How can it possibly be that Donald Trump is on the verge of overtaking Hillary Clinton? Despite all of the ways Trump has demonstrated his total unsuitability to lead the United States, nearly half of America’s voters seem willing to cut him enough slack to quite possibly elect him.
One factor is that political elites have underestimated the deep disaffection of middle- and working-class, downwardly mobile white people. Working class whites may be well off compared to most blacks, Latinos, and immigrants, but they don’t see this that way, and not without reason.
For decades, two trends have been converging: Increasing economic insecurity and falling earnings among white men, and the belated, entirely legitimate claims of out-groups.
The Democratic Party has embraced those demands — of women, blacks, gays, lesbians and transgender people, immigrants and refugees. That is to the Democrats’ great credit.
This election would be a very different story if they also championed working class people against economic elites, but they have done that more hesitantly. On the contrary, to much of the white working class Democrats seem to be in the pockets of bankers as much as Republicans are.
There is one group at whose expense these multiple claims should be advanced — corporate moguls and other members of the One Percent. But the coalition of everyone else against the one percent has not come together. Identity politics are at odds with class politics. Trump, meanwhile, does a great job of feigning indignation on behalf of the common American, despite his own record of screwing whoever he can.
The young of all races face bleak futures, and they are unexcited about either nominee. Normally, that vote would go to the Democrat. It broke heavily in favor of both Bernie Sanders and Barack Obama. But they represented change.
Which brings us to the second factor in the rise of Trump, namely Hillary Clinton. She’s pretty liberal on most social issues. But it’s a hard sell to portray her as the candidate of change.
The voters are in a populist mood and in a mood to turn to an outsider. That helps explain both the appeal of Trump and of Bernie Sanders’ near miss challenge to Clinton.
Face it — among Democrats, it would be hard to think of a candidate who is less of a populist and more of an insider than Clinton. Even the fact that that she is a woman has largely failed to generate the excitement that you might expect to accompany that sort of breakthrough. The Goldman Sachs speaking fees and the still secret transcripts of those speeches, are pretty tame stuff compared to Trump’s outrageous thefts and lies, but on a symbolic level in a campaign they take on a kind of equivalence.
In an ordinary year, against an ordinary opponent, Clinton’s record of exceptional experience would be a plus. This year, it is a sign of her insider-ness.
Barack Obama was able to win a startling victory, as a young nearly unknown senator and as an African-American, precisely because he was not an insider. He generated great excitement among the young that Hillary Clinton has been unable to rouse.
So the election will likely come down to three factors: Whether the Democrats can motivate their base to get out and vote — if not out of excitement then out of duty, given the immense stakes; how the two candidates do in the debates; and the role of sheer luck.
Barack and Michelle Obama will increasingly work to get out the Democratic vote. That’s a plus, but it’s also tricky. With their charisma, they could upstage the candidate.
The debates will come down to a few things. Will Trump’s habit of dominating the stage come over as mastery or as bullying? Will Hillary’s long experience in debating come across as evidence of her superior expertise, or will it make her seem canned?
Will Trump, off-script, make one of his trademark blunders — inventing facts and getting caught, making some over-the-top ad lib, overreaching to denigrate some group — and will the electorate at last pay attention?
If I had to bet, I’d wager that the debates will be a net plus for the seasoned Clinton against the impetuous Trump. But Trump’s skills as a showman have been consistently underrated.
It’s hard to improve on James Fallows’ superb preview of the debates, which you should read.
The final weeks, Heaven help us, will literally boil down to random luck. Will there be another major terrorist episode, another Hillary Clinton health setback, new, overhyped revelations from email or the Clinton Foundation? Conversely, will the impulsive Trump fail to stay carefully scripted? And will the voters at last grasp what an unprecedented menace a Trump presidency would be?
A friend suggested an election night watch party, in Montreal. Many Canadians have already joked that if Trump wins, they will put up a wall—and get the Americans to pay for it.