Trump: from accidental president to shoo-in
Yet again, Donald Trump might not 'win' the US presidential election - but the Democrats will still lose
At this stage in the last electoral cycle, Donald Trump was being dismissed as a joke. He had entered the Republican primaries in June 2015, and had taken a lead in the opinion polls by mid-July. But almost every pundit was still writing him off as an oaf - loud, obnoxious and utterly unelectable. Like previous celebrity newcomers, he would strut and fret his hour, but there was (all right-minded people agreed) no chance at all that he would win the primaries, let alone the presidency.
Four years on, those assumptions have been turned on their heads. Now, most commentators take it for granted that Trump will be re-elected. With a booming economy and an opposition that seems simultaneously weak, woke and wacky, he is regarded as a shoo-in.
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The change in tone reflects the way in which Trump has turned American politics inside out. The Republican Party has been refashioned into a protectionist, nativist and isolationist movement.
Conservative commentators who, only a couple of years ago, were denouncing Trump as an interloper who had come late and malevolently to their side are now cheering him as he expands the powers of the presidency and the reach of the White House.
Oddly, though, Trump's 2016 win was something of a fluke. When commentators are caught off guard they tend to grope around for vast and satisfying explanations, proportionate to their sense of surprise. Thus, the Trump victory was followed by a thousand op-eds that roughly said: "I didn't see this coming, but now let me tell you why it happened." We were treated to pages of analysis about left-behind voters and culture wars and angry ex-miners in the rust belt and stump-toothed Appalachian mountain-men and blah blah blah.
What all this analysis missed was that Trump's support had been, by any normal definition, low. He won fewer votes than either John McCain or Mitt Romney. He won fewer votes, come to that, than Hillary Clinton. He was outpolled on the day by most of the Republican congressional and gubernatorial candidates with whom he shared a ticket - the vast majority of whom had been standing on small-government platforms.
No, the best explanation of the election result is to be found in the five words that appear on the loser's memoir: "What Happened - Hillary Rodham Clinton".
In an election that the Democrats were cyclically due to lose, and where they could not expect the exceptional turnout from black voters that Barack Obama had inspired, the party put forward an unpopular, entitled, complacent candidate who campaigned in the wrong places. It might seem an unsatisfying explanation, but that doesn't make it wrong. Something similar could well happen next year if, as seems likely, Joe Biden becomes the Democratic candidate.
Trump may have been an accidental president, but the revolution he then initiated was vast. He campaigned more or less overtly against the Republican Party, tearing into its Congressional leaders. He kicked away the props that had held it in place ideologically. He rejected benefits cuts, balanced budgets, American military leadership and free trade. Sure, he also did one or two things that conservatives liked, such as cutting business taxes, appointing right wing judges and reducing what Americans call "the administrative state". But he was not interested in contingent support. He wanted people to give him their backing on his own account, rather than because he was doing things they agreed with. And, by and large, he got his way.
Look at how the Republican politicians who tried to stop him in the primaries are now fawning on him - for the most part unacknowledged and unthanked. Read the paeans of praise from conservative newspapers that used to call him unfit.
Why? Because American politics has now become a tribal, all-or-nothing affair. In their horror at what the Democrats are turning into, Rightists avert their eyes from Trump's flaws.
Evangelical Christians, who used to assert that Bill Clinton's peccadilloes should have barred him from public office, now cheerfully argue that it is fine to pay off a porn star and then lie about it - provided there was no technical violation of campaign finance law.
Foreign policy hawks forgive the way Trump picks fights with traditional allies while sucking up to anti-American dictators ("Chariman [sic] Kim has a great and beautiful vision for his country, and only the United States, with me as President, can make that vision come true" he tweeted on Friday).
Rightists of the Leo Strauss or Bill Buckley schools, who define conservatism as being about restraint, civility, patriotism and decency, overlook Trump's profanities, his greed, his narcissism, his bullying tendencies.
Most bizarrely of all, fiscal conservatives suddenly seem fine with a federal budget deficit touching a trillion dollars a year. Congressional Republicans, who spent the Obama years claiming that such a deficit would destroy America, have just voted to scrap the debt limit. The Tea Party, which had demonstrated in every state for spending cuts, is now on-board with the Trump project.
The worst of it is that this junking of economic liberalism is popular. The number of people who care about balanced budgets turns out to be tiny.
The United States now has two broadly authoritarian parties. One believes in quasi-socialism and identity politics, the other believes in closed borders and economic nationalism.
Both parties appeal to people's resentment rather than to their optimism.
All of a sudden, the limited-government, free-market principles that in many ways defined the republic (though they were regarded as the peculiar property of the Republicans), those principles have been exposed as the obsession of a small elite.
Voters want goodies. They don't care about abuses of executive power when they are aimed at the other side. They are indifferent to process when they happen to like the outcome.
Trump, by accident, through strategy or possibly in some idiot savant way, intuited these things. The others are rushing to catch up.