Up till now it seemed as if Conquest’s third law of politics – that the simplest way to explain the behaviour of any organisation is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies – applied most readily to the Trump campaign. Surely only a Democratic sleeper agent buried deep inside the GOP would encourage their candidate to insult a Gold Star family or repeatedly offend large sections of the electorate?
But then came the ‘basket of deplorables’ followed by the news of Hillary Clinton’s health troubles. No Republican mole within the Clinton campaign could generate two stories that more perfectly highlighted what are often considered to be their candidate’s weak spots: that she is out of touch with ordinary Americans and that she always has something to hide.
The damage has (temporarily) been done and the recent arrival of some bad polls makes a bad week for the Democrats even worse. The latest NYT/CBS poll shows a virtual dead heat and at the time of writing FiveThirtyEight estimated only a 60 per cent chance of the Democrats taking the White House.
Panic is tempting but not necessarily called for, yet. Polls show that Clinton actually outperforms Trump in terms of how many voters consider them trustworthy, although both do dismally. With the first debate just over a fortnight away its likely that the world will move on and ‘pneumonia’ and ‘deplorables’ will be to 2016 what ‘cling to their guns’ was to 2008 – a speed bump rather than a stoplight for the Democrats on the road to the White House. Above all, no voting American lacks a pre-existing opinion of Clinton’s trustworthiness and so for many the events of the past week will either be dismissed or used to confirm existing views.
Attributing bad polls directly to bad press is also risky. To do so exaggerates the impact of short-term gaffes that pass many voters by and downplays the long-term factors that explain why a candidate like Trump is still in contention in November and why it is the toss-up states like Pennsylvania and Florida that are keeping things so close.
A recent book by Boston Globe’s Michael Cohen on the 1968 election, American Maelstrom, shows how two losing political candidates – George Wallace and Barry Goldwater four years earlier – reshaped conservatism from the left and the right. In doing so both gave voice to many of the forces pushing Trump, if not to victory, at least away from defeat.
For much of the primaries it seemed the GOP was going to pick another Goldwater; a hyper-conservative totally unable to reach an accommodation with the electorate. The build-a-wall, ban-the-Muslims Trump fits this description. Goldwater’s stance against civil rights in 1964 allowed the GOP to become the party of the white backlash four years later. Although he would lose badly to Lyndon B Johnson, Goldwater would still win over whites in the south and northern cities that had traditionally been Democrat territory, building a conservative coalition for decades to come. Like Trump he campaigned by fuelling fears of crime (especially in the cities) and anger that minority groups were the ones benefitting from government programmes.
But, unlike Goldwater, Trump is no conservative ideologue. The combination of nativist Trump combined with anti-establishment, anti-trade and often anti-business Trump recalls the coalition assembled by Alabama Governor George Wallace in his various unsuccessful runs for the White House. Populist, anti-government but always tinged with racism, a description of Wallace’s campaign in 1968 could be copy and pasted to profile a Trump rally today. His supporters, Cohen writes, were ‘the ignored, unheard and unlistened to …they constituted both haves and have-nots – those who believed they had been left behind and those who’d made progress into the middle class and didn’t want to fall back.’
The parallels are not perfect – historical parallels never are. But they do suggest that Trump is riding a long wave of conservative and populist forces that stretch back decades rather than years or months. Even if it (hopefully) ends in his defeat it does not seem that his ideas are going anywhere. Nor does it seem that a few days of bad headlines for the Democrats can really explain what is going on.
Charlie Samuda is a former adviser to the Labour party and is studying at the Harvard Kennedy School. He tweets @CharlieSamuda
Oxford University Press | 448pp | £18.99
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.