Donald Trump made the 2016 presidential election his plaything from the outset so it’s no surprise that he’s doing that to the end. The electoral process wasn’t something he respected; it was another tool for promoting himself, his long-running reality TV show having taken him far but not far enough for his ambitions to be super-famous. His entry into the presidential race now seems so long ago that we tend to forget the extent to which his becoming a candidate was considered a joke. And then for a while many of us found him amusing: his arrows hit his rivals for the nomination with deadly aim, and his disdain for normal political behavior seemed refreshing.
In time we may know authoritatively why Trump entered the race, though his “thinking” is likely to have several interpretations by several witnesses. If he ran to enhance the value of his “brand,” which is a possibility, he made a calamitous miscalculation. The Trump brand had been affixed to all sorts of products, from bottled water to buildings, and entering the presidential race was to be the greatest advertisement of all. But his businesses have already been hurt by his political venture. His opulent new five-star hotel in Washington that he’s showed off in campaign events has rooms going begging even at heavily discounted rates, and tenants in two of his residences on New York’s Upper West Side have signed petitions asking that his name be removed from their buildings.
It still seems questionable that Trump had a great desire to become president, a job that would probably bore him and certainly restrict his free-wheeling life. It’s been reported that when Trump and his top advisers reached out to John Kasich about joining him on the ticket they said that as vice president Kasich could run domestic and foreign policy. Around this time, then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort said, “He needs an experienced person to do the part of the job he doesn’t want to do. He sees himself more as the chairman of the board than even the CEO, let alone the COO.” (Kasich is one of the few elected Republicans who will emerge from this race with his integrity intact. He said he’d have nothing to do with a presidential candidate Trump and that’s how he proceeded.)
In the final weeks of his campaign, Trump has been surrounded by an unappetizing mix of advisers: Steve Bannon, the former editor of Breitbart News and high priest of the alt-right; Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, whose guidance has included favoring the stunt of presenting at the second debate three women who accused Bill Clinton of sexual mistreatment; Stephen Miller, a heretofore obscure Capitol Hill aide who has worked for Michele Bachmann and most recently for ultra-nativist Alabama senator Jeff Sessions; and Kellyanne Conway, whose experience had led people to believe that she’d introduce an element of moderation into the campaign (though she’d most recently supported Ted Cruz) but has always been on hand to try to explain away his odd or even dangerous statements.
So extreme had the campaign leadership become that Trump’s national field director, Steve Jolly, quit with less than three weeks to go. Roger Ailes departed some time ago amid public complaints by others in the circle that he hadn’t been helpful in the debate preparation, which had been his main purpose. (Ailes has been having his own problems with charges of sexual exploitation of Fox women.) And Chris Christie had put some distance between himself and the campaign. This left the strangely mercurial and self-demeaned Rudolph Giuliani as Trump’s traveling buddy and introducer.
Thus, once the initial shock wore off, it wasn’t so surprising that Trump refused to pledge to accept the outcome of the election in the third and last debate, in Las Vegas on October 19. A passionate consumer of polls, Trump realized his campaign was in danger of losing after the fallout from the Access Hollywood tape. So what to do? Discredit the outcome by charging that the election was “rigged.” Fall back on the Republican myth of widespread “voter fraud.” According to an NBC-SurveyMonkey poll, 45 percent of Republicans might not accept the results of the election as legitimate if their candidate doesn’t win. Trump had been telling them the election will be “rigged” for several weeks. Might that make it all the harder for Clinton to govern? What did he care? Trump was prepared to pull down the temple’s pillars.
When it came to Trump’s unwillingness in Las Vegas to pledge that he’d concede if Clinton won, Conway and other advisers fell back on what might be called the Gore Defense. On election night in 2000 Al Gore first accepted that he’d lost to George W. Bush and later challenged the result in Florida, where there had been numerous reports of blacks being misled as to where and how to vote and other irregularities. In the end the evidence was that more people went to the polls intending to vote for Gore than were found to have done so. With the help of Bush’s brother, the governor of Florida, and then of a Supreme Court that divided 5-4 along ideological lines to stop the state recount, George W. Bush was declared president by a 537-vote margin in Florida—though Gore had won the national popular vote. Gore then gave a concession speech in which he said that he “strongly” disagreed with the Court’s ruling but that he accepted it.
Drawing on Florida in 2000, if Trump lost a crucial state by just a few hundred votes and the electoral college vote was very close, he might be justified in contesting the outcome in that state. But the 2016 presidential contest was reaching the point where Trump would have a lot of states to contest and wouldn’t have won enough of the rest to put him near 270 electoral votes. He was living in fantasyland.
Once more, Trump forced his defenders to turn themselves into pretzels. Before the final debate, Mike Pence, Ivanka Trump, and Conway had said that Trump would accept the outcome of the vote. After the debate, Pence, executing one of several backflips he’s had to perform in this race, said Trump has every right to challenge “questionable” results. The ever-limber Conway also lugged in the novel idea that the media was rigging the election.
Of course for quite a while the television media found it lucrative to have Trump on the air, and it took considerable time for the media of any kind to catch up with his fables about his so-called fabulous company and foundation. By early October, Trump’s foundation had been barred by the New York State attorney general from raising money in New York because of Trump’s various alleged misuses of its resources, including to settle lawsuits. (Trump used to say that he never settled, but that’s another story.) The reports that Trump and Kushner have been looking into establishing their own TV network take on more validity when one examines just what Trump, should he lose, will have to go back to. But there are questions as to how well this would work.
Trump’s campaign may turn out to have been the ruin of his popular image as a fabulously successful businessman. Some biographers had raised questions about his business acumen and his true wealth (a question that drives him crazy), and other New York billionaires—assuming that Trump is one—have long quietly pointed out that his business was, in the words of one, “a joke.” (The Wall Street Journal reported last March that he could not get loans from the major US banks and had to borrow from the troubled Deutsche Bank.) But when Trump entered the race the legend was largely intact.
This, by the way, may be the value of the much-maligned long election. The longer it goes on the more we find out about the people to whom we might entrust incredible and terrifying power. I’ve never quite understood the complaints about a long election; people can always stop watching if they so choose. Had this campaign been limited to six weeks, as the British elections are, we wouldn’t have known how either candidate would hold up over time. And in regard to Trump we probably wouldn’t have known about his record as a sexual predator plus his willingness to demean his accusers. We might not have been aware of how easily and frequently he lies; or caught on to his willingness to do most anything for publicity.
Which is what I think his refusal to say ahead of time that he’d accept the outcome of the election is heavily about. Had he, when asked, twice, in the third debate if he’d respect the outcome of the election, instead of his “I will keep you in suspense,” said, “Of course I will,” would he have gotten anywhere near the same attention that he’s been receiving of late? Trump is the contemporary adherent to the tenet that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, a line attributed to Trump’s spiritual ancestor, P.T. Barnum. After the furor over Melania’s purloining of segments of Michelle Obama’s speech died down, Trump tweeted, with his characteristic understatement, “Good news is Melania’s speech got more publicity than any in the history of politics especially if you believe that all press is good press!”
Thus while Clinton and other Democrats as well as some Republicans and pundits went on—with reason—about the challenge to the democratic system inherent in Trump’s remarks, he may well have been smiling inwardly. So much attention so easily attained. And if enough people believed his charges of a “rigged” election that just might alleviate the humiliation of the likely loss. It took little to start with the notion of “voter fraud” and, a la Trump, expand it into a national conspiracy to steal the election from him.
As for the voter fraud fraud, it’s been shown time and again that actual instances of it are extremely rare; but Republicans have found that alleging it is a useful tool for discrediting losses and an excuse for writing state laws that make it more difficult for groups—especially blacks—who support Democrats to vote. In the George W. Bush administration Karl Rove engineered the firing of seven US attorneys for failing to find non-existent voter fraud. Since then, various states with a Republican governor and Republican-dominated legislatures have passed laws requiring voter ID and creating other hindrances to voting by blacks, the elderly, and students. Some of these restrictions were pushed back by the courts but, combined with the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act, the odds were that in some states members of these groups would be deprived of the right to vote. (It made the difference in the 2014 North Carolina Senate race, in which a Republican defeated a Democratic incumbent by fewer votes than the number of people prevented from voting.)
Trump said other things in the third debate that might have received more attention had he gone the expected route of saying he’d accept the election outcome. For example, Trump charged that the just-begun attack on Mosul was being undertaken because Clinton was “running for the office of president and they want to look tough…she wanted to look good for the election.” Or his statement that “she should never have been allowed to run for the presidency based on what she did with e-mails and so many other things.” But unsurprisingly Trump’s interjection that Clinton was “such a nasty woman”—in response to Clinton’s jab that his Social Security taxes would go up “assuming he can’t figure out how to get out of it”—led to an uproar, in particular among women, creating a new meme reclaiming the epithet “nasty woman,” and a tool for Clinton to try to pull still more women into her corner. Trump clearly couldn’t stand being outwitted by a woman, and he lacked the discipline to resist responding.
Legend has it among Trump supporters and some members of the press that Trump had put in a quite good performance in the third debate, especially in the first thirty minutes (just as he did in the first debate), but had undercut himself with his lines about possibly not honoring the outcome of the election. Well, he was relatively coherent in the early period, but what he said made little sense. It was striking that he knew what the Heller Supreme Court decision about guns was. But his hommage to the NRA and his extreme example of abortions—he said, “If you go with what Hillary is saying, in the ninth month you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth of the baby”—weren’t so impressive.
Once again, style and substance were getting confused. Trump’s grasp on current events is tenuous at best. For at least the second time he called out US officials for letting it be known that an attack on Mosul was imminent, but that’s because he doesn’t understand that it’s a deliberate tactic to warn civilians to take flight if they chose, and that it’s considered a good thing if it encourages ISIS leaders to run, since it’s easier to target them out in the open than huddled in a warren of buildings or underground.
Clinton was back to her assured and composed style of the first debate, smiling when Trump trapped himself, enjoying watching him flail when she poked him. Trump looked puffy and ill at ease. Once again, her intense preparation paid off. Clinton made it cool again for a girl to do her homework, and for a woman to be a nerd. One foreign policy matter that came out of her comments in the third debate and may point to Clinton changing an Obama policy—a point that Tim Kaine echoed on Morning Joe the following day—was that once in office she would be at least somewhat more aggressive in Syria, by setting up a no-fly zone, which some observers find risky now that Russian planes are involved and anti-aircraft missile batteries have been installed.
Trump’s gracelessness carried over the next night to the annual Al Smith dinner, which every four years invites the two major presidential candidates to speak, and the expected still is that they’ll be witty and self-deprecating. Trump just couldn’t do it. He started off on a sour note (about how people, presumably some in the audience, had come to him for money and had treated him like a bosom friend but then turned on him as soon as he entered the race as a Republican). But aside from one good joke—about Melania’s supposedly delivering the exact same speech that Michelle Obama had—his lumbering, loutish performance elicited such boos from the audience that Chuck Todd the following day called Trump the first candidate to “lose the Al Smith dinner.”
On Saturday, October 22, Trump was to take the occasion of a speech in Gettysburg to lay out his goals for his first hundred days. Why not? Nothing to be lost by that. While Clinton has a lot of programs but is still without an overarching message (“Stronger Together” doesn’t cut it), Trump has a theme (“Make America Great Again”) but has been almost devoid of concrete programs. So in his own Gettysburg address, Trump said he would call for a constitutional amendment invoking term limits on members of Congress; repeal and replace Obamacare (Trump didn’t usually bother with the replace part of it); and tighten immigration policy. In a new twist, he said that the US would pay for the wall he’d build on the Mexican border but that the US would get Mexico to repay it. This was apparently to signal that he is serious about building that wall.
But on the same day as the Gettysburg speech, an eleventh woman came forward to accuse Trump of misogyny. The “adult film” actress charged that in 2006—a year after his marriage to Melania—he offered her $10,000 to spend the night with him in his hotel room. And so the undisciplined Trump began his remarks by threatening to sue each of his accusers after the election. (He’s separately threatened to sue The New York Times for its recent disclosure of two women who accused him of sexual aggression.) He also got off a complaint about the “rigged” election. Understandably, most news outlets led their stories about Trump at Gettysburg with his threats to sue his women accusers—after the election.
Republicans are now in a panic. There are signs of an impending “wave” election that would take down not only Trump but many Republican candidates for Congress. But irrespective of whether this happens (the 1980 wave didn’t develop until the last weekend before the election, when Ronald Reagan swamped Jimmy Carter, and many Democrats down-ballot also lost), it’s now increasingly likely the Democrats will take the Senate. If they pick up a net of four Senate seats that produces a tie that a Vice President Kaine would break, but if current trends continue they may well pick up more than that. A Democratic takeover of the heavily gerrymandered House has seemed less likely, since it requires a net pickup of thirty seats, but if a wave truly develops it isn’t out of the question. However, in the 2018 midterms, the Democrats will be more vulnerable than the Republicans in the Senate, so Democratic control of the Senate, should it occur, might be short-lived.
Republican candidates who have separated themselves from Trump are on the whole doing better than those who have clung to him—it’s his supporters that have complicated matters. Incumbents who renounced Trump either because they were genuinely offended by hiss comments on the Access Hollywood tape or thought it would look better to take that position were assailed by his more rabid followers. Thus some Republicans went back and forth and ended up looking weak-kneed. Apparently both the Republican congressional leaders, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, made the calculation to stay apart from Trump—Ryan made more noise about this than McConnell—but not to go so far that they’d rile his supporters.
This is not to suggest that, however the congressional elections turn out, a President Clinton will have anything resembling an easy time of it. Even if they’re in a minority, the Republicans will still be in a position to filibuster her Supreme Court nominees as well as any legislation she puts forth. Clinton would like the Senate to approve the long-pending nomination of Merrick Garland for the ninth Supreme Court seat—this would spare her a grueling, bitter Supreme Court nomination fight at the outset of her administration. But a spokesman for McConnell told me recently that the Republicans would continue to insist on the principle that a lame duck president shouldn’t make a Supreme Court appointment. This novel constitutional theory would spare Republicans from being vulnerable to the charge that they’d allowed the Court to turn in a more liberal direction following the death of Antonin Scalia.
Word coming out of Clinton’s headquarters is that she hopes to be able to govern in something of a bipartisan way since as a senator she worked successfully with various Republicans. But when it comes to the question of Republicans working with Clinton both the Trump base and old-line conservatives may pounce on any of them who cooperate. Also, Clinton elicits hostility on the part of many Republicans, and has done so from the time she came to Washington as first lady—and accrued powers that no one in that position had had since Eleanor Roosevelt. So the first female president won’t begin with bipartisan good will. Ryan might for his own reasons be tempted to work with her but he has to watch his right flank; his predecessor as speaker, John Boehner, was deposed for deigning to work with Obama.
If Clinton wants to work with Ryan or Senate Republicans, she’ll feel at least a tug from the left—the pull being administered by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—which she will ignore at her peril. Clinton undoubtedly understands this. Warren, who has helped Clinton by campaigning for her, can be relied on to give a hard time to any nominees to positions dealing with financial matters who haven’t been cleared with her. Sanders, who has also made many appearances for Clinton, has his own leftward constituency to keep content. Clinton is a skilled legislator but the cross-currents she’s likely to encounter could be daunting.
For ammunition to use in forthcoming battles Clinton is now trying to roll up as large a victory as she can. In an almost predatory manner she’s now going for such states as Arizona and Georgia, long considered out of bounds for Democrats. Even Texas, reliably red since 1976, is nearly tied. As for the “swing states,” most of them appear to be lining up in her column. Ohio, with its large blue-collar constituency, has for much of this year been considered out of her reach, but as of this writing, polling suggests that the race is tied.
Clinton has dispatched her considerable force of surrogates, including, in addition to her husband, both the president and the first lady. Having had little use for politics when she came to Washington with considerable dread, Michelle Obama has unexpectedly become the star speaker of the campaign. Joe Biden, campaigning in rust-belt areas, has tried to reconnect blue-collar workers with their previous home in the Democratic Party. There are still enough days left for the unexpected to occur, but Trump is increasingly coming across as a bloated and broken figure.
Trump is without question the greatest whiner of any presidential candidate in memory: his mic was tampered with as part of a conspiracy; Clinton got the debate questions ahead of time; and, of course, the election is rigged against him. And so this sad, rasping heap of a man, a former formidable figure, shambles his way toward a humiliating defeat; his blustering and threatening, once instruments of strength, pitiable.
Part of Elizabeth Drew’s continuing series on the 2016 election.