Wednesday 21 March 2018

Bumpy ride to the White House

From Trump's verbal assault on Mexicans to Clinton's startling stumble, it has been one of the most bizarre campaigns. Niall stanage reports

Donal Trump announces his presidential candidacy
Donal Trump announces his presidential candidacy
The recent FBI announcement casts a new shadow on Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton had a startling medical episode at the 9/11 commemoration
Donald Trump announces that he is to seek the Republican nomination for US President. Photo: AP

On Tuesday night, the most bizarre US presidential election campaign in memory will come to a close. Either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will become president-elect of the most powerful nation on earth.

This year's contest was not inspirational, in the manner of Barack Obama's 2008 win; nor did it usher in a new era, as was true of Bill Clinton's victory in 1992 or that of John F Kennedy back in 1960.

Instead, it featured the two most disliked nominees of modern times; a campaign where the drama was often appalling rather than appealing; and a genuine fear that a significant slice of the population will not accept the election's outcome. How did we get here? Here are six landmarks along the bumpy road.

June 2015: Trump launches

Donald Trump announces that he is to seek the Republican nomination for US President. Photo: AP

Pundits and political professionals considered Trump a joke when he launched his campaign in June 2015. His White House bid was seen mainly as an exercise in self-promotion. This attitude persisted for months afterwards - the Huffington Post website made a point of covering Trump in its 'Entertainment' section for a time.

But there was a sign of what was to come in that first speech, particularly when Trump turned his attention to immigrants from Mexico. "When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best… They're sending people that have lots of problems…They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people," he said. Outrage ensued - and there would be plenty more to come.

December 2015: Muslim ban

A mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, put Americans on edge last December. Fourteen people were killed by a husband and wife - Muslims who had apparently become radicalised over a period of at least two years. President Obama called the shooting an act of terrorism, but Trump went much further.

In a statement, he demanded "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States." Such a blanket ban, if it were ever to be enacted, would face immediate challenge since it would appear to violate the fundamentals of the US Constitution. Trump himself watered down his stance later in the campaign. But the willingness of a major candidate to make such a call was yet another shocking development.

January 2016: Hillary Squeezes Home in Iowa

When Clinton announced her second bid for the presidency, there was no one on the horizon who seemed likely to give her a serious fight for the Democratic nomination. And when veteran left-winger Bernie Sanders, an independent senator from the small state of Vermont, threw his hat into the ring, most political insiders predicted he would be swatted aside.

It didn't turn out quite like that. Surfing a wave of popular discontent about the state of the nation - and colossal inequality of wealth in particular - Sanders came on strong. He fell just a fraction short on a couple of key occasions, none more important than the first contest, the Iowa caucuses. He lost in Iowa by less than one-half of a percentage point. But Clinton's difficulty in rebuffing Sanders pointed to some of her own weaknesses as a candidate.

September 2016: The Clinton stumble

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Hillary Clinton had a startling medical episode at the 9/11 commemoration

A common feature of Trump's campaign was his willingness to push theories that usually resided on the fringes of conservatism into the mainstream. He did that again in late summer, implying that Clinton had serious health problems and casting doubt on her "stamina".

Suggestions that the former secretary of state suffers from grave, secret ailments are commonplace on right-wing websites, despite a lack of evidence to support them.

The issue would not have been a problem - if Clinton had not experienced a startling medical episode while attending a September 11 commemoration in New York. Clinton's campaign team belatedly admitted that she was suffering from pneumonia - but by then much of the damage had been done. Video footage shot on a mobile phone showed Clinton in a state of near-collapse as she was helped into a waiting vehicle.

October 2016: "Grab 'em by the..."

Trump dealt with numerous self-inflicted controversies during the campaign. Arguably the worst came only one month before Election Day. A videotape emerged of Trump chatting candidly with a TV presenter, Billy Bush. The tape dated back to 2005, but it featured the future presidential candidate talking about women in lurid and sexually aggressive terms.

In a quote that became instantly infamous, Trump declared that his celebrity enabled him to "do anything" to women. "Grab 'em by the p***y. You can do anything," he added.

The disclosure was disastrous for Trump. His campaign went into a tailspin in its wake, with other Republicans fleeing from him. There were even rumours he might drop out of the race.

October 2016: The FBI intervenes

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The recent FBI announcement casts a new shadow on Hillary Clinton

Clinton was just 11 days from Election Day and apparently coasting to victory when things changed in an instant. The director of the FBI, James Comey, announced that agents had found new emails that "appear to be pertinent" to the bureau's earlier investigation of Clinton.

The earlier probe had examined whether Clinton was guilty of any crime, such as disclosure of classified information, when she used a private email address and server while working as Obama's secretary of state.

In the end, Clinton was cleared of any criminal offence, though Comey did blame her and her aides for being "extremely careless". But the recent announcement casts a new shadow on her - and breathed life into Trump's sails when he needed it most.

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