“Can the unthinkable happen?”
That was the question that Democratic partisan Michael Tomasky asked last month in a New York Review of Books article — the “unthinkable,” of course, being the election of Donald Trump as the 44th president of the United States.
Some of the panicked urgency has left the question since Tomasky wrote it. Trump’s usual bluster and bullshit came off terribly in the first presidential debate at the end of September, and he dug himself in deeper on his self-inflicted injuries, like his despicable sexism toward the winner of the Miss Universe pageant that he took over.
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Plus, there’s the steady stream of scandals unearthed by the media. The latest: a New York Times analysis of Trump tax records from the 1990s implies he may have avoided paying any federal income taxes for almost two decades. And as this article was being prepared for publication, Trump’s foundation was ordered to stop fundraising in New York because it isn’t registered properly to do so.
Before the debate, national opinion polls in the presidential race had narrowed to a 1 or 2 percentage point margin for Hillary Clinton — now, the Pollster.com tracking poll has Clinton ahead by 5 points. By early October, Clinton appeared to have regained the advantage in key swing states like Florida and North Carolina, which a few weeks earlier seemed to give Trump a plausible shot at winning an Electoral College majority.
But the race remains fairly close — at least closer than you would expect after considering how despised Trump is, including among a clear majority of the ruling class.
It seems inconceivable that the most unpopular presidential candidate of a major party in the history of opinion polls calculating popularity could actually win the White House. How can we explain Trump’s September surge — and the looming possibility that he could regain lost ground and more before November 8?
During the interminable election seasons every four years, the mainstream media obsess over short-lived factors like candidate gaffes, media strategies and debate zingers. But more important than the day-to-day fluctuations of the campaign are the underlying patterns of the race — the “big picture,” so to speak.
Any understanding of the big picture today has to begin with the seven-year economic recovery from a devastating recession that has only just brought most workers back to where they were before the recession, if that.
In other words, most Americans have experienced a “lost decade” in terms of their living standards. And this is only the latest phase of a long-term decline in the life circumstances of working people over a 40-year period of the reigning “free-market” orthodoxy of neoliberal economics.
Second, the partisan alignment of the US electorate has arrived at a rough equilibrium where, in a two-party faceoff, both Democrats and Republicans start with somewhere around 45 percent of the vote, and the battle is over the 10 percent in the middle.
In the undemocratic Electoral College that actually decides the presidency, the Republicans can count on winning 20 to 22 mostly rural or resource-extracting states in the South, Plains and Mountain West. The Democrats rely on what has been called the “blue wall” of 18 states and the District of Columbia in the Northeast, on the Pacific Coast and in the Upper Midwest — which the party has won in every presidential election since 1992.
Finally, there is the fact that the Democrats have won the popular vote in five of the last six elections and have held the White House for 16 of the last 24 years.
On the one hand, this last fact might bolster the case that the Democrats have a built-in demographic advantage with an increasingly non-white “rising American electorate.” On the other, though, the Democrats’ responsibility for neoliberal rule through most of this period means that the party will also come in for its share of the blame from millions of people who feel their lives are becoming harder year after year.
It’s rare for one of the two mainstream parties to win a third term in the White House after having held the presidency for two terms. This has only happened once since 1945 — in 1988, when Ronald Reagan’s vice president George H.W. Bush succeeded him.
So the historical odds were that Clinton and the Democrats would face an uphill battle to succeed Barack Obama. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that if she had drawn a more “generic” Republican as her opponent, rather than Trump, she would definitely be the underdog in November.
But her opponent is Trump. So what do these pieces of the big picture tell us about the current state of this election?
First, the structural factors of electoral polarization almost guaranteed that the election would tighten in the fall. Clinton’s big summer polling advantages had less to do with voters rallying to her than with a section of normally Republican voters failing to rally to Trump.
As the pull of “lesser evilism” kicked in on both sides of the mainstream divide, the gap between the Democrat and the Republican narrowed.
And second, the underlying economic unease explains why candidates running “insurgent” campaigns against a corrupt political establishment found a hearing in 2016.
This is the main reason why Trump is still popular despite his never-ending buffoonery, which seems like it should have finished him off as a candidate long ago.
But economic discontent was also the source of Bernie Sanders’ popularity among Democratic voters during the primaries — and it explains the staying power (at least as of this writing) of the third-party candidates of the Libertarian and Green Parties, despite the profound differences among them.
No one thought Donald Trump would get to this point — not this newspaper, and probably not the candidate himself.
But it was easy to predict the emergence of a Republican nominee like Trump — running on a “populist” or “anti-establishment” platform that openly advocates nationalism, xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment.
From one perspective, Trumpism is part of a worldwide phenomenon born out of the wreckage of the Great Recession.
In country after country, the financial crisis has pushed mainstream politics to the right. Established governing parties, from mainstream conservatives to social democrats, have embraced neoliberal austerity. That allowed right-wing parties like France’s National Front or Austria’s Freedom Party, which blame immigrants and Muslims for deteriorating living standards, to present themselves as populist opponents of a corrupt status quo.
But there’s a US-specific way to understand Trump’s rise: he’s the Frankenstein’s monster born of a generation of Republican Party politics being dragged further and further to the right.
Since at least the late 1960s, Republicans have been building a political base fired up against the enemy it’s been taught to hate: big government run by liberal elites.
This politics brought together traditional conservatives, who wanted to obstruct government policies that aided minorities such as African Americans, women and other scapegoats, and business conservatives, who could oppose big government’s penchant for taxes and regulation.
But the contradiction at the heart of the bargain was clear: As Corporate America won in its anti-regulatory, anti-union, pro-austerity onslaught, the biggest losers would be millions of poor, working-class and middle-class Americans. Racial minorities would face the harshest attacks, but millions of middle-class and working-class whites — the very people the Republicans hoped to weld to their base — would suffer, too.
The Great Recession has devastated the famed American “middle class.” Job growth has recovered only very slowly, and most of the benefits of the economic recovery have gone not just to the richest 1 percent, but to the richest 0.01 percent.
Millions of people at the middle-income level were ruined or suffered severe setbacks, from home foreclosures to evaporating pensions and retirement accounts. Many were forced out of stable jobs and into lower-paying ones. Others, whose jobs were eliminated or outsourced, have yet to find replacements. Among this social stratum, many people became more open to far-right politics.
The relative weakness of the US left has only made the problem worse. Until the Wisconsin Uprising and Occupy Wall Street in 2011, there was virtually no expression of politics challenging the status quo from the left in a generation. Unions have been largely inert or dedicated to closing ranks with the Democratic Party.
In this context, the right wing got a big head start in capturing and consolidating a base for the form of “populism” that Trump represents.
Trump has exploited this opening. As a well-known huckster of everything from luxury condos to Trump Steaks, he has managed to pull the biggest con of all: representing himself as a champion of hard-working Americans facing threats from trade or immigration.
For someone whose “brand” has always been about flaunting his (real or imagined) wealth, that’s a feat of P.T. Barnum-esque proportions.
That’s certainly how David Cay Johnston, author of the recently published The Making of Donald Trump, sees it. Johnston’s short book, based on almost 50 years of reporting on Trump and his business dealings, portrays him as “remarkably agile at doing as he chooses and getting away with it.”
Johnston details Trump’s history of discriminating against Black tenants in his apartments, his hiring of undocumented workers and forcing them to work in unsafe conditions at substandard wages, and his various associations with scam artists and mobsters, to name just a few highlights of his career.
Trump never had to do a day of honest work in his life — he inherited his wealth. Johnson shows that he relied on government regulators and major banks to protect him from financial ruin when his casino empire went bankrupt in the early 1990s. He made political contributions to both parties to curry favor with politicians.
Trump employs an army of lawyers and accountants to concoct ingenious ways for his organizations to avoid taxes and wriggle out of contractual obligations if it suits his bottom line. Lawsuits settled against him are usually sealed by the courts, making it very difficult to check on what Trump and his associates admitted to while under oath.
Recounting how, in 1990, New Jersey casino regulators took Trump’s side when his creditors were coming after him for $3 billion in unpaid debts, Johnston wrote:
Donald Trump was saved — saved by the government deeming him too big to fail — from getting his just desserts for reckless spending. The state of New Jersey had favored the interests of Trump over those of his bankers and the people who invested in those banks.
In other words, The Making of Donald Trump chronicles someone who exemplifies the “rigged” game that big business and the political establishment plays. Trump is cut from the same cloth as all those “too big to fail” Wall Streeters that both Berniecrats and Tea Partiers hate.
Yet the myth persists that Trump is an anti-establishment figure who will change this rigged game.
There’s a myth piled on top of that myth, too — because the media insist that Trump’s core support comes from the “white working class.” What’s the truth about this assertion?
To the media, the “white working class” is usually defined very loosely as whites without a college degree. But the idea that the working class can be categorized by education level produces a number of problems. While it may be easier to count someone’s degrees than to classify their jobs, this obscures the diversity of political beliefs held by this segment of the population.
Non-college educated, non-Latino whites make up about 44 percent of the US population. This group is majority female and, for the most part, works in what we might call white-collar jobs.
A minority of this group — by some estimates, one in seven — is small business owners, who most likely approach politics from the point of view of the boss. This segment should be considered middle class, not working class.
The solid data we have from the primaries shows that much of Trump’s support came from middle-income voters. Polling expert Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.org found that Trump voters reported a median household income of approximately $72,000, much higher than the national average.
Further, just under half of Trump voters — around 44 percent — reported having at least a bachelor’s degree. While that’s less than the percentages of college graduates who voted for other Republicans, it’s higher than both the overall national rate of college graduates — about 29 percent of the voting-age population — or among white adults, which was about 33 percent.
In other words, if you look closely at who actually voted for Trump, you soon realize that his supporters look a lot more like the middle class than the working class.
This isn’t to discount the working-class support that Trump has, nor to pretend that workers are somehow immune to his appeals. Even in the heyday of New Deal liberalism — when between one-quarter and one-third of workers belonged to unions — about a third of union members voted Republican.
What is certain, however, is that the group that has experienced the greatest downward mobility in the past 40 years is people without four-year college degrees. According to a Pew report, non-college high school graduates are more than twice as likely than in 1971 to be in what Pew defines as “lower-income” households.
These statistics show why Trump’s narrative of “American decline” — for which he proposes himself as the solution — can be so seductive: The living standards and working conditions for Americans in the middle of the income ladder have decreased.
At the same time, weakened union and social movement organization has mounted few challenges to the miserable conditions that the working class faces. Just like their middle-class counterparts, the US working class can easily fall into the despair that Trump preys on.
Clinton has chosen to run as the steady custodian of the status quo. She’s even made a strategic decision to try to separate Trump from other Republicans and campaign for GOP support.
As a result, we hear very little about the proposals in the supposedly “most progressive Democratic Party platform ever” — while Clinton’s advisers wonder why she’s not pulling the same levels of support with the “rising American electorate” that Obama did in 2012.
If Trump does end up winning in November, the key reason will be that he won enough votes in crucial states from people who want change of some sort — away from Clinton, a candidate who has been a pillar of the Washington political establishment for almost a quarter century.
Hillary Clinton’s whole political career aids and abets Donald Trump’s con job that he is an “outsider” who will shake things up and look out for “ordinary Americans.”
So if Michael Tomasky’s “unthinkable” happens, Hillary Clinton and the Democrats will have no one but themselves to blame.