Why don’t we enter a time machine back to 25 July 2015? Donald Trump, the joke candidate, has recently announced his presidential campaign which is expected to politically self-implode well before the primary election season starts in 2016. If you had informed a well heeled member of the Washington Pundocracy that Donald Trump would storm the Republican primaries, winning an unprecedented 13 million votes, he would have looked at you as if you were insane.
If you went on to say that in 12 months time, the Republican Party would have formally nominated Donald J Trump as their official candidate at their convention and that the respected political analyst Nate Silver was predicting that Donald Trump would defeat Hilary Clinton if the election was held on 25 July 2016, he would have laughed uproariously. The thing is that all of the above is true.
The reason I have posited such a scenario is to remind the readers just what an extraordinary achievement Donald Trump has accomplished by becoming the GOP nominee. The experts have dismissed his chances at every stage of the presidential election cycle which is worth remembering when discussing the latest predictions of his political demise.
To use a motoring analogy, Donald Trump accelerated out of the Cleveland Convention with a clear run towards the finishing line as he passed the crippled but dogged Clinton car. Instead of pressing the floor down and heading down the motorway, Trump suddenly swerved left and crashed straight into a truck being driven by the Khan’s. I refer of course to the incident when Trump started a twitter war against the Khan family which escalated after he insulted the mother of a dead American Muslim war hero (“Khangate”). Trump’s poll ratings have since collapsed.
The usual suspects within the Pundocracy are gleefully reporting that Trump is finished. There is no doubt that Trump has made a massive error of judgement and has been damaged by the whole Khangate affair. How he responds to the crisis is critical to whether he can recover and go on to win on 8 November.
Across the Western world, social democracy is dying and populist parties are on the rise. The political sweet spot right now is populist centre-right politics that responds to the multitude of crises impacting our Western societies. Traditional centre-right parties who have dismissed “populist” concerns on immigration, refugees, growing income inequality and the antics of the financial elite have been hammered in the election booth to the benefit of the populists. Where centre-right politicians have succeeded is in utilising the language of anti-establishment populism and responding to and adjusting their policies in the wake of wider public concern on immigration, border security and economic insecurity. Although it is early days the new Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May has cleverly adapted to the new politics of populism.
Donald Trump is a political outsider who has aggressively used political populism to takeover the Republican Party. What Trump needs to do if he is to win over Middle America is to convince the electorate that he is a serious, credible and substantive candidate with governing centre-right solutions to the many problems facing the United States. The general election pivot away from aggressive populism into that centre-right space will be sufficient to win over enough independent voters to win the general election.
The enigma of Donald Trump is whether he is capable or willing to undertake such a shift in his approach, strategy and style with only three months to go before the election. The majority of Americans despise Hilary Clinton and are desperate to elect a change candidate which will move America away from the failed status quo politics of the last generation. Just as the Leave campaign succeeded in winning over Middle England, against the odds, Trump requires the same political magic over the coming months.
What happens if Trump fails to make that transition to the political sweet spot of populist centre-right politics in time? Hilary Clinton would likely win the general election but it would be a pyrrhic victory. Half the population would despise her and there would be little popular support for her aggressive neo-conservative foreign policy. Nor would Trumpism disappear. The combination of economic nationalism, anti-establishment politics and a neo-isolationist foreign policy has huge political potential. Donald Trump’s son and Rudy Giuliani both made superb speeches at the Cleveland Convention laced with the politics of Trumpism. A Clinton presidency would be a final, bitter and drawn out 4 years of failed and discredited business as usual politics before a Trumpist candidate swept the board in 2020.
Overall, it remains to be seen whether Trump will adapt to the collapsing polls and restructure his campaign post-Khangate. Trump does have a track record of responding to failing poll numbers, which he tracks closely, and responding accordingly. I have written before on how Trump successfully revamped his campaign after a series of self-induced errors which culminated in a disastrous defeat in the Wisconsin primary election. In that sense, the bigger the short-term drop in the polls the better for the long-term prospects of the Trump campaign.
Should Trump successfully make that move into the populist centre-right space discussed earlier, the Khangate affair will be considered by future historians as merely a bump in the road to the White House.
Only one thing can prevent a Trump presidency which is Donald Trump. The presidential ball is firmly in his court.