The best thing I can say about the US election is that it’s nearly over and that this embarrassing slow-motion train wreck of a political process will finally come to an end next week. Barring a recurrence of hanging chads in Florida or an armed insurrection, the sunrise on 9 November will see a new president-elect. Who will it be? Last week I was confident that Hillary Clinton would be inaugurated as our 45th president on 20 January, but with the drip, drip of WikiLeaks documents and the Friday afternoon bombshell of the FBI now reviewing new emails in the classified information probe, the race is likely to narrow and it may be a nail biter after all.
Whether she wins or not, Clinton is clearly a flawed candidate. Some of those flaws are real, well documented, and a cause for legitimate concern. Others are just accumulated scar tissue from 30 years in public life refracted and amplified through the prism of modern media scrutiny and intensely partisan politics. But Clinton is also a uniquely qualified and well prepared candidate. Eight years as first lady, another eight as a senator, and four as secretary of state is an unparalleled resume, and it doesn’t hurt that she has applied herself assiduously over the years to complex policy issues like children’s healthcare, and actually knows what the nuclear triad is.
When I first wrote about Donald Trump in this column last October, I described him as the entire Republican Party after five drinks. I didn’t seriously think that a year later the party would still be inebriated rather than just nursing a hangover from the primaries. While Hillary’s judgement may be questionable, Trump is the most spectacularly unqualified presidential nominee ever; period. Eighteen months of public scrutiny has shown him to be a xenophobic, sexist and racist bully who mistakes sexual assault for locker room bravado.
He’s a divisive and egotistical conman who shamelessly peddles outlandish conspiracy theories and panders to the basest fears of the electorate. His instinctive authoritarianism feeds his admiration for Putin as well as his unapologetic refusal to accept any outcome except his own electoral triumph. This opportunistic, vulgar, thin-skinned throwback to the era of Mad Men has questioned the legitimacy of our first black president while blowing enough racist dog whistles to surround himself with a pack of feral white supremacists. In many ways he’s the living embodiment of all that is worst in modern American society, and as such, a manifestly awful candidate for president.
So why is this election even close? What does a solid Trump floor of around 40% of the American electorate say about both the state of the country and its post-election future? The only crumb of comfort I take from the current situation is that the Trump coalition is not homogenous, and that many people will vote Republican in spite of Donald Trump and not because of him.
There are three broad constituencies supporting Trump at the moment, and only one of them is truly reprehensible. Despite the flak she took for it, Clinton was right to describe some of Trump’s supporters as a 'basket of deplorables'. Some of the worst damage Trump has done to the American political system has been to normalise sexist, racist and anti-Semitic views that had been beyond the pale of mainstream politics for generations.
When a heartfelt speech on women’s rights by Michelle Obama is met with a vitriolic tirade of 'black bitch' comments on social media, I worry that the sewers of our society don’t need much encouragement to overflow into the streets. In the endless seas of white faces at Trump rallies you see angry people eager to believe that everything that is wrong in their lives can be blamed on people who don’t look like them. For these people, 'taking back our country' means a social reversion to the 1950s if not the 1850s, and a step back to a 'real America' in which both women and minorities knew their place.
In the Venn diagram of the Trump coalition, these deplorables overlap with another constituency whose grievances are well founded and whose future prospects are critical for the health of American democracy. Like the deplorables, this group are primarily non-college educated white working-class voters. They’re the misguided blue-collar patriots of this election. They’re from families in which their father worked for the steel company, or in a car plant, or down a mine. They grew up nurtured by American exceptionalism and a belief in the inexorable progress of their standard of living. They were the Reagan Democrats of the 1980s who then crossed back to twice elect Bill Clinton and for whom the 1990s ended up being the peak of their post-second world war economic progress. This group are responding to Trump’s assertion that the bromides of politics as usual have failed them, and that radical change is required to 'make America great again'.
Trump tapped straight into their economic concerns with his tirades against the trade deals of the last 30 years and his broad-brush outrage against a rigged system in which wealth has gushed up rather than trickled down as they had been promised. Trump’s tough talk about derelict rust-belt towns scarred by opioid addiction speaks to these voters’ daily lives and the notion that – despite Obama’s promises – there has been little hope and change over the last eight years. Just as with Brexit, these voters have embraced the idea that they have the opportunity to give the political and economic elites the middle finger and roll the dice of change. Ask them to articulate what that change needs to be, and you get inchoate populist slogans, but also a legitimate anger that they are part of a generation whose life expectancy and average income are both likely to be lower than that of their parents.
The third and probably smallest part of the Trump coalition are the traditional conservatives. These small government, pro-trade, family-values-oriented activists used to dictate policy and set the party agenda until they were unceremoniously ousted by the Trump insurgency. Some like Governor John Kasich of Ohio have shown real political courage and have never bent the knee to Trump. Others only found that courage after the groping scandal when they started to see the electoral writing on the wall.
One of the saddest aspects of this election is how many reasonable Republicans still find themselves trapped on board the Trump train as it careens towards 8 November. They are strapped in for the ride by the 'lesser of two evils' theory and the conviction that it is better to win ugly than cede the White House for another four years. They know that Trump’s fiscal plans are absurd, and that as president he would be a destabilising presence on the world stage, but they’re willing to tolerate all of that because they are laser focused on two things: retaining control of Congress and shaping the Supreme Court for the next 20 years.
They fear that if they leap off the train now, they risk losing down-ballot votes from disgruntled Trump supporters and may end up handing the Democrats not only the Presidency but also the Senate and maybe even the House. Faced with the possibility of another Clinton presidency, they believe that controlling Congress will allow them to frustrate her domestic policy plans and then field a 'real Republican’ against her in four years before she can do too much damage.
But even more important to them than congressional control is the shaping of the judiciary. Republican stonewalling of a new Supreme Court Justice following the death of Antonin Scalia has strained constitutional precedent, but few are disputing that come January that seat will need to be filled. If it is filled by a Clinton nominee, then it is likely to decisively tilt the balance of the court towards a more progressive agenda. Despite being a policy apostate in other areas, Trump has vowed to appoint pro-life, anti-gun control conservative judges, and already has a long list that has been vetted by traditional conservatives. A conservative Supreme Court is the only reason why evangelical leaders are rolling out their 'we’re all sinners' speeches so that they can contort themselves into supporting a thrice-married philanderer whose religion appears to consist of the thinnest veneer of political expediency.
Traditional conservatives are therefore stuck in the political equivalent of an abusive relationship. They know Trump’s behaviour is inexcusable, but they can’t bring themselves to disown him for fear of what they will lose. They’re in the death grip of a co-dependency that they have brought upon themselves. By failing to disown the deplorables within their party for decades and by not addressing income inequality when they had the chance, they created the petri dish in which the Trump pathogen could grow and quickly take over the whole party. Watching a broadly principled politician like Paul Ryan take on the mantle of the cowardly lion by trying to put as much distance between himself and his own party’s nominee without actually withdrawing his support is a sad state of affairs for the party of Lincoln.
As the election nears and Trump has remained at least marginally behind in the polls, he’s started behaving like the High Steward Denethor in the third Lord of the Rings movie; dousing the funeral pyre of his titular party in kerosene and brandishing a firebrand while the body politic is still breathing. If the polls are right and Trump loses, the Republican Party will need to not only survive the Trump immolation but also once again decide what it stands for going forward. Is it willing to ostracise the deplorables and finally get serious about issues like immigration reform and climate change in order to stand a chance of winning back the presidency? Even if there is the political will to do something, they may find it impossible to put the deplorable genie back in the bottle and the party may descend into a protracted civil war that fractures it in the way the Whig party was destroyed by the issue of slavery in the 1850s.
More important for the country are the efforts of both parties to bring the Misguided Patriots constituency back into the mainstream of American politics by addressing economic inequality. If you’re an optimist, Trump could end up being chemotherapy for the Republicans; nausea inducing in the short-run, but ultimately beneficial. But if we don’t address the growing economic divide, then win or lose the most dangerous long-term consequence of the Trump phenomenon may be a political realignment in America that pits the rich against the poor. History suggests that is unlikely to end peacefully, so we may yet see Melania standing on the battlements of Trump Tower exhorting the peasants below to eat cake from those nice shops in the golden foyer while Manhattan burns.