I realised today that Donald Trump can win. Not the nomination – that’s surely in the bag. The general election. That reality must be made clear. Do not underestimate him. Begin to emotionally prepare yourself. The time for jokes is over, the time for serious analysis is here.
I realised this when reading Trump’s victory speech after winning all five of the Republican primaries held yesterday. Having effectively swatted aside arch-conservative Ted Cruz and the run of the mill John Kasich with crushing victories, Trump turned his attention to Hillary Clinton. The impending battle between the two suddenly began to make me nervous. He proclaimed that her husband had signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) into law and “it was a disaster for this country”. He continued, “she also raised her hand when it came to Iraq, and she shouldn’t have voted”.
If these charges sting it’s because they’re true. Although judging Hillary Clinton on her husband’s record is not entirely fair, it becomes a little fairer if she claims her time as First Lady as experience that helps qualify her to be President. And besides, she did go on record many times during the nineties supporting the Bill Clinton negotiated NAFTA. Although it is true that her support for free trade has waned in recent years, and she came out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, only last week did she decline to say that NAFTA was a mistake (she said “some people were helped, some people were hurt”).
Hillary Clinton’s vote in favour of the Iraq war will haunt her for the rest of her life. It may well have cost her the Presidency in 2008 since it proved to be one of the defining differences between herself and Barack Obama. I bet she never imagined that it could prove to be one of the defining differences between herself and a Republican Nominee in a general election though. Of course, like free trade, Clinton has backed away from her support for the Iraq war. However all this flip flopping just seems to reinforce Trump’s other big charge that she “knows nothing about jobs, apart from jobs for herself”. It would be hard to deny that she has indeed been running for President for basically the last twelve years and that she has shifted on many positions over the years in order to do so. At least her 2016 campaign is being run much better than her 2008 one. Back then she announced her candidacy by declaring “I’m in, and I’m in to win”. It certainly did sound like it was all about her and her career. Trump’s charge hurts because it fits in with a widely held narrative. In the patriarchal society we live in, Trump’s habit of putting his own name across tall buildings is excused as dominance (or eccentric charm) whereas Clinton is seen as Lady Macbeth. It is obviously unfair, but it is a narrative that is helping Trump at this point. And Trump knows how to exploit a narrative.
Trump can win because his positions break down the traditional party divide. Some of the big punches Trump threw tonight were thrown from the left. That’s not to say Trump is more left wing than Clinton, not at all. It’s to say that we can’t necessarily fit Trump into a box. His extremely racist positions on immigration are genuinely frightening. He wants to temporarily ban all Muslims from entering the US and wants to blackmail Mexico into building a wall along the border. Yet he cannot be easily dismissed as an extreme right winger. He can’t be pushed off to the fringe to with the truly unelectable Ted Cruz. His nationalism on race also translates to nationalism on the trade. This sets him apart from most Republicans and indeed many Democrats (especially third way New Democrats like the Clintons) who were willing to trade away working class jobs for support from big businesses. The constant nationalism of Trump’s policies has led to the comparisons with 30s Fascism. The comparisons aren’t too over the top. One can easily see mass deportations turning into forced ghetto-isation. Nonetheless, just calling someone a “fascist” is not enough to tar them these days. The term has been so overused that it doesn’t carry the weight that it should.
Fascist or not, Trump’s refusal to work with or accept money from SuperPACs reinforces his surprisingly leftist streak when it comes to some economic issues. He frequently bemoans the corrupting of influence of big money in politics, outflanking Clinton from the Bernie Sanders side of the field. Of course the idea that Trump is some sort of working class hero is absurd given his wealth and business career. Yet the claim that having earned all his own money Trump is not beholden to anyone does have some perverse logic in it, and besides Americans have always had an affinity with people who’ve “achieved the American Dream”. It is true that Trump is proposing big tax cuts for business and the wealthy, but he is also proposing big tax cuts for the poor including raising the tax free threshold to 25,000 dollars per annum. This would mean 75 million of the poorest households would not be required to pay any tax. An idea which would be impossible to pay for, but an appealing idea for many – and one which is much fairer than tax cuts proposed and implemented by other Republicans such as Bush.
It seems to have become an article of faith for Republicans that Obamacare should be repealed and Trump has gone along with this line. However he has a long history of supporting universal healthcare and has recently promised to strike a deal that will ensure uninsured Americans are treated. He has also said “I am going to take care of everybody. I don’t care if it costs me votes or not. Everybody’s going to be taken care of much better”. Could this be another position from which Trump could launch an unexpected left field assault on Clinton? Clinton staked her claim on defending Obamacare and basically red-baited Sanders as an unrealistic radical because of his insistence that it should evolve into universal coverage. The danger for her is that she may be left seeming an effective bureaucrat rather than a visionary. Contrastingly, Trump’s grandiose statements about making America great again may be light on detail but they certainly do hint at a bold and exciting vision.
Visionary perhaps, but Presidential? Hardly. More than anything, it has been Trump’s poor grammar, his crude, politically incorrect and downright offensive language and his often broken, somewhat bumbling, simplistic style of speaking that has led to him being derided by the University educated left wing (and right wing establishment). It’s true that sometimes Americans want a sophisticated leader (JFK, Obama) but sometimes they just want someone to have a beer and a laugh with (Reagan, Bush). Although Trump doesn’t drink, his unsophisticated speech may appeal to a disenfranchised and uneducated class who finally feel like they have someone who they can understand. Certainly in the land of free speech, his politically incorrect comments appear to be hurting him about as much as Joe Biden’s occasionally poor taste jokes hurt him (not very much).
For me the great tragedy of this Presidential race is that Bernie Sanders will not be nominated by the Democrats. Not only was his campaign the best chance in history at getting a socialist near the White House, his campaign may have been the best chance at stopping Donald Trump. National polls have consistently had Sanders beating Trump by about 15 points, by at least 6 points more than Clinton. Clearly the “socialist” tag isn’t doing him too much harm. The cold war was a long time ago now and rabid anti-socialists wouldn’t vote Democrat anyway. But the thing about Sanders is that he is immune to Trump where Clinton is vulnerable. He cannot be outflanked on trade, money in politics or healthcare. He cannot be tarred as an establishment figure because even if he has been in Congress since the 90s, most Americans only heard of him this year. Indeed Sanders was an independent for most of that time in Congress, and he has used this to his advantage – appealing to independents and winning Democratic primaries where independents are allowed to vote. Sanders has been consistent in his beliefs his whole life and does not seem personally overly ambitious. Trump wouldn’t be able to launch verbal barbs that fit into a widely accepted negative narrative. When debates turn to character, Trump has been able to win. He despatched with Jeb Bush as “low energy”, Marco Rubio as “lightweight”, Chris Christie as “weak” and Cruz as a “liar”. Sanders may not be totally immune from such character attacks, but his integrity has hardly been questioned on either side of politics thus far. On the other hand when it comes to assassinating Clinton’s character, fairly or not, Trump has a long established list to choose from. Given that she is the subject of an ongoing FBI investigation, “corrupt” or “criminal” may be at the top of the list. And that tag may be hard to shake, especially if the investigation makes adverse findings. I don’t think she’s a criminal, but Trump is not wrong when he described her as a “flawed candidate”. An FBI investigation is not a good look.
Without any experience in government, Trump is a blank canvas whom voters can project their own ideas and ambitions on to. By constantly affirming that he can “make America great again” he may be able to unite myriad voters all with drastically different ideas of what greatness is. To this extent, Trump enjoys the same luck that Obama did in 2008. Back then not everyone agreed on what “change” and “progress” were but everyone agreed that they needed it. I certainly hope that Trump is defeated. My hope rests in the fact that he has offended so many key demographics that he may yet prove to be unelectable in an increasingly diverse and liberal America. Yet by offering a series of left wing and right wing policies that cut a fairly coherent nationalist framework across the partisan divide, Trump is proving to be a candidate that is difficult to tie down. If Sanders were the nominee, the class issues that Trump highlights become neutralised and the election could have become about other issues where Trump is vulnerable, such as his racist and sexist rhetoric. Yet with the more moderate Clinton, Trump will find himself able to hit her from both the right and the left, and we may find that there are plenty of white working and middle class voters who are willing to put up with racism if they believe that racism will protect their job and their safety. Unless Clinton can excite disenchanted Sanders supporters (nearly fifty percent of whom consider themselves unlikely to vote for Clinton), there might be enough to carry Trump to victory. I hope that is not the case but make no mistake, it could easily happen. Be prepared.