her new voice-coach handlers and speaks quietly and deliberately, she still comes off not as reassuring, much less engaging, but rather as artificially trying her best not to revert to her natural screech-owl elocution. Heartfelt recklessness can sometimes wear better than packaged sobriety.
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Finally, it is suicidal to descend into the muck to battle Trump. Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz all tried and failed, despite the fact that they had every moral justification in hitting back in like kind. Elizabeth Warren is trying to be an anti-Trump street-fighter; but her incoherent venom suggests that Harvard Law professors should stick to academic jousting in the faculty lounge.
Brawlers know the rules of the street far better than establishmentarians. The Senate is not The Apprentice, and politics is not New York real estate. Ask the trash-talking Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg if she came out on top in dueling with Trump — or whether she virtually destroyed a quarter-century’s reputation in minutes and ended up no better than an elderly version of Rosie O’Donnell in a Supreme Court Justice costume. Hillary is stepping up her crude attacks on Trump. But as in the past, such hits are more likely to make the Trump mode suddenly seem normal, and to make Trump a target of those who claim they are more sober and judicious but in extremis prove no more measured than Trump himself.
We have a long way to go till November 8, and the odds are still with Hillary’s establishment money, influence, power, and media. There will be dozens of Trump meltdowns and gaffes to come and always more slams at “crooked” Hillary. And never count out what narcissists like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — or Vladimir Putin — might do, or Obama’s Chicago-like warping of the electoral process. Nonetheless, for a variety of reasons, an unlikely Donald Trump has become a liberal’s worst nightmare, not so much for what he says or represents, but because he still could win — and win in a way, along with the Congress and the prospect of a new Supreme Court, that we have not witnessed in 80 years.