Trump faces a media audience that has already given him a fool’s pass, writes Fergus Finlay.
ROGER ANGELL is an old man — 96 years of age. A former soldier, he has written for the New Yorker magazine for more than 70 years. He cast his first vote for Franklin Roosevelt, and in this election — which he describes as the most important of his long lifetime — he will vote for Hillary Clinton, with alacrity and confidence, as he puts it.
“From the beginning,” he says. “her life has been devoted to public service and to improving the lives of children and the disadvantaged. She is intelligent, strong, profoundly informed, and extraordinarily experienced in the challenges and risks of our lurching, restlessly altering world …”
Why, when I read passion and wisdom like that, from someone who has spent a lifetime serving his country in different ways, am I afraid? Very afraid?
By the time you read this, one of the most watched presidential debates in history will be over, and the media you’re reading will be full of who won and who lost. For many commentators, the outcome has already been framed. If Donald Trump survived the debate, he’ll be seen as a winner.
If he doesn’t come across as too much of a bully, if he doesn’t get some elementary facts outrageously wrong, if he manages to cement the “crooked Hillary” image that has become his mantra, that may be enough for him.
Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, has to climb a huge mountain. She has to be likable but strong. She has to overwhelm Trump with facts without appearing condescending or nerdy. She has to remain calm in the face of any provocation — and yet she cannot allow accusations to go unanswered.
Hillary Clinton faces a media audience that is, on balance, unreservedly hostile to her and to her candidacy. If she wins the debate, you can expect to hear commentators tomorrow claiming that the moderator let her off the hook. Trump, on the other hand, faces a media audience that has already given him a fool’s pass. Expectations of him in this forum are so low — even among commentators who aren’t on his side — that if he’s still standing by the end some of them will say he did all right.
In short, even though I think Hillary Clinton has the ability to destroy Trump in this first debate, it may not be enough.
I’m a political anorak, of course. All elections fascinate me, and I find myself getting immersed in the coverage of them. But I genuinely can’t remember an election that mattered as much as this one does, not just to the United States, but to the whole world. If it is possible for Donald Trump to win, after a campaign in which he deliberately sought to tap into the basest of human instincts, then we all face a deeply uncertain future.
I’ll come back to why that might be in just a moment. But the fact is that the unthinkable can happen. Just like it was possible for Brexit campaigners to tap into deep-seated fears in the UK, just as it’s possible for the hard left in Ireland to pretend there are easy solutions to intractable problems, it is possible for Trump to persuade a majority of people in the US that a strong man is necessary and that he is it.
If you’re a political anorak like me, you’ll be following the polls in the US pretty closely. Nowadays, we don’t follow polls as much as poll aggregators. The best are Nate Silver and Real Clear Politics, each of whom has a great track record in predicting outcomes based on a highly analytical and mathematical approach to analysing enormous amounts of poll data.
As I was writing this, before the debate, Nate Silver (on his website FiveThirtyEight.com), was giving Hillary Clinton a 57.1% chance of victory, as against 42.9% for Trump. Exactly a month ago today, he gave Clinton 73.5% and Trump 26.5%. That’s how much the odds have narrowed. In his most recent commentary, he says that the medium-term trend in the polls has been toward Trump for a long time now.
“Clinton’s position peaked on August 8,” he says. “Trump has slowly and fairly steadily gained ground since then, closing his deficit by about one percentage point a week to narrow Clinton’s lead from about eight points in mid-August to two points now.” With six weeks to go, it means Hillary needs a game-changer if she is to make her position as solid as it needs to be.
There is no better news in the Real Clear Politics poll average, which shows Clinton slightly ahead everywhere — but only slightly. They work out which states are still “toss-ups” — and if they eliminate them, they have Hillary winning the electoral college by just one vote. They give Trump Florida and Ohio, which have 47 electoral votes between them — if she can turn that around, her margin of victory would be quite comfortable.
But it shouldn’t be this way. Nearly everyone in the United States knows in their heart of hearts that Donald Trump isn’t fit to be President, and that he would represent a real danger to the country’s interests. They know this man who pretends to be up for working people is a complete charlatan, who has screwed working people all his life. They have seen people like him off the stage before — even people just as disreputable when it comes to character but with a great deal more ability.
No, the real fuel that is driving this election is not, in any sense, admiration of Donald Trump. It’s hatred of Hillary Clinton. It’s the same hatred that drove all the opposition to Barack Obama, and made his Presidency such a difficult one. He achieved a great deal, and leaves office with the grudging respect of a majority of the people, but he was fought every inch of the way.
And he was fought by people who won’t admit it, but were determined not to see a black man succeed. Those same people have taken up arms now (in the political sense) against a woman.
Hillary Clinton is the most investigated person in American political history. Mud has been thrown at her again and again, and of course some of it has stuck. But remarkably, even though the investigations have always been started by her political enemies, and prosecuted relentlessly, she has always been exonerated. However, the moment she is, another investigation into something else is started.
If that isn’t enough, she is subjected daily to endless sexism. Her appearance, her voice, her laugh — there is an endless string of commentary that simply wouldn’t arise if she were male. And between the investigations and the sexism an untrue narrative has developed about a shrill, unlikeable, and untrustworthy woman.
The single most important quality in a political leader is character. It’s hard to define, but impossible not to recognise when you see it. This election is between someone whose character has been forged around issues and controversy and hard battles, and someone who is entirely bereft of character. I’m hoping against hope that the debates will begin to show that. But I’m afraid.
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