Thursday 23 November 2017

Veteran pundit tells how Trump won the day

Politics: The Year of Voting, Dangerously, Maureen Dowd, Little Brown €32

Irreverent: American journalist Maureen Dowd. Photo David Conachy
Irreverent: American journalist Maureen Dowd. Photo David Conachy

David Blake Knox

Maureen Dowd is a veteran American journalist who has covered many presidential elections. However, that does not mean that her approach has become jaded or blase. In fact, she continues to bring an irreverent sense of humour, as well as a shrewd understanding of politics, to her reporting.

She has described the most recent race for the White House as "transcendentally bizarre" and unlike any other. This stimulating collection of her articles spans 25 years, and helps to explain why Trump won, and also - perhaps, more importantly - why Clinton lost.

For many observers, the result of this US election had seemed inevitable. On one side, there was a highly experienced politician, with a solid record of public service, who had already held one of the highest offices of State. Hillary Clinton's campaign was also able to draw upon massive financial resources. She enjoyed the overwhelming support of the mainstream media - with 56 of the 60 largest US newspapers backing her candidacy. And she was endorsed by a galaxy of A-list Hollywood movie stars.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, had never held any elected office. He was detested by the leaders of his own party, and despised by most of the press. In its early stages, his campaign was almost entirely self-financed, and could not rely upon any organisation on the ground.

The nearest Trump got to an A-list celebrity endorsement was one from the ageing musician Kid Rock.

As the election got under way, Dowd noted the "nearly unanimous expectation" in Washington that Trump would not only lose, but that Clinton would win by a landslide.

That level of complacency, on the part of both his political opponents and the mainstream press, was ultimately to work to Trump's advantage.

He fought what has been described as an "asymmetrical" campaign against Clinton: using old-school rallies and his personal Twitter account to upstage Clinton's ultra-sophisticated media offensive, and her super-smart advisers.

Dowd has known both candidates personally for decades. Over that time, she has clearly grown disillusioned with Clinton, whom she regards as "slippery and opportunistic".

Her feelings for Trump's "peculiar combination of viciousness and playfulness" seem more ambivalent. That may be because he was prepared to talk to her without any of the constraints that career politicians like Clinton normally observe.

Indeed, he provided her with copy that almost wrote itself. On one occasion, Dowd simply threw names at Trump over the phone while he was having lunch, and recorded his spontaneous reactions. These included his scathing assessments of leading figures in the Republican Party, such as Lindsey Graham ("totally irrelevant"), Mitt Romney ("a choker"), and Marco Rubio ("I have better hair than he does"). His remarks about Hillary Clinton were somewhat more nuanced: "a highly complex person who just can't stay true to herself".

Some of these and other comments that Trump made to Dowd reveal his extraordinary narcissism. But they also show his killer instinct for identifying and exploiting the underlying weaknesses of his opponents. He destroyed Jeb Bush's $130m campaign, for example, by drawing attention to the candidate's "low energy". "That term just hit," he boasted to Dowd, "That was a one-day kill."

At the same time, Trump outlined his own policies - such as they were - in a series of huge rallies where he used what he liked to call "truthful hyperboles" to whip up his audiences' emotions. He also seemed to delight in baiting journalists - even when that involved mocking their physical disabilities.

Faced with such outrageous behaviour, Hillary Clinton seemed like a model of decorum. If Trump came across as the school bully, then Clinton acted like the school swot. In their first TV debate, it was clear that she had prepared to the point of madness. It was equally clear that Trump was winging the whole thing.

The problem for Clinton was that she appeared over-rehearsed and too obviously scripted - while Trump's rambling and incoherent performance somehow seemed more authentic. In the aftermath of Trump's Presidential win, many in the Democratic Party seem in a state of denial.

They have attributed Clinton's defeat to Russian conspiracies, misogyny, racism, anti-Semitism, Bernie Sanders, the FBI, and the imperfect nature of the US Electoral College.

The truth is there was a palpable appetite for change among American voters, and Clinton represented continuity. She also displayed a most unappealing sense of entitlement to the job of President. This was shared by some of her showbiz fans. "It wasn't supposed to go this way", Lena Dunham wrote, "She worked her whole life for the job. It's her job."

Maureen Dowd was astute enough to nail down some of the crucial flaws in Clinton's campaign well in advance of the result. The credibility of many American journalists has been damaged by their coverage of this election, but Dowd's has been enhanced.

Fifteen years ago, I produced a documentary about Donald Trump. At that time, he described his political views to me as "libertarian". Nowadays, they seem to have become rather more conservative. However, his self-regard is on such an epic scale that I doubt if Trump is troubled by many deep-seated convictions.

For that reason, I agree with Dowd that it is wrong to brand him as a fascist, or any other kind of political ideologue.

All that is predictable about Trump is his unpredictability. Which means that the next four years are likely to prove a bumpy ride for the rest of us.

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