Donald Trump

With a fortnight to go until US election day, the contest has been all but handed to Hillary Clinton by general acclamation — or has it? The Democrats are now leading by a seven-point average across all polls, and Hillary Clinton has turned her campaign to Republican states and “down-ballot” races, Senate and House races Democrats hope will be tilted in their favour by Clinton’s presence. The Trump campaign has officially adopted the position of being less-favoured, with campaign director Kellyanne Conway telling all meeja “We’re the underdog, and American loves an underdog”.

In response to the continued bad polling, Trump has announced a redoubled commitment to personal appearances, lining up a three, sometimes four rallies and events per day — a strategy designed, in part, to imply that Hillary Clinton lacks the stamina and energy for the job. Usually at this point in a losing campaign, the losing candidate would also redirect to down-ballot races and attempt to shore up Senate candidates in troublesome states, often those the presidential candidate has no chance of winning. But Trump is poison to so many of the congressional candidates that there are few who want to be seen with him.

The new strategies come off the back of the widespread perception that Trump lost the third debate, making the series a 3-0 win for Hillary Clinton. The first debate on September 26 appears to have been the crucial one — Trump lost that by more than 30 points, with an unfocused and low-content performance that spoke to his base, but it appears to have convinced a decisive number of swinging voters that he wasn’t presidential material. That debate appears to have been more decisive than the Access Hollywood tapes, in which Trump boasts of using his power to sexually assault women with impunity.

[Clinton or Trump, the political is personal]

Trump would have had to pull out something extraordinary in the third debate — some new proposals, or some sort of major repositioning of self, though Reagan Jesus himself most likely couldn’t have turned it round at this stage. But any hope of that was gone when he explicitly noted that he was reserving his right to accept the result of the election, as declared on election night. In the following days, he returned to the theme of the election being “rigged”, with his dutiful surrogates defending the charge on the airwaves. Two narratives developed: at rallies, Trump has been telling faithful crowds that the election might be literally stolen, with dead people on the voting rolls, and “inner-city” political machines — read: black people — actually intimidating Trump voters and stuffing ballots in cities like Philadelphia and Chicago (because he is so going to win Illinois).

On TV however, his surrogates argue a different line, claiming that the media and the “elites” are now so biased against Trump that it amounts to a rigging of the election. Trump’s supporters point to the media’s obsession with the Access Hollywood tape, with the 11 women — at time of writing — who’ve come forward with similar stories about Trump’s insistent kissing and sexual touching, and with the more lurid aspects of the campaign, such as Trump’s demand that the candidates take a drug test before the final debate. The meeja point out that Trump begins his rallies with 20 minutes on these topics, so maybe they’re not the ones to talk to about this.

Does the mainstream media have an inherent bias towards the left-of-centre in the US? Quite possibly it does, instantiated above all in the utter lack of interrogation of Clinton, or her surrogates, as to what President Hillary Clinton’s concrete proposals on budget reform, taxation, spending and foreign policy would actually amount to. Much of Clinton’s program appears cobbled together; much of her trade policy is simply a reaction to the insurgency of Bernie Sanders, and the foreign policy in the Middle East is politics-driven, an anti-Russian line taken to accentuate Trump’s perceived closeness to Vladimir Putin, which Trump has handled with characteristic ineptitude:

TRUMP: I don’t know Pootin, I mean, he’s said some nice things about me, if we got along well, that would be good … It’s pretty clear he has no respect for this person [pointing at Clinton]

CLINTON: That’s because he’d rather have a puppet for a United States president.

TRUMP (interjecting): No puppet … no puppet …. You’re the puppet!

But any complaint the Trump forces may have about the lack of scrutiny of Clinton’s policies is blunted by an equal lack of scrutiny of Trump’s policies, his ludicrous trickle-down economics, his ineffectual protectionist proposals, and his confused mix of isolationism and global dominance as a foreign policy. On the weekend, at a rally in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Trump outlined his “10-point plan to make America great again”, which was mostly a restatement of earlier themes, but also included a new commitment to “push for a constitutional amendment for term limits”, and “a hiring freeze on federal employees”. (Yes, that Gettysburg, leading to innumerable parodies of Lincoln’s address: “Four score and what five? Seven? Nine? I dunno a while back, my dad and some other guys created this nation, this most excellent nation, we have the best nation …” etc)

[Rundle: a party foul as Trump supporters watch their hero fall off a cliff]

As with everything about the Trump campaign, that isn’t dirty tricks, it was ineptly handled. At this stage, what they needed was one or two big fat bribes to roll out, akin to the paid childcare proposal they had suggested months earlier, and which has never been heard of again — kyboshed by Republican grandees, presumably. Something, anything, that might pull across 2-3% of voters, mostly women — a larger pool to convert — in Florida, Ohio and elsewhere. The 10 commandments — much of them standard Republican small-government rhetoric — have already been consumed by the news cycle.

The point may be moot. Many are suggesting that Trump has already come to the conclusion that he’s lost the race, and is using the notion that the contest is “rigged” both as face-saving and as a way of creating the maximum chaos so that he’ll emerge from the election as an undiminished figurehead for the “insurgents”, i.e. the core of angry white people who would form the basis for a new media/political outfit. There would certainly be a ready-made audience. Polls suggest about 50% of Republicans — i.e. about 15% of the adult population — believe the election is “rigged”, on a spectrum from “liberal media dominated” to “ballot-stuffing”. The fact that a presidential candidate has named this as a possibility allows such a sentiment to coalesce into a specific political form.

This “insurgent” form takes many such people right past the settings of the Tea Party, which still tried to reconcile notions of being an oppressed minority with a reverence for American institutions. This new line, uninterested in questions of constitutionality or even foreign relations, now has a mob/chaos aspect to it — the overwhelming sentiment is that of doing as much damage as possible to the existing institutions. Some of that sentiment is strategic — wrecking any notion of bipartisanship or consent in order that some new political force may emerge — but now it has another edge, a pure mix of envy and destructiveness. The hardcore Trumpistas, caught at rallies, are champions of cognitive dissonance, simultaneously holding that the polls are disguising a Trump majority that will sweep to power, and that the system — government, elites, media, big corporations — is so tightly interlocked that it would never permit such a victory.

[Rundle: the unsinkable Donald Trump]

Indeed, they get their biggest thrill from some of Trump’s most punkish antics, such as the speech he gave at last week’s Al Smith charity dinner, a deathful white-tie occasion (in honour of the 1928 Democratic candidate, the first Catholic to run as a major party candidate), in which the honoured guests sit in tiers on the stage, and the two candidates trade self-deprecating jokes about each other. Ha, not this time. Trump spoke first, his only “self-deprecating” joke being to humiliate his wife: “Michelle Obama gives a speech. And everyone loves it, it’s fantastic. They think she’s absolutely great. My wife Melania gives the exact same speech. And people get on her case.” [To Melania] “Stand up up, honey, oh, she didn’t know I was going to make that joke.” Hahaha, wattanarsehole, 2% more Republican women just peeled away. For the rest, it was joke-free anti-Clinton barbs, so much so that he was heavily booed. Booed at a charity dinner. Takes talent.

Most bizarrely, their thought leaders have taken to WikiLeaks with an enthusiasm that borders on devotion. This has been led by Trump from the podium — “WikiLeaks! How much do we love WikiLeaks!” — but also by Fox News, which six years ago was calling for the assassination of Julian Assange. Not much doubt that the vast majority haven’t read a single one of the ‘Podesta’ emails released by WikiLeaks over the past weeks, still less would they be able to focus on a key finding. What many appear to like is the simple exposure of camp Clinton, the very fact of it – a blow against the monolithic closed establishment.

[Ten shocking things we learnt from WikiLeaks’ Podesta emails]

There is no question at all that the Podesta emails, as they accumulate, paint a picture of the Democrats and the Hillary machine that is disturbing, if unsurprising. But it is a picture of a campaign, and the Clinton foundation, that is often operationally cynical, sleazy and wearingly arrogant and duplicitous. But even the starkest individual revelations falls short of what many want — direct proof that the Clintons were trading future favours for present cash from sovereign wealth funds. In one email, the foundation promises to hold a foundation mini-conference in Morocco in exchange for $12 million from the government. But that’s it. Nothing more is offered, though a conference like that is the sort of place where plenty may have been (in fact, Hillary herself never turned up to the meeting in question). The truth of the Clinton machine remains elusive, and the absence of a smoking gun tends to reinforce the polarisation of the worldviews.

So is it over? The Republicans themselves appear to believe it is. The RNC has put zero dollars into Trump’s campaign, and Speaker Paul Ryan is conducting an entirely separate tour to shore up 35 threatened House seats. The party expected to lose about eight of their 59-odd majority in the 435-seat House. They’ve now revised that to 15-18. The Democrats are now working hard to extend that into the 20s. The airwaves are full of ads featuring President Barack Obama directly endorsing local candidates, which can be a shock:

“Hi! I’m the leader of the free world! Please elect Bob Doofus, the placeholding candidate we put into this nine-legged starfish-shaped gerrymandered district we didn’t plan on getting back for a decade. Bob Doofus! He’s the man for your disregarded shithole. I’m Barack Obama and I approve this message.”

The Senate is now leaning towards a regain for the Democrats — the Republicans appear to be finished in Wisconsin, Illinois, New Hampshire and North Carolina (all of them tossups when the campaign began), and in trouble Pennsylvania, Indiana and Missouri — and at a stretch, Marco Rubio’s seat in Florida. The only Democratic hold threatened is Nevada, with the retirement of Harry Reid. White House and Senate gives you the Supreme Court, which is the ballgame.

[Rundle: Trump has voters reaching for the pitchforks as things get ugly]

The only caveat? Trump has not lost this yet. He may still be president. The tales that the Republicans tell themselves of skewed polls, etc, are largely bullshit. But they may be right, given three recent, Trump-favourable, polls — the IBD/TIPP. The LA Times tracker and the Rasmussen — may be more pertinent than others. These polls show Trump either leading by two points or at evens. If they’re picking anything up it’s this: that Trump has rearranged the map as he promised he would, bringing the rust belt and white-dominated northern states into play — Ohio, Maine, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota — even as “new diversity” states — North Carolina, Arizona, and Florida — slip from their grasp. That would still be a difficult path to power for Trump, but not an impossible one. It would simply mean that polling, en masse, has been as unresponsive to the Trump revolution as has the rest of the body politic. Should that happen on election night, that’s how it will have happened.

But once again, only that paradigm-shift level collapse between social being and social knowledge will deliver Trump that victory. As the final fortnight looms, the whole Clinton/Democratic enterprise is simply overwhelming Trump. Hillary has Bill, Barack, Michelle and Bernie out on the stump, all capable of getting a specific sector to the polls. They have double and triple the offices and networks that Trump has, and they’ve run close to 200,000 more TV ads. Should this all bear fruit in the usual manner, it will be a massacre.

The Clinton campaign is now deep into Arizona and North Carolina, is having a more tentative go in Georgia, and is eyeing off Alaska. Due to the third-party candidate of Evan McMullin (of which more, anon) Trump may lose Utah and even Idaho. And this morning, RealClearPolitics quietly transferred a new state to the “tossup” column — Texas. Texas, last Republican bulwark. If that is really in play, the party is in deep trouble. If it falls (unlikely), it’s more or less over in its current form. Or is it? Yes, of course. Ha, typical elitist arrogance. Oh yeah, the polls are skewed, are they … on it goes, on the airwaves, on the street, in your head, for two weeks more …