Category Archives: 2016 presidential election

Hillary wins the debate, but not necessarily the people



Plenty of keyboards have already been called into action to provide quick analyses of last night's stormer of a presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.  To give just a flavour of some of the more prescient online commentary, this is the Washington Post take from Dana Milbank; Howard Kurtz gives a pretty balanced view from the right of the spectrum on Fox News; while the liberal viewpoint is most articulately expressed by Michelle Goldberg on Slate.  Politico meanwhile remains a forcing house of regular and detailed commentaries.

The commentariat consensus is that Hillary won - and unequivocally so.  Even Trump surrogate Rudy Giuliani admitted as much in a tweet he sent.  But Giuliani's tweet also offers - unusually - a proper cautionary note for the Clintonites.  She may win the debate and the plaudits of political insiders, as well as those voters who are more politically switched on than their peers.  Whether the debate will have translated that into an appeal to those who are largely alienated by politics is another matter, and Trump's one decent gambit last night was to keep identifying Clinton with the "failed" political establishment.

We already know that the hard-core Trump supporters will never be convinced by anything other than what Clinton characterised as a "Trump reality" that bears little relation to facts.  What Clinton needed to do was to try and win back some of that support which she appeared to have after the Democratic convention but which has dissipated over the course of the summer.

Certainly Mrs. Clinton exceeded expectations in the debate, while Trump probably came in under his.  All the more remarkable given that expectations for Clinton were already high - she was seen as a capable and professional debater who masters her brief exceptionally well - and those for Trump were correspondingly low - he was seen as a man of bluster and bluff with little regard for the facts.

It turned out to be Clinton who scored the more aggressive hits, on Trump's income tax returns, his "stiffing" of ordinary workers who worked for his companies, or his racism over the Obama Birther affair.  She maintained poise, looked relaxed, went in for the kill with appropriate but not over the top aggression.  She arguably didn't press one or two issues enough.  She could have pressed further on his tax returns, or seized upon his implicit admission that he hadn't paid federal tax in years.  She could have pressed on his pursuit of Obama's birth well after the president made his birth certificate public.  She could have been specific in calling him out as an early supporter of the Iraq war.  But these are quibbles.  The debate went well for her.  The only issue is whether it will have been enough to bring voters back into the fold.

For Trump, the issue is a little different.  He has defied all expectations and all campaigning conventions to get where he is today - that is, within a whisker of winning the White House.  No-one expects him to be articulate, no-one even really expects him to understand and ally himself with facts or, more broadly, the truth.  None of his nearly 40% of hard-core supporters are going to move away from him simply because his blustery one-liners didn't work in a debate, or because he was called out on various contortions of reality, or even because he is a giant narcissist who only talked about himself.  So emotionally based is his appeal that it is impervious to facts and events.   I thought one of his most astute points was when he noted that Clinton had spent hundreds of millions of pounds on television adverts attacking him, while he had spent nothing, and yet they were still level-pegging in the polls.

Trump is the anti-candidate, and to succeed he just needs to continue to exist.  The real issue for America in November is whether enough American voters - especially those in the so-called swing states - are nihilistic, alienated and angry enough to tell reality to go hang and put Trump in the White House.  We already know he can't get there because he is better qualified, or more astute, or has a better understanding of politics, or is a more eloquent and articulate speaker.  He is none of these things and Clinton beats him handily on each one.  Her unpopularity remains mysterious in many ways for a woman who has genuinely dedicated herself to a lifetime of public service, and who has come up from relatively humble origins.  But she is now the single most lethal personification of the politics of old, of the establishment, and if enough people are alienated from all of that, then she can't win them over.

This is an election between primal instinct and rational thought, and rational thought has an uphill battle.  That is why it may not matter that Hillary Clinton won the debate.  Donald Trump isn't campaigning that way, and his support base isn't interested.  So if you haven't yet seen it yet do watch it and enjoy - it was a great and rumbustuous debate (although the audience should have been allowed to make more noise!).  But for all the viewership - the highest for any presidential debate - it may not have mattered much.

The Trump campaign is beyond all reason and is taking America with it

Donald Trump has reached a position of such demagogic lying that no truth will be able to bring him and his campaign back to the realms of sanity.  And the alarming fact is that his supporters will stay with him all the way.

In any rational political campaign Trump should have been finished when he slandered a judge on the grounds of his ethnicity.  The case awaiting that judge's ruling - over the failure of Trump University to adhere to its published prospectus - should also have rebounded firmly against Trump.  This man who parades himself as the saviour of white American working class citizens wilfully conned many of them out of hard earned savings with the false promise of riches through his "university" set-up.  And yet he went on to seize the Republican nomination and runs Hillary close enough in polls to suggest he may well win in November.

Trump's racism and bizarre political headline - to build a wall along the Mexico border - should also have holed him beneath the waterline as a dangerously divisive populist and a spewer of fantasy politics.  It has done no such thing.

Trump's aggressive misogyny towards a Fox News reporter early in the primary campaign should have ruined him irreparably, but he continued to push forward against an anaemic and spineless group of "opponents".

Then came Trump's call on Russia to hack into Hillary's emails.  His willingness to engage the support of a hostile foreign power, and essentially underwrite their own malign interference in America's election campaign, should have made him a pariah, and yet his continued vocal support for one of the world's most corrupt and power-hungry despots, Vladimir Putin, somehow makes good waves for him amongst his legion of supporters.

This week alone Trump has endured - and will survive - his ill-judged criticism of a mother who lost her son in an heroic action against the very Islamic terrorism that Trump claims to defy.  Trump - the man who profited from buildings while others sacrificed their lives in war - is immune to any of the normal standards of decency that might apply in a political fight, and certainly to the higher standards that apply in everyday life.  He calls Hilary Clinton the "devil" (and means it), encourages chants of "lock her up", and spits out venom every time he speaks or tweets.  He now claims that the election will be rigged against him.  He is, to all intents and purposes, a malign man who is completely out of control.

And yet he could be president.  His supporters have remained tight and his party - with a few individual exceptions - refuse to disassociate themselves from him.  We have come to expect men of the calibre of House Republican Speaker Paul Ryan to avert their gaze from Trump on an almost daily basis and keep supporting him.  Ryan long ago lost his backbone in this struggle, and stands condemned as Trump's fellow traveller no matter how awkward he may occasionally seem to be.

But the real sign of alarm for America is how Trump's campaign has infected and is destroying a land once hailed for its openness and freedom.  His attack on a Muslim military mother for staying silent during a convention appearance should have breached the last wall. It almost looked as if it had with Republicans like John McCain and Jeb Bush rounding on him.  But they are mavericks or has-beens and out of the loop.  It's the Trump supporters who bear attention, and they have rallied around him.

Take this story of another military mother who dared to ask an adverse question of Trump's vice-presidential candidate Mike Pence.  As soon as she even suggested that Trump had dis-respected the military, the Trump supporters at the meeting booed her, harassed her and tried to drown her out.  Afterwards, it was she - not Mike Pence, the vice-presidential candidate serving as an empty vessel for Trump's extremities - who received criticism from the crowd members.

Think on that.  Think on the spectacle of an America so utterly subverted that a manipulative, congenitally deceitful businessman whose career has been spent exploiting others, should be seen as somehow more honourable and moral than a mother seeking to defend respect for military heroes.

It is only as that sinks in that you realise the enormity of what is happening in America.  It is a democracy, and it changes not just because of one man but because ordinary people change it.  Trump has already won the votes of over 13 million Republicans.  Despite everything he has said, despite his career history, his refusal to be honest with his tax returns, his frequent and scatter-gun abuse and his friendliness towards America's foreign enemies, this man retains the support of a huge swathe of American voters.  Whether he wins or loses in November - and he has a high chance of winning - America has already changed.  He hasn't changed it.  But he has channeled the hate, bigotry and division of so many Americans that the fabled shining city on a hill really is no more. 

Obama’s poetry called into action one last time

Barack Obama came to public attention through the power of his oratory, and then won the presidency on the back of its soaring, uplifting, optimistic cadences.  He called it into action again, after eight years as the nation's preacher in chief where his ability to persuade a nation and articulate its public and hidden feelings has often been stretched to the limit but rarely found wanting.  His speech to the Democratic Convention wasn't just about supporting the woman he wants to be his successor, or damning, with his customary crisp, light yet lethally wielded authority, her opponent.  It was also about ensuring the longevity of his own legacy.  It was about whether the presidency stays in the hands of someone with intellectual rigour, passion and nuance, or whether it passes to the vulgarian instincts of a self-regarding demagogue.

It was a tremendous speech, a reminder of what it's like to be governed in poetry.  And in defending the character of Hillary Clinton, a woman who has been active in front-line politics for over thirty years, he also called in support the impressive verbal artillery of one of his illustrious Republican predecessors.  Teddy Roosevelt was the man who first referred to the presidency as the "bully pulpit", and he was no mean user of it.  He had no time for the critics who sniped from the sidelines, preferring the endeavours of the person who clambered into the arena to do something, and while yes, this embraces both good and bad, it is nonetheless an invocation to do more than simply carp.  The passage that President Obama referred to is here:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Roosevelt was addressing the issue of "Citizenship in a Republic", speaking at the time to an audience at the Sorbonne in Paris.  As our own democracies and republics face ever greater threats, and as our political class comes under more cynicism and pressure the time is certainly here for more people to actually get into the arena, for there they will not just act for the ideals they hold but perhaps also understand that there is no easy path to any political goal, no matter how virtuous.  That compromise and shortcoming and erring is part of the process.

Obama called many ideas and people into action in his speech, including the very founding fathers who declared their independence at Philadelphia in 1776.  His speech - worth watching in its entirety - was a reminder not just of how far the republic has come, but also of how easily it might fall back into the mendacious hands of an arrogant authoritarian.  It was a terrific call to arms. 

Trump’s disastrous convention doesn’t matter


This year's Republican convention has been a mess.  A delightfully anarchistic mess for those of us who do not wish him well, but a mess nonetheless.  Although he is unchallenged as the Republican nominee, he still faced a floor challenge to his candidacy.  In previous conventions - and you have to go back to 1976 for this - you at least had to have another candidate to rally round, but not this time.

Donald's wife gave a speech that had significant elements plagiarised from Michelle Obama's 2008 convention speech, which gave us the excellent spectacle of hardened Trumpites loudly applauding the sentiments of the current First Lady.

The principal speakers at the convention have all shown clear signs of madness.  Rudy Giuliani, once a respected New York mayor, tried to be Donald Trump on acid.  Chris Christie, once a governor who briefly looked as if he could reach across partisan divides, played his role as chief witch-hunter (prosecuting chief witch Hillary Clinton) to a perfection that would have been admired in Salem back in the day.

Only Ted Cruz - Ted Cruz!! - has emerged with any credit from this nonsense, and he did so by adding to the fiasco.  Unlike Marco Rubio - who prostrated himself on video before the Donald - Cruz used his convention speaking slot to basically stab Trump in the front.  He clearly loved doing it.  I think Cruz is in many respects a repulsive politician, probably in league with the sulphur burners, but he did this bit very well.

Yet despite it all, it probably doesn't matter.  The Telegraph's Tim Stanley makes a good case for suggesting that the conservative Cruz has fatally holed the Trump candidacy, but I'm not so sure.  Trump has succeeded on the back of a lamentable campaign that would have sunk anyone else.  But that is rather the point of Trump.  The media classes and the liberals and all those who hate him have rejoiced in a hopeless, divided convention.

Trump's supporters won't have heard any of that.  All they want to see and hear is their man telling them that all the ills of the world, all of their own poverty and economic dislocation, is down to dastardly forces and people who can be evicted from American society.  He'll tell them that again and they'll lap it up.  He won't lose any of that support on the basis of a lamentable convention week.  

Liberal democracy is in crisis at the moment because it turns out that it has failed to gain the support of significant numbers of left-behind voters.  In America, Trump has those people.  If it turns out there are actually more of them than there are of the many different groups Trump offends, then he's on course for the White House.  His convention plays no role in that calculation.

Ugly, Ugly, Ugly – A sane man tweets a Trump rally



This is appalling reading.  Well, it's appalling reading if you're not a racist, homophobic, mysoginistic, immigrant-baiting, Muslim-banning bigot who also wants to beat up anyone who disagrees with you.

Jared Yates Sexton is a professor and political writer, and he went along to a Trump rally in Greensboro, North Carolina.  What he encountered there was a microcosmic representation of the Trump campaign in all of its ugly, discoloured reality.

Amongst the Confederate flags, drunken attendees, tasteless T-shirts and open misogyny towards Hillary Clinton was a palpably nasty atmosphere.  In the end, Yates concluded that yes, of course Trump should be defeated in the same way that a virus needs to be stopped in its tracks, but that the bigger question was how on earth to combat the deeply unpleasant, hate-filled people who are giving Trump such an extraordinary reach.

Of course Sexton is educated, a liberal, a man who thinks about what he's watching and doing.  Of course he approaches the Trump rally with a sense of foreboding and perhaps even slight derision.  Perhaps someone else would have gone along and seen a happy band of cheerful soldiers celebrating together and rooting for their unafraid champion.

But read his tweets for yourself and see if you think he was making it all up, or reporting accurately from a terrible event.  I wish it had been the former.

[Hat-tip to Politics.co.uk's Ian Dunt, who re-tweeted the Yates tweets]