Smackdown Politics

Donald Trump Will Tilt the US Presidential Election — but to Who?

The talk in the American media last weekend was about whether Donald Trump met his nemesis in Fox news. By giving him an unusually large amount of favourable attention in the last couple of months, Fox drummed up interest in a Trump candidacy. But at last week’s debates, the tables seemed to turn. He came in for harder questioning than he’s used to, and grew petulant at Fox journalist Megyn Kelly’s pressing for answers. Trump insinuated that she was being hard on him because she was menstruating — in typical Trump fashion, he subsequently refused to apologise for the comment — and later complained that Fox was turning against him. The blogger Nate Silver quickly noted that given the huge popularity and solid trust Fox News enjoys among American conservatives, picking a battle with the network was one that Trump couldn’t win.

The Republican establishment really wants Trump to fail soon. Liberals, on the other hand, delight that he will alienate so many voters that he will tilt the election towards Hilary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee. Comments like those he made last week will certainly do nothing to weaken her edge among women voters. But as I have written elsewhere, while Trump will eventually flame out of this contest, he will indeed tilt the election one way or the other. What’s not yet clear is which way.

At the debate, the candidates were asked to rule out running as an independent if they lost the Republican nomination. Trump wouldn’t do it. His room for growth among Republican voters is limited by the fact that so many people dislike him, so he can’t stack up the votes to win the prize. For a man who makes so much of never being a loser, it’s not clear why he is even running for a position he has to know he won’t win. It’s possible he is so megalomaniacal that he’s the only person that can’t see that. Should he thus persist in his determination to be President by running as an independent, he would carry enough of his diehard support to split the Republican vote. We’d then see a repeat of 1992, when Ross Perot drew so many votes away from President George H.W. Bush that Bill Clinton, who would have likely lost a head-to-head with a then-popular President Bush, was able to sneak up the middle.

But what if Trump were to bow out — not gracefully, which doesn’t seem his style, but just bow out? Some reports suggest he is considering making the pledge he wouldn’t make at the debates, and it may well be that Trump is angling for something else with this campaign (though just what, I can’t imagine: Treasury Secretary?). Then his effect on the race could give Democrats considerably less to cheer about. With his reality-television antics, Trump has drawn huge attention to the Republican race. Fox’s ratings on debate night smashed records. Meanwhile, Trump’s buffoonery and outrageous statements make his Republican contenders, who are otherwise far more conservative than the American swing voters whose support they’d need to draw away from a Clinton candidacy, look reasonable by comparison. Indeed, while the Clinton campaign have tried to write Trump’s statement about Kelly into the Republican ‘war on women’ thread they are trying to make into a narrative of their campaign, the immediate beneficiary seems to be the Republican candidate Carly Fiorina, who has surged in polls.

In bicycle racing or long-distance running, one will sometimes see a runner who can’t win a race lead the pack so as to create a slip-stream for a team-mate. The lead-runner eventually exhausts himself, and his team-mate saves that final burst of energy for the home-stretch. Trump is arguably energising the Republican race, and if he does bow out in the final bend, could help create a favourable wind for one of his team-mates. The Democratic insurgent, Bernie Sanders, who is drawing huge crowds on the party’s left-wing, seems however not to be creating a similar slip-stream for Hilary Clinton. Because her candidacy is still considered to be in the bag, public attention to the Democratic race itself is not rising the way it is on the Republican side. Moreover, rather than make Clinton look reasonable by comparison to himself, something which will count for a lot among swing voters, Sanders is principally reminding many Democrats of how little they are excited by another Clinton candidacy. If they stick with Hilary Clinton, Democrats will be leaving a big hostage to the fortune of Trump’s decision.

This is the season of smackdown politics. Repulsed by the arrogant behaviour of the contenders, we cheer wildly when the charismatic hero runs into the ring and body-slams them humiliatingly. It changes nothing; and it changes everything. Donald Trump won’t be President, just as Jeremy Corbyn won’t be the British Prime Minister and Greece’s Syriza government couldn’t make the German government retreat on austerity. But their insurgencies, and the many others on the extreme ends of the political spectrum that are still brewing (Podemos in Spain, for instance), are shaking up the political establishment, possibly for the better. As I have argued with respect to Syriza, the Greek government may have lost the battle, but in the process drawn the German government into a war it will end up losing.

Trump will lose his battle for the Presidency. But he will also play a decisive role in the outcome of the war.

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