At this point in the US Presidential campaign, the momentum is with Donald Trump. Were the trend to continue, he’d be elected. Outside the US his serial deceits and appallingly bombastic narcissism is redolent of candidates in immature democracies on their way back to dictatorship and authoritarianism. President Obama has been extraordinarily popular with the global public and has burnished the American reputation in difficult times. A Trump victory would much diminish it.
Current polling has Trump poised in the ‘purple states’ of North Carolina, Ohio, New Hampshire and Florida, and pushing in traditionally Democrat Pennsylvania, Michigan and Iowa. As he narrows the nationwide popular gap, the rising tide is raising all boats. There are a number of reasons he has come this far.
The first part of the answer lies in the deep American ideological divide that puts a floor under each side of politics—it’s hard to fall below 45%. A large group of Americans will hold their noses and vote for their candidate whatever. The checks and balances in the US Constitution demand compromise but the system can’t deliver it under ideological pressure. This is well demonstrated by an analysis of ideological overlap in the House of Representatives. It’s useful for this purpose as the composition of the House, of all institutions, most reflects the American state of mind.
The analysis done by the National Journal was based on members’ voting records of the 435 strong House. In 1982, there were 344 members situated between the most liberal Republican and most conservative Democrat. In 1994, the figure was 252. In 2002, it was 137. In 2012, it was four. Now it’s probably none. As the dust settled on the deeply bleak Republican convention, which saw many Republican leaders absent themselves, there’s been a slow but predictable assembling of support for Trump reflective of this growing intolerance of the other side. The incentive of the possible replacement this term of four Supreme Court justices has underpinned this trend.
Secondly, Hillary Clinton’s campaign has been in disarray, including unforced errors such as describing half his voters as ‘deplorable’, a term taken now as a badge of honour at Trump rallies. She breached the cardinal rule in politics; your opponent is on the ballot paper not on the electoral roll. A forced error was a bout of pneumonia which caused her to stagger at a 9/11 commemoration. But the lack of transparency about the diagnosis which reinforced its capacity to add legitimacy to false Trump claims about her health and fitness was unforced. Less commented on was an extraordinary quiescence as she went under the radar to concentrate on fundraisers. This ‘sitting out of summer’ is a traditional strategy. Unfortunately this isn’t a traditional year. There were groups she needed to reach out to consolidate. A vital group was the young, inspired by Bernie Sanders and enthusiastic Obama voters in the previous election. A 20 point lead among them after the convention has sunk to near single digits. Increasingly, they’re looking to the libertarian and green alternatives, and certainly showing no enthusiasm to turn out for Clinton. She needs, and needed, a clear plan to reach them. Summer has been wasted.
Thirdly, Trump has sought to modify his harsh confrontation with ethnic minorities and to flesh out foreign policy positions. His hope is to reduce a serious gap in voter perceptions on fitness to be commander in chief between himself and Clinton. He brilliantly manipulated the Mexican president into a meeting and modified the immediacy of illegal migrant removals on his election. At the ‘commander in chief’s debate’ a fortnight ago he indicated a preparedness to accept illegal migrants’ membership of the armed forces as a path to citizenship. For the African Americans, he has attended worship in African American churches. Despite claims to the contrary, this isn’t about winning Hispanic and black votes—in many states where the Republican state administrations control the ballot, efforts at voter suppression will be the main mechanism here. Rather, the strategy is about consolidating the vote among better off suburban whites to compliment his working class support. That seems to be working, if polls in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, New Hampshire and Iowa mean anything.
There’s no joy on the foreign policy side. In fleshing out his stand on Iraq, deceptively portrayed as his opposition to the war, he suggested the US should have seized Iraq’s oil. That, he said, would have prevented it from falling into ISIL’s hands. The major Iraqi fields lie in the south, firmly under government control. He didn’t outline how any of that might’ve been done without a large American military presence. His plan for ISIL is ‘secret’ and the generals he has frequently criticised are to give him a decisive plan 30 days into his presidency. There’s been nothing modifying his stance on trade, devastating though it’d be on growth in the American economy. Nor on the positions he has outlined on allies and trade in the Asia–Pacific. No comfort in this for American friends.
Alarmingly, there’s one area where he does have a thought-out position—on Russia. ‘I think I would have a very, very good relationship with Putin. And I think I would have a very, very good relationship with Russia’, Trump said in the debate. He’s thoroughly aware of Putin’s authoritarianism, deceptiveness and violence in his near abroad, his damage to the anti-ISIL operation in Syria, his menace in Europe, and his suppression of domestic opposition. That’s not questioned. Rather, it’s lauded. As US intelligence figures Mike Morell and Mike Vickers, who’ve served both sides of US politics, said in an open letter to him: ‘You said as long as Putin says nice things about you, you will say nice things about him. That is not a standard by which a president should make policy decisions. That should not even enter your calculus. Your only question should be “what is in the best interest of the United States?”.’
No serious student of international politics has anything but contempt for the positions he adopts. But that misses the point as far as the election is concerned. Most voters aren’t serious students of those issues. Trump has a very low bar to jump here. He appears to be thinking and learning. Beyond that, little is demanded of him. He’s at least ticking the boxes and, though Clinton leads him on defence and foreign policy, he leads on dealing with terrorism. There’s likely to be a number of terrorist attacks in the US between now and polling day, albeit of the lone wolf variety. Ticking the boxes may be enough.
But he might have peaked too early. Clinton has a chance and now must put him away in the debates. In addition to her own efforts, she now has an increasingly popular Obama on her side. Not for him, the formal role of an incumbent President in his replacement campaign—an endorsement and not much more. Not for Obama, President Eisenhower’s tepid endorsement of his Vice President Richard Nixon when asked of his achievements, ‘give me a week and I will think of some’. Obama’s popularity is redolent of the old saying, ‘you don’t miss what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone’. He’s spending that political capital on Hillary.