US Politics: As Low as It Gets

Donald Trump
Donald Trump; drawing by James Ferguson

The story of the summer, and perhaps of the last year, has been the long wait for Donald Trump to go too far. Within weeks of the announcement of his candidacy in June 2015, seasoned observers of the political game were regularly declaring that the reality TV star had crossed the line that separates viability from oblivion, that he had broken this or that unbreakable rule and was therefore doomed.

For some, it was Trump’s insistence that John McCain was not a war hero, a statement of astonishing chutzpah coming from a man who had evaded the draft five times—four through college deferments, the fifth thanks to a doctor’s note citing bone spurs in his feet—and who has elevated his determination not to catch a sexually transmitted disease, despite libertine levels of promiscuity, into his “personal Vietnam.”

For others, it was Trump’s promise to deport 11 million undocumented migrants from the US. Or his call for a temporary ban on all Muslims entering the United States. Or his mocking impersonation of a disabled reporter. Or his suggestion that a female TV anchor was hostile because she was menstruating. Any one of those actions could have been terminal for a previous presidential candidate, competing under the old rules. After all, the mere appearance of tears had been enough to finish off Ed Muskie in 1972, just as a few plagiarized lines destroyed Joe Biden in 1988. Yet somehow Trump kept on winning.

The result was an unfamiliar loss of confidence in the ranks of the pundits. The usual rulebook, which they had studied and memorized, seemed no longer to apply. Trump appeared able to get away with anything. As he observed of his own political invincibility, he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and start shooting and people would still vote for him. Honest political professionals who would have known what this twist or that turn would have meant in America BT—Before Trump—could not be sure if they meant anything at all in the new era. If politics had always served as show business for ugly people, now it seemed to be complying with one of showbiz’s most unforgiving laws, famously distilled by William Goldman: “No one knows anything.”

As July turned into August, something like normal politics resumed. The parents of a fallen US serviceman, Captain Humayun Khan, appeared on stage together at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia. Cutting a distinguished, erudite figure on stage—a kind of Muslim Atticus Finch—the soldier’s lawyer father, Khizr Khan, noted that, had Donald Trump had his way, his son “never would have been in America. Donald Trump consistently smears the character of Muslims.” Then, in a moment that would be replayed endlessly, Khan reached into his breast pocket for the text of the US Constitution and urged the Republican nominee to look up the words “equal protection” and “liberty.”

It was Trump’s response that made this a turning point, when he wondered why Mrs. Khan had not spoken, implying that she had been gagged by fundamentalist Islam. Republican leaders denounced him, barely able to believe that their nominee needed to be told that the only acceptable mode of address to Gold Star parents is unqualified respect. All but the most slavishly pro-Trump commentators made the same point, as did Trump’s trio of enablers: Chris Christie, Rudy Giuliani, and Newt Gingrich. The latter spoke of needing to stage an “intervention,” as if Trump were unwell and out of control. And then, as if to confirm that not every law of political gravity had been reversed, a chorus of post-convention polls appeared: they all found that Hillary Clinton had broken ahead, opening up a substantial lead over her Republican rival. At long last, it seemed, Trump had gone too far.

That impression was reinforced days later, when Trump ad-libbed a not-very-veiled threat of violence against Hillary Clinton, musing that “the Second Amendment people” might have a way to stop her when all else failed—what Slate’s Jacob Weisberg described as, if not an assassination threat, “an assassination suggestion.” Once again, people of substance moved to say that Trump had crossed the line and was unfit for America’s highest office.

Of course it is too soon to take anything for granted. If people who follow politics have learned anything from the last turbulent year—beyond the United States as well as inside it—it’s that the sure thing no longer exists. After all, hours before the polls closed in Britain’s Brexit referendum, the betting markets regarded it as a nailed-on, 85 percent probability that the UK would vote to remain in the European Union.

Yet for all that, it seems clear that the numbers are just not there for Trump. His standing is so low among nonwhite Americans that he would need to do stratospherically well among whites to compensate. He is indeed racking up favorable ratings among whites without a college degree, outperforming Clinton by 58 to 33 percent, according to the Washington PostABC News poll conducted after both conventions. But among the college-educated, his numbers are dire. While Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama by 56 to 42 percent among college-educated whites, Clinton leads Trump among that group by 50 to 44 percent. Among college-educated white women, a crucial group, he performs, predictably, even worse: he trails Clinton by nearly twenty points, while his support among Republican women has sharply declined, down to just 72 percent, twenty-one points behind Romney’s number in 2012. Put brutally, no matter how devoted blue-collar white men are to Donald Trump, there are simply not enough of them in today’s America to win the election.

Perhaps it was this stubborn fact that prompted Trump’s change of tack in mid-August. It came first with the apparent demotion and subsequent resignation of his campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and the elevation in his place of Steve Bannon, the boss of the far-right website and embryonic media empire Breitbart News, along with the pollster Kellyanne Conway. (They were joined by Roger Ailes after he was fired from Fox News, although it is still unclear just what he is doing for Trump.)

Had only Conway been appointed, it might have been possible to read this merely as a change of personnel rather than of strategy. Manafort was identified with the effort to tame Trump, to get him to ditch his rambling speeches in favor of scripted remarks read off a Teleprompter. Manafort was a professional who wanted the candidate to attempt to look presidential and pivot toward the wider electorate he will face in November. His position became untenable when it was revealed that he had extensive business ties to countries of the old Soviet Union and had undertaken especially lucrative work for pro-Russian clients in Ukraine. This strengthened the charge that Trump was an ally of, if not a shill for, Vladimir Putin. On this reading, replacing Manafort with Conway was merely trading one seasoned political operative for another. Besides, Conway’s expertise lies in helping Republicans win over female voters, one of those groups among whom Trump trails so badly.

But the Bannon appointment sent the very opposite signal. Breitbart News has long been hawking a brand of aggressive nativism, hostility to immigration, and hatred of feminism that can concisely be described as racism and misogyny. It is the bush telegraph of the alt-right, with a back catalog of headlines that brought gasps when Hillary Clinton read out a sample to a Nevada audience in late August. (Example: “Would You Rather Your Child Had Feminism or Cancer?”) If Conway’s hire suggested that Trump was trying to reach beyond his base to the college-educated white women he needs to win, Bannon’s hinted at Trump’s desire to thrill the faithful and damn the consequences. One other motive suggested itself, to The New Yorker’s John Cassidy among others: perhaps Bannon, Trump, and Ailes were plotting the creation of a new media behemoth, one that would emerge from the rubble of defeat in November.

The same confusion arose from the shifts in message that followed. Trump sent signals that he wanted to reach out to minority voters, including African-Americans, among whom he polls as low as one percent. (In truth, he was more likely following advice from Conway that white suburban voters need to be reassured that a vote for Trump is not a vote for an overt racist.) But he did so by telling black Americans how dreadful their lives were, in the manner of an abusive husband telling his crushed spouse that she is worthless: “Your schools are no good, you have no jobs, 58 percent of your youth is unemployed….”

More dramatically, Trump seemed to shift his line on immigration. He hinted that he was ready to drop the pledge that had greatly helped him to crush his primary opponents: the mass deportation of undocumented migrants. That brought howls of dismay from the very alt-right he had delighted by recruiting Bannon. But if his aim was to soothe Latino Americans (and through them, hesitant white voters), the message was undermined by the way it was delivered: in front of a seething live audience for Fox’s Hannity show, where the Republican nominee asked the crowd what to do with illegal migrants, giving them an up-or-down choice as if they were in the arena of ancient Rome: “Number one, we’ll say throw out. Number two, we work with them.” And if his aim was to soften his tone on migration, he could have chosen a better warm-up speaker at his rally in Jackson, Mississippi, than Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party who helped win a victory for Brexit by railing against immigration. As if to confuse matters still further, within hours of the proclaimed shift in tone, Trump was talking of deportations, and apparently hardening his line on illegal migrants once more.

An attempt to settle the position came on the last day of August, when Trump flew to Mexico for a meeting with the country’s president and then on to Arizona to deliver a set-piece speech on immigration. But once again, the signals were mixed. In Mexico, he premiered his diplomatic face, showing due respect to his hosts. But in Arizona, he was as bellicose in tone as ever, defining undocumented immigrants as an essentially criminal class to be banished. Still, the substantive shift remained: Trump had abandoned his once-defining pledge to deport all 11 million illegal migrants, postponing the decision on their fate until after any “criminal aliens” had been expelled and the border wall built—which could take years. Politically, the day was a success: he had got through a foreign visit without incident, thereby allowing his aides to claim he had cleared the “presidential” hurdle. But clarity on policy remains elusive.

The message is so unclear, so contradictory, that it’s hard to know what impact any of it will have on November 8. Conway believes there are “undercover” Trump supporters, missed by the polls, just as there were shy Brexiteers who confounded expectations in Britain. But the evidence is hazy at best.

Photographers covering Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech on the last night of the Democratic National Convention, Philadelphia, July 2016
Paul Morigi/WireImage/Getty Images
Photographers covering Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech on the last night of the Democratic National Convention, Philadelphia, July 2016

This unpredictability, this uncertainty and the queasy sense of bewilderment it produces, were palpable in Cleveland, where the Republicans gathered for their convention a week before the Democrat-fest in Philadelphia. All around were people—grandees, delegates, activists, journalists—wrong-footed by the new landscape in which they found themselves. One had only to look at the expression on the face of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as he walked onto the convention stage to be met not by the polite applause that doubtless greets him most days in Washington but by audible, if diffuse, booing. The Trump followers were angry with McConnell for his slowness in endorsing their man, but the anger seemed more general than that: it was a loathing, stewed over more than two decades, for the Washington establishment, with McConnell its luckless embodiment.

As for the look on the majority leader’s face—and it was a look several of his fellow insiders wore through the week—it expressed, above all, confusion at the new reality. It rarely presented itself as anger. More often it was head-shaking bemusement, at the antics of their nominee most obviously, but also at the new dispensation—in which past staples of Republican doctrine, such as free trade or active US internationalism, were now jettisoned or despised or both, in which the only past presidential nominee present in Cleveland was the nonagenarian Bob Dole, and in which elected officeholders and rising stars, such as Iowa Senator Jodi Ernst, were edged out of the golden primetime hours, during which the broadcast networks pay attention, in favor of minor-league TV celebrities and, more often, Trump offspring.

The delegates seemed similarly unsure of their footing. Of course, many were devoted to the real estate billionaire, ready to trot out all the usual hymns of praise: “He says it like it is.” “He’s run a business and this country needs to be run like a business.” These were the people who shook their fists and heckled Ted Cruz when he refused to endorse the nominee. But others sat back, as if regarding the spectacle at arm’s length. Even when Trump gave his acceptance speech, I noticed that—while others around them were on their feet—plenty stayed defiantly seated, some of them preferring to jab at their phones rather than contemplate the enormous face projected on the screen before them. As Trump passed the hour mark of what was a long, dark oration, the ranks of the phone-glancers swelled.

They were remarkably candid about their misgivings. Utah delegate Phill Wright, who had chaired Cruz’s campaign in the state, told me that the people he lived among “have strong values and morals” and he readily conceded that Trump was “a rough stone rolling,” which I took to be a nod toward the crudity and coarseness that had distressed so many religious voters. (During the New Hampshire primary, Trump had echoed a heckler’s description of Cruz as a “pussy.”) He added, as if foretelling Khizr Khan, “I worry about the Constitution in the hands of someone who hasn’t read it and doesn’t understand it.” Like so many others in Cleveland, Wright seemed embarrassed by his party’s nominee.

But he was planning to vote for him anyway. He, like many other Republicans, comforted himself with the notion that President Trump would not be in the Oval Office alone but would “surround himself with good conservatives.” He believed, or hoped, that Trump would change. But above all Wright was prepared to vote for Trump as the means to stop Hillary Clinton. I asked if that meant he saw Trump as the lesser of two evils. “No, I don’t think he’s evil. He’s rough around the edges. But she truly is evil.”

The severity of that verdict was surprising, coming from a man whose manner was mild and who was so clearly alert to Trump’s flaws. But Wright was adamant. He rattled off the charge sheet against Clinton, accumulated over a quarter-century: “She was covering up [her husband’s] affairs, health care was a disaster, she destroyed our standing internationally, she encouraged war in Libya.” He went on: “Benghazi. The e-mail scandal…. She doesn’t belong in the White House, she belongs in the big house.” By which he meant jail.

In this sentiment, Wright was wholly in tune with the mood of Cleveland. The slogan throughout the week was “Lock Her Up!”; the T-shirt of choice bore the legend “Hillary for Prison 2016.” Clinton-hatred is the glue binding together what would otherwise be a fractious tribe. It helps explain, in part, why Trump, by mid-August, still commanded 83 percent support among Republicans, including 74 percent of those who voted for his rivals in the primaries. Compared to past elections, those numbers were not what they should have been, but they proved that, for all Trump’s flaws, Republicans still preferred him to her.

Plenty of Americans may struggle to understand this. Not many trust Clinton: according to polls, 60 percent say she is dishonest. But the intensity with which committed Republicans hold that view is what sets them apart. At a panel on the convention fringes, Katie Packer, a consultant and veteran of Romney’s 2012 campaign, said of her fellow Republicans: “The rest of the country don’t hate Hillary the way they do.” She offered an explanation: “They don’t watch Fox News.”

And yet if the landscape revealed in Cleveland felt unsettlingly new to many of those there, it did not appear overnight. The first Republican convention I attended was in Houston in 1992, where one of the featured speakers was the defeated primary challenger Pat Buchanan. He too was a TV star. He too talked darkly of culture wars, of taking our country back, of America First. He too played on fear. But he was not the nominee.

I had a similar thought watching the self-styled America First rally in Cleveland, convened by the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and the former Nixon operative Roger Stone. The talk there was wild. Jones called Clinton a foreign agent working for the Chinese and Saudis. He hailed the audience, gathered on a hot day on the banks of the Cuyahoga River, as “the resistance” to “a globalist program of enslavement and the new world order.” Stone called Clinton “a short-tempered, foul-mouthed, bipolar, mentally unbalanced criminal.”

This brought back a sharp memory from the 1990s, of reporting on what was then known as the militia movement: antigovernment obsessives convinced that black helicopters were circling overhead, that the US was poised to succumb to the UN, and that the federal government was plotting to inject biochips into every American, the better to herd and control them. Back then, these self-proclaimed warriors for liberty were forever on the outside. But this time, their slogans—Lock Her Up! Hillary for Prison!—were being chanted inside the convention hall, egged on from the podium by Christie and others. One Trump adviser suggested that Clinton be shot for treason. As for Roger Stone, he is no longer the maverick outsider. He is a close friend, even a mentor, of the GOP choice for president. And all this was before the high priest of the hard right, Steve Bannon, was anointed as the chief executive of the Republicans’ 2016 presidential campaign. What was once confined to the margins was confirmed at Cleveland to be the new heart of the Republican Party.

This shift should not have come as a surprise. For nearly twenty-five years, the GOP had indulged rather than confronted the ever more strident attitudes advanced by, at different points, talk radio, Fox News, and the Tea Party. The flirtation with conspiracy theory; the contempt for empirical evidence; the defining of Democratic opponents as dangerous enemies, as people who were not just wrong but illegitimate and criminal; the depiction of Washington, D.C., as a fetid swamp incapable of action and a view of the business of democratic politics itself, with its inevitable compromises, as a betrayal—none of these themes was new. They were seeds that had been planted, watered, and nurtured by Republicans for a generation. Yet when their strange fruit appeared—in the form of an orange-hued would-be strongman, boasting that “I alone can fix it”—a good many had the temerity to look startled.

Were it not for Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton would be breaking records for her unfavorable ratings. The first night of the Democratic convention was marred by repeated booing from the unreconciled admirers of Bernie Sanders. But just as hatred of Hillary had united the Republicans in Cleveland, so fear and loathing of Trump served to bring together Democrats in Philadelphia. This consolidation of the previously fissured Democratic bloc helps explains Clinton’s substantial post-convention poll lead. In a normal year, her negatives might well have destroyed her candidacy. Thanks to Trump, she appeared in mid-August to be on course for the White House. Consider this one more page from the rulebook of conventional wisdom shredded by Donald Trump.

The nomination of Trump has left wide stretches of terrain, once regarded as owned and occupied by Republicans, available for colonization by Democrats. In Philadelphia they made repeated land grabs, seizing patriotism, optimism, national security, and executive competence for themselves.

They offered a parade of military brass vouching for Clinton as a prospective commander in chief, later joined by fifty former officials of Republican administrations who signed a joint declaration of support for the Democratic nominee, warning of the dangers posed by a Trump presidency. When the country’s leading Democrats—Barack and Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton, Joe Biden—offered messages of hope, faith in the future, and sunny confidence in America, the result was a double contrast with the previous week, whose themes had varied all the way from black to pitch-black and whose speaker list conspicuously lacked the biggest Republican names: no Romney, no McCain, no Bushes.

Perhaps most mortifyingly for Trump, who prides himself on his ability to entertain and who had promised to bring some “showbiz” to Cleveland, Philadelphia was the slicker, more glamorous, better show. Where at the Republican gathering timings had gone awry, onstage monitors had glitched out, and speeches had been revealed as plagiarized, all that mattered went smoothly a week later, especially once the Bernie-or-Bust crowd quieted down (or at least were drowned out and rendered inaudible on TV). The most damning verdict is surely this: had Ronald Reagan watched both conventions, it would have been the second one—with its chants of “U-S-A,” its generals on stage, its message discipline, and its eye for a telegenic image—that he’d have guessed belonged to the party he once led.

And yet few Democrats would speak of victory in November as a done deal. For one thing, there is the new unpredictability itself, the almost superstitious fear that even when every rational data point tilts one way, 2016 might spring a surprise: call it the Brexit syndrome. Now even good news can look like bad news. Take the increasing number of endorsements, including from Republicans, for Hillary Clinton. What if they only fuel the sense that Clinton is the elite’s choice and therefore to be spurned? (After all, almost every respectable scholar, celebrity, and business leader urged a vote against Brexit.)

Meanwhile, Trump’s defeated Republican primary rivals can testify that it’s horrendously difficult to oppose a candidate unconstrained by truth or facts. Trump is remarkably free on the stump and in interviews, claiming credit for things he never said—such as his usually unchallenged but false assertion that he publicly opposed the invasion of Iraq before it happened—and making accusations for which there is no evidence. The army of fact checkers rides into battle but by the time they have pronounced, Trump has moved on, spinning a new fantasy or insulting some new victim.

There is a further practical difficulty. Trump says so many wild things—inviting Vladimir Putin to hack Clinton’s e-mails (and then saying he was merely being sarcastic) or threatening to abandon NATO allies or suggesting that victims of sexual harassment should go and “find another career or find another company” or that the woman he thinks of first for a cabinet post is his daughter Ivanka—that it can be impossible to keep up. There is only so much bandwidth available and rebutting Trump comprehensively would exhaust all of it.

Nor can Democrats be wholly confident that Trump’s pitch won’t work. Playing to the fears of an electorate anxious about crime and safety, with all the racially freighted signals such a message inevitably carries, paid dividends for Richard Nixon. When Trump railed in his acceptance speech against “illegal immigrants,” veering off his prepared text to say of refugees escaping countries blighted by terrorism, “We don’t want them in our country,” plenty outside Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena would have been cheering. What must keep the Clinton campaign awake at night is the prospect of either an ISIS attack on US soil or an eruption of racially charged civil unrest, of the kind that led to five police officers being shot dead in Dallas in July. Suddenly, Trump’s offer to play the strongman, bringing order by whatever means necessary, could induce not mockery but relief.

Still, as of late August, the polls and projections estimated the possibility of a Clinton victory at somewhere above 80 percent. For Democrats and all those concerned about the safety and tranquility of the republic, that will doubtless come as a great comfort. If Hillary Clinton wins in November, the temptation will be strong to conclude that the US and the wider world dodged a bullet, evading a fate that could have spread poison at home and brought catastrophe abroad. The urge will be to exhale deeply.

But there is a risk that the pain and fear that made Trump possible will be forgotten. There may not be enough of those angry, disenchanted white Americans to swing a twenty-first-century presidential election, but their pain and resentment are real. It’s why Trump’s support has been so resilient, despite everything. Roger Stone may be loathsome, but when he told the rally in Ohio, “Look at the factories. They’re closed,” he spoke the truth. Those people have, in their millions, been left behind, the unmistakable losers from the same globalization and automation that have handed the winners riches unimaginable since the Gilded Age.

In Britain, there were enough people left behind to win the Brexit referendum. In the US, it seems they will fall short. But the first challenge of the next president will, surely, be to ensure that their anger does not go unheeded. Because if it does, it will resurface eventually, one way or another. Trump may lose, but the causes of his rise will linger.

—September 1, 2016