Trump May Be Bad, But What Comes Next Will Be Worse

“If the Donald is the GOP candidate, he will lose. The only question then will be how great the damage to the rest of the party will be”

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Trump on the stump: His problem is that 70 per cent of Americans have an unfavourable opinion of him (Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 2.0)

There are more challenging tasks in journalism — generating fun-filled accounts of the daily deliberations of the European Parliament comes to mind — but writing a piece on this year’s US elections for a monthly magazine is not without its risks. Yes, yes, “events, dear boy”, and all that, but American politics have been ridiculous of late. It’s not just been a matter of the number and strangeness of the surprises that have popped up; there’s also the speed at which they have occurred and the devastation they have inflicted on the conventional wisdom of just the day before.   

This has been a primary season in which the final nail to be knocked into the coffin of the Marco Rubio campaign was, arguably, the Florida senator’s decision to go, so to speak, mano a mano against the Donald in the sewer that Trump has made his own, mocking the size of the billionaire’s hands and, nudge, nudge, by extension (if that’s the word) the size of, well, something else. 

To be fair, even Donald Trump is probably taken aback by how well his bid for the Republican nomination has gone. In a revealing (if disputed) “open letter” published on xoJane, a website “where women go to be their unabashed selves”, Stephanie Cegielski, a former strategist for the pro-Trump Super PAC Make America Great Again (a Super PAC is a committee that can accept unlimited donations to fund political spending, so long as it keeps a certain distance from candidates and their parties), unabashedly bashed Trump. Make America Great Again eventually super-packed it in amid suggestions that its distance from Trump had not been great enough, a defect that Cegielski has, if only retrospectively, tried to put right. She now contends that the Donald never anticipated he would get as far as he has done (and, indeed, that he would not have wanted to). 

The Republicans could thus be led into these elections by someone so divisive that he has divided what is, for now, his own party (Trump has moved around over the years) and who, for good measure, had never wanted the job in the first place. What could go wrong?

Whatever his initial intentions Trump now seems determined to install himself in the Oval Office. In Cegielski’s view, Trump’s original objective was to take second place in the Republican race. His aim was to “send a message to America” and, while he was at it (Trump is Trump) “increase his power as a businessman”. But this blend of self-promotion and protest fermented into something more ambitious. Trump’s pride was “too out of control” to let him call a halt. Yes, Cegielski was writing as a repentant (“Trump made me believe. Until I woke up”) but from what we know of Trump’s obsessively competitive personality, shaped to no small degree by his father, a downmarket Joe Kennedy, her analysis is all too credible.

If Trump, a man not known for underestimating his own appeal, has been taken aback by the amount of support he has won, how must his rivals have felt as he sailed through icebergs, predominantly of his own making, that would have sunk any other campaign? The “short-fingered vulgarian” (to borrow the Spy magazine description from way back when) has been able to do so because he has the cash and public persona that enable him to transcend the conventions of America’s political game and because, to many disaffected Republicans, Trump’s willingness to break those conventions is a sign that he is the candidate they have been waiting for.  

Over on YouTube there’s footage of Senator Eugene McCarthy speaking after a victory during his 1968 campaign for the Democratic nomination. “What happened here,” he says, “will have to be read rather carefully by so-called political pros, who are sometimes the last to read the signs of change.” When trying to grasp what has gone wrong for the Republican establishment this year, that jibe is not a bad place to start. The party’s so-called political pros have been badly wrong-footed by a growing anger among GOP voters they either underestimated or missed altogether.

There’s a famous (if largely inaccurate) quote attributed to Pauline Kael, the New Yorker’s legendary film critic. She was, it is said, puzzled by Nixon’s 1972 landslide “because she didn’t know anybody who voted for him”. When it comes to Trump supporters, Republican strategists, cocooned within the Beltway and basking in memories of Reagan, may have had the same problem. It’s a long way from Washington’s K Street — epicentre of the consultant/lobbyist class — to flyover country.   

It is no longer, to use Reagan’s term, “morning in America”, and for many working-class whites — the people who represent around half the GOP’s base — it looks a lot like twilight. There are clear signs of fraying social cohesion in this segment of the population (including a rising death rate among its middle-aged). A changing economy must bear much of the blame. Growth is not what it was and its fruits are not distributed as they were. Corporate profits are robust, but globalisation, technology and tougher management have cut a swathe through the well-paid, well-pensioned jobs that once made up America’s blue-collar dream.

Improved purchasing power mitigates matters somewhat, but on some measures, real wages for white men with only a high-school education are lower now than in the disco era. The arrival of more women into the workforce has helped take some of the edge off that decline, but real median household income in 2014 was at mid-1990s levels, some 8 per cent below where it stood just before the financial crisis, a level that was itself slightly below 1999’s all-time high. For a while, easy access to credit camouflaged the worst effects of income stagnation, but, with banks bruised and cautious, that is more elusive now. That the wicked “one per cent”, bailed-out architects, it is widely thought, of so much ruin, continue to prosper adds insult to injury.

Mounting economic insecurity has been made more painful still by the sense that the America the white working class once knew — their America, as they regarded it — is slipping away. The US has undergone a profound demographic transformation in not so many years, much of it driven by immigrants who have not only recast the country’s ethnic mix, but can also be seen as new competition in a deteriorating labour market. Meanwhile, political and media celebrations of the demise of white America may well reinforce the suspicion among its working class that they are being cast aside — or worse. One poll last year revealed that 60 per cent of working-class whites believed that discrimination against whites was just as much a problem as discrimination against African-Americans and other minorities. Capping it all, perhaps, was the election of Barack Obama, an icon of change, if not hope, so perfect that he had to be shown to be a trickster: thus the bizarre persistence of the theory that Obama was Kenyan-born (which would raise constitutional questions about his eligibility for the presidency), a secret Muslim, or both.

Pondering an earlier run for the presidency five years ago, Trump revealed his supposed doubts (“the whole thing is very strange”) about where Obama had been born, a useful marker for a campaign that never was, a useful marker for the campaign that now is. According to at least one poll, a majority of Trump supporters believe Obama was born outside the US. The Donald, salesman, reality TV star and showman, understands his audience.

And he knows what his audience thinks about immigration. If there’s one issue that divides the GOP’s leadership (pro-immigration) from much of its rank-and-file (not so much), it’s that. The Republican leadership’s position is the product of ancient economic orthodoxies (the more people the merrier), Ellis Island romanticism, hard-nosed calculation (corporate donors appreciate the cheap labour) and the doomed hope that it will endear the GOP to Latino voters. It is a stance that was reflected, to varying degrees, by all the professional politicians running for the Republican nomination, leaving a gap in the political market that Trump — the businessman — filled.

Trump made immigration a key focus of the speech in which he declared his candidacy last June (that “great, great wall”) and, no blow too low, he linked it to crime (“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best . . . They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”) saying aloud what many of his potential supporters suspect. In all probability it was the immigration issue which, more than anything else, powered the dramatic acceleration in Trump’s support in the weeks that followed his entry into the race, an acceleration that transformed him from joke to contender.

Trump is also trying to appeal to the same “left behind” section of the electorate — and not just them — with his pledges to protect social security (pensions) and Medicare (health care for the over-65s). And he wants those manufacturing jobs back. Asserting that America has been hard done by — an argument that will resonate with those who feel themselves hard done by — he claims to be in favour of free trade, but not “stupid trade”. That’s a concept that, like so much of his programme, takes some parsing, but should be read as a promise that Donald Trump, famed dealmaker and (best-selling!) author of The Art of the Deal, will be able to cut better trade deals than the saps that have been handling these matters up to now. He is threatening to “break” Nafta and has talked about a 45 per cent tariff on imports of Chinese goods. Somewhere Smoot and Hawley are smirking.

This theme of an exploited America runs through Trump’s sometimes alarming foreign policy musings, notably his (not entirely unjustified) complaints about US allies (including some in “obsolete” Nato) who don’t pull their weight. Beneath the wild talk, there’s something more substantial, an appeal to a more self-interested nationalism, and with it the implication that the messy international interventions of the past can be avoided (“we cannot be the policeman of the world”), an idea likely to play well in a country exhausted by years of conflict, and not least in those communities that provide the boots on the ground.

But let me stop before I stumble too deep into the swamp of the inconsistent, the implausible, the dangerous and the ill thought-out that makes up so much of Trump’s platform. After all, there’s not much point. Trump’s policies shift by the day and within the day. They serve mainly as props to help him sell himself to GOP voters. If he does win the Republican race, the snake oil will be reformulated as he attempts to outflank Hillary Clinton (and the best guess continues to be that it will be Hillary) and close a deal with the whole country. Never consistently a man of the free-market Right (far from it, in fact), Trump might try to do this by putting together a package of policies designed to locate himself in some respects to her left (a degree of protectionism and a less interventionist foreign policy are, of course, not bad places to start), and, more generally, as more of a CEO-pragmatist than some of his zanier pronouncements might suggest. That’s not quite as absurd as it might sound, but it wouldn’t work. His disapproval ratings have, like his psyche, gone past the point of no return. According to an AP-GfK Poll in early April, 70 per cent of Americans, including close to 50 per cent of Republican voters, have an unfavourable view of Trump. If the Donald is the GOP candidate, he will lose. The only question then will be how great the damage to the rest of his party will be. The adjective “appalling” will do nicely. The Senate would be lost, and probably the House of Representatives too. As for the longer-term consequences for the party that “chose Trump”,  well . . .

At the time of writing, Trump has just won his home state of New York to give himself a comfortable, if not overwhelming, lead over Texas senator Ted Cruz in the delegate race. He looks set to have the largest haul of delegates when the Republican convention opens in Cleveland in July. It’s a lot less clear, however, that the Donald will secure the 1,237 delegates necessary to win the nomination in the first round of voting. If he misses that target by more than a small number of delegates there’s a non-negligible chance that he could be defeated in the subsequent round, or rounds, of voting that follow by the clever, (very) conservative Senator Cruz. When it comes to “delegate wrangling” (yes, that’s the term), Cruz is playing an increasingly impressive ground game. He has, by default, and in the absence of a credible scenario in which someone could ride in as a white knight, become the establishment’s candidate, a remarkable turnaround for a lone wolf not greatly  loved by his GOP colleagues. Paul Ryan, the House Speaker, has ruled himself out for the knightly role and no more plausible candidates have come forward.

But even if Cruz wins the nomination, the Republicans will still have a Trump problem. Trump is rich enough and — a notoriously sore loser — he’d be angry enough to mount an independent run as a spoiler. Under this scenario too, the White House, the Senate and, possibly, the House would be won by the Democrats. Even if the Donald retreats to sulk in (or heckle from) Trump Tent, Cruz may struggle to lure Trump’s hordes back into the fold. The harder line Cruz has taken (how strange!) on immigration in recent months won’t hurt his efforts and nor will tribal dislike of Hillary, particularly if she continues to run to the left (and, pressured by Sanders, she will) of her husband.

If he recaptures those voters, Cruz will have a shot (and the GOP could fare better in the down-ticket contest). But the odds are against him: the polls favour Clinton over Cruz. Now does not feel like a conservative moment, and Cruz, a hardliner and — a pastor’s son — very preachy at times, will find himself under a sustained attack that will cover territory familiar from previous elections, but which may derive additional force from the harm that Trump has done to the Republican brand, notably with women and Latinos.

When it comes to tax, Trump is offering a classic supply-side Hail Mary pass. Cruz’s more intriguing proposal includes a ten per cent flat rate income tax, the elimination of payroll taxes and the introduction of a federal consumption tax, previously a taboo on Left and Right. Needless to say, it will come under heavy fire, as regressive (despite a big jump in the tax threshold) and (thanks to its early cost) either fiscally irresponsible or a harbinger of savage spending cuts to come.

Healthcare could be another area of vulnerability. Like Trump, Cruz has promised to repeal Obamacare: his worthy, but less than comprehensive alternative (details available on the back of an envelope near you) represents a failure to recognise that uprooting Obamacare is — particularly in an age of insecurity — far more perilous politically than opposing it before it was introduced. And it has to be said that Cruz may not flourish under the Klieg lights: he’s no star on the podium. Then again, look at how far he’s come. In the course of interviewing Cruz on his TV show, comedian Jimmy Kimmel commented how the senator had “kind of held out until they found someone that they liked less than you”. Cruz, smiling and quick, replied: “There you go. It’s a powerful strategy.”

Which brings me to Hillary Clinton, a candidate rarely described as likeable. Despite the shadow cast by those troublesome emails, and the hint of the Dalek about her oratory, there has long — with the exception of a brief Biden boomlet — been a dreary inevitability about her path to the Democratic nomination. She has the money, the name recognition and the ability to play the identity card — first woman president! She has held both senior elected and executive office — senator and Secretary of State — albeit with little positive to show for either.  Above all, she basks in the afterglow of her husband’s presidency, remembered by many Americans as the last good time.

In terms of policy, she would, for the most part, represent a continuation of the Obama administration, another grim turn of the ratchet to the left. So far as foreign policy is concerned, she would be less passive than Obama — low bar — but would be less of a hawk than is fondly imagined. Still, unlike Trump, but like Cruz and, for that matter, even her upstart challenger Bernie Sanders, she is a supporter of Nato, so there’s that.

When it comes to free trade, a tricky topic in the current economic climate, especially for Democrats, and particularly for the wife of the President who pushed Nafta through, the omens are not encouraging. Clinton has already withdrawn her support for Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an agreement she helped put together: Sanders has consequences. As for the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the EU, well, don’t hold your breath.

The prospects for future free-trade agreements under a Cruz administration don’t look good either. Cruz remains a supporter of free trade “as a general matter” (that’s probably true), but not, he says, of the specifics of the TPP, and, I reckon, the same would turn out to be no less conveniently true for the TTIP as well. Trump has consequences too. The uncomfortable truth is that America’s contribution to the advance of free trade is stalled, and it’s likely to remain stalled until voters can be persuaded that it’s not destroying their livelihoods. With digital automation increasing the pressure on the job market still further, that might take a while.

This wouldn’t worry Bernie Sanders very much. The “democratic socialist” senator from Vermont voted against Nafta and the establishment of PNTR (permanent normal trade relations) with China, agreements that, he has said, have “cost millions of decent paying jobs”, a point of view that Trump, his counterpart on the Right, of course, shares. It is a measure of the depth of America’s malaise that it has spurred not one, but two, populist insurgencies. Lady Bracknell would not be impressed.

Never say never in 2016, but Sanders is almost certainly not going to be the Democrats’ candidate. As I write, the curmudgeonly old red has impressive momentum behind him (a winning streak of seven primaries and caucuses) and (astonishingly) raised more money (much of it, impressively, in small donations) in the first quarter than his rival. Nevertheless, Hillary ought to be able to maintain enough of a lead in delegates, buttressed by her command of “superdelegates”, party stalwarts who are appointed not elected, to hand her the nomination.

To be sure, Sanders’s unexpected strength will pull Clinton to the Left in ways yet to be seen. In the end, however, there’s a good chance that Sanders, or, more realistically, what he has set in motion (Sanders is 74) will matter even more as the years go by. He won 84 per cent of 18-29 year olds voting in the Democrats’ Iowa caucus (so much for the gender solidarity Clinton had been hoping for), and a similar share in the New Hampshire primary. In Illinois, Clinton’s home state, Sanders took 70 per cent of the under-45s. And the story is similar elsewhere. These are voters who are going to be around for a long time. Sanders notes proudly how his campaign has “brought out . . . young people”. Even if he loses, he promises, “we will continue that revolution.” He’s old enough to remember how McCarthy’s ultimately unsuccessful run in 1968 paved the way for the selection of George McGovern in 1972, an event that transformed the Democratic Party. And, well-schooled leftist that he is, Sanders undoubtedly knows what Gramsci said about the long march through the institutions.

Sanders is being spun as a social democrat of sorts, but he’s more of a Corbyn than a happier America would have time for. Pollster Nate Silver argues that, at least when it comes to the politics of redistribution, Sanders is to the left of his young supporters. That could well be true but the train on which they have jumped may take them to a destination that they may not now expect.

That they jumped on that train in the first place owes much to Sanders’s grumpy grandpa appeal, but it is best read as an indication of the bleak view that millennials have of their future. Sanders, like Trump, scores well with “angry white men” mourning the lost jobs of the past, but the lost jobs of the future may, politically, come to count for more, especially as technology eats its way higher and higher up the food chain. Yesterday’s unemployed autoworker is tomorrow’s unemployed engineer. The pessimism of the young, many burdened with student debt that they will struggle to repay, about their prospects is justified — and that is unlikely to leave them with much affection for the status quo.

President Hillary Clinton will be bad enough. Her successor could well be even worse.