It’s day 4 of the DNC, which, after some early bad humor by a handful of Bernie dead-enders, has been going swimmingly—with, as I read, one good to excellent speech after another (so far I’ve only watched Michelle Obama’s from beginning to end)—contrasting with the disgrace of the shambolic Trump convention last week, which I did not watch at all, save for a brief YouTube or two (e.g. Laura Ingraham’s boilerplate red meat harangue, which was said to crystallize the Trump Weltanschauung). I decided to watch Trump’s acceptance speech three days after the fact but stopped after 13 minutes. Pure, raw, fascist fear-mongering demagoguery—at the most fascist and populist convention in memory, as historian Federico Finchelstein called it—and terrifying to hear in America from a major party presidential candidate. But this is a banal reaction and that has been made by countless pundits and commentators, including numerous Republicans (and conservative ones, not just “moderates”). When the Über-mainstream, centrist, neocon-friendly Washington Post Editorial Board proclaims that “Donald Trump is a unique threat to American democracy,” well, ça veut dire ce que ça veut dire. Quoting Matthew Yglesias, so much has been written and said about Donald Trump’s manifest unfitness for office—and the fear the mere prospect of his victory arouses—that at this point there’s hardly any reason to dwell further on it. Except to emphasize that the problem is not merely Trump but the Republican Party as a whole, including its putatively mainstream, moderate personalities.
Canadian author Terry Glavin, writing on how “America faces a banana republic moment,” nicely summed up the RNC
The Republican Party is gone. Its national convention in Cleveland was a four-day carnival of shrieking vulgarity, a meticulously stage-managed incitement of the lowest and ugliest impulses in the American political character. Its climax was something almost unimaginable only a year or so ago. The Republican nominee for the Office of the President of the United States of America is the loudmouth caudillo Donald Trump.
On Trump’s fascism (small f), or caudilloishness, the parallel with Mussolini has been made by many, including historians way out on the right, but this is a futile, sterile debate, as Trump is a sui generis, very American phenomenon—among other things, he’s much more of a philistine and overall intellectual idiot than any strongman he could be compared to—who wouldn’t be able to rule like a fascist dictator even if he could somehow get around the US constitution. As Slate’s Michelle Goldberg put it after Trump’s mess of a convention
All of this bodes ill for Trump’s ability to govern a country. Nevertheless, we should be glad for his indiscipline, because the one thing standing between Trumpism and full-blown fascism is Trump’s lack of organizational skills. He has no cadres or shock troops. There’s just him, a few lackeys, and the mob of atomized voters who’ve elevated him.
The most obvious contemporary comparison of Trump is with Silvio Berlusconi, made most recently by the FT’s Edward Luce, in a good column dated July 17th, “Trump leads the west’s flight from dignity: The most troubling aspect of his rise is how he is licensing society’s darkest instincts.” Money quote
Comparisons between Mr Trump and Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi are far more apt. A leading Italian scholar, Luigi Zingales, recalls an event at which the country’s former prime minister taunted an embarrassed young woman by making repeated schoolboyish puns about orgasms. The shocking part was not Mr Berlusconi’s boorishness but the audience’s wild applause.
“Such approval would have been unimaginable before the rise of Berlusconi,” said Mr Zingales. “There is no way of measuring the degree to which he has debased public life in Italy.” The same applies to the Trump effect.
Here in France I’ve compared Trump to Jean-Marie Le Pen—with a little Sarkozy and Bernard Tapie mixed in—though this falls short, as, entre autres, JMLP is far more cultivated and erudite than is the Donald. But one comparison that is 100% accurate is that of the Trump phenomenon—of the discourse and those attracted to it—and Le Pen’s Front National. I’ve been saying since last year that the rhetoric and world-view of Trump supporters translated into French is precisely that of FN voters, as one may see, e.g., in this Frank Luntz focus group. In France, these good Americans are FN voters to a tee.
Another striking parallel between Trump and FN voters: I’ve been reading of late about a new book, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by Marine Corps veteran and recent Yale Law School graduate J.D. Vance, who hails from a poor family in southern Ohio (see the excerpt in WaPo). Rod Dreher—senior editor of The American Conservative—has a must-read interview with Vance (h/t Laurie Lewis) dated July 22nd, “Trump: Tribune of poor white people,” which he prefaces with this
The book is an American classic, an extraordinary testimony to the brokenness of the white working class, but also its strengths. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read… for Americans who care about politics and the future of our country, Hillbilly Elegy is the most important book of 2016. You cannot understand what’s happening now without first reading J.D. Vance. His book does for poor white people what Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book did for poor black people: give them voice and presence in the public square.
When Trump said in his convention speech “I am your voice,” he was speaking directly to the poor Appalachian whites Vance speaks about:
Trump’s candidacy is music to their ears. He criticizes the factories shipping jobs overseas. His apocalyptic tone matches their lived experiences on the ground. He seems to love to annoy the elites, which is something a lot of people wish they could do but can’t because they lack a platform.
Further down, Vance says
To me…condescension is a big part of Trump’s appeal. He’s the one politician who actively fights elite sensibilities, whether they’re good or bad. I remember when Hillary Clinton casually talked about putting coal miners out of work, or when Obama years ago discussed working class whites clinging to their guns and religion. Each time someone talks like this, I’m reminded of [my grandmother’s] feeling that hillbillies are the one group you don’t have to be ashamed to look down upon. The people back home carry that condescension like a badge of honor, but it also hurts, and they’ve been looking for someone for a while who will declare war on the condescenders. If nothing else, Trump does that.
This is where, to me, there’s a lot of ignorance around “Teflon Don.” No one seems to understand why conventional blunders do nothing to Trump. But in a lot of ways, what elites see as blunders people back home see as someone who–finally–conducts themselves in a relatable way. He shoots from the hip; he’s not constantly afraid of offending someone; he’ll get angry about politics; he’ll call someone a liar or a fraud. This is how a lot of people in the white working class actually talk about politics, and even many elites recognize how refreshing and entertaining it can be! So it’s not really a blunder as much as it is a rich, privileged Wharton grad connecting to people back home through style and tone. Viewed like this, all the talk about “political correctness” isn’t about any specific substantive point, as much as it is a way of expanding the scope of acceptable behavior. People don’t want to believe they have to speak like Obama or Clinton to participate meaningfully in politics, because most of us don’t speak like Obama or Clinton.
Je dis tout haut ce que vous pensez tout bas (translation here), as populist demagogue extraordinaire Le Pen père would tell his adoring fans. The way Vance presents it, this sizable cohort of Trump voters will be impervious to any and all attempts by the Democrats or anyone else to tear down their candidate, as the election is finally about more than him. Reading Vance, I thought of working class voters in the dying industrial towns of northern and eastern France, who are a core constituency of the Front National. The FN can say just about anything and run candidates for office whom no one has heard of, but it doesn’t matter to its voters, for whom the Le Pen name and FN label is one big projectile to be hurled at the elites—political and cultural, and of both left and right—who run France, and whom FN voters despise.
So can Trump channel the alienation and anger to defeat Hillary? Numerous friends and stateside family members and relatives have been in near panic mode the past week, with the post RNC polls showing Trump taking the lead and, in particular, over an apocalyptic July 21st post by Michael Moore on his website, “5 reasons why Trump will win,” which has people freaking out. More on that below. As for the polls, the RCP average of the eight taken during and after the RNC have Trump up by 0.9% over HRC. As far as post-convention “bumps” go, this is not too impressive. It’s comparable to Romney’s ephemeral one in 2012 and less consequential than McCain’s in 2008; in the latter, the 12 polls taken after the Palin pick had McCain leading in seven—by 2 to 10%—and tied in three, with Obama retaking the lead after two weeks (and before the Lehman Brothers collapse). Unless Hillary’s speech tonight is a dud, she will necessarily get a bump—maybe even a big bounce—in next week’s polls. And unless there’s a damaging revelation or story about her—which, in view of Russian dirty tricks, is not to be totally excluded—she won’t be looking back.
As for Michael Moore’s “5 reasons,” let’s go through them one by one:
1. “Midwest Math, or Welcome to Our Rust Belt Brexit.” Moore believes that Trump is going to go all out to win four Midwestern states: Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, thus giving him a razor-thin 270 Electoral College majority (though any bets on how many of his electors break the faith and vote for HRC, especially if she wins the popular vote?). Before seeing Moore’s piece I was thinking much the same thing, that Trump’s path to victory—his only realistic one—would be to launch a full-throttle assault to pick off Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania—plus holding 2012 red state North Carolina—that would give him a 273-265 majority in the EC. It’s theoretically possible but, in point of fact, not too likely. Here’s what the polls say:
Ohio: The two post-RNC polls have Trump and Hillary in a tie, with the current RCP spread at +0.8 for HRC. Of the 16 polls taken this year, Trump has led in 2, HRC in 9, and with 5 a dead heat. If HRC regains her national lead next week and maintains it, it stands to reason that she will widen her lead in Ohio, not lose ground there.
Pennsylvania: People have been fixated on PA as low-hanging fruit for Trump, even though the GOP has not won the state in a presidential election since 1988. The current RCP spread—there have been no polls in the state for almost three weeks—has HRC at +3.2. Of the 14 polls taken there this year, Trump has had the lead in exactly one (by 2%). This is not a sign of strength. And if he launches an ad blitz in the state, one may be sure that the HRC campaign will respond in kind and then some.
Michigan: Like PA, MI has not gone GOP since 1988. In 2012 Obama won it with an almost 10 point margin. In the 9 polls taken this year, HRC has led in all (by 3 to 16%). Her current RCP spread is 5.2%. There is no objective reason to believe that Trump can put MI into play. If he does and then wins it, it will be in the context of a larger national victory, in which he wins a slew of blue states. Dream on.
Wisconsin: Ditto. WI has not voted Republican since the ’84 Reagan landslide. It looked to be trending GOP in 2000 and 2004 but trended back Dem in the Obama elections. All 11 polls taken this year have had HRC in the decisive lead (4 to 14%). Her current RCP spread is 5.6%. Bottom line: Trump is not going to win Wisconsin. Jamais de la vie.
As for Florida, the ultimate swing state: The current RCP spread has Trump at +0.3, i.e. a dead heat. Of the 18 polls taken this year, HRC led in 11 and Trump in 6. FL is a demographically dynamic state, so its electorate this year won’t be the same as in 2012. But one may be sure that Hispanics/Latinos there—whose proportion of the FL electorate has not declined—will vote for HRC in greater numbers than they did for Obama. And then there are all those Jewish retirees, who are certain to vote Hillary in far greater numbers than they did Obama in ’12. If Trump is going to win FL, he’ll have to go all out to do so, with a sophisticated ground game and tons of $$ for TV—and which the HRC campaign will be doing too. Anyone think Trump is capable of that and outdoing Hillary’s effort while he’s at it?
And North Carolina: The current RCP spread has HRC at +2.0. Of the 13 polls taken in the state this year, HRC has led in 6 (including the last three) and Trump in 6 as well. Obama lost NC by 2% in 2012. HRC has an excellent chance of winning the state. In fact, she will win the state.
Conclusion: On his reason #1, Michael Moore did not make his case.
2. “The Last Stand of the Angry White Man.” Yes, there are lots of angry white men out there, particularly those without college degrees. This is the Trump electorate. Problem for him, it’s his only electorate (apart from conservative Republicans who will vote for their party’ candidate no matter what). As every minimally informed person knows, Trump is being massacred in almost every other demographic, e.g. white men with college degrees, women with degrees or not, Hispanics/Latinos, blacks, Catholics, Jews, Asian-Americans, poor people… Now it is indeed the case that white men without college degrees are a sizable demographic and it is not inconceivable that Trump may do better among them than did Romney in 2012. But given the certain defection of Republican-leaning voters in the other demographics, Trump will have to rack up unprecedented numbers of these white men in order to have a chance of winning. To do this, his campaign will need a sophisticated GOTV operation, plus an organization to identify all those lower-class men—particularly those J.D. Vance talks about—who may not be registered to vote, and then get them registered in time for the election. Needless to say, Trump does not have that organization in place and there is no sign at this late date that he’ll be able to.
Conclusion: There are not enough angry white men out there to swing this election to Trump.
3. “The Hillary Problem.” Yes, she is very unpopular. We know that. Lots of people out there simply despise her. I have long been mystified by the Hillary-hatred but it’s a fact. C’est comme ça. And it is indeed a problem. Three things. First, the HuffPost Pollster has HRC’s popularity at +39.3/-55.4 (and with the portion of the negatives who strongly dislike her very high). But this is the worst it’s ever been for her. Until the email affair broke in March 2015 HRC’s numbers had been been positive and since 2009. And she took an additional hit with the conclusion of the FBI report earlier this month. Barring anything new, her numbers are sure to rise, particularly if she gives a good speech tonight and gets that post-convention “bounce.”
Second, the HuffPost Pollster aggregate of Trump’s current popularity is +37.8/-56.9, which approaches Hillary’s but is still worse. And it’s his highest, or least bad, number ever. One may wager that with his increasingly unhinged behavior and the borderline treason regarding Russia—and all sorts of things yet to come that we can’t imagine—that his numbers won’t be going higher. In short, this is as good as it gets for him.
Third, Democratic and left voters who dislike Hillary will hold their noses and vote for her nonetheless—and particularly in swing states—as they will be, to a man and woman, terrified by the prospect of a Trump victory. Many Republican voters who dislike Trump will likewise hold their noses and vote for him nonetheless, as they simply hate Hillary and the Democrats. But a certain number of Republican voters are so appalled by Trump—and while disliking Hillary, are not terrified by her—that they will sit out the election, vote for Gary Johnson, or even go for HRC. I have no numbers to back this up but am certain that more Republican voters will defect from Trump than Democratic voters from Hillary. On France Inter this morning a French-speaking nitwit American reporter in Philadelphia opined that Jill Stein could attract herds of Bernie dead-enders and get up to 11% of the vote. Bollocks! N’importe quoi!
Conclusion: So long as HRC is less unpopular than Trump, her bad poll numbers won’t undermine her on November 8th.
4. “The Depressed Bernie Vote.” Moore concedes that Bernie voters will, out of Trump fear, go out and vote Hillary—and they will indeed—but that they will do so without enthusiasm, and that the lack of this will depress turnout among young people. If the election had suddenly been held last weekend this would have likely been the case. But the election is happening in three months, during which time presently dejected Bernie supporters will have had time to focus on the actual choice on November 8th. A few big rallies with Hillary, Bernie, and maybe even Obama (Barack or Michelle) in Madison WI, Ann Arbor MI, Boulder CO, Cleveland, maybe Chapel Hill NC, and the young people will be sufficiently fired up come election day, c’est sûr et certain.
Conclusion: Young voters will vote in the same proportion as in 2012.
5. “The Jesse Ventura Effect.” Moore says that we should not “discount the electorate’s ability to be mischievous or underestimate how any millions fancy themselves as closet anarchists once they draw the curtain and are all alone in the voting booth” and that voters sometimes like to play a “good practical joke on a sick political system.” Perhaps, but this is an election for the President of the United States and leader of the Free World, not governor of a state in l’Amérique profonde. And while Jesse Ventura was a colorful personality and an unlikely candidate for executive office, he was not an unhinged, mentally unstable, rabble-rousing, racist demagogue. Come on, Michael.
Conclusion: The will be no “Jesse Ventura effect.” Not in this election.
A couple more things. First, President Obama’s job approval rating is presently around 50-51%. This is hugely important for Hillary’s chances. If Obama were unpopular, this would be a serious, even fatal, problem for any Democratic nominee. But the Democratic POTUS only gets more popular by the month. By the time he leaves office, even Republicans will be regretting him. Second, the unemployment rate is 5.5%. Sure, wages have been stagnant (for over three decades now), the workplace participation rate is dropping, and there are all the other problems. But the objective conditions are simply not there at this historical moment for the American electorate to put a populist demagogue in the White House.
I have a lot more to say on all this. La prochaine fois.