So the unthinkable is now looking like the inevitable. The circus of the Republican primaries is barrelling towards the convention in Cleveland with Trump firmly behind the wheel of the clown car. It’s been an embarrassing and humbling experience for the political pundits. As screenwriter William Goldman once said about making movies in Hollywood: 'nobody knows anything'.
If, as many universities claim, politics is a science, then this election cycle has been a triumph for the experimental method. A series of hypotheses about why Trump couldn’t be the nominee have been postulated and tested in the field, only for each and every one of them to be knocked down like so many Aunt Sallies at the many county fairs dutifully attended by US politicians. The smug political analysts who once mapped out the bear traps that Trump would inevitably fall into (while luxuriating in the novelty of it all), are now exhibiting clear signs of 'falibilism’. This is a syndrome defined by one dispirited journalist as a tendency to believe that your own predictions are almost certain to be refuted by actual events within hours of them leaving your mouth or pen.
Last summer the received wisdom was that Trump was just too vulgar and divisive to be a serious candidate. When racial stereotyping and a barrage of personal insults failed to derail his momentum, the next theory was that his lack of policy chops would reveal him as a bombastic lightweight. But it turned out his supporters didn’t really care about policy, instead all they wanted was an aggressive non-specific promise to 'Make America Great Again’.
Trump’s narrow loss in Iowa gave temporary credence to the theory that increased scrutiny would unmask him as a pro-life New York liberal, but when ultra-conservative South Carolina fell to him, the talking heads pivoted to the winnowing theory. Central to this narrative was that Trump had a natural ceiling in the 30-35% range. With the field narrowing, mainstream support would coalesce around the anti-Trump, with Senator Marco Rubio the anointed one. However, right on cue, a national Republican poll just before Super Tuesday showed Trump at a startling 49%, quickly followed by a slew of actual victories in early March where Trump won with over 40% of the vote. With a win last week in Michigan, and the polls showing him ahead in Florida and possibly in Ohio, Trump’s momentum now seems unstoppable.
On the grief scale most Republican leaders are now somewhere between depression and acceptance, but some are still in the bargaining stage and fantasising about a contested convention. If Trump doesn’t have a first ballot majority, an alternative like Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House, could ride into the convention hall on a white horse waving the banner of true conservatism and sweep the second round. But in the midst of an insurrection in both parties against insider politics, wresting the nomination from the candidate favoured by the rank and file seems suicidal. You know things are bad when your only strategy is a protracted war of attrition in the hope of still being alive to stage a bloody shoot-out come July.
It all has echoes of 1968 when Robert Kennedy’s assassination led the Democratic leadership to engineer the nomination of Vice President Hubert Humphrey, a pro-Vietnam candidate who hadn’t won a single primary state. The convention in Chicago turned into a riot, with armed police on the floor, tear gas in the streets, and a weak candidate who then got a shellacking from Richard Nixon. If Trump has the most delegates but fails to secure a majority, it might make sense to start boarding up the shop windows in Cleveland in early July.
So we’re now at the point where the key question is not whether but why? What does it say about the American national psyche that the party of Lincoln has become the party of Trump? Lakes of digital ink have been spilled searching for an answer, but the most compelling evidence points to the politics of fear. One of the more fascinating things about the Trump coalition is that traditional dimensions of age, gender, education, income, race and religion don’t show a clear pattern, and this diverse support has allowed him to win in places as different as New Hampshire and Alabama.
Instead, the common denominator is that Trump voters are scared. They’re scared of Mexicans taking their jobs, and if a Mexican doesn’t get it they’re scared it will disappear off to China. They’re scared of ISIS terrorists murdering them in their beds and more generally they’re scared that the ‘American century’ may be over. In an interesting overlap with the Bernie Sanders revolutionaries, they’re also angry that the economic system is rigged against them by big money corporate interests. When you’re scared you want protection, and in Trump’s swaggering strongman they’ve found a Mussolini-tweeting saviour who transcends traditional politics, is beholden to no one, and who they believe will fight for the little guy.
More worryingly, Trump is tapping into deeper historical seams of fear that we all hoped would never be mined again in American politics. In South Carolina 37% of Trump voters think Lincoln was wrong to free the slaves or are unsure it was the right thing to do. Trump would of course say 'the blacks love me’, but the reality is that his polarising rhetoric is attracting some pretty feral supporters including Neo-Nazi white supremacists. There are now almost daily videos of African Americans being harassed and physically assaulted at Trump rallies, with the candidate egging the perpetrators on from the podium while stopping just short of endorsing the violence. The brown-shirts haven’t appeared yet, but you get the feeling that Nuremberg’s Leni Riefenstahl would have quite fancied filming some of these events for posterity. Whether he planned it or not, Trump has tapped into an authoritarian streak in the American electorate, and there are large swathes of the Republican Party who seem to be clamouring for a charismatic outsider who will make everything all right again.
Of course the irony is that, while Trump is a political rookie, the fear and anger he has been tapping into has been nourished, legitimised and exploited by the broader Republican Party for many years. Throughout the Obama presidency the Republicans have been like Tam O’Shanter’s 'sullen dame’; nursing their wrath to keep it warm. The Birther movement that claims Obama isn’t a citizen, the 'papers please’ anti-immigrant movement in Arizona, and mindless Islamophobia are only some of the extreme views that have gone unchallenged by mainstream Republicans who’ve been frightened of appearing reasonable and moderate. But if you keep dumping toxic waste into the waters of the body politic, then you can’t really be surprised when Swamp Thing emerges from the muck dripping intolerance and bigotry.
The 'true conservatives’ keep claiming that Trump’s not one of them, but what they fail to recognise is that in mixing traditional conservative values with the politics of fear, they opened themselves up to a candidate who would decouple them. What Trump is demonstrating is that many of the voters who helped the party retake Congress in 2012 were actually driven by resentment and anger not policies and ideas. If you look at the long arc of American politics, Trump is the logical end point of the 50-year-old Republican 'Southern Strategy’ that sought to capture traditional Democratic strongholds by pandering to the fears of white working-class voters resentful at the changes wrought by the civil rights movement.
If fear explains the Trump phenomenon, then the next question is: are there enough scared and angry people in America to actually elect him president? Even as I type those words I feel the fog of falibilism enveloping me. If we’ve learned anything to this point it’s that no one has any idea what’s going to happen between now and November. What is clear though is that one key factor will be what the Republican Party at large does if the balloons do indeed fall from the ceiling around Trump in July.
Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, has already indicated that congressional candidates will be free to disavow him to protect their own seats, and a recent poll of sitting Republican senators and governors found that only half of them would back Trump. So if Trump is nominated, there’s a good chance that elements of the Republican Party will peel off and run a spoiler third party candidate who will represent 'principled conservatism’. This might hand the White House to the Democrats, but holding onto Congress and avoiding a Trump presidency could justify burning down the GOP barn.
If the party does manage to eventually rally around Trump, there’s still the question of whether his super serum of distilled ego will finally lose its potency in a general election. His 'unfavourable’ ratings are sky high for a presidential candidate, and his bottomless barrel of chutzpah may not get him through a series of extended one-on-one policy debates with Hillary Clinton. Framing the general election as a referendum on Trump may also ignite the Clinton campaign in a way that the candidate herself has struggled to do. That being said, falibilism extends to the Democrats as well, and there is legitimate concern that Trump’s politics of fear and his anti-trade rhetoric could attract a lot of blue collar 'Reagan Democrats’ in key states like Michigan and Ohio, and it may even put 'safe’ Democratic states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin into play.
Among Democrats there’s also anxiety that in a general election Clinton won’t be able to avoid getting dragged into the muck when Trump starts unloading on her long public resume from Monica Lewinsky and Whitewater to more recent issues like Benghazi. As George Bernard Shaw once quipped: 'never wrestle a pig; you’ll both get muddy and the pig will enjoy it'. Just maybe Clinton will be able to climb into the sty and execute the eviscerating take down that has so far eluded the other Republican candidates, but if Trump has shown anything, it’s that his Teflon coating is pretty thick.
Whatever happens next, I’ll be spending an inordinate amount of time over the next six months in front of CNN, and frankly the whole thing would be very entertaining if it wasn’t for the fact that the leadership of the free world is at stake.