Is the Donald done?
It’s been yet another whammo-blammo mindbending week in the race for the US presidency, a week that started with yet another round of questions as to whether Republican candidate Donald Trump could “pivot” to a more presidential style — and ended with Trump apparently urging gun owners to consider assassinating Hillary Clinton, accusing Barack Obama of “founding” Islamic State, and a lawsuit against the campaign by a subcontractor who had a gun pulled on him by a Trump campaign manager.
What has clearly emerged as the first gonzo campaign for the US presidency is continuing as it began. Which would be fine, for the Republicans at least, if the strategy was working as it had in the primaries. Instead it is proving a disaster.
The IS comments — Trump repeated the literal idea that Obama had founded IS, despite being given a chance by a few right-wing commentators to walk it back to something more rational — are a case in point. They’re red meat for the Trump base, but he’s already got those people. To Republican-leaning independents, they sound ridiculous and OTT, even to those who might agree with the proposition that Obama had allowed IS to form by “losing” Iraq.
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Days earlier his comments about the second amendment were even more inflammatory, with Trump telling a North Carolina crowd that:
“Hillary wants to essentially abolish the Second Amendment. If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do folks. Although the Second Amendment people maybe there is, I don’t know … But I’ll tell you what, that will be a horrible day.”
To be fair, you could interpret this as Trump’s typical free-association on the stump type speech — wondering aloud if, even after Hillary was elected president, political pressure could be brought to bear on that “horrible day”, when she chooses a new, liberal, Supreme Court justice and thus “abolishes” the second amendment (all a farrago, but anyway…).
But it also sounds mightily like a veiled threat, another case of Trump’s unconscious bleeding through — The Great White Id speaking from the depths again. When news broke about a campaign subcontractor having a pistol shoved into his leg — prelude to a possible kneecapping — it rounded the week off perfectly.
The result of all this? Trump and the Republicans are now trailing Hillary and the Democrats by around eight points, on an average of respectable polls — enough to guarantee a solid victory of around 6 million to 8 million votes in total, and lock the Republicans out of any path to a swing-state strategy.
[Rundle: New Romantic snuff films and the nihilism of modern terrorists]
Indeed, the choice of the Donald — which offered the opportunity to “open up” states previously closed to the Republicans — may prove to be the death knell for Republican hopes of every regaining the White House in their current party form. Trump’s campaign, should it continue to be the disaster that it is, will turn up to half a dozen hitherto “leaning Republican” states into battleground states. This would have ramifications far beyond the presidency, a point I’ll return to.
Meanwhile, how has Donald tanked this so badly in a matter of weeks? The simple answer is that he came up against his first real opposition — at the Democratic convention — and was mauled, and self-mauled, badly, in a manner designed by political professionals. In the Republican primaries, Trump rose and rose for several reasons: his opponents thought that he would gain an anti-establishment vote, limited to around 12%-15%. They misunderstood the degree to which white working-class Republicans supported the party’s Reaganite free-trade agenda. So they failed to attack Trump’s economic nationalism, and his numbers rose higher. Then they started to attack it, and his numbers rose even higher.
Trump wasn’t the only one advocating building walls and bombing Muslims — but he was the only one tying that to tariffs and the re-industrialisation of America. That, together with his outsider status, practical businessman image, and celebrity recognition made him a near statistical cert. The only chance the competition would have had would have been a single establishment candidate, offering a modified version of Trump’s nationalist agenda, and relentlessly attacking him as a shonk and a cheat from the start, rolling out ads of disgruntled Trump University customers, Trump casino workers, etc. Even then … (I’m not claiming 20:20 hindsight here; I was bewildered as everyone by Trump’s rise).
But that was Republicans, and some Republican-identified independents, about 30% of the population, supporting Trump by about 40%-50% — around 15% of the population, even by polling. Things went dead for a while after the primaries, with Trump promising a convention “unlike anything you’ve seen before, it’s going to be Hollywood”, etc, etc. In the end, it was like the annual conference of a family-owned shoe sales firm at the Grand Rapids Radisson ballroom, the corporate patriarch snarling out his apocalyptic white-skin worldview, the celebrities Scott Baio and that Duck Dynasty guy (disappointing, even in Grand Rapids). Trump was running near evens with Hillary. A small poll bump put him a couple of points ahead.
Watching the Democratic convention follow that was like watching a prize pig, blue riband around its neck, wander into a working meat grinder. Trump was sliced and diced by the appearance of grieving “gold star” family the Khans, by the Democrats “new patriotism”, and by the association of Trump with Russia and Putin. Trump attacked the Khans, mused about “always wanting a Purple Heart” (he’s a Vietnam draft-dodger), and appeared to throw a mother with a crying baby out of one of his rallies.
Now, two weeks out, with congresspeople and senators non-endorsing their party’s own candidate, with national security Republicans (including some truly grizzly Cold War/Iraq dirty-war veterans) lining up with Clinton, talk of senior Republicans trying to intervene to have Trump “change his style”, the advance of the likeable and rational Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson (now polling up to 10% in some states), and the emergence of a mainstream Republican independent Evan McMullin, who could play a 1%-2% spoiler role in the one or two states he can still get on the ballot, Trump’s campaign appears to be collapsing around him.
But wait, it gets worse. Trump has no real “ground game” — state and local-level organisation in swing states — or nothing that compares with the Democrats, anyway. In Florida, the Democrats now have more than a thousand full-time salaried organisers; Trump has around a hundred or less. Many experienced Republicans have got gigs with congresspeople or senators, or stayed in their lobbying firms. Trump’s ground game captains are not only inept, so are his “surrogates” — the people who appear on cable news TV in the 18-hours-a-day ding-dong that is as deranged as it is addictive. Overwhelmingly southern-belle 20-somethings, they appear ignorant of any historical event before 2010, one of them blaming Obama for starting the Iraq War. Leaks from inside Trump HQ suggest that many of his top dogs have given up and are now simply “phoning it in”.
The result is not only that he’s eight points behind, but something worse for Trump and the Republicans. Success in the race for the White House got that little bit harder for the Republicans when, in 2008, the Obama election locked in Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico as presumptive Democratic states (the “New West”) and Virginia ditto. With those locked off, the Republicans can’t win simply by gaining Ohio and Florida. They have to win both those states and something else — either get back one of Colorado and Virginia, and add Iowa and/or New Hampshire, or bring Wisconsin or Michigan into play. Or take Pennsylvania. These rust-belt states are the ones Trump promised the RNC he could bring into play, which would “change the map”. (He also promised New York and California, which was politely ignored.)
The map is changing, but in the other direction. Clinton leads in Pennsylvania by eight points, and six or seven in Michigan and Wisconsin. Should those numbers hold for a few weeks they will be very hard to shift. In Virginia, the Dems have a seven-point lead. In Colorado, 10. Florida was leaning Trump by one, and is now leaning Dem by two. Only Ohio and Iowa, of the old swings, are balanced on a 0.5% knife edge, and they’re both leaning towards Clinton. On those numbers there is no path, not even a vestigial trail, through the electoral college to the presidency for Trump.
But wait! It gets worse! North Carolina, won by Obama in 2008, lost in 2012, is polling at about 2.5% for Clinton. A solid win there would consolidate the “New South” — Virginia and North Carolina — as Democratic-leaning. That would make the white, reactionary, repressive Republican Party simply not a contender in presidential politics — similar to the Democrats’ near-total lock-out, from 1868 to 1912, until such time as they changed their party form. Indeed, up against Trump, the Democrats are eyeing off two states they’ve wanted to turn for a few years back.
Georgia came from 8% Republican to 2.5% under Trump last week. This week it is leaning to Clinton by 1.4%. Arizona is on a 0.5% knife edge. Wins there would consolidate the “New West” and “New South” blocs, and prepare the way for the final assault, on Texas. The Democrats believe they can turn the lone star blue in two more cycles. Trump would aid that. For all its visible craziness, there’s a strong “rational” (if not moderate) Republican base there, bound up with the state’s global oil industry role. If Texas were to go, then the Republican Party is effectively concluded as a presidential party.
But wait! It gets even worse! The state-based nature of the election makes the map a chessboard, where bad situations tend to get worse, unless your opponent makes a terrible mistake. Central to the campaign is where the advertising spend goes, and where the candidate spends a lot of time. Poll consistently above 5% and the party pulls the advertising and some ground staff, redeploying them in the next frontier of states. The trailing candidate has to advertise and campaign in both. A shift in two or three states swings the map dizzyingly.
Before recent disasters, the Trump team’s plan might have been to stick to Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania in the last weeks of the campaign (useful because Ohio and Pennsylvania are contiguous). That would presume Georgia and Arizona are safe, and that Colorado and Virginia are out of reach. Now, that plan is in trouble. Ohio and Florida alone will not do it; Pennsylvania has receded into solid blue territory. Turning back to Colorado and Virginia instead would spread resources over smaller and separated states. And if North Carolina, Georgia and Arizona are in play, the Trump team would have to do two quite distinct things: 1) play defense in those states and 2) take a gamble on one pathway (Ohio+Florida+Pennsylvania, or Colorado+Virginia, or Michigan+Wisconsin), and they’d have to choose right and win it. The Republicans would need to choose a single pathway and stake all on it. The Democrats have dozens of pathways, and they can afford to shift week-by-week and day-by-day. A Trump win was predicated on a Trump popular wave that put the whole rust-belt in play, and forced the Democrats to defend there. That’s not happening.
But wait! It gets … you know the drill. Trump’s negatives among moderate Republicans and right independents are now so great that they threaten “down-ballot” consequences — people switching their votes in Senate and House races. In the Senate, each party has about six seats they have to actively defend. If the Trump swing to the Democrats carries through then the Republicans could lose Ohio, New Hampshire, Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Florida. That would give the Democrats the White House and the Senate, and allow them to completely reshape the Supreme Court. House races, and state governorship races would be equally affected. Given that the House has been gerrymandered in a pro-Republican direction over the past years, Trump may serve as a deliverance.
But there’s still a ways to go. Though US public attention has turned to the election again, it is still at half-staff. Only after Labor Day (15 September) will the final stage of the campaign begin in bloody earnest. Intervening events could favour Trump. He could redirect himself to some degree, unlikely as that is. He could land some blows in the debates — if he turns up to them, which he may well not — and a base appeal to nationalist economics and greatness could renew support. Indeed, this week Trump launched his economic program — but its details simply demonstrate the difficulties he faces when things get down to specifics.
In a country with $19 trillion in public debt, Trump is proposing a reduction in federal income tax, so that no one earning under $25,000 pays any, as well as a reduction in the highest rate — reducing company tax to 15% (from 40%), abolishing death duties, and making childcare tax deductible. The revenue gap has been estimated at around $12 trillion to $20 trillion dollars over 10 years. Not only does it rely on the fantasy notion that lower taxes will cause a vast explosion in growth, but it will force Republicans to defend European-style welfare that they themselves abhor. It once again allows Hillary Clinton to claim the mantle of the “sensible party” steering the nation cautiously through hard times — while also throwing away the Republicans’ key claim, that they are more prudent with money.
But the main reason why a new economic plan won’t do the Donald much good is the obvious reason that it dispels the mystique. There is no magic wand to wave and bring back a 1950s economy. There’s only so much you can do, and it is not so different in form from any other establishment plan — and a lot flakier. Never say never, but it is quite possible that, for better and worse, the Donald’s run is already over, and what remains to decide is the scale of the disaster. In which case, who knows what the hell he’ll do. Is the Donald done? By no means, but the fire’s been lit, and the rotisserie has started to turn.