Trump is finished but Trumpism may prevail
24 Oct 2016|

Image courtesy of Flickr user Cory Doctorow.

Donald Trump’s insurgent bid to win the White House is the political equivalent of a slow-motion car crash. Every aspect is a disaster; and the Republican Party is powerless to stop it. So big is the expected swing against The Donald that some experts even think Hillary Clinton and the Democrats could win traditional red states, such as Georgia, Utah and Arizona. That’s akin to the ALP winning safe Liberal seats, such as North Sydney in NSW, Ryan in Queensland or Sturt in South Australia.

Since the revelations of Trump’s extremely lewd conversation about women in 2005, the controversial casino and property magnate has made the most outrageous remarks that have shocked even the most seasoned observers of Washington politics.

In the past fortnight, Trump has sneered at the looks of a woman who accused him of sexual assault. He has suggested his opponent was on drugs during the second debate. He has alleged that she secretly plots ‘the destruction of US sovereignty.’ He has pledged to put her in jail. His response to at least 11 women making accusations of sexual harassment has been to say he didn’t need to apologise to his wife even though he had been caught, on tape, boasting about his sexual exploits. He has spent precious time and energy attacking leaders of his own party. On the weekend he vowed to sue the women who have accused him of sexual misconduct. All the while, he maintains that the ‘whole election is being rigged’ and that he would leave the nation in ‘suspense’ about whether he would recognise the outcome of the 8 November vote.

The brash billionaire’s behaviour, with many Republicans roundly condemning him, suggests he is as mean-spirited as he is unhinged. As a result, women, minorities, independents and college-educated conservatives are turning away in droves.

The Trump campaign has calculated that it can win the election by motivating unprecedented numbers of white voters as well as folks who don’t usually vote, especially in rust-belt states (Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin) that usually swing Democrat. But the past fortnight shows that even white men in battleground states are turning off Trump. Moreover, candidates still need to appeal to the aforementioned groups in order to secure the 270 electoral-college votes to win the White House. Bashing Clinton as corrupt, dishonest and a ‘nasty woman’ while whining that the media are helping her won’t wash with independents and women voters.

But although Trump will lose badly—and probably cost the Republicans control of the Senate, and perhaps the House (though the latter remains unlikely)—it’s important to reflect about the foul public mood that, until recently, has carried the former reality television star so close to power. It would also be a big mistake to assume normal programming will resume after 8 November.

A nation whose hallmark has been a sense of irrepressible optimism and purpose is bitterly divided and uncertain. Large pluralities think their country is heading in the wrong direction, that it’s in serious decline. Their trust in institutions is at an all-time low.

Many Americans have grown up knowing the US is the most powerful, most prosperous and the most influential nation in history, culturally and economically. They are coming slowly and painfully to realise that that’s no longer true.

In recent times, they have reached the conclusion that America’s political and economic systems no longer work for them. They have witnessed wage stagnation, widening income inequality and, since the Great Recession in 2008–09, the most sluggish recovery since the Great Depression of the 1930s. They are fed up with political correctness and sick of being unable to win any war anywhere. They lament that illegal immigration has changed the nation’s culture in ways they find repugnant. They blame free-trade deals and Chinese cheap labour for the loss of manufacturing jobs.

In short, they are angry, they fear they are losing the country they know and love, and they want someone to blame.

Metropolitan commentators—from The Washington Post and The New York Times to the major commercial networks—have frequently sneered at Clinton’s recent ‘basket of deplorables’ description. Yet many still don’t understand the Trump phenomenon. Although he’s an object of derision and contempt, the billionaire buffoon has repudiated an establishment that has become an entrenched class of politicians increasingly divorced from the public. As a result, he has tapped into real grievances.

It’s misleading to say his appeal is just due to racism and xenophobia. Nor is it fair to think this frustration and popular anger against the established order are confined to America: they are just as conspicuous across Europe. (Think of Le Pen’s National Front in France, or the Austrian Freedom Party, or Hungary’s Jobbik Party.)

The real tragedy of Trump is that his divisive rhetoric and erratic conduct, not to mention his thin skin and petulant ego, have obscured the legitimate reasons many Americans were drawn to his anti-establishment message in the first place. The upshot is that although Trump will lose on 8 November, Trumpism—an angry, populist backlash against globalisation, immigration, an internationalist foreign policy and political elites—may endure.