On June 16th 2015, Donald J. Trump descended by escalator to denounce the Chinese, deride Mexicans as rapists, and announce his bid as the 12th Republican presidential candidate of the 2016 election season. At the time—and for months to follow—most pundits dismissed him as a bad joke: a pseudo-candidate with little staying power, and virtually no chance of winning the nomination, let alone the presidency.
I had a different reaction. Having spent the preceding months warning progressives about the perils of dismissing and denigrating white people—when I heard Trump speak that day, I knew I was listening to the party’s likely nominee. And over the course of his campaign, as it became clear that Trumpism (e.g. skepticism towards international trade, hostility towards immigration, scaling back foreign intervention, and taking an ambivalent stance on traditional wedge issues) held wide appeal—even beyond the Donald’s “core constituency“—I grew convinced that Trump would not only win the Republican primary, but would beat Hillary Clinton in the general election. I forcefully argued that case five months ago, urging Democrats to settle on a better candidate.
Today, however, I am convinced that Trump will likely lose. To be sure, he could still get an uncomfortably large share of the vote—some simply in virtue of being the Republican nominee, some as a protest against Clinton, and some who are true believers in his dystopian vision. But barring a large-scale domestic terror attack perpetrated by undocumented Mexican immigrants who converted to Islam—Trump’s chances to prevail in November seem bleak. There are basically three major reasons for this:
Pivoting…The Wrong Direction
John McCain and Mitt Romney began their races as moderates with wide appeal across the aisle—but over the course of the primary, they were forced to swing far to the right on key issues in order to secure the Republican nomination, leaving them virtually unelectable in the general race. By contrast, Trump distinguished himself early on as a gleeful violator of Republican orthodoxy, eager to pillory the party establishment for its hypocrisies, failures and growing irrelevance. He won the Republican primary largely by running against the party itself—this left him well-positioned for a general election bid.
Trump did not have to shift to the right to win the nomination, nor would he have to shift to the left to win the presidency: he simply had to continue running against political orthodoxy and the political establishment (unpopular in both parties) while gentrifying his rhetoric, demonstrating a loosely “presidential” demeanor, and developing a basic competence about a few major issues. I believed he would accomplish this—in no small part due to his own repeated assurances that his primary performance was largely an act and he would have no problem rebranding for the general election. He hired Paul Manafort to oversee his transition—a brilliant move.
But then, rather than elevating or moderating his approach to assuage skeptical Republicans, appeal to swing voters, and woo disaffected Bernie supporters—Trump grew more parochial and extreme after winning the primary (and especially after the GOP convention)…in defiance of his own campaign’s advice. He has recently confirmed (implicitly and explicitly) that he has no intention of softening, moderating or elevating his discourse. Ever.
But perhaps most bizarrely, Trump has begun pivoting ideologically—towards the right. His running mate, advisors, and suggested appointees increasingly reflect banal Republicanism rather than representing a challenge to the status quo. This kind of pivot is not only totally unnecessary (given he has already won the Republican primary…precisely because of his heterodoxy), but is obviously counter-productive for a general election bid.
In other words, Trump is outright refusing to change those aspects of his campaign which have proven counterproductive while senselessly erasing the very features which could have made him compelling in a general election.
The Media (Over)corrects Itself
The mainstream media enabled Trump’s rise to prominence for the sake of short-term ratings, and as a byproduct of their broader business model which seamlessly (and shamelessly) integrates news, entertainment and advertising. However, shortly after Trump secured the Republican nomination, the media suddenly realized that their golem was poised to become the most powerful man on Earth—and planned to treat the press just as savagely as he treated the Republican Party.
Now, they are not just unwilling to give Trump a pass on his gaffes, but they have turned hostile to the point of intentionally misrepresenting his words and actions. This constant bad press has helped drive down his poll numbers and ratings, thereby empowering even more media criticism.
And to make matters worse, even when the press narratives seem to be favorable for Trump, the candidate himself tends to derail that momentum. For instance, mainstream media began looking into documents suggesting inappropriate relations between the Clinton Foundation, Hillary Clinton’s State Department, and wealthy foreign donors (the latest of many Clinton Foundation scandals, see here, here, here, here, here, or here). It was a potentially disastrous story for Clinton—playing into concerns that many voters on both sides of the aisle have about Clinton’s trustworthiness, transparency and sense of impunity. If the story gained enough momentum it could have even provoked another damaging months-long Congressional inquiry.
All Trump had to do was stay out of the way—or better yet, fold the story into his stump speeches and interviews as another example of “Crooked Hillary” beholden to big money and foreign interests. But he never mentioned the latest Clinton Foundation scandal in any meaningful way. Instead, at a rally, Trump “joked“ about how if Clinton wins, gun owners could assassinate her in order to protect their 2nd Amendment rights. The resulting controversy turned off many undecided voters (most Americans tend to favor stricter gun regulation and frown upon assassinating elected officials) while completely swallowing the oxygen of virtually all other would-be stories…including the Clinton Foundation emails.
His Own Worst Enemy
Most metrics and models suggest that Republicans should win this election cycle. And there are many respects in which Trump began this race much better positioned than most “typical” Republicans to emerge victorious in November—particularly in an election cycle when both parties’ bases seem desperate for radical change.
Trump is losing because he consistently undermines his own success. Most likely this is a result of profound incompetence—but it’s perhaps worth noting that since the beginning of his campaign there have been persistent rumors that he never actually believed he would win the Republican nomination, nor did he want to; that he has no desire to govern as president, and is looking for a graceful way to escape his out-of-control publicity stunt. There have been suggestions that he may drop out of the race before November to avoid defeat, or refuse the position even if he wins. On the far end of this spectrum are insinuations that Trump is actually a Clinton ally who set out to sabotage Republican prospects in what should have been an easy race for them (given the fundamentals and Clinton’s huge unfavorables).
But regardless of the reason for his meltdown, its outcome seems clear: Donald J. Trump seems unlikely to be elected President of the United States of America. But it’s not all good news…
From the time Trump hired Paul Manafort through the end of July, Trump’s poll numbers had been on a stark upward trajectory—even to the point where he began leading Clinton in national polls and in most swing states. His precipitous decline began as he cast his campaign chairman aside.
What does this mean? It means Manafort’s strategy was working. It means the primary thing driving Trump’s unpopularity is the style, rather than the substance, of his message. It means a more disciplined, informed, and nuanced candidate could actually win by running on Trump’s platform. It mean’s Trumpism is likely here to stay—and at some point, a more effective version of Trump may well win the White House…and be much more capable of realizing his agenda than the Donald could ever be.
Moreover, as in 2008, there is going to be a large swath of Trump voters who will flatly reject the legitimacy of Clinton’s election (if she wins). They claimed Obama was not born in the U.S., and was therefore ineligible for the presidency. For Clinton, the accusations will be twofold: First, she rigged the election. Second, she should have been legally disqualified from running due to her gross mishandling of classified information (but was protected from prosecution by Obama, of course). All of this dovetails nicely with already well-established Clinton conspiracy memes, meaning the extremism, polarization and obstructionism of the last 8 years will also be sticking around with this large subset of voters—who will continue to act as spoilers for many critical policy issues. And just as criticism of Barack Obama opened the door to mainstreaming racism, so too will Clinton’s election elevate misogynistic discourses under the pretext of political debate.
And then, of course, we are left with Hillary Clinton as president.
She is investing heavily in trying to woo disaffected Republicans into her coalition, and signaling a willingness to waffle back on her trade and energy policies. It is likely that she will attempt to hold together her burgeoning coalition through 2020 by means of more classic Clinton “third way” politics. If you were hoping she would follow through on her progressive Sanders-driven campaign commitments—don’t hold your breath.
The DNC Convention’s militant nationalism (to say nothing of her endorsement by prominent neocons) is a taste of what’s to come on the foreign policy front: expect direct U.S. involvement in Syria to promote regime change; expect needless escalation with Russia, a squandering of the Iran deal, a major escalation by Israel against Palestine because Netanyahu knows that Clinton will not meaningfully check him. For starters.
And to top it all off, an economic recession is likely in the cards for 2017 no matter what happens at the ballot box. In short, when the American people finally get past this horrific election there will be little reason to celebrate: the next four years are going to be rough.