President Trump: The Magic of American Politics
Can this crude, narcissistic demagogue actually become President of the United States?
May 9, 2016
With Donald Trump the presumptive Republican Presidential Nominee, people around the world are starting to think the unthinkable. Can this crude, narcissistic demagogue actually become President of the United States?
However frightening some voters may view this prospect, it remains a distinct possibility. Going back in time over the history of presidential elections, it is easy to forget how “unthinkable” so many presidential candidates were at the same points in previous election cycles.
And yet, these “unthinkable” candidates went on to become decent — if not great — Presidents.
Granted, Trump is more unthinkable than any recent candidate, but who can forget the youthful and inexperienced governor of Arkansas going up against an incumbent President who had recently won a decisive military victory in Iraq?
In the run-up to the 1992 Presidential election, Bill Clinton seemed improbably naïve, inexperienced and scandal-plagued.
He won the Presidency and, after eight years in the White House, he won the respect of a majority of Americans. He left the Presidency with an approval rating in the mid-sixties.
The magical disconnect
The point here is that there is a magical disconnect between public perception of someone running for President for the first time and people’s perception of him after he has served as President.
The Clinton analogy can also be applied to Ronald Reagan, who was widely dismissed as an “actor” before he ascended to the Presidency. Jimmy Carter was ridiculed as a “peanut farmer” in the run-up to the 1976 election.
Both were considered entirely out of the mainstream of American politics at the time of their first Presidential runs.
Trump hasn’t served as a governor like the other examples, but perceptions of him suffer from the same prejudices that made Clinton, Reagan and Carter seem improbable when they ran. And the bigger point here is: They won!
And that is today’s reality. Donald Trump can win the Presidency.
An unappealing opponent
To start with, his opponent is perhaps the most unappealing mainstream candidate to run for America’s highest office in some time. Hillary Clinton presents to voters a persona that is off-putting, calculating and devoid of principle.
She is not trusted and she and her husband seem willing to provide ammunition to her opponents by conveying a sense that the rules — the same rules that apply to everyone else — do not apply to them.
Her positioning as the women’s candidate rankles many across the political divide. This includes younger women, who see her as a relic of a movement that has already achieved many of its central goals. Worse, many see her career as benefiting from having married the right guy.
Another factor — far more insidious — may also come into play as the election unfolds. Hillary Clinton’s core constituency is African-American voters.
In a country where racism continues to influence – if not shape — the attitudes of so many, Clinton runs the risk of being perceived as a “black” candidate — a perception that would be negatively received by white working class voters across the political divide.
On a more substantive basis, Clinton faces a serious political conundrum. Even though she takes every opportunity to deny it, she represents the status quo.
She is indeed the candidate least open to change and this conflicted positioning comes at a time when large segments of the U.S. electorate demand sweeping change.
Feeling the pain
Clearly, having a weak opponent does not assure victory for Trump. He needs to develop some of his positive messages. Prominently, he — like Bernie Sanders — hits a responsive chord when he talks to working Americans about trade.
Starting with the completion of the Tokyo Round of GATT in 1978, American workers have been exposed progressively to the rigors of the global economy.
Large segments of the U.S. electorate have become economically disenfranchised by a sequence of increasingly arcane trade pacts.
To be sure, certain segments of the U.S. economy have benefited mightily from free trade. But many have had to bear the very real brunt of diminished wages and disappearing jobs.
But it isn’t just trade. Immigration — both legal and illegal — has exposed American workers to intensive competition, mainly at the low-skill end of the jobs market.
So far, Trump has skillfully identified the problem, but has failed to present voters with practical solutions. What if he is able to present trade and immigration policies that address these problems, even if his solutions are half-baked?
If he does, he stands a reasonable chance of winning certain battleground states against a democratic candidate who is inextricably tied to free trade and open borders.
Those states, which include Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio, could be enough to tip the Electoral College in his favor.
Promise of a muscular foreign policy
And then there’s Trump’s foreign policy. Here, he appeals to a fundamental divide in the American political psyche.
Simply, many voters prefer that America maintain an aggressive posture on the world stage, while others feel more comfortable when international affairs are approached with restraint.
Both candidates promise a more muscular foreign policy than the one pursued by President Obama. But Trump’s approach is seen as more decisive — more Putinesque — while Clinton’s approach is nuanced and incremental.
Clinton’s Democratic base, however, tends to be pleased with the diplomacy-centric approach of the Obama Administration. She does not appeal to her core constituency when she advocates for greater involvement in Syria, against the final version of the Iran deal or for any of the hair-splitting that seems to characterize her worldview.
Trump on the other hand splits no hairs. He is either all-in or all-out. That may not be realistic, but it surely resonates with the instincts of a large swath of the American electorate.
They like it when he talks about standing up for U.S. interests. And they are with him when it comes to staying away from abstractions like nation building and meddling in the internal politics of foreign lands.
As with globalization, Trump needs only to put his outrageously bellicose comments of the primary season into a more practical context to broaden his appeal.
Smart money not looking so smart
A lot will happen between now and the first Tuesday of November. The smart money has Clinton winning in a landslide. But the “smart” money had Bush, then Rubio, then Cruz winning the Republican nomination.
Trump’s formidable political adversaries, including opposing candidates on both sides, the right wing and the mainstream media combined and the Republican Party itself, have thrown everything at him but the kitchen sink.
To no avail! Every argument, every slander and all the invective they have hurled in his direction have failed to stop him.
Certainly, Trump is crude, narcissistic and demagogic. But he has also shown time and again through the primary process an uncanny ability to raise hard issues in stark terms.
If he is able to shape realistic policies around the issues he has raised, he stands a good chance of becoming President.
And who knows, eight years from now Americans may bear witness to the magical properties of American politics. Improbable as it now seems, they may look back on a Trump Presidency with warm nostalgia. And they might just look upon Donald Trump as a great American President.
So many presidential candidates were quite “unthinkable” at the same points in previous election cycles.
R. Reagan was dismissed as an “actor" before becoming President. J. Carter was ridiculed as a "peanut farmer."
Perceptions of Trump suffer from the same prejudices as that of Clinton, Reagan and Carter.
Today’s reality: Donald Trump can win the Presidency.
Clinton does not appeal to her core constituency when she advocates for greater involvement in Syria.
Trump is either all-in or all-out. That resonates with a large swath of the American electorate.