Philippa Thomas Online

Occasional thoughts about life, books and news.

Donald #Trump. Really? My take on the upcoming US elections.

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“Unhinged”. 

“Outrageous”. 

“Offensive and outlandish”. 

“A race-baiting xenophobic religious bigot”. 

All Republicans denouncing one – at least in name – of their own.

Donald J Trump is not backing down over his call for Muslims to be barred from entering the United States. Donald J Trump has elbowed his way to the top of the political agenda with two huge assets – money and belligerence.

What follows are extracts from my speech to the Mid Atlantic Club of London on Wednesday 9th December. When I was first invited to address the club, in September, I was going to call the talk “Can Trump Last?” but then thought “No! He might be OVER by December”.

So I’m not going to pretend to any special powers of foresight!

But I have been fascinated by US elections since Bill Clinton first made it to the White House and I’ve been covering them for BBC television since 2000, when I tracked George W Bush along the primary campaign trail all the way to the stormy November night in Austin Texas when he won, lost, and headed into legal battle with Al Gore for the White House.

Fifteen years on, Donald Trump has changed the nature of the game.

Up to now, I would have said there are TWO election seasons… The Silly Season (or the Politics of Anger) ….And the actual race for the White House.

The trick always has been to work out who is the Soufflé candidate. Early to rise, quick to fall.

Superficially convincing, but on closer inspection, you don’t want to place your money there.

They’re daft or ignorant. Or have serious character flaws. Take the last  presidential election. In August 2011 Texas governor Rick Perry led the pack, but dropped out by January after the row over a family hunting camp called “Niggerhead”.  In fall 2011, Herman Cain the pizza mogul was for a time the Republican front runner & one point led Obama in the polls.The Pew Research Center said he was the most covered Republican candidate of the year. (He was tarnished by sexual harassment allegations, seen as less credible when he called for an electric fence along the Mexico border). There are ALWAYS candidates who rise and fall. Not smart enough or frankly likeable enough to approach the final showdown.

But this race is different because of Donald Trump. (Arguably also because of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision of January 2010 which allowed unlimited corporate cash fl0w, changing the rules behind the scenes). Trump would just laugh off the sort of slips that have brought down others accused of dubious ethics, or racist faux pas. 

And so what we’re seeing now is the Silly Season bleeding into the Actual Race. Because Trump can afford to stay in it to the bitter end – as a Republican spoiler or an independent candidate.

 

I’ll come back to Trump. I might like to ignore him but I can’t. Just like the RNC.

THE BIGGER PICTURE

Here’s the challenge for the Democratic party:

Only once since World War Two has one party won three times in a row – George H. W. Bush in 1988 after Ronald Reagan. Al Gore failed to follow Bill Clinton in 2000 despite a buoyant economy.

Can Hillary Clinton manage it, presuming she’s the nominee?  Al Gore’s problem was partly perceived “inauthenticity”; does she share that? “Stiffness”; does she share that? Against Dubya, he was judged not “likeable enough”; does she share that?

She has issues. BUT she’s had a lot of time to learn her campaign lessons. And she has masses of money. I met Will Dobson, Washington bureau chief for Slate, last week – he says looking at the electoral college today, the Democrats have the maths in their favour. Hillary’s task is to keep together the Obama coalition especially Hispanic votes.  Interestingly, he believes the most overlooked segment of the electorate – which could make all the difference – is black women.  

Here’s the Republican challenge: can it be enough of a broad church political movement to win the popular vote?

It hasn’t managed that since George W Bush – oh, actually, not even then. (Wikipedia’s entry on the US presidential election 2000 has Bush at 50,456,002 to Gore’s 50,999,897).  Indeed you could argue that Ronald Reagan was the last great vote winner of the right – in 1980 – at least a generation ago, and that the first President Bush came in on his coat-tails.

Trump is a showman like Reagan. But his political roots are nowhere near as deep, his ideology nowhere near as coherent, his character nowhere near as sunny. And it seems Trump’s influence could be pushing today’s Republican “brand” away from broad church towards more populist paranoia. Which I would argue may get viewers very excited, but isn’t what they’re looking for in their commander-in-chief.

What’s more  – if Trump runs as an Independent – Hillary might win on a split vote. Remember 1992?  Bill Clinton waltzed to the White House when businessman Ross Perot secured close to 19% of the popular vote.. the best result for a third party presidential candidate since Teddy Roosevelt in 1912.  

HOW TRUMP IS REWRITING THE RULES  

Here are three takes on Donald Trump that have struck me.

First, from a voter in Virginia. Priscilla Jones went to see the Trump spectacle in Manassas last month. She’s a Rand Paul supporter but this is what she told the Financial Times: “We have a reality show culture”. “Voters  love to see someone with an attitude and they love to see someone get voted off the island. And that is Trump’s mentality.”

This morning (9th December), pollster Frank Luntz told the Today programme that Trump can’t get above 35% but can’t drop below 20% – “he’s viable enough that you have to consider Trump winning the Republican nomination. Those who like him have come to love him and will vote for him no matter what happens”.

Even if he’s pushed out of the game – or out of the party – the third insight that has really struck me is what Ed Luce wrote in the Financial Times last month : Trumpism has triumphed:
“Whether Mr Trump defies the odds, or eventually fizzles out, is beside the point. The outrageousness of his success has paved the way for others to try. Mr Trump’s invective has disrupted the character of US politics. It will be hard to change.”

I would characterise his campaign as a double success: Donald Trump has both enraptured a segment of the American public, and pulled his rivals along in his slipstream.

And in the media we haven’t really known how to react to him. He puts me in mind of wisdom from the late Democratic senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan –  you are entitled to your own views but not to your own facts – as he sneers at Muslims “celebrating” the fall of the Twin Towers, has Trump changed even that?

TRUMP’S APPEAL

The polling evidence is that the radical right overwhelmingly prefers Trump, and its activists are more likely to be engaged, to donate, and to vote.  Let me quote you some research from Christopher Parker (Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Washington) writing in the academic blog TheConversation.com, who dug into data from an Economist/YouGov poll. He reported in September that among Tea Party supporters, 86% support Trump, versus 29% who support Bush. And tellingly, 91% of Tea Party supporters will be “enthusiastic” about their preferred nominee versus 78% of Republicans overall.

The Tea Party’s enthusiasm about Trump almost certainly stems from his  extreme position on immigration which we’ve seen again this week. Parker notes that he’s said almost nothing about shrinking government, a core concern of the Tea Party. We’ve heard Mr Trump calling for a halt to Muslim immigration. He wants to build a wall across the Mexican border. He denounces “anchor babies,” children born on American soil to illegal immigrants, determined to ensure citizenship for their unborn. He wants to get rid of birthright citizenship, something guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.

TRUMP’S RIVALS

I started by quoting some appalled denunciations of Trump’s latest initiative from his “moderate” rivals in the Republican race. It could be a turning point – but that could depend on polling reaction among the primary election.

So far though, the agenda of “mainstream” candidates has clearly been influenced by Trump. Jeb Bush now believes the US should only accept Syrian refugees if they are Christian. This year he also referred to “anchor babies”.  Ed Luce (see above) contrasts this to what Jeb said in February before Mr Trump entered the race: “We should welcome all immigrants,” Mr Bush told the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “[As Americans] we come in 34 different flavours.” 

Chris Christie, governor of the Democratic-voting state of New Jersey, believes the US should accept no Syrian refugees at all regardless of religious background, even if they are “three-year-old orphans”.  This is the man who embraced Barack Obama in the days after Hurricane Sandy.  To some, he’s the ultimate moderate. I know Republican voters in the US who still see him as their great hope for next summer. But which political incarnation of Chris Christie would they be getting? 

I remember the furore when Mitt Romney remarked in 2012  that illegal immigrants should “self deport” – is that comment outrageous or not in the context of today’s debate? 

In terms of political science, this is referred to as shifting the Overton Window – and this season’s triumph of Trumpism is a text book demonstration.

Frank Rich in New York magazine says of Trump’s triumph: Republican potentates can’t fight back against him because the party’s base has his back. He’s ensnared the GOP Establishment in a classic Catch-22: It wants Trump voters — it can’t win elections without them — but doesn’t want Trump calling attention to what those voters actually believe

And Rich’s conclusion is one we should all take to heart. Don’t dismiss Trump. His impact on our politics post-2016 could be “as serious as he is not”.

But after all this – I think the pollster Frank Luntz is wrong. I think Donald J Trump has no chance of securing the nomination, let alone getting to the White House. Why? The overwhelming majority of Republican voters have repeatedly told pollsters this year that, whatever their choice in any given poll, they haven’t made up their minds yet.

I take heart from the U.S. election data guru Nate Silver who says that in a Republican electorate Trump in fact has only single digit support.

So the question I leave you with on Trump is this: will those who are cheering him on register to vote and bother to turn out?

WHO ELSE CAN SPEAK FOR THE REPUBLICANS?

Ben Carson? The mild mannered surgeon who’s pitched himself as the true anti-politician?  His pitch has at times been brilliant – have you seen his campaign ad, Outside the Box

For the establishment, Carson is also politically toxic. He has compared Obama’s Affordable Care Act to slavery. 

And his facts are also very dubious.  The fact checking site PolitiFact recently delved into 19 Ben Carson campaign trail claims : none were ruled true and only one mostly true.

My conclusion on Carson? He’s being eclipsed already. But he’s got what he came for. A massive hike in public profile and a secured place on the circuit of paid speeches, political talk shows and best selling books.

Before coming to the couple I find MOST interesting, I would point you to two more key insights on the veteran “moderates”  Jeb Bush and Chris Christie, from Ryan Lizza in the New Yorker.  1) They have money. Bush has a very big Super PAC.  2) It is politically smart for them to hang in there.

Lizza quotes  research showing that the bedrock of Republican party support at about 35-40% can be characterised as “somewhat conservative” – the very conservative and evangelical are in fact the noisy minority. And he notes of this bedrock, that it always backs the eventual nominee. Bob Dole in 1996, George W. Bush in 2000, John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012.  The evidence shows that they like people who express conservative values on the economy or social issues, but who do not espouse radical change. Not excitable but even-keeled. And with substantial governing experience.

So again… if it’s Trump… much of the US electorate will have had a political character transplant!

HOW ABOUT THE INSURGENT INSIDER ?

In the last Iowa poll, Senator Ted Cruz has pulled ahead of Trump and Carson. It’s a Monmouth University survey this Monday – putting him at 24% to Trump’s 19% and Carson at 13%. 

So who’s Cruz? He’s a purist constitutionalist. A very small government man. He loathed Obama care. From Capitol Hill, he’s been a thorn in the side of the White House.

Until Trump really got going, many Republican insiders saw Cruz as terrifying. Some of them still do.  Even George W Bush has spoken out: at a Jeb fundraiser in October, Politico reported he described Cruz as cynically opportunistic and  self-serving. He said I just don’t like the man.

As commentator Ross Douthat put it in the New York Times: Ted Cruz has the base’s love, but far too many leading party actors hate him.

But he’s strategically clever. He’s been careful not to tangle with Trump. Even on the Muslim comments, he initially said simply “that’s not my policy”.  He appeals to more bases: Tea Party, evangelical and libertarian.

And he’s now being talked up by some of the Conservative media. Last week I met a senior editor of the National Review Jay Nordlinger, who says he really believes Cruz could be the nominee.  And if I was giving you this talk the week before Iowa – I might well be devoting the time to Cruz that I have today to Donald Trump.

RUBIO THE ONLY ELECTABLE REPUBLICAN?

I know it’s only a snapshot but I think it’s revealing. In this week’s Iowa poll, the other Cuban American senator Marco Rubio came in at a respectable 17%.

Rubio is generally seen by America’s political media as too moderate for Iowa and he has yet to lead a poll. But he’s moving into their spotlight.

He’s a man who lives the story of the middle class American Dream. He has youth. He has energy.  In this field, he’s a moderate on immigration. I remember reporting from the 2000 Republican convention in Philadelphia, hearing the rhetoric there about “compassionate conservatism” and a Republican rainbow coalition. Rubio might be able to gain the votes of women Hispanics, blacks, and Asian-Americans. Which you need to take the electoral college.

If I had to lay money on this election, right now I’d probably go for Marco Rubio on the ticket for Prez or for Veep.  Certainly for the bigwig Republicans who are terrified by Cruz, Rubio is increasingly being seen as a promising alternative.

Are we nearing a tipping point – after Iowa, perhaps after New Hampshire – where it’s Rubio that is heavily promoted as the best practical hope to Beat Hillary?

Because that is much more predictable. Unless she self-destructs, It Will Be Hillary. 

A DEMOCRATIC ALTERNATIVE?

Consider the two Bs. Joe Biden has ruled himself out … though never say never. He’s the man waiting to catch the nomination if Hillary implodes.

Shall we take a look at Bernie Sanders? Anyone think he might be the nominee?  The likelihood of this Socialist senator becoming the nominee of his party is about as likely as Jeremy Corbyn becoming leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition. Oh wait.

Think of the similarities. The “truth to power” flavour of this election. Here’s a classic Bernie tweet: “If the environment were a bank it would have been saved already.”

In the first Democratic debate in October, Sanders denounced the “casino capitalist process” by which “Wall Street’s greed and recklessness wrecked this economy.”  

Under the mantra “Feel the Bern”, young liberal voters have flocked to him. Could he go big in Iowa or better still New Hampshire, closer to his native Vermont?

 

Hang on. His backers are probably the voters who loved Howard Dean, and Bill Bradley before him. Not to doubt their enthusiasm, but Bernie Sanders is much less nationally palatable.

As a reporter who’s covered four straight presidential campaigns, I know there is NO WAY America would elect this man. It’s a country where Faith, Flag and Family are revered without irony, and the very concept of government is easy to mock and to knock. I believe Bernie Sanders is America’s only avowed socialist politician at a national level. Well I’ve had  too many Americans denounce to me even “socialised health care”. The S word is political death.

What he could do is shift the conversation, shift the agenda for Mrs Clinton. But that will depend on who’s she’s facing in the final race.

So … it’s HILLARY.

The last few weeks even months have been a gift to Hillary Clinton. Unlike her last run in 2008, the dramatic battle with Barack Obama, right now the media is riveted to the Republican primary skirmishes. And she’s been in the nation’s living rooms since 1992. Boredom is a political killer. Ask Al Gore.

So what’s her pitch? Middle class economic appeal. Working families. Working women. And a working knowledge of both the White House and the world. She is coming to the inequality agenda that rouses many millenials. She talks of a  “crackdown” on Wall Street, and this week her policy on stricter financial regulation was backed by Elizabeth Warren, another Senator that liberals love to love.

But does she have soul? Can she inspire? Can she come anywhere near the heights of “Yes We Can?”  

To many, Hillary Rodham Clinton is the school swot, who studies authenticity. They scent the old cliche “if you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made”.

They see in her too much of a big business, too many staff, too much calibration.  It’s not fair. We (media, pols, public) put her in that position, with our relentless scrutiny over decades. I think she is being judged more harshly for being an ambitious woman. A stunning resume doesn’t do it – somehow in Obama’s phrase, she’s just not “likeable enough”.

One online comment I saw in a British broadsheet said WE just don’t get it – for the majority of non coastal cultural Americans, “she’s repugnant”.

Put more mildly the FT’s pop critic Ludovic Hunter-Tilney – referencing Trump and Bernie Sanders pulling dance moves on TV – says “the desire for friendly politicians outranks the desire for weighty politicians”.

One asset that will really help her here is Bill Clinton – a pol who LOVES people.  Though I’ve heard from more than one campaign journalist that a secret fear of the Hillary people is – what if he outshines her? – and voters think, we’ve already had the best, and in fact, we’ve already had Hillary in office.

This is why Hillary’s best opponent is Jeb!   Jeb, who unless he bucks up, hasn’t shown himself worth the exclamation mark, who counters all the accusations that HRC is ‘establishment’ ‘entitled’ and somehow a ‘retread’. Because, as I’m sure I don’t need to remind you, we may have had a Clinton but we’ve already had two Bushes. And the Clintons weren’t born with silver spoons in their mouths.

Hillary’s worst nightmare? I’d say Marco Rubio – fresh faced and relatively plausible.

But if I absolutely had to bet, I’d probably bet on her. I think her experience will count, especially at a time of great tensions over national security.  She’ll need more stamina, more humour, and she’ll have to hold her nerve in the face of a barrage of vitriol. 

DO YOU CARE?

A final thought. I moderated panel on the state of the US economy at the Milken Institute London summit in October.

My panellists disagreed on whether it is fundamentally buoyant, or fundamentally flawed. But to my surprise, they agreed that the presidential race wouldn’t have much impact on America’s living standards, after a member of the audience declared that the race is essentially a “parlour game”… to which we all pay too much attention.

What does THAT say about the state of the world’s most powerful nation?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Author: philippathomas

I've been a BBC newswoman for 28 years: reporting from around the world. Currently to be seen anchoring BBC World News TV. Main interests - politics, diplomacy, tech, media, arts and all things American. I began this personal blog as a 2011 Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard. You can also find me talking daily news on Twitter at @PhilippaBBC, and sharing anything from travel photos to my year in books on Instagram at @philippanews. Thanks for reading!

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