Monday 24 October 2016

In Donald Trump's America, the utterly bizarre and apocalyptic now actually seems believeable

David Millward

Published 24/08/2016 | 02:30

Supporters of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump cheer as he walks onstage at a campaign event in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The campaign has redefined the limits for the bizarre and the unexpected. Photo: Reuters
Supporters of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump cheer as he walks onstage at a campaign event in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The campaign has redefined the limits for the bizarre and the unexpected. Photo: Reuters

Donald Trump is photographed mid-speech at a high school in New Hampshire. His mouth is open and his eyes screwed up, while the low angle of the shot makes it look as if his head is merging into his wrinkled neck.

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It was hard to avoid hearing snatches of conversation from the table next to mine at a restaurant in a picturesque town in the middle of Maine.

The gist, as far as I could tell, was that there would be moves to set aside the election result if Hillary Clinton won. There was some muttering about martial law.

What followed from that was unclear; it was all pretty far fetched. But the very fact that the topic was even raised speaks volumes about the febrile atmosphere surrounding November's election.

It has all been rather bizarre. This has been an election where pick-up trucks are carrying 'Hillary for Prison 2016' stickers and crowds at Trump rallies chant "lock her up".

In turn, Donald Trump's opponents have likened him to Mussolini, and his rallies have been punctuated by sporadic violence.

It is not as if my fellow diner has been the only person to be talking in terms which verge on the apocalyptic. A guy cutting my hair was convinced that Hillary will be impeached before November with the Democrat establishment drafting in Joe Biden as candidate.

Trump himself - who did more than anything to popularise the myth that Barack Obama was secretly born in Kenya - has encouraged this apocalyptic atmosphere by chuntering about the possibility that the Democrats could rig the election, leading experts to fear he is priming his followers to dispute the result.

We have reached a point where the incredible has become believable.

About a week ago somebody put out a spoof story suggesting that Trump had tweeted out pictures of his manhood to prove he was well-endowed.

Given that the story appeared to be on ABC, had what looked like a genuine tweet, and Donald Trump had boasted there was nothing wrong with the size of his hands "or anything else" in an exchange with Marco Rubio - reader, I fell for it.

My gullibility is perhaps understandable. After all, earlier this month Donald Trump appeared to suggest that Hillary Clinton could be assassinated by disgruntled gun owners.

In January, he told a rally he could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue and not lose voters, and for months this appeared to be true. He could be as outrageous as he liked without doing any damage to his political prospects. Even a row with the Pope over his plans to build a wall to keep Mexican immigrants out of the country did no lasting damage.

For months he seemed to defy political gravity, obliterating his rivals for the Republican nomination and - until a few weeks ago - running neck and neck with Hillary Clinton. Whether it was attacking immigrants, radical Islam or the political establishment, voters lapped it up.

It is only in the last few weeks that there have been signs that the Trump bubble may have burst, with the latest polls suggesting that he and the Republicans might find themselves on the wrong end of a landslide defeat similar to that inflicted on Barry Goldwater in 1964.

If these polls are wrong, it would undermine most of the wisdom built up about the American political system for the past few decades. It would suggest that not only the polling companies' methods but the whole political establishment is now grievously mistaken about what the American people actually want and what they will do to get it.

But if they are right, then the 2016 election may prove the high water mark for anti-establishment outsiders like Donald Trump.

It would suggest that populist candidates of Left and Right may do well in the primaries, but that when it comes to the presidential election itself - as Goldwater discovered in 1964 and the Democrat George McGovern in 1972 - American voters tend to play safe.

Until then we may simply have to endure three more months of apocalyptic fantasy, bizarre antics, absurd predictions, and the earnest, serious broaching of propositions which in previous years would be laughed at as ridiculous.

Try not to let it go to your head.

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