With 24 hours until the US election is concluded, Hillary Clinton retains a lead in most polls, suggesting a solid victory of around 320 electoral college votes to 220 for Donald Trump. HRC has a two- to four-point lead in Democrat-held states of Colorado, New Mexico, Virginia, New Hampshire,  Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Florida, Nevada and Maine’s second district are on a knife-edge, as are the Republican states of Arizona and North Carolina. Ohio and Iowa, both 2012 Democratic states, are trending to Trump, and the Democrats have written off the latter state. There’s some chance that Trump may lose Utah — Utah! — to third party candidate Evan McMullin, or even to HRC if the vote is sufficiently split.

[Rundle: the spy who loved Jesus]

To win, Trump has to get either 1) Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, with no losses back; 2) Florida, Ohio and two or three smaller states; 3) Florida and four states without Ohio; 4) Ohio, Pennsylvania and a couple of states; 5) Ohio and about five states and districts; or 6) about six states without Florida or Ohio. All of the last five options assume no losses back to the Democrats.

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That would suggest that Trump has more pathways to victory than has been claimed — and he does. But they’re all very narrow paths, and everything has to go right on each pathway. Clinton only has to get one clawback — North Carolina is the best bet — and a couple of the other states, and she can weather a loss of several states.

But there’s no doubt about it: Trump is in a better position to stage an upset than was Mitt Romney in 2012. Reason? Trump has, to a degree, done what he said he’d do — he opened up the map, so that the rust-belt states became competitive. Romney was eviscerated by Obama’s 2012 campaign, painting him as one of the behind-the-scenes guys who shipped jobs overseas. That left Romney with but a single path — Florida, Ohio, and two states like Virginia and Colorado, and he didn’t get any of those (he won back Indiana and North Carolina, which had already been factored in).

Donald Trump’s negative characteristics have been extensively catalogued, so much so that Democrat strategists missed his admirable qualities, which recommend him to the 40%-plus of American voters who will vote for him. Chief among them is his relentlessness. Faced with poor polling, terrible debate performances, and mutliple mini-scandals, he may have got bitter, vengeful and deranged, but he never gave up. The energy remained the same. And he, and his team, hit on a new strategy that has changed modern campaigning – saturation appearances to the point of attrition and exhaustion.

[Rundle: sitting ’round the round bar, in the wilds of north Philly, just talking Trump]

The old rule of the last month of campaigning was one to two appearances per day, in spaced-out media markets, to get the maximum TV effect, and the best and most energetic possible performance. Trump has ramped that up, first to three in-state performances a day, and now to an insane level — five appearances per day, in three or four different states. Nor has his energy flagged one iota. Doubtless none of this is chemically enhanced — Trump rejects alcohol and drugs — but I’d be surprised if his long-haired Dr Feelgood weren’t plugging vitamin B12 into that wrinkled orange butt on Trump Air every night.

The strategy has had its effect. The Trumpenade has become a story in itself and given the impression of momentum, the sense of a coming thing. It’s also outpaced Clinton, who has increased her own number of appearances in response to Trump and is clearly flagging under the pressure. As a counter strategy, team Clinton have put on a series of mega shows — tonight she’ll appear with Barack and Michelle in Philadelphia — and also events with big musical guests Jay-Z, Beyonce and Katy Perry, which also serve as get-out-the-vote efforts.

The Clinton effort has been blessed by the announcement, yesterday, by the FBI that they had concluded the investigation into the fresh batch of Clinton emails found on Anthony Weiner’s laptop — from server to pervert, as is being said — thus lifting the cloud of “candidate under investigation” from the campaign. De facto, that’s given the Clinton team a last day narrative point — which is lucky because they never had one of their own. Win or lose for Clinton, I can’t wait for the campaign memoirs to come out, because I really want to see what the strategy was in a campaign that appears to have had no narrative, no concise policy lead. For weeks it simply fed off Trump’s errors, the tape revelations, the serial, unquestionably true accusations of sexual assault, the Twitter eruptions. When these stopped, campaign Clinton had … nothing. Zip, zilch, de nada. So they went back to the politics of the personal cult. Vote for her for what she’s done, for who she is. What will she do? Erm, see our hundreds of piecemeal small-time promises buried in our literature.

[Rundle: Trump boasts of ‘grabbing pussy’, GOP ducks for cover]

Should Clinton win this, the victory will be a shared one by all the thousands of groups and millions of people, such as those I wrote about yesterday, who worked to get her over the line, without much of a promise that their lives would be made better. Very little of it will have to do with the muddled, stop-start campaign, as sketched out in detail in the Podesta emails released by WikiLeaks, and amply displayed in the last fortnight of the election. Team Clinton has spent twice the money and has many times the ground game, and yet it hasn’t been able to put more than three points between itself and Donald Trump. Even with the burden of incumbency, that is a pathetic outcome.

That is what is so utterly elitist about much of the centre-left incomprehension around Trump support, or the actual disdain exhibited towards many of the people voting for him, who don’t rate him much as a human being. This is the white working-class, and 40% of Latinos, who have heard nothing from HRC as to why they should vote for her, not one concrete take-away, not a single headline pledge on wage increases, tax relief, affordable education or the like. Many of these proposals are there, but they never built a campaign around them. And they never made enough of a commitment to a genuine repudiation of “free” trade for anyone to much believe it.

The Hillary cult on the centre-left — separate from those who simply, reasonably enough, admire her — specifically argue that she represents some embodiment of progressive forces. It has become ever more dishonest, as the Democrats’ campaign became more threadbare. The target — the derisory number of Bernie supporters who won’t come across for Hillary — is a straw bro. The election is close not because of a few hipster holdouts, but because the Clinton campaign couldn’t convince more than 40% of the white working class to come over for her — including the 40% of white working class women voting for Trump. Had they got another 5% of these people, the result would be a landslide. Trump would have been locked out of the rust belt. Might still happen.

[Trump’s chances of ‘doing a Brexit’ are slim, but extant]

This goes to the heart of the progressive incomprehension about the rise and rise of Donald Trump — the sheer inability to understand how anyone could vote for him, the vaguely progressive-totalitarian idea that Clinton should be getting a 100% vote by now. It’s another example of applying an abstract rationality to a concrete situation, as if rationality itself were not shaped by interests — as if, at any given moment, “rationality” did not have its own interests. Appeals to abstract rationality are pointless — if a rational system is using all its resources to try and kill you and the life around you, then it is rational to take a chance with the other guy.

Correctly, or otherwise, many people in the rust belt believe that Hillary Clinton, the Democrats and the whole progressive class are out to kill them — to finally destroy their community with free-trade pacts and open borders, making wage maintenance and industrial organisation impossible. They see the tie-up between the Democrats and the new high-tech industries, praise of “ingenuity”, commitment to the future — all of which is taken as meaning one thing: automation, the further redundancy, the dissolution of life. It is one thing to conclude that your own life is over, that your best has passed, it is quite another to see everything around you dying too. The Clinton campaign has given people nothing to suggest they might do better from her being in power. Those who support Trump have views on him ranging from deranged idolatry to cool and accurate assessment. The latter think he’s a flim-flam guy, a crook, a corner-cutter, a grifter. They simply believe it’s worth taking a chance he might grift for them.

Nor is there any reason to believe that is necessarily untrue. Trump’s commitments — deficit reduction, tax cuts, and a supercharged military — don’t begin to add up. But it’s entirely possible that a combination of corporate tax cuts and protectionism could deliver a short-term reversal in the decimation of industrial America, which is exactly what people are hoping for. In that sense there is nothing irrational in voting for Donald Trump whatsoever, and the calls to look at the big picture, or his personal character, appear more impertinent and arrogant than ever. Why should the raddled victims of economic scorched-earth policies care if Trump is going to create international crises, or mistreat undocumented immigrant, or imports a standard of vulgarity and thuggishness to the White House?

[Rundle: sorry, Van Badham, but Clinton hasn’t been left-wing since the ’90s]

This would appear to be why so many otherwise acute pundits are simple defeated by the rise of Trump. Take Richard Cooke’s piece in this month’s Monthly. It’s a terrific piece of wide-ranging reportage — and in that respect the best possible representation of standard left-liberal incomprehension at the rise of Trump. “Because politics is a circus, they’ve sent in a clown,” Cooke concludes, of Trump supporters. But they haven’t, or they don’t believe so. The one thing Trump supporters say over and over again — and this unites the reluctant with the passionate — is that “he’s a businessman; maybe he can sort this mess out”. They see much of his vulgarity and forcefulness as a measure of that, as someone who would be able to bulldoze his way through entrenched bureaucracies to get simple and effective things done. Cooke’s piece ends in a simple and honest confession of bewilderment, an inability to read off from Trump any direction history might take.

What lies at the root of such incomprehension is how far we’ve come in the long divorce of the old ’60s coalition of the working class and progressive groups — and the degree to which progressive groups, now in the ascendant, will not recongise that their interests and cultures have diverged from those classes.  The progressives’ most insistent desire — a global, cosmopolitan world, ever more connected, high-tech, “exciting” and diverse – is not merely something that has no benefit to many left out of it, but may be actively inimical to them. All the things that members of the progressive class believe to be nothing more than the conditions of life — abstraction, dynamism, rapid change, system reasoning, reasoning itself — are now seen by many as the weapons of the enemy, against which they marshal bluntness, insult, tests of personal strength, concrete thinking, and mythological explanations of contemporary life. What drives many progressives wild is that such people don’t place much value on an abstract sense of truth — because they’ve found it tends to come round and bite ’em on the arse quite a lot.

[Rundle: the unsinkable Donald Trump]

This is the major political event of our era, and Trump is just one manifestation of it — albeit, given nine aircraft carriers and the nuclear codes, one of a significance far beyond the event itself. Through the past year, he has kept one step ahead of us all, reinventing modern politics as surely as did Andrew Jackson in the 1820s, or Martin Luther King in the 1950s. He has been the vessel by which the terms and conditions of US popular culture — the relentless spectacle and conflict pouring out of innumerable screens, the values most people live by — have reshaped one whole side of politics. All that has held him back from an assured victory has been the other side of pop culture ethics — the absence of application, reality-testing, the all-encompassing narcissism. Had he been able to subcontract whole sections of the process to political professionals who would talk back to him, then basic things would have got done. They weren’t. For months, key swing states were covered by a handful of offices, a non-existent preliminary build-up. Nothing tells you more about the Trump campaign than that it spent more on “Make America Great Again” hats than on focused polling and strategic implementation. The thing has been an on-the-fly rock star tour from the start, and that, more than anything, may save us from him.

There is no question of supporting Trump, of course. The “concrete” reason he offers is racist, misogynist, has made its deals with the Christian right, traded its favours with ultra-right economic figures and corporations, and contemplates not a withdrawal from global hot spots but a new politics of massive response and retaliation. But that does not answer the question as to what happens when he loses, and Hillary Clinton becomes locked down in four years of conflict with Congress. Those who pledged themselves to Trump will find themselves further abandoned — at least in terms of anything they really want, fantastical or otherwise. Somehow, someone finds a way of putting a left populism together, or the mythical urge will prevail, the politics and the country will start to bear as great an internal tension as it has felt for a century or more.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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