Race To The White House Through The Looking-Glass

Hillary Clinton may manage to knock Humpty Trumpty off his wall, but who will put the United States back together again?  

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Donald Trump is a threat to the security of America and the world. Has Presidential politics gone through the looking-glass? (©John Moore/Getty Images)

East Anglia is not, perhaps, an obvious place to assess the American vote this autumn, but back in the UK on a brief trip, I noticed that the small section in a Norwich bookshop dedicated to the US presidential election featured almost nothing on Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump was represented by a series of biographies, exposés, comics and even colouring books. Few, if any, were admiring, but they crowded the Clintonware out. As so often, Hillary had been reduced to a grey blur (to borrow one Menshevik’s unwise description of Stalin), barely visible against the madcap backdrop of Trump’s trickster parade.

An election to decide who becomes the world’s most powerful man (or woman) is inevitably intensely focused on the character of the contenders. Even their running-mates, appointed amid brief, synthetic excitement, are speedily hauled away from the limelight, demoted to surrogates deployed to savage the opposing team in a manner that a presidential candidate cannot, or, more positively, to throw a sprinkling of low-wattage stardust over small crowds in small states.

That’s in a normal year. It’s symbolic of this campaign, dominated by the personality of one man, that few running-mates have been pushed quite so quickly into the background as Trump’s choice, Indiana governor Mike Pence. Adding respectability and good hair to a campaign with little of either, Pence is a stolid reminder that the GOP is traditionally the “daddy party”, a quality that risks being drowned out by the playground taunts of its presidential nominee.

From the tweets of Donald Trump: “@SenJohnMcCain should be defeated in the primaries. Graduated last in his class at Annapolis — dummy!”

For the record, McCain, a bright but truculent student, came not last but 894th out of 899, not quite ignominious enough for The Donald. Reducing the senator still further in the rankings was an example of Trump’s use of “truthful hyperbole,” a clever term (dreamt up by his ghostwriter for The Art of the Deal) for a clever idea. It goes a long way to explaining Trump’s success as a salesman of buildings, of stories, of conspiracies and of himself. What matters is not what is true, but what is remembered, and how.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

Many voters seem less disturbed by Trump’s abusive relationship with fact than they should be. They understand that Trump is true to himself if not to the truth, a proof of his authenticity even when based on lies.

But back to Mike Pence. He has been married for decades to one woman and has a surname with one syllable (something Trump reportedly believes “conveys strength”). Earlier this year, he endorsed Ted Cruz and had been said to “loathe” Trump. Trump’s Hoosier is, it turns out, not only respectable, but flexible, helpful given his role as a kind of “ambassador” to sceptical elements in the Republican establishment.

The Pence pick was muttered rather than proclaimed. He was introduced from a podium on which the Trump name was present, but the Pence name was not. The same could, for the most part, be said about the speech by Trump that followed, a typically Trump talk about Trump — with added terrorism, law and order, industrial decline, “crooked Hillary”, taxes, over-regulation, the Nafta disaster, that wall, Brexit, the building of a hotel in Washington DC (“under budget and ahead of schedule”), and triumph over the Republican party hierarchy.

From time to time, Trump remembered why he was meant to be there, and dragged his speech “back to Mike Pence” with a shout-out or two to the Indianan’s achievements, before reverting again to Donald J. Trump. 

Pence had been chosen partly for reasons of “party unity”, but The Donald’s signal was clear: this was still his campaign. And so it has proved. The election has been dominated by this most unexpected candidate, a shape-shifting, eccentric reminder of America’s infinite capacity to surprise, a narcissistic, poorly-informed, sometimes tin-eared, sometimes astoundingly intuitive post-political politician, a fantasist, a chancer who looks in the mirror and sees the future. His opponent — dull, exhausted Hillary — has been reduced to a supporting role, with the twist that is she who will limp off with the prize.

Trump’s most interesting observation in that speech was that he was “a messenger”, a humblebrag but accurate enough. His startling ascendancy in the Republican primaries, even if helped by the fact that he was taking on a divided field of rivals far weaker than the GOP leadership has ever been prepared to admit, sent a message about unhappiness on the Right.

The fact that Trump is, as I write, for all his flaws and gaffes, still very much in contention for the top job sends a broader, even gloomier message: America is not at ease with itself, a message echoed by those millions of Democrats who voted for Bernie Sanders, a grouchy Marxist lost in ancient delusion.

But it’s Trump who appears to be the messenger of those who are unhappiest of all. Early analyses of his rise emphasised the support he was winning among the embattled white working class, left behind by globalisation, job-destroying automation and sweeping demographic change (support swollen by the more traditional politics of racial resentment in his Southern and Appalachian redoubts) and reinforced by feelings of voicelessness and the suspicion that the country no longer had much room for them. It’s not only the poorest that feel this way. Read enough elite exultation, particularly in the media, at the prospect of an older, whiter America on its way to the grave, and it’s not hard to understand why some whites fear they are, in the sinister old Soviet phrase, “former people” in the making. 
Trump’s tax-cutting agenda (the numbers don’t add up, but Trump is hardly alone in being guilty of that) will only be of limited appeal to many of these voters. But they do appreciate much of the rest of what their champion has to say, both for its specifics, however implausible, and, no less, for how it feels. “Make America great again” is more than patriotic swagger. It’s a reproach and a promise, a wild, exhilarating swing against contemporary orthodoxy — on immigration, on free trade, on multiculturalism, on bearing too great a burden abroad and on much, much more besides. The Wall Street bashing, however incongruous from a millionaire/billionaire/whatever in his tower, plays well with this crowd too.

Whatever some alarmists might say, this is not fascism (as that term is properly construed) or anything like it. Despite Trump’s fondness for jutting his jaw like Il Duce, his rise is better understood by looking not at the Europe of nearly a century ago but at its current populist surge — of Left, Right and something of both: Syriza, UKIP, the Finns Party and all the rest. It was no coincidence that Nigel Farage shared a platform with Trump in Mississippi in August. Trumpism (yes, it’s a word, even if no one, including Trump, quite knows what it means) is part of a wider revolt against ruling establishments, on either side of the Atlantic, affluent, post-national and condescending, and not as competent as they like to assume.

While the Trump campaign is defined and often overwhelmed by the man at its centre (thus its chaos), the personality cult on which it is, if only partly, built comes with a wink. For all the towers, hotels, casinos, headlines, women and bankruptcies, Trump would not be where he is today without his decade (and more) in reality TV, something that has propelled him to the rostrum while subtly undermining his place there. He takes himself seriously — very seriously — and yet there is more than a trace of self-parody about his performance, which the fans and followers (in Trump’s case, often interchangeable categories) who have watched the evolution of his media image over the years, understand very well. It helps explain why they hold him to a lower standard than they would a more mainstream candidate. As Trump draws closer to the White House, that’s not a comforting thought. There are good reasons to believe that this thin-skinned, occasionally vindictive man might attempt to abuse the powers of the presidency to an even greater extent than some of his predecessors.

But if Trump tried to overreach, he would almost certainly be stopped. Whatever else can be forecast about this election (full disclosure: my predictions have not proved exactly infallible so far), we can be sure Trump is not going to win by a landslide. The electoral twists that might take him to victory would also secure a GOP-controlled Congress, but one where many of the Republicans who sat there disapproved of their man in the White House. Many more would be profoundly worried by what Trumpgate could mean for their political future. The elections that followed Nixon’s disgrace were not kind to his party. Historical memories in America are short, but not that short.

Much of the electorate, including a good percentage of those who had voted, noses held tight, for Trump, would be watchful and on edge, the financial markets — already nervous about what Trumpenomics might mean — would be twitchy, the judiciary would be on its guard and business would be suspicious. The bureaucracy would be uncooperative and, often, outright hostile. America’s defence chiefs would fret about what Trump could mean for the country’s security, their apprehensions fuelled by the useful idiocy of Trump’s footsie with Putin, his undermining of Nato and those fabled tiny fingers coming too close to the nuclear button. As for the media, well, what do you think?

One prominent conservative journalist, no never-Trumper, told me that impeachment proceedings against a President Trump would be a matter not of if, but when. It wouldn’t altogether surprise me. And in that respect, not only Trump’s future conduct, but also his past could possibly make for difficulty. He has, after all, spent years making and losing money in construction and casinos, two businesses not known for their spotless reputation. And he still has to contend with litigation over Trump University, an institution that allegedly preyed on just the sort of regular folks he has pledged to defend. Then there’s the matter of what might be lurking in Trump’s still mysterious tax returns. Meanwhile, doing his bit for the cause, New York’s (Democratic) attorney general has announced an investigation into Trump’s charitable foundation. If there are any skeletons to be dragged out of Trump Cupboard, they will be.

On the other hand, there are legitimate questions about the extent to which the checks and balances (explicit and implicit) built into the American system would act as a brake on President Hillary Clinton, an authoritarian herself and dogged by questions about her integrity that stretch all the way back to her improbably successful cattle futures trading as first lady of Arkansas.

She’s an establishment figure and the establishment would be more inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt, not least out of gratitude that it had dodged the Trump fusillade. There’s also a decent chance that the Senate, if not the House, would be under Democratic control in the event of a Clinton win. What’s more, the behaviour of the civil service in recent years suggests it wouldn’t be too keen to push back against misbehaviour by a Democratic president. Writing in USA Today, University of Tennessee law professor and influential blogger Glenn (“Instapundit”) Reynolds argued that “Federal employees overwhelmingly vote for Democrats, donate to Democrats, and, by all appearances, cover for Democrats as a routine part of doing their job.” That’s not so much of an exaggeration as it should be.

As for scrutiny by the media, well, what do you think? Whining by the Washington Post, the paper of Watergate no less, that “the Hillary Clinton email story is out of control” signals what lies ahead.

As a reminder, that story revolves round Clinton’s decision, while Secretary of State, to use a private email server on official business. This was against the rules and had potentially (and quite possibly not just potentially: was the server hacked?) damaging security implications: The FBI grumbled about “extreme carelessness” in the “handling of very sensitive, highly classified information”, but found no criminal intent. Other Clinton critics asked whether she had arranged matters in this way because — this did not take a major imaginative leap — she had something to hide, questions not made any easier to answer by the fact that thousands of “private” emails had been erased. The affair, which has contributed — and continues to contribute — to Clinton’s perceived lack of trustworthiness with voters, rumbles on, but even the Justice Department’s eventual decision not to pursue criminal charges against her has come at a cost: it bolstered the impression that the Clintons are above the law, not a reputation to celebrate in an anti-establishment year.

Nevertheless, for all Clinton’s stumbles, both literal (we’ll come to that) and figurative, barring a major extraneous event (a massive terrorist attack, say, or some suitably embarrassing leaks via interestingly connected hackers) the best bet is, to repeat myself, that, despite some turbulence in the polls, she will be taking the oath of office in January. Trump’s core problem is that there simply are not enough white working-class voters (a group that amounted to some two-thirds of the electorate in 1980, but barely more than a third today), a problem reinforced by the fact that the rhetoric that wins them over to his side alienates their more upmarket counterparts. Mitt Romney won the support of 59 per cent of white voters in 2012, but he still lost the election. Continuing demographic change (whites are forecast to cast around 69 per cent of the votes this year) and Trump’s even greater unpopularity with minorities will mean that he would have to beat Romney’s 59 per cent by some margin to have any realistic chance of victory (on some estimates he would need to reach 65 per cent). That would involve scoring very well indeed with college-educated whites, but an early September poll showed that Clinton was beating Trump among such voters in 31 states.

This was, I suspect, the constituency at which Clinton was aiming when, in during a speech at a fundraiser in Manhattan in early September she divided Trump’s voters into two “baskets” of roughly equal sizes. The first “contained people who feel that government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them . . . They are just desperate for change . . . they don’t buy everything [Trump] says but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different.” The second was a “basket of deplorables . . . Racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic, you name it.” They were, she said, “irredeemable”, an unsettling choice of adjective.

Clinton sometimes says what she believes and on this occasion that’s what she did, although in a later sorry-not-sorry comment she conceded that she had dumped too high a percentage of Trump supporters into the deplorables basket. But the message she wanted to deliver will have survived. Voting for Trump was the mark either of a loser or, worse still, of a racist/sexist/homophobe/xenophobe/Islamophobe. By contrast, ran the subtext, a vote for Hillary was proof of being none of those things, an attractive pitch to some suburbanites, not least because of the way it chimes with the misgivings that they already have about those who have jumped onto the Trump train. Clinton’s comment was widely seen as a gaffe — insulting voters is not normally seen as a good idea — and angered many, but it may play well with the decisive few at whom, I reckon, it was really directed.

It was widely assumed that, once Trump won the Republican nomination, he would — to use the fashionable term — pivot. He would, it was thought, reach out to centrists and minorities and, more generally, just make an effort to come across as rather more presidential, all shifts likely to appeal to those college-educated whites. Occasionally that’s what happened, even if some of those pivots have, in the words of Republican Senator Jeff Flake (who has, at the time of writing, refused to endorse Trump) been “360-degree pivots”: “He pivots and then pivots right back.”

Nevertheless, there have been signs of a more sophisticated and even conciliatory approach, especially since Trump’s appointment of Kellyanne Conway, a veteran pollster well-known in Republican circles, as his latest campaign manager. It could be seen in Trump’s nuanced and clever response to Clinton’s baskets. He picked up on its unmistakably authoritarian tone (“She divided people into baskets as though they were objects not human beings”) and the sneer that accompanied it (“You can’t lead this nation if you have such a low opinion for its citizens”), while deftly playing his class card (Hillary “mocks and demeans hard-working Americans” while living a “sequestered life behind gates and walls and guards”), a reflection of his ability to, so to speak, descend from his penthouse. Trump’s wealth is a badge of success, spent without pretension. It’s Clinton’s, a grandee of a governing class that disdains money while somehow managing to amass it, that is resented. Shortly after Clinton’s remarks, Trump announced a, by Republican standards, generous maternity leave plan. Populists of the Right know when to lean left, and when to appeal to women, a constituency that needs some convincing to vote for Trump.

Trump also made a well-received visit to Louisiana, hit by massive flooding and (strangely, given Hurricane Katrina) neglected by Clinton and, initially, President Obama. He flew to meet Mexico’s president and has appeared (it’s complicated) to refine his immigration agenda: more emphasis on enforcement and border security (complete with that wall), less talk of mass deportation of those already in the country, a notion that makes many Americans very uneasy. Trump also showed up in Detroit to visit his “brothers and sisters” in an African-American church, a gesture that will be unlikely to win him many black recruits (most polls show him scoring in the low single digits with black voters, although there have been some intriguing outliers), but may play well with whites understandably turned off by some of the rougher edges of Trump’s rhetoric and, for that matter, support.

Trump will score somewhat better among other minorities (it would be hard to do much worse), but dismal polling, as at the time of writing, among Latinos (19 per cent, according to an early-September poll: Romney managed 27 per cent at the last presidential election) hint at the immensity of the challenge that faces him, a challenge reinforced by the suspicion that prejudice against one is a prejudice against all. Shortly after Trump had — on essentially ethnic grounds — attacked the impartiality of a Mexican-American judge presiding over some of the Trump University litigation, a Chinese-American acquaintance, no leftist, told me that this was the last straw — another vote lost. One April poll found that 40 per cent of registered Asian-American voters would not vote for a candidate “with strongly anti-immigrant views” even if “they agreed with him or her on other issues”.

If this emphasis on ethnicity rather than policy as a basis for voting for one party or another sounds ominous, so it should. Over the last half-century, America has combined acceptance of mass immigration from all over the world with a rejection of its earlier assimilationist approach to new arrivals. The insistence on assimilation had worked very well. It has been replaced with a multiculturalism that works nowhere. The result is Balkanising the nation, changing unum into pluribus, a transformation that, if history is any judge, or the divisive identity politics of the country’s universities any foretaste, leads nowhere that America should want to go.

American attitudes to immigration are complex and conflicted and made more so by the way that, in often unacknowledged ways, they overlap with attitudes to race and, now, multi-culturalism. That said, when Trump looked at the challenge he faced in the primaries, he saw the opportunity presented by the failure of his Republican rivals, for the most part products of a lazily (or in Jeb Bush’s case, enthusiastically) immigration-friendly GOP establishment, to respond to the unease felt by many of their voters over this topic. In his own crude fashion, Trump then made immigration his issue, a brilliant — and calculated — move that took him to the head of the pack. The paradox, however, is that The Donald’s aggressive and often obnoxious stance on this question will buttress the Democrats’ gains from the demographic changes that mass immigration has brought in its wake. As a result, they will be even more determined to persevere with the immigration policies and identity politics that could, in the worst case, eventually culminate in some sort of Yugoslavia.

Turning to the more immediate future, Republicans will be (quietly) hoping that, without Obama at the top of the Democratic ticket, minority turnout will be down. It might, and that would be troubling for Clinton, but the Democrats and the media will hype the dangers of a Republican candidate, who can even now be relied upon to help the hype with suitably incendiary gaffes. His handlers can only do so much. As Trump could discover to his cost, casting a vote against can be almost as good a reason to show up at the polls as a vote for.

Then again, voting against crooked Hillary will be a pleasant task for many on the Right (and for quite a few, far easier than voting for Trump). But Clinton, who was first lady before some of today’s voters were born, has been on the political scene for a long time. Some of the fury she used to attract has subsided. Even the conspiracy theorists have seemed weary (how many murders was it, anyway?), at least until persistent rumours about her health began to gather pace, a worrying development for a candidate for a job on which so much rests on one pair of shoulders.

In early September the National Enquirer, a disreputable if enjoyable supermarket scandal-sheet and one of the few publications to have endorsed Trump, “revealed” that the 68-year-old Hillary, “frail” and “overweight” is “infected with a crippling killer virus, suffers from alcoholism, has been devastated by three strokes and is battling severe mental disorders”, as well as, possibly — Job in a trouser suit — multiple sclerosis and muscular dystrophy. Were that to be true, it would be testimony to Hillary’s resilience that she was so quickly back on her feet after her fainting episode (first blamed on the heat, then on pneumonia) at New York’s 9/11 memorial, the incident that took speculation about her health away from the checkout lane and into the headlines.

Her return to the campaign trail may have been speeded along by comments by former Ohio governor Ted Strickland (a Democrat now running for the Senate) just two days later. Clinton’s running-mate, Virginia senator Tim Kaine, was, noted Strickland, “a wonderfully prepared person to be . . . the president if that ever became necessary”. Strickland knows what many people know: Senator Kaine, a mainstream Democrat and a former governor of his state, would run better against Trump than Clinton does.

Making matters worse, Clinton’s perceived evasiveness over what was ailing her sharpened questions about her honesty. According to one poll roughly half of all voters believed that she had “given the public false information about her health”. To David Axelrod, a former senior Obama adviser, this was an own goal. “Antibiotics,” he tweeted “can take care of pneumonia. What’s the cure for an unhealthy penchant for privacy that repeatedly creates unnecessary problems?” Unnecessary? I wonder.  But voters’ familiarity with the Clinton style has bred complacency: The email mess has hurt Hillary, but it has not proved to be the cancer on her candidacy that it once might have been, and the genuinely disturbing murk that surrounds yet another source of controversy, the Clinton Foundation — a nest of actual and potential conflicts of interest with a stink of pay-to-play about it — has yet to seriously disturb an electorate too jaded to care overmuch.

It’s not all gloom for Trump — far from it. Traditional loyalties, a widening gulf between the parties, the belief that The Donald is the lesser of two evils, and the manner in which the election process has “normalised” the idea of a Trump candidacy have all led to a far larger proportion of Republican-leaning voters rallying behind their party’s nominee than once was thought possible (the same is not true of the divided right-wing commentariat). Even so, in a contest where Trump will need to haul in every voter who could conceivably be his, quite a few will make their excuses and leave.

Some will defect to Gary Johnson, the former Republican governor of New Mexico now running as the Libertarian candidate with another former Republican governor as his running mate. By repositioning the Libertarian party in an unaccustomed role as a “sane” (to use, as Johnson does, that infuriatingly smug term for centrist) alternative to Trump and Clinton, Johnson will take votes (in greater numbers probably than any third party for two decades) from both, perhaps more from Clinton than Trump, but it is unlikely to be so many as to make a difference, although his seeming appeal to young voters may be a sign that Hillary is not doing so well with this key Obama constituency as she should. On a more reassuring note for the Democrats, it doesn’t look as if Clinton need worry greatly about the threat to her left from Jill Stein’s Greens, a party in no hurry to re-label itself as sane.

Put everything together, add in the way that the maths of the electoral college favours the Democrats and then throw in her campaign’s superior organisation, and the odds, despite some wobbles, still favour Clinton, a candidate described by a possibly demob-happy Barack Obama as the “most qualified” candidate ever to run for the presidency — leaving, therefore, predecessors such as Thomas Jefferson (principal author of the Declaration of Independence, Governor of Virginia, ambassador to France and, ahem, Secretary of State) behind in the dust.

The defining achievement of Clinton’s time as First Lady — other than sticking with Bill and polarising the nation — was a failed healthcare reform. Despite courageous efforts to tackle the video game menace, she achieved very little in her eight years as senator, and her time as Secretary of State is remembered mainly for the unsuccessful “reset” with Russia and the slaughter of four Americans in Benghazi, including the US ambassador to Libya. She also, it’s noted on Wikipedia, “greatly expanded the State Department’s use of social media, including Facebook and Twitter”.

There is very little excitement over Clinton’s candidacy. At the end of August Trump was recording extraordinarily high (63 per cent) unfavourables in the polls, but so was Hillary (56 per cent). It took something to pick a candidate who could actually lose to Clinton, but that’s what the GOP’s primary voters did. That said, Trump’s core supporters seem more passionate, more involved, and more likely to vote. In a thought-provoking reprise of the Sanders campaign, he has been attracting impressive amounts of money from an impressive number of small donors, a phenomenon worth watching if it continues. The GOP’s voter registration drive has being going surprisingly well in some key states.

By contrast, efforts to whip up some enthusiasm over the prospect of the election to the presidency of a rich, entitled grande dame as a feminist milestone are falling, like her speeches, just a little bit flat. With her metallic voice and weirdly forced facial expressions, there is something robotic about Clinton. Trump’s wild talk is often alarming, but rarely dull. To watch Hillary is to be left with a vague sense that a mechanic will need to be called in.

To be fair, it’s not easy to generate a lot of excitement when running for what will inevitably be seen as the third term (always a political challenge) of a sitting administration, and, to a degree, of a past one — her husband’s — too. And that’s what she’s doing. Broadly speaking, a Hillary presidency will build on the status quo, with additional shifts to the left on regulation, tax, climate change bossiness, immigration and (albeit in a move likely to find considerable bipartisan support) trade: The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the EU will, to steal a phrase from Obama, go “to the back of the queue”. After Trump and Sanders, the votes for a further extension of free trade are not there. On the other hand, she is likely to be more assertive than Obama — a low bar — internationally, and, unlike what Trump appears to have in mind, no dangerous games will be played with Nato.

Her freedom to act will be constrained if the Republicans manage to hang on to the Congress. At the time of writing, earlier fears that Trump would cost the GOP its majorities appear overdone. The Republicans seem well-placed to hang on to the House and they are still in with a chance of retaining the Senate. But however well or badly they do, the questions posed by the rise of Trump, a candidate who seems set to cost them a presidential election that they should have won, are not going away. Trump himself is a one-off, 70 years old, and, if some recent Senate primaries are any indication, not yet in a position to remake the GOP in his own image. But the changes to which his rise is a response, changes which are only going to accelerate, will have to be confronted by a party that has no clue how to do so.

Seen from 2020, 2016 may look pretty good.