Calling an American election this far out is always sure to involve some degree of knuckle burn. This is the business of making wild swings in the dark and predicting events that are as yet only shadows of the lumpish mass that will later emerge. However, the political game does have a few rules that approach the consistency of celestial mechanics. One is that the character of the individual evident at the start of a campaign is rarely different to the character seen at the end. Ted Cruz was a clumsy candidate at the beginning and that was true at the end when he accidentally elbowed his wife in the face.
Knowing what we know about the two candidates based on how they approached their nominations, we can predict how they’ll run the presidential race. Hillary has had a solid but uninspired campaign; Trump’s inspired but divisive. That supposedly makes the forthcoming fight an easy victory for Hillary. Yet I’d like to throw a wild prediction out there, even if I scuff my knuckles in the process. I’m willing to predict that Donald Trump will win. Donald J. Trump will become the 45th President of the United States.
From the moment he entered the race, Trump has campaigned in a way that others have found hard to understand. He doesn’t play traditional politics so traditional political counterstrategies haven’t worked. You cannot hurt him by simply pointing out his contradictions and inconsistency. His campaign performances are compelling because Trump is unpredictable. It is an unpredictability that might have led to his downfall but the real surprise of the campaign has been that his missteps barely impact his polling. People vote for Trump based not on his policies (he has very few and they change) but his personality. Some people just seem to like the guy.
That analysis might not sound very profound as but we really needn’t go any deeper. It’s this lack of depth that defies Trump’s critics and so many pundits. In the last days of his campaign, Ted Cruz called Trump a ‘braggadocios, arrogant buffoon’ but that was to miss the point entirely. Many people will never have heard the word ‘braggadocios’ and it’s only re-entered the lexicon in this election because Trump uses it often. ‘I say that not in any braggadocios way’ he’ll say yet that is itself so very braggadocios. It is grandiloquent like a Trump building: vain, pompous, and really not quite as important as it seems. And that, too, is Trump. He is boastful, lofty, deluded, and utterly shameless. He will do absolutely anything to sell his project and further his ambition. He is the political spirit of P.T. Barnum, of whom it was once said ‘there’s sucker born every minute’. Except Trump’s voters are not suckers. They are worried, fearful, desperate, and tired of electing saints who turn into rogues. Maybe, they seem to be saying, this rogue will turn into a saint.
My conviction that Trump will ultimately win White House solidified the moment he posted a picture of himself eating a ‘taco bowl’ to Twitter. ‘I love Hispanics’ he boasted. The tweet was widely condemned and has been rightly described as ‘tone deaf’. But the tone wasn’t the telling part of the tweet. The term ‘pivot’ is now used to describe the way that Trump will turn his campaign back towards the centre ground. The taco bowl moment was the first pivot. It was also brazen, shameless, and unsuccessful. However, it was only his first attempt to realign himself with the centre. Months of pivots will now follow; small corrections that individually might not move public opinion by very much but, over time, will bring many around.
If you want to understand why Trump will win, look no further than his appearance in WWE as recently as 2007. The night dubbed the ‘Battle of the Billionaires’ was pure pantomime at the time but feels prescient now. Trump prowled around the wrestling ring, playing to the raw emotions of his audience. To the roar of a very familiar crowd – baseball hats, American flag t-shirts – Trump launched himself at Vince McMahon, knocking the head of WWE to the floor before pretending to punch him into submission. Victorious, Trump then shaved McMahon’s head clean. It was dumb, fake, and utterly ridiculous. And the crowd loved it.
Part of Trump’s genius is that we never once ask ourselves why a real estate tycoon would find himself shaving a guy’s head in the middle of a wrestling match. Nine years later, nobody asked what is a real estate tycoon was doing making comments about the size of his hands in the middle of a presidential election. The answer to both unasked questions is that Trump has fashioned himself out of the American psyche. He is the physical embodiment of the zeitgeist, the larger than life billionaire whose very name denotes a lavish lifestyle.
Hillary would never and could never involve herself in the world of American wrestling. It is not her world. Instead, she wears those peculiar Empire Strikes Back style jackets that make her campaign speeches feel like she’s condemning a member of the Rebel Alliance to time in a garbage compactor. Therein lies her problem. She has difficulty laughing and emotes as though emotion were simply the output from a series of logical operations. (Laugh now. Smile. If response is positive, increase laughter by 42.3%.) Since 2008, she has worked hard to soften her image but it’s not been entirely successful. Remember the rule that personalities never change? Hillary has not changed. She now finds herself limping over the finishing line and will win the party’s nomination but she goes into the election carrying almost no momentum. Had Bernie Sanders not started from such a lowly position, the race would easily have been his.
Even if Trump currently sits far behind Hillary in national votes (and in some very recent polls they are neck and neck), you must also consider the direction of travel. Where does momentum (or lack thereof) carry these two candidates in four or five months time?
On the Democrat’s side, it’s hard to see where Hillary could generate enthusiasm for her presidency beyond motivating voters who are hostile to Trump. On the Republicans side, Trump will pursue an aggressive campaign in the very same way he’s currently engaged in a Twitter war with Senator Elizabeth Warren. He will continue to motivate large swathes of the Republican base as well as disaffected independents. More worrying for Hillary, The Donald is also appealing to some Democrats who voted for Bernie Sanders. That does not conform to the narrative largely put out by some elements of the media who wish the battle were between the traditional centre-left and disaffected hard-line right.
Hillary might also be exposed by the ongoing investigation into her emails. The question of the server in her basement is no longer trivial and we can no longer say with any certainty that she will not be indicted. She is also damaged by her victory over Sanders. In terms of the popular vote, Clinton can still claim legitimacy but the popular perception is that she won because of her superdelegates. In every respect she is the rightful nominee but there is a big difference between that legitimacy and those perceptions. Bernie Sanders has come to be loved by many Democrats and his loss casts a shadow across the Clinton campaign going forward.
None of that is to deny that Trump also has a fight ahead of him in that he is not carrying the support (some would call it the burden) of mainstream Republicans. It’s often said that the name ‘Bush’ is respected inside the Republican Party but is does not evoke much love. Trump is not therefore harmed by the fact that neither former President Bush will endorse him. Instead, he can leverage the wider discontent against what Charles Krauthammer calls ‘the Bush doctrine’. A small point, perhaps, but that foreign policy legacy has been carried forward, in a sense, by Obama. That will now hinder Hillary who has positioned herself as an ‘Obama third term’. Formerly, Hillary could boast of her role in the State Department but it now makes her the voice of the establishment and Trump the outsider. The Republicans suddenly have the anti-war candidate and the Democrats are more closely identified with failed foreign policy in the Middle East. Watch as the word ‘Benghazi’ becomes one of the most powerful nouns in Trump’s lexicon. His new Instagram attack ad does just that in a not-too subtle way.
None of this is to suggest that there aren’t ways that Trump can lose. His own mercurial nature often works to his benefit but also provides a few highwire moments for his campaign team. He is still capable of implosion. The Democrats also have options. Hillary could energize her campaign by shrewdly picking the right running mate. Elizabeth Warren would dramatically change the dynamics of the campaign. Judging by the vehemence with which Trump is now attacking Warren, it looks like he fears her more than he fears Hillary. He has good reason. The senator from Massachusetts is beloved by Democrats and her name on the ticket would motivate the Democrat base like no other. Warren is Hillary’s obvious lifeline if only Hillary would accept such a lifeline.
This far out, that decision is the point at which the timeline splits and where the greatest uncertainty about the course of the future is to be found. Will Hillary Clinton have the humility to recognise her own weakness and address it? Based on her history, it is doubtful that she will. That means, for the moment at least, Donald Trump is on course to not so much win the White House as negotiate a good deal on a five year lease.