President Trump could be a reality... and it might not be as bad as feared
Published 07/11/2016 | 02:30
I am sitting in a cheap motel room in North Carolina, the kind of place where drug deals go horribly wrong, and a boasting, brash voice comes over the radio. Donald Trump.
It is still hard to believe that the Republicans ever nominated him. It is even harder to believe that Trump could actually win the White House. But a week on the campaign trail has convinced me that he can. And that the world shouldn't panic unduly.
This election has been intensely personal for me. I'm a historian of the United States, specialising in politics, and have argued for years that Britons are wrong to characterise American statesmen as vulgar charlatans. So imagine my disappointment when the Republicans nominated the most vulgar charlatan they could find.
For a long time, I and many other so-called experts wrote off the billionaire's candidacy as a marketing gimmick that wouldn't last much longer. We were wrong. He proved cleverer than us. He was certainly more relevant. On Thursday night, I watched him tell an audience of 3,000 in a North Carolina field about national security, the loss of jobs - he claimed that America has haemorrhaged "700,000 factories" since the 90s - and, crucially, immigration. Sometimes it's fun to listen to his speeches and reflect on how almost every sentence would end a career in a normal election. "Hillary supports totally open borders," he said. "There goes your country." He meant to say: "Here come the Mexicans."
The crowd cheered "Lock her up!", in reference to Hillary, and "Build that wall! Build that wall!" But were they representative of the wider population? Can he actually win?
Yes, but it will be hard. In his favour, the national polls this week have narrowed slightly - to the point where either he's tied with Clinton or not far behind. Both sides know their constituencies and will win or lose depending upon their ability to get them to the polls. Clinton attracts ethnic minorities and enjoys a double-digit lead among women. Trump, like all Republican candidates since the 60s, is comfortably ahead among whites and has a double-digit advantage among men. The problem for him is that women tend to vote more than men: in 2012, they were 52pc of the electorate.
Then there's the electoral vote problem. It's possible to win the popular vote, but not win enough individual states to take the White House. Think of electoral votes like stepping stones that get wider apart the further one goes. It's easy for Trump to walk from, say, Wyoming to Alabama. But it's a jump to get to Ohio and a distant leap to Pennsylvania. There is no state that he can afford to lose: he has to win a couple of states that usually vote Democrat. Acknowledging this, he has poured resources into Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.
Certain factors, however, make the slimmest of possibilities hard to dismiss. One is the state of the country. The sleeper issue in the US is Obamacare, the president's signature healthcare reform. On Tuesday, many consumers going online to renew their health insurance found that the monthly costs of premiums affected by Obamacare had suddenly jumped by an average of 25pc. People can get help through tax subsidies and deductibles, but it still came as a huge shock. In Arizona, the cost of premiums jumped 100pc. In Alaska, they now go for as much as $760 a month. Obama promised more choice and affordability. Many feel they've been betrayed - and voters keep bringing this up in my conversations with them.
Distrust of Clinton is also a factor. One poll (taken before last night's announcement by the FBI that she will not be charged after a fresh probe into her emails) said that voters actually trust her less than Trump, thanks to two decades of scandals. It's not that she has no fans: Democrat rallies are enthusiastic and large, usually bolstered by celebrities such as James Taylor and Katy Perry. But Trump is counting on a revolution that's hidden in the polls. Brexit is mentioned a lot at his rallies. It's a powerful example of the pollsters getting it wrong - and while there are huge differences between Brexit and Trump, it's hard to deny that they are part of a global picture. The world is shifting away from social and economic liberalism. Trump is a repudiation of the consensus that Tony Blair and Bill Clinton established in the 90s.
So, if he did win, would his administration truly be as radical or disastrous as his critics fear? It depends on your point of view. His business career has been full of risks and failure. But also single-mindedness, achievement and an emphasis upon hiring talent. Talented people who suck up to him, of course. Expect a presidential cabinet that is heavy on rich, powerful men who bet early on Trump's rise and praise him mightily. Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani. African-American surgeon Dr Ben Carson.
New Jersey's governor, Chris Christie, will be critically important - perhaps in finance or foreign affairs. It's rumoured that Trump wanted him for his vice president - but that Trump's children vetoed it because they, sensibly, calculated that Christie would bring the ticket no extra votes. We can expect the Trump clan to exert a largely benign influence. Wife Melania will be a traditional First Lady, focusing on charity work. Daughter Ivanka and her businessman husband Jared Kuschner will continue to operate a kind of royal court. Their decisions have been smart and, crucially, moderating.
In some areas of policy, Trump is surprisingly moderate. Don't expect any of the old Republican war on gay marriage from this New York businessman. That said, wherever Trump has shown no interest in policy, his instinct has been to let the party make decisions for him. His response to the rising costs of Obamacare has been Republican boilerplate: get government out of health, increase consumer options, etc. These policies are probably being written for him. Choosing Mike Pence as his running mate sent a signal that Trump understands he is mistrusted by conservative ideologues and that he's happy to accommodate them. Should anything happen to him in office and Pence takes over, America will actually get a far more right-wing president. Pence introduces himself to rallies thus: "I am a Christian, a conservative and a Republican - in that order."
Trump will find that it's harder to get things done in Washington than on Wall Street. He may be anti-interventionist in foreign policy, but he will inherit a war with Isil that he will have to see through to the end - and he will quickly find that the Russians are difficult to work with. If he tries to reduce the import of Chinese goods, he will land himself in a trade war that he'll lose. And he may well build his precious wall across the Mexican border, but the Mexicans won't pay for it and the price at home will probably be accepting that many illegal immi-grants can stay. For it's likely that Trump will be governing alongside a Democrat senate, which will curb his powers. Even a Republican-dominated Congress would be a nuisance.
The republic is bigger than its politicians. If Trump did ever try to do the more radical things that he has threatened - in the authoritarian manner he exudes - then he would be opposed by Congress, the Supreme Court and the Constitution. Gridlock in Washington is annoying but, sometimes, necessary.
Which begs the question, why are Democrats so apocalyptic in tone? The answer is that Trump's victory would represent a rejection of their worldview. Obama often talks about the "arc of history", which he thinks bends towards liberal progress. But Trump's support exposes the fact that millions of Americans believe their best days are actually behind them, and they want to turn the clock back. Back to an age when a job was for life, America was respected, cops ruled the streets and politicians talked a language the people could understand.
Trump is running not so much to make America great again as simpler again. Those who believe that life is more complicated than that - that it is full of nuance and the need for tolerance - find his pitch terrifying. (© Daily Telegraph London)