Wednesday 21 March 2018

Sordid campaign that will change the face of US politics forever

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton cookies are on sale at the Oakmont Bakery in Oakmont, Pennsylvania Picture: Reuters
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton cookies are on sale at the Oakmont Bakery in Oakmont, Pennsylvania Picture: Reuters

Ruth Sherlock

It began at the foot of a golden escalator in Trump Tower, Donald Trump's glitzy New York headquarters. Mr Trump, the well-known billionaire and reality TV star, launched his presidential campaign in June 2015 to collective guffaws from the political elite.

"We are going to make our country great again," he said.

Mr Trump announced that he would build a giant wall to keep Mexicans out - and make Mexico pay for it.

"When Mexico sends its people," he said, "They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists." The most bizarre US election season in recent memory had begun.

On the other side of the aisle, there was little jostling for the Democratic presidential nomination. Few wanted to challenge former first lady and secretary of state Hillary Clinton. But she ended up with a bigger battle than she expected when Bernie Sanders, the septuagenarian socialist senator from Vermont, loped out from a side door of Congress and announced to a small cluster of journalists on the lawn that he was going to run. Young people began appearing at his rallies, attracted by his opposition to "big money America" and the promise of free university tuition.

With Mr Sanders whipping his supporters into a frenzy, Mrs Clinton found herself parodied on comedy shows for a lack of charisma. Her slogans, "I'm With Her" and "Stronger Together", failed to resonate like Mr Sanders's "Feel the Bern". The political veteran pulled off an early upset in Iowa in the primary contest and stunned pollsters when he also won Michigan.

Meanwhile, the Republican primary was being shaken up, too. Mr Trump was abrasive, arrogant and ineloquent - and gaining ground. Scandals that would have killed other presidential campaigns, such as a call for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the US, only saw him rise in the polls. In the primary debates, he joked about the size of his genitalia and suggested moderator Megyn Kelly was asking unfair questions because she was menstruating.

He also used the debates to annihilate his opponents with crippling monikers which, once uttered, appeared to stick.

Jeb Bush, the brother and son of former presidents who believed his time had come, was nicknamed "low-energy Jeb" and duly faded away, along with "Little Marco" Rubio, and "Lyin' Ted" Cruz.

A field of 17 Republicans was eventually whittled down to one and it became official: Mr Trump was the Republican nominee.

Mrs Clinton also won her primary race, but emerged bruised from the fight.

As well as the battle with Mr Sanders, she faced an FBI investigation into her use of a private email server while she was secretary of state.

In July 2016, she was cleared of criminal wrongdoing, but FBI director James Comey's strong rebuke that she had been "extremely careless" was useful fodder for her rival.

She emerged as the second most unpopular major party presidential nominee in modern American history - Mr Trump being first.

At a September 11 memorial service, Mrs Clinton was filmed collapsing and had to be bundled into a car, leading to wild rumours about her health. Supporters of Mr Trump suggested she had a brain tumour. Mrs Clinton later explained she had pneumonia.

By the first presidential debate Mrs Clinton had learnt that she needed to get down in the dirt. She pummelled her opponent, calling him sexist, racist and a tax dodger. She also introduced the story of Alicia Machado, a former Miss Universe whom Mr Trump had called "Miss Piggy" when she put on weight. It was a turning point, and polls showed her building a lead.

Just as it seemed the campaign could not get more sordid, the appearance of a 2005 tape revealed Mr Trump making crude remarks about women and boasting how his fame meant he could "grab them by the p****".

Mr Trump dismissed the remarks as "locker room talk". Then around a dozen women came forward to say they had been victims of Mr Trump's unwanted advances. At the second debate, Mr Trump tried to hit back by bringing up sexual allegations against Mrs Clinton's husband, Bill, seating the accusers in the front row. But the damage to his campaign was done.

Mrs Clinton's poise in such an extraordinary situation won the respect, if not the enthusiasm, of many voters, and it seemed that, finally, the election was hers.

As desperation set in, Mr Trump began ranting that the election was "rigged". In the final debate, he declared that he would keep the country "in suspense" and might not accept the result.

Mrs Clinton then suffered the ultimate "October surprise". With just 11 days to go, Mr Comey announced that the FBI was scrutinising new emails that were "pertinent" to the previous investigation of Mrs Clinton's private server. They were discovered on the computer of Anthony Weiner, the ex-congressman accused of sending explicit messages to a 15-year-old girl, and who was married to Huma Abedin, a close Clinton aide.

Mrs Clinton's poll numbers started to turn; Mr Trump performed at his rallies with glee. Then, in another shock just two days before the election, Mr Comey revealed that nothing incriminating had been found in the emails. Mrs Clinton was in the clear.

As the campaign drew to a close, many Americans were reportedly seeking therapy for high levels of stress brought on by the election.

And with so many of the accepted rules of engagement broken, American politics will never be the same again. (© Daily Telegraph London)

in Washington

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