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Despite the far-reaching importance of the result (for America and the West more broadly), I cannot deny that I have become rather exhausted by the 2016 Presidential election. And I am far from alone.
Back in July of this year, Quartz.com reported that “after nearly two years of media speculation, around-the-clock coverage of bitter primary battles, and an escalating contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton that has engulfed social feeds, two-thirds—67%—of 18- to 35-year-olds say they are worn out by news coverage of the election, the Pew Research Center has found… And the rest of the population isn’t far behind. The November election is almost four months away, but most Americans are already sick and tired of hearing about it from the news media. Fifty-nine percent say they are spent by the exhaustive news coverage, according to a Pew survey.”
One can only wonder how such people feel at this point, after a further three and half months of rolling, droning debate and endlessly repeated talking points.
So, if you’ll forgive me for mentioning the election once more, what effect will this ‘election fatigue’ have on the final result? Which candidate stands to benefit? There is every reason, I believe, to speculate that Hillary Clinton will bear the brunt of this phenomenon and that Donald Trump has the most to gain from it.
Conventional wisdom and political polls have agreed for some time that Hillary Clinton is almost a dead cert for the presidency come November 8th. But this confidence is based on methods of collecting data which do not allow for the factors of voter apathy and simple laziness.
UK pollsters, you will remember, made the very same error back in June with respect to the EU (Brexit) referendum. Right up until the day of the vote, the remain campaign enjoyed a comfortable lead of two to three percentage points over leave. Indeed, so pronounced and consistent was this finding that Nigel Farage himself speculated on the evening of June 23rd that remain had ‘edged it’.
The pollsters were wrong in that case, commentators have decided in retrospect, because they did not factor in the passion and commitment of the leave side and the corresponding deficit of passion and commitment of remain. When the day of the vote came around, the leavers poured out onto the streets in massive numbers, while millions of remainers stayed away from the polls for no better reason than laziness and a mistaken belief that their side was predestined to win comfortably.
The Brexit referendum was done and dusted in a relatively short space of time. The US Presidential election has been, in accordance with warped tradition, dragged out for over a year now, enough time for passions to diminish except in the hearts of those most committed to their favoured candidate.
No-one is passionate about Hillary. No-one has ever been passionate about Hillary (and I include Bill in that). Trump, by contrast, has long inspired an almost fanatical, even spiritual devotion in his supporters. Despite the polls and pundits saying what they will, it may well be this lop-sidedness, the superior passions of the Trumpsters, that ultimately settles this contest in the GOP’s favour.
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ICYMI, this was Trump’s best speech of the campaign so far. He placed his candidacy in the broader historical moment, justifying the extraordinary nature of his platform.
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In seven days time the first of four presidential debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will take place in Hempstead, New York State. It is probably fair to say that no such debate has been as hotly anticipated in recent memory as this one now is. The debate marks the biggest test Donald Trump has faced since the launch of his candidacy for the Republican nomination back in 2015. It represents a vital trial of the New Yorker’s presidential character, professionalism and natural wit.
Hillary Clinton, now lagging behind Trump in many national polls, will be placing a lot of her hopes on the debates. Unlike Trump, the Democrat is a natural when it comes to conventional political combat. She – and her team – will be hoping (and expecting) Trump to be suffocated by the polite constraints of traditional procedure and to show his unease by lashing out wildly at Clinton’s character, appearance, dress sense, femininity, etc. Put simply, they hope and expect Trump to suffer a meltdown.
Whilst I would love to say that Clinton’s strategy is unrealistic, I cannot, as it is perfectly feasible. Trump’s Achilles heel, as he has proven time and time again, is his volcanic and unpredictable personality, his tendency to hit back after every real or perceived slight with much greater force and immaturity than is required or appropriate. All Clinton has to do in these contests is provoke that kind of reaction. All she has to do is poke the tiger until it growls.
This is the most obvious and likely strategy for Hillary to pursue, but there are other possibilities open to her. The rabidly pro-Clinton Washington Post made the following suggestions for their preferred candidate: “Take (Trump) up on his word. He said he “regrets” certain things. Invite him to apologize to Judge Gonzalo Curiel or the Gold Star parents of Capt. Humayun Khan… Another tactic is to press him on empty and unintelligible answers. Trump rarely completes a sentence or can articulate any level of detail about his proposals. When Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and CNN’s Dana Bash tag-teamed, forcing Trump to explain what was in his health-care plan, it became patently obvious that he had a whole lot of nothing to offer. She can certainly take a page from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s book (used against Rubio) in pointing out that Trump repeats the same platitudes. Tell us, Donald, what’s your plan to reduce crime in Chicago? Have you ever sat down with law enforcement?… There are oodles of issues (such as the nuclear triad) about which Trump knows nothing. Challenge him to spell out his stance on net neutrality, the South China Sea and student loans. In other cases — the minimum wage, repayment of U.S. debt and immigration, of course — he has been all over the lot. Force him to pick a position and explain why he has said the opposite.”
Trump’s strategy for the debates is less clear at this point in time. When asked about his intended approach, the Republican has wisely dodged the question, explaining that he would prefer to not give anything away to the opposition prior to the event. We can thus only speculate.
I have a inkling that Trump’s strategy will hinge on portraying Clinton, as he has done all through his campaign so far, as ‘crooked’, dishonest, corrupt and in the pocket of the financial elite; an image he will then contrast with his own man-of-the-people persona.
The email scandal will undoubtedly be raised repeatedly, with Trump going off track and questioning Clinton directly about the thousands of inexplicably deleted messages. He will also link these questions to the issue of the Clinton Foundation and its highly suspicious ties to foreign leaders (including foreign and Islamic dictators).
This approach will carry Trump some of the way, but not all of it. He will need to have more strings to his bow prepared if he is to the win the debate outright.
To arrive at the best strategy for winning the debates, Trump would do best to look at what has carried him through the process thus far. I would say that, more than anything else, it is his credentials relating to the Islamist threat that have won over the hearts of patriotic American voters (including true liberals and Democrats). His positions on ISIS, Muslim immigration, Syrian refugee policy and other connected issues have been wildly popular with a broad cross-section of American society. Pushing hard on Clinton’s weakness on Islamism will pave the way for a very important ideological touchdown.
It is possible that in the days that remain before the November election there will be another Islamist atrocity somewhere in the world, perhaps even in the Western World*. This will serve as a timely reminder of how extraordinary the problems we (as a civilisation) face really are, and thus how inappropriate it would be to elect an ordinary candidate to solve them.
The Islamist challenge is so total and grave that all other issues melt under its heat. Trump and his team must realise this fact and base their approach on it. Sure, there are problems with the American economy which require ironing out; sure, illegal immigration from Mexico is undermining American sovereignty and nationhood; sure, the trade deficit with China is growing at an alarming rate. But none of these issues are new or so extraordinary as to justify the American electorate taking a risk on a provocative and unconventional candidate (and that, undoubtedly, is what Trump is). Trump’s presidency is so unique and strange a prospect that he must build an equally strange and unique context in which it will seem appropriate and necessary. The only way he can achieve this, in my opinion, is with reference to the Islamist threat.
At the debates, Trump must be specific about how he will deal with this extraordinary issue. Soundbites, however popular they may be, should be avoided. It simply isn’t enough to say things like “We need to get tough and we need to get smart.” This is so vague as to be meaningless. Trump must map out a strategy for pulverising Islamism, demolishing it so severely that it will not dare raise its evil head for decades to come.
*Today, as I write, debris is once again being cleaned up from the streets of a Western city. In Manhattan, NYC, two bombs have exploded, injuring almost thirty innocent civilians. Meanwhile, in the peaceful, Scandinavian-American State of Minnesota, eight people have been stabbed at a shopping mall, the attacker allegedly interrogating potential victims as to their religious beliefs prior to attacking them.
These are indeed extraordinary times. They require an extraordinary leader. Next week in New York, Donald Trump would do best not to try and make himself seem ordinary, but rather embrace his uniqueness, tying it to the uniqueness of the times in which we find ourselves.
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As you may have heard, conservative commentators Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity aren’t getting along with each other at the moment. Over the past few days, the two men have used their respective soapboxes to trade well-mannered – but cutting – pot-shots, all the more surprising for the fact the two were once close personal and ideological friends.
At the root of this newfound animosity lies the 2016 election and specifically the nomination and candidacy of Donald J. Trump,
Hannity, an employee of the Fox News Network, has thrown his lot behind Donald Trump’s presidential bid with great enthusiasm, becoming over time the most reliably pro-Trump voice on the mainstream media.
Glenn Beck, a former employee of the Fox News Network, has, by stark contrast, reacted to Trump’s nomination with damp-eyed despair and tremulous unease. On his popular ‘Blaze’ media network, Beck has repeatedly refused to endorse the businessman (despite considerable pressure from his subscribers) and argued passionately and consistently that Trump represents a grave threat to American stability and democracy, perhaps even greater than that posed by Hillary Clinton herself.
This disagreement between Beck and Hannity (and by extension between Beck and Trump) represents in microcosm a much larger philosophical cleavage in the American conservative movement.
As must be clear to even the most casual political observer, Donald Trump is not a ‘conservative’ of the traditional American style – or at least not of the modern American style. True, he supports a strong military and emphasises patriotism and law and order, but he also opposes (or treats with suspicion) the growth of economic globalism and the concept and ideology of American foreign policy. True, he celebrates the record of past Republican greats like Ronald Reagan and Abraham Lincoln, but he also trashes the record of recent Republican leaders like George W. Bush.
Trump is not a tribal Republican, or a tribal conservative. With his notion of ‘America First’, he is a self-conscious throwback to the old, pre-World War 2 American right-wing; the school of thought which argued that America is, for all its greatness, a country like any other country; that America is exceptional, but not so exceptional that it is duty-bound to make itself representative of the variety of the world.
Trump is also a much less religiously-minded candidate than recent conservative leaders. Though professedly a Christian, he does not make frequent references to his faith and nor does he frame his policies with religious language or support them with religious explanation.
Most importantly of all, Trump would appear to agree with the Old Right idea that America has an original and organic culture, distinct from and superior to those of other Western countries, which must be protected from the transformative effects of mass immigration.
Glenn Beck represents a very different breed of reactionary, as opposed to Trump’s way of thinking as can be imagined. A self-described constitutionalist and religious fundamentalist, Beck elevates only the most abstract and intangible aspects of America, prioritising concepts like faith, freedom and flag over real-world issues like demographics, economics and jobs. Beck adheres to and celebrates a philosophical-spiritual conception of America, while Trump bases his patriotism more-or-less in reality.
The United States has always been in some ways an experiment. Numerous eminent figures, from Thomas Paine and Ralph Waldo Emerson to Ronald Reagan and Christopher Hitchens, have discussed America as a concept and ideology as well as a flesh and blood nation. This is quite unique, globally considered. Nobody discusses (seriously at least) the idea of Austria, the concept of Algeria, or the meaning of Burkina Faso. America is different. It can be (and often is) thrown into the abstract.
America is ‘freedom’. America is an ‘experiment in self-government by the people’. America is the ‘material form of the constitution – and thus of the enlightenment which produced it’. And so on. These lofty philosophical conceptions of America have dominated its politics for centuries.
As an article on the right-wing website RedState put it: “The United States is a unique animal. Not only is it a country, but it’s also an idea. People around the world don’t just dream of coming to America, they dream of becoming Americans. Many have and continue to risk their lives to do so. It’s one thing to risk your life escaping the Soviet Union, Communist China or even Communist Cuba. Those people were or are running from something, trying to go anywhere else. It’s another thing altogether to risk one’s life to come to a place… And that place is more often than not, America…America is somewhat unique in the history of mankind – or at least in the last 2,000 years. People may dream of moving to Paris for the romance and the food, but they don’t dream of becoming a Frenchman… One almost has to go back to the Roman Empire to find something similar to the idea of America. There, outsiders not only dreamed of living in Rome, they also dreamed of becoming Roman… and could do so. The idea of becoming a Roman citizen actually meant something beyond just living in the Empire or being subject to its laws.”
Trump represents, perhaps more than anything else, a dramatic deviation from this way of thinking.
Trump sharpens America, with everything he says, into something tangible and worldly. He considers America with reference to how it has been and can be, as opposed to how it might be on some ethereal, philosophical plane of thought. He is a realist – and like all realists he is inevitably accused by his opponents of being ‘crude’ and ‘simplistic’. America, for Trump, is not an academic thesis. It is a community of living, breathing human beings. Those who (like this blogger) possess a degree in politics and economics dislike this idea precisely because it isn’t something you need a degree in politics and economics to understand.
As the reader will recall, during the primary contest for the Republican nomination, Trump’s only real rival was Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a man who had been, prior to Trump’s lightning ascendency, the favoured choice of the party’s grassroots. Cruz represents, even more than Beck, a patriot of America at its most intangible. His political rallies during the primary season were hardly political rallies at all. They were more like Baptist conventions or prayer meetings. Cruz talked about salvation and virtue more than he talked about tax and immigration. He referenced the aspirations of the constitution more than he referenced the aspirations of the voters themselves. He spoke almost exclusively about America as idea. And the voters were fine with that, but only until Trump offered something more down-to-earth.
The US constitution that Cruz and Beck so adore is a fine set of principles. Let there be no confusion about that. It is not, however, a piece of holy script which should, in every case, over-rule the lessons of empirical reality. It is also unhealthy (and rather sinister) to experience or suggest an emotional response to it. Glenn Beck has been known to cry when talking of the constitution. He has spoken favourably of writers like W. Cleo Skousen, a Mormon fundamentalist who implied in his bestselling work ‘The 5000 Year Leap’ that the constitution was a perfect, divinely authored document, almost as infallible as the Bible itself. This is fanatical thinking. It is madness. And it is no wonder in this sense that Beck backed Cruz, with all his lip-trembling devotion to America as sentiment, as philosophy, as spiritual idea.
Trump, like Samuel Huntingdon before him, understands that America is not an abstraction, unresponsive to changes in worldly reality, but a material something, as vulnerable to worldly forces as any other material something. Unlike the idea of America, the reality of America will not necessarily be the same thing if the people are replaced over time by mass immigration. As Herder proposed, a nation’s culture is the product of its people, not the other way around. The changing situation on the ground in America matters immensely as to what is to become of America.
Slowly but surely, and despite a long tradition of supposing otherwise, Americans are coming to regard their country as something real, substantial, mortal and delicate. Even if Trump goes on to lose in November, that genie will not easily be forced back into the bottle.
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So, did he blow it? Is Trump-mania beginning to die away in the wake of disastrous 2nd debate? That’s certainly what the press seems to think. Take this from The Atlantic: “Trump turned in a remarkably listless performance, buffeted by his rivals’ attacks, frequently sputtering or struggling to respond. His trademark bluster repeatedly failed him; the celebrity who has coasted to first place thanks to his larger-than-life persona seemed decidedly life-size. Pundits across the political spectrum unanimously pronounced him weakened and diminished.”
Or this from the Washington Post: “In the middle of Wednesday night’s main Republican presidential debate – that is to say, well over an hour into it – Donald Trump seemed to vanish. The voluble businessman came out of the gates punching everything in sight and then just… stopped. He didn’t literally leave the stage. But it was like when you only notice that the air conditioning has been humming loudly after it’s been shut off.”
Or this from CNN: “It was a wild night at CNN’s GOP debate.. and it took a toll on Donald Trump as he sparred with Carly Fiorina and Jeb Bush and sustained attacks from just about everybody on the stage.”
I don’t disagree with the basic gist of these points. Trump did have a sub-par debate compared to his first appearance, and other candidates have gained ground as a result. I don’t believe, however, that Trump is ‘finished’ as a candidate. Far from it.
The attempts to humiliate Trump during the debate fell rather flat, I found. Even Carly Fiorina much celebrated put-down – relating to an admittedly stupid comment Trump had made about her appearance – did little to reduce his popular advantage. I remember no comment made by the tycoon that did not attract raucous applause (and often vocal endorsement from identifiably female members of the audience). What’s more, since the debate, Trump’s poll performance has not declined but improved across the board. If this was supposed to be the car-crash of Trump’s campaign, it failed to scratch the paintwork.
Trump will continue to gain in the polls for as long as his rivals choose spin over emotion, and political correctness over honesty. Millions of ordinary people find Trump’s no-nonsense approach exhilarating, liberating and entirely appropriate to the times we find ourselves in. This is, as Trump notes, a world in which Christians are fed to dogs, beheaded and often crucified, in which Mullahs seeking the end of days are actively developing the tools needed to bring it about, and in which challenges to liberal democracy are flourishing on the back of amoral Chinese investment policies. This is an age that requires the old American way of doing things, the way of Macarthur, Patton and Eisenhower. And of the republican candidates featured at last week’s debate, only Trump would appear to offer anything resembling that approach.
Obama has given the enemies of America 8 years of weakness to take advantage of, and in Russia, China, Mexico and elsewhere they have taken it. Trump promises to make up for this. He promises to ‘Make America Great Again’. And with the right support and advice, I believe he may be up to the task.