Barring an act of god, a monumental balls-up on the part of Hillary Clinton, or *ahem* a RIGGED ELECTION, Donald Trump will not win the presidency in two weeks’ time. He will be sent scurrying back to Trump Tower, to complain loudly about whatever conspiracy he dreams up to blame his defeat on, lambast the “mainstream media,” and then get on with the serious business of launching his nascent Trump News Network. Clinton, meanwhile, will get on with the serious business of running the country.
In other words, things will turn out like both candidates wanted. I’ve written here before about the idea of Trump never really wanting to win the election, and the theory that his candidacy was a giant publicity stunt; whether this is or isn’t true doesn’t really matter at this point, since the outcome will be the same either way, in that his candidacy has been a giant publicity stunt. But it’s also been one that will have lasting ramifications for American politics.
For liberals, the day of Trump’s defeat will doubtless be a joyous one, and I suspect even moderate Republicans will take some satisfaction in seeing this arrogant, racist, sexist, bullying, sociopathic kumquat of a man receiving the thrashing that he so richly deserves. The temptation, however, will be to see a Trump defeat as a comprehensive repudiation of the politics he espouses. This would be wrong, and more importantly, it would be dangerous.
A great deal of Trump’s early success came, more than anything else, from the fact that he was Donald Trump. In what was surely the weakest field of Republican hopefuls in living memory, Trump stood out by virtue of the simple fact that he wasn’t one of the functionally identical parade of right-wing Christian fundamentalists. (Seriously, first prize to you if you can tell Mike Huckabee from Rick Santorum from Scott Walker without cheating.) Unlike his competitors, he was brash, charismatic, spontaneous, and did pretty much whatever he wanted. The Republican field, used to working within the informal rules of engagement that Trump completely ignored, didn’t know what to do with him, failing to mount any sort of concerted anti-Trump defense until it was far too late.
The flipsides to the qualities that worked so well for Trump in the primaries have become clear in recent weeks, and the death spiral into which Trump’s campaign has gone is also attributable to the fact that Donald Trump is Donald Trump. Insulting anyone and everyone who crosses your path is a political strategy that can only be successful for so long, for the simple reason that eventually you run out of people to insult. Grabbing anyone who crosses your path by the pussy, if they happen to be possessed of one, is an even worse idea, for reasons that should be self-evident.
Apart from his behavior, Trump’s arrogance has also caught up with him. He made a fool of himself in each of the three Presidential debates because he refused to prepare for them. He isn’t making any attempt to rectify what’s wrong with his campaign because he refuses to admit that there’s anything wrong with it; he isn’t trying to work out why he’s behind in opinion polls because he refuses to acknowledge that he is behind in opinion polls. Come election day, he’s hinted that he’ll just flat-out refuse to believe it if he loses.
Buried in all this noise is the fact that there’s a startling sympathy for his policy among certain American demographics. (No prizes for guessing what those groups are.) If Trump loses in a landslide, liberals will have to be very, very careful to remember this fact; Trump has ultimately been a disastrous candidate because he’s Donald Trump, and because his personal failings have led him to self-destruct, not because America has decided that it doesn’t like his policies.
Indeed, there’s evidence that it’s quite the opposite. This is important, because Trump is arguably the most right-wing candidate fielded by a major party in a Presidential election. As our own Jason Bailey wrote earlier this year, the deluge of Trump’s moments of ghastliness has been such that we’ve become inured them — so let’s remind ourselves of where Donald Trump’s ideas come from. They come from the idea of white supremacy. This is a casually racist candidate who routinely disparages and demonizes immigrants, who has promised to build a wall to keep immigrants out, who has proposed a blanket ban on Muslims, who has accused Black Lives Matter of instigating violence against police. He has a personal history of discriminating against people of color. He’s happily accepted the plaudits of white supremacist leaders.
As if Trump’s racism wasn’t enough, he’s also been toxic for many of our country’s other oppressed groups. In the third Presidential debate, he promised that his criterion for nominating Supreme Court justices would be how eager they are to dismantle Roe vs. Wade. He’s routinely accused the media of being “biased” against him, to the extent that he is effectively suggesting that there is some sort of media conspiracy to get Hillary Clinton elected. And, of course, he’s continually cast doubt on the electoral process itself, suggesting that the election is somehow rigged against him. Expect violence on Election Day. No, seriously.
Again, it’s questionable how much of these idea Trump actually believes, or how much he cares either way, but again, that’s not really the point. Before Trump, these ideas were the preserve of the right’s lunatic fringe. Because of Trump, all these things are now part of of America’s mainstream political conversation. They’re not going to magically disappear on November 9. And the most worrying possibility is this: in four years’ time, we may well see a GOP candidate who has the same ideas, but is less obnoxious than Donald Trump, someone more practiced in the way of sugar-coating fringe ideas for the general public while also dog-whistling true believers.
To anyone who rejects white supremacy, rejects sexism and racism, and rejects far-right demagoguery, this is frightening, and not just because there are clearly many, many people less obnoxious than Donald Trump. Evangelicals have held their delicate Christian noses while supporting the nasty man from New York; imagine how enthusiastically they’d throw their weight behind someone who’s similarly keen on tearing up Roe Vs. Wade but also makes the right noises about God, the Bible and the Rapture. (Someone like Mike Pence, for instance, who’s exactly the sort of god-fearin’ hard right type we might see in 2020.) White supremacists have embraced Trump with glee; imagine how many more people would embrace a candidate who is as sympathetic to white resentment toward people of color but is less overtly obnoxious. And so on.
The damage caused by Trump’s candidacy will last far longer than the man himself. Because of his candidacy, a whole bunch of far-right fringe-dwellers have been invited into the bar. And, as right-wing parties around the world are discovering, once you allow these people through the door, getting them to leave again isn’t easy. At all.