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Can the Unthinkable Happen?

Donald Trump
Donald Trump; drawing by Pancho

Seven weeks to go; can the unthinkable happen? We believe that surely it cannot. We can read the polls, which are more reassuring than not, and Nate Silver’s probability calculations, which have consistently shown since the summer, with fluctuations, that Hillary Clinton is far more likely to be elected than Donald Trump. We exhale and even allow ourselves to daydream a little when we read reports that Clinton is close or occasionally ahead in states like Arizona and even Georgia, where wins would ensure a resounding rejection of Trumpismus.

But these points are somehow never quite as reassuring as they ought to be. They struggle for traction in a media environment that helped Trump during the primary season and that has continued to do so, not because any leading news organizations are openly for him,1 but because the “objective” American press doesn’t know how to deal with a man who says something false nearly every time he speaks (and gives much more offense besides). The press has had few ways, in the interest of maintaining “balance,” of telling its readers the core frank truth about the man.

In late January, The Huffington Post started appending the following “Editor’s Note” to the bottom of every story it has published about Trump:

Note to our readers: Donald Trump is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, birther, and bully who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims—1.6 billion members of an entire religion—from entering the US.

It’s an attempt to push back against the evanescent nature of “news,” in which if Trump refrains from saying something racist for four days straight the memory of his racism recedes, and to remind readers on a daily basis who Trump is. But the major news organizations would never do anything like this. And so by its very nature and architecture, news reporting—eager to flesh out arguments and counterarguments but ever so cautious about rendering judgments—favors the prevaricator and the provocateur, who is so much better at “making news” than his comparatively sober opponent.

The effect is to make the provocateur seem somehow normal. James Fallows discussed an interesting case in point recently. On August 25, Clinton gave a detailed and thoroughly documented speech on the “alt-right,” the newish radical fringe and white supremacist movement that has rallied to Trump, who responded by calling Clinton a “bigot.” Fallows noted: “There was no detailed case about Hillary Clinton’s supposed bigotry—literally, none. There was just the one word.”2 The headline in The Washington Post? “Clinton, Trump Exchange Racially Charged Accusations.”

On September 7, at a sort of pre-debate meeting on MSNBC called the commander-in-chief forum, at which each candidate was questioned separately for thirty minutes by the NBC news personality Matt Lauer, Trump lied repeatedly without challenge by Lauer. After aggressively prodding Clinton on the e-mail matter, the host let Trump’s false statements on much more consequential global issues pass largely unremarked.

This is the main obstacle that Clinton—who, as we know, has her own set of problems—will face from now until November 8. Can Trump’s lies, about her and about the world, be effectively countered and contained?

There are reasons to think they can be. We have seen much evidence that Trump’s false pronouncements are either believed or blithely ignored by a substantial chunk of the electorate. But we’ve seen no evidence that he’s persuaded a majority. His numbers against Clinton hold steadily in the low 40s and have for some time.

The question of the next seven weeks, then, is what could raise them. I see three possibilities: a defining moment or moments in the crucial three debates; a serious revelation about ethical violations that could damage Clinton; and an “October Surprise,” perhaps bearing the fingerprints of Vladimir Putin and/or Julian Assange, involving hacked e-mails that could hurt Clinton.

The first debate is nearly upon us—Monday, September 26, at Hofstra University, to be moderated by Lester Holt, anchor of the NBC Nightly News. Millions of viewers will tune in—more than 67 million Americans watched the first debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012. Romney was widely considered to have won that debate, by adopting centrist positions that were completely at odds with everything he’d been saying for more than a year, but which were presumably unknown to a significant percentage of viewers.

The lesson is perhaps apposite because Trump can, conceivably, do the same thing. Hard as it may be to believe, there are likely millions of voters out there who carry with them a vaguely discomfiting sense of Trump but can’t say exactly why, or why their discomfort should disqualify him from the presidency. These viewers might see a man who is not at all like the man who’s been described to them. This is one possible manifestation of what is quadrennially, and annoyingly, referred to as the “expectations game”: the universal presumption of the punditry is that Trump will be full of the usual bluster and bombast, and if through some miracle he is not, some pundits will remark with breathless wonder that he seemed suddenly “presidential.”

It is universally assumed that Clinton will mop the floor with him. She has a long history of competent-to-excellent debate performances, what with her Wellesleyesque care in preparation, her mastery of policy, and her ability to complete long, circumlocutory sentences. Trump, so it seems assumed, will not do much preparation and will bluff and grunt his way through the entire ninety-minute affair.

Reportedly, Trump is being coached for the debates by Roger Ailes, the former Fox News Channel CEO recently ousted after an astounding two dozen women stepped forward to accuse him of sexual predation. Why Ailes’s role with Trump isn’t a matter of outrage is an interesting question; the Occam’s Razor answer would appear to be that no one expects any better of either of them. In any case, Ailes is quite experienced in such matters, so he might drill some discipline into Trump. If the candidate maintains a modulated tone and evinces just one piece of surprising knowledge, we can expect some commentators to immediately observe that he came prepared and “raised his game.”

In other words, Clinton has much to lose in these debates, and Trump much to gain. The stakes were made all the higher after Clinton’s health scare on September 11 and diagnosis of pneumonia. Even in the mainstream press, the episodes were described (by The Washington Post, for example) as “the most damaging cascade of events” to affect her campaign. If she shows even small symptoms of illness during the debate much will be made of them.

Clinton will also have to contend with what we might call the Moment. That is, debates are sometimes not won or lost on the night of the debate. They can be won or lost depending on how the cable news channels decide to portray them in the following two or three days—which exchange, which moment, they decide to seize on as representative of some narrative they decide to advance.

Trump, we know, is capable of saying anything. What if he decides to bring up Monica Lewinsky? Or even Juanita Broaddrick, the woman who claims that Bill Clinton raped her in 1978? How will Clinton handle that? How should she “prepare” for that? There are dozens of such matters Trump could raise, and he would probably relish doing so. He could overplay his hand with these sideshows. But Clinton and her debate prep team will have to think about how she handles these moments—not just her words but her tone, the look in her eyes, her facial expression, her body language. All those reactions will be picked over far more persistently because she is a woman than they would be with a man. On such matters, these days, might the fate of the republic hang.

Late August brought a new flurry of Clinton scandal stories on two fronts, relating to her private e-mail server and her husband’s foundation. With regard to the latter, there was hardly any substance to any of them. In one, a Lebanese-Nigerian businessman of mixed reputation who’d been a major donor to the Clinton Foundation had requested, through a foundation official, a meeting with a high-ranking State Department official in advance of Lebanon’s important 2009 elections. No meeting ever occurred.

In another, the big payoff to readers was that Secretary of State Clinton told aides to intercede on behalf of Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus as he was being hounded by the Bangladeshi prime minister, who was in part envious that Yunus, and not she, won the prize. Yunus-affiliated organizations had made contributions to the Clinton Foundation, but mostly in the form of fees for attending Clinton Global Initiative meetings.

Hillary Clinton talking with reporters after a meeting with her national security advisers, New York City, September 2016
Brian Snyder/Reuters
Hillary Clinton talking with reporters after a meeting with her national security advisers, New York City, September 2016

In all such stories, there is rarely if ever direct evidence of wrongdoing or rule-bending. Reporters end up using weasely phrases like “various inquiries and lawsuits suggest a pattern in which donors to Clinton causes seem to have received special access” to Clinton or State (my italics), which appeared in The Washington Post on August 10.3 The stories generate two or three days’ worth of perfervid cable news declarations before people realize that the facts don’t really support the headlines. There is no reason whatever to think this pattern will stop repeating itself before Election Day, or indeed during the four or eight years of a prospective Clinton presidency.

The e-mail wound is more self-inflicted, since it was Clinton herself who decided to use a private server. I think she did so chiefly because she didn’t want Judicial Watch, the conservative legal nonprofit group that has basically existed to find dirt on the Clintons for the past quarter-century (and whose incessant lawsuits are the source of every one of these revelations), to be able to file Freedom of Information Act requests for her e-mails. Obviously, they got them anyway. It was a terrible error in judgment—the kind a president can’t make, one hopes she realizes, without risking enormous consequences.

There were signs in September that the e-mail cloud might be lifting a little—on September 9, after the Lauer fiasco, The Washington Post published an editorial arguing that while Clinton had certainly made a mistake, it was now the case that “the story has vastly exceeded the boundaries of the facts. Even so, there is no end in sight.” In late August, a federal judge ordered the State Department to turn over to Judicial Watch another 15,000 e-mails recently found on the Clinton server. This will happen before the election. The pattern has been that Judicial Watch sends out a press release carefully selecting the morsels it knows the press will gnaw on.

As for the foundation: fifteen months ago in these pages, I wrote that the Clintons should “announce, and soon, a series of dramatic steps” relating to how the foundation will do business if she’s elected.4 They did not. Recently, they announced that the foundation—which I should note, as few news stories do, has laudable and even irreplaceable work around the world to its credit—would stop accepting foreign and corporate donations. But they also announced that Chelsea will remain on the board. They should have announced that none of them would have anything to do with it, which would at least permit Hillary Clinton to say when an allegation about the foundation’s past arises that things will now be different.

But she has chosen not to say that. When the polls tightened in late August and early September, it was a direct result of the flurry of foundation and e-mail stories. Another flurry in late October could have serious ramifications.

In late August the Wikileaks founder Julian Assange went on Fox News to announce that he was in possession of “thousands of pages” of “significant” documents relating to Clinton. In his view she “will push the United States into endless, stupid wars” and she “gets an unseemly emotional rush out of killing people.” Of the choice American voters face, he told Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman that it amounts to “cholera or gonorrhea,” adding that “it doesn’t make much difference in the end.”5

Even so Assange seems to have chosen—he appears to be uninterested in finding any dirt on Trump and intent on bringing Clinton down. It was Wikileaks that in July obtained and released around 20,000 Democratic National Committee e-mails, three of which showed DNC staffers suggesting ploys that could have harmed Bernie Sanders, leading to the resignation of DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz.6 Assange would not say who hacked the DNC system, but nearly everyone assumes it was the Kremlin. Vladimir Putin is known to detest Clinton and all but openly prefer the victory of his kindred spirit Trump. Why would he not? Trump has said that he may end sanctions against Russia, that he wouldn’t necessarily defend the Baltic states or other NATO members in the event of an attack, and that he was certain that Putin “is not gonna go into Ukraine, all right? You can mark it down.” Russian troops, of course, are in Ukraine now, which Putin even admitted last December.

And so left and right link arms, as they often do, in an attempt to smash bourgeois liberalism.

Here is one more potential factor, which has to do with the impact of Trump’s presence at the top of the ticket on Senate races. The Senate, as we know, is hotly contested; control may hinge on the results of races in a handful of blue or swing states. The conventional view is that senators from these states have to distance themselves from Trump to attract swing voters. That’s how the news stories are always written. But the truth may be more complicated.

To the extent that a single collective consciousness can be assigned to such an entity, the Republican establishment doesn’t really want Trump to win. Most party insiders would prefer to see him lose, after which they could regroup, spend four years thinking up every way possible to obstruct and discredit President Clinton, and try again in 2020 with a more controllable candidate. For this year they want to concentrate their efforts on maintaining control of the Senate, the better to stymie Clinton’s efforts.

But here is a paradox. Republican grandees may not want Trump to win, and yet they need him to come close, because whether he loses by three points or seven points may well determine the fate of the Senate. It might therefore be in the self-interest of some Republicans who have heretofore kept their distance from Trump to help pull his voters to the polls.

Consider New Hampshire. The incumbent senator is Republican Kelly Ayotte. Her Democratic challenger is Governor Maggie Hassan. As I write, that race is essentially tied, with Ayotte perhaps ahead within the margin of error. But Clinton has been leading Trump in the state by five to seven points. In mid-August, Ayotte said that she would vote for Trump but would “stand up” to him—the kind of line we’re accustomed to hearing from, say, Appalachian Democrats with respect to Barack Obama.

As I noted, the conventional wisdom would argue that Ayotte would help herself with independent voters by denouncing Trump more firmly. That argument assumes that a significant percentage of voters will vote a split ticket. But Ronald Brownstein, a journalist who is as knowledgeable about these matters as any in the country, argues in The Atlantic that voters don’t split tickets anymore, largely because of increased polarization:

As party-line voting inside Congress has reached near-parliamentary levels, voters have responded by treating congressional elections less as a choice between individuals and more as a parliamentary-style referendum on which side they prefer to control the majority.7

Brownstein points to polls showing that in most swing states, fewer than 15 percent of Clinton and Trump voters say they may vote for the Senate candidate of the other party.

If Brownstein is correct, then the fates of candidates like Ayotte are far more tied to Trump than they would prefer. Others in this category include Ron Johnson in Wisconsin, Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, and even Marco Rubio in Florida, and John McCain in Arizona, who is locked in his first tough reelection battle in years, against Democratic Representative Ann Kirkpatrick. These senators will likely do whatever their polling tells them they need to do to be reelected; but it would be ironic indeed if they embraced Trump as Election Day neared out of a need to increase turnout among their conservative Republican voters, thereby polarizing the electorate even further than it already is. Perhaps some form of embarrassed endorsement will merely hurt all involved.

Such possibilities, as Donald Rumsfeld put it, are the known unknowns. There are always unknown unknowns in campaigns. The classic examples are a terrorist attack and an economic collapse. I’m oddly sanguine about the political impact of the former, because I think in that case even much of the anti-Clinton media would press the point that Trump is the last person we want in the White House under such a circumstance. An economic collapse could have effects beyond prediction.

But this campaign has been oddly impervious to events, and certainly to discussion of policies (one hopes Clinton can change that in the debates—it is worth remembering that her platform is more progressive than any Democrat’s of the last thirty years). No, the election is about Trump—whether he is menace or entertainment. Most people in the media are surely well aware that he is a menace; but the media as a machine can’t help but present him first as entertainment. Maybe fifty years ago it could have been different. But not now.

One can acknowledge Clinton’s flaws and add some. Still, this election is barely even about her. It’s about whether the people and forces that exist to protect the United States from precisely what is happening now will rise to the occasion and do so. Clinton has to make the case for herself and the case against Trump clear. But really, no one’s made the case against him clearer than Trump himself. Pointing that out is not defending Clinton. It defines what is at stake in the election.

—September 14, 2016

  1. 1

    The Fox News Channel is openly for Trump, most hours of the day, but it’s debatable whether it’s a “news organization.”  

  2. 2

    “Trump Time Capsule #92: ‘How the Media Undermine American Democracy,’” The Atlantic, September 3, 2016. 

  3. 3

    See Tom Hamburger, “Email Batch Provides Additional Evidence That Clinton Foundation Donors Got Access at State Department,” The Washington Post, August 10, 2016. With respect to the Lebanese-Nigerian businessman, Gilbert Chagoury, the e-mails provided evidence of the precise opposite.  

  4. 4

    “The Hillary in Our Future,” The New York Review, June 25, 2015. 

  5. 5

    Goodman interviewed Assange on Democracy Now! on July 25, 2016.  

  6. 6

    Again, the media are inexcusably imprecise in the way these things are reported. In the three controversial e-mails, anti-Sanders measures were proposed by staffers but rejected each time by superiors. In addition, these are often referred to as “leaked” e-mails. No. They are hacked e-mails. There’s a big difference. 

  7. 7

    See Ronald Brownstein, “Voters Don’t Split Tickets Anymore,” The Atlantic, September 1, 2016.