Friday February 28, 2020

US presidential election: "Boy, we are living in a time"

With seven weeks to go, Donald Trump is polling particularly well, writes Siobhán Brett

20th September, 2016
Trump campaigns in Florida Pic: Getty
Hillary Clinton greets world leaders gathering for a United Nations general assembly in New York Pic: Getty

Shortly after last week’s instalment was published, I received the following message from a friend, brief and off-the-cuff. “Here, Trump is going to win, isn't he?"

In the last seven days, this message has come to mind a lot. It has at times seemed more prescient than it was intended.

Donald Trump is polling particularly well. “Hillary Clinton’s lead in the polls has been declining for several weeks, and now we’re at the point where it’s not much of a lead at all,” Nate Silver wrote last Friday.

Silver’s post at FiveThirtyEight is headlined: “Election Update: Democrats Should Panic…If The Polls Still Look Like This In A Week”. We have seven to go.

There is just Trump

In the last month or so, something has been made of Trump's "pivot" – gentler tweets, fewer self-indulgent outbursts, a certain leavening of his positions with the incorporation of trite statements, but the events of the last week prove that the Republican candidate has undergone nothing like a fundamental change.

John Cassidy at The New Yorker highlighted it on Sunday: “As one of [Trump’s] own surrogates freely admitted during a panel discussion, there was never a ‘new’ Trump."

“There is just Trump—a noisy but hollow shell, who is willing to say virtually anything, at any time, with blatant disregard for truth or decency, but who also had enough wit about him a month ago to read the polls and realise that…he needed to tone things down a bit. On Friday, with some of the polls turning in his favour, he apparently felt confident enough to allow himself some more leeway.”

During a speech in Miami last Friday, he suggested Clinton's security detail be disarmed in order to "see what happens to her". “This kind of talk should be out of bounds for a presidential candidate,” Robby Mook, Clinton's campaign manager, said in a statement. Should be, should be.

Edward Luce, writing in the Financial Times this past weekend, used "gaffe" with reference to the Miami comment. But “gaffe" tends to be inaccurate when it comes to Trump. His remarks aren't slip-ups or blunders, or not normally. Normally they are intentionally provocative and intentionally unsavoury, delivered à la pantomime king.

Amid preposterous fanfare of his own creation Trump hosted a press conference last Thursday at a new Trump hotel in Washington DC with a view to backpedalling on his "birtherism", that is, the conviction and/or claim that Barack Obama was born outside the US. He did that, after months of resisting, in two throwaway sentences. It was predominantly, as people observed on Twitter, a hotel opening.

Yesterday, Trump bragged about “calling it”, the “it” in question was the bomb that exploded in Chelsea in Manhattan last weekend, injuring almost 30 people. “I should be a newscaster,” he declared during an interview with Fox yesterday, giving himself credit for pre-empting police confirmation of the fact.

“…and nobody knows what’s going on,” Trump said, diluting his supposedly clairvoyant announcement in its immediate aftermath. “But, boy, we are living in a time. We better get very tough, folks. We better get very, very tough.”

False equivalence

The expectations of Trump, diminishing daily, allow him to press ahead. The media has turned this into something of a refrain in recent weeks. He keeps getting away with it, commentators exclaim.

Trump’s hair was ruffled by household-name chat show host Jimmy Fallon last week in a display that appalled many liberal commentators. His tax returns remain secret. Certain company records, the variety of which one might expect to be made public during a presidential run, have been similarly withheld.

Revelations as to the propriety of the Trump Organization, its ties, and its dealings, which might have been devastating, may as well have not been laid out by Newsweek, so limited the attention afforded them.

Yesterday, Donald Trump Jr. posted to Twitter a stock photograph of a bowl of Skittles(please, take a moment to laugh at the sentence “This image says it all”) alongside a clumsy and bigoted analogy, if it could be called that.

Last Thursday, Trump’s son said the media would be “warming up the gas chamber” if a member of the GOP behaved like Clinton did. Censure is not altogether absent for these “gaffes”—it can be found, here and there—but nor does the Trump campaign alter its tack, even slightly. Nothing is taken back, nothing is deleted.

It could be argued there is a chink of light on the horizon for Clinton and her supporters. Next Monday is the day of the first presidential debate. In six fifteen-minute segments, the candidates have an opportunity to be evaluated very differently.

The double standard that has gnawed at Clinton supporters until now will not be readily replicated on a moderated stage. The three topics to be covered are “America's Direction”, "Achieving Prosperity”, and "Securing America”. Make of these what you will, and see you then.

Further reading

If you have yet to see Barack Obama rage against the dying of the light, or so it feels, the speech he gave at the 2016 Congressional Black Caucus on Saturday is on YouTube. It is characteristically bright and sharp, fluid and even, but comes uncharacteristically close to incandescent from 15:00, and is worth watching for it.

At Politico, Todd S. Purdum charts what he calls “the hardening of Hillary”, a process he explains has been going on for years as the media leans on her and belittles her, leading to a conservatism in approach that is now construed as opacity or dishonesty.

Some number crunching by Philip Bump at The Washington Post , who points out that “winning”, in Trump vernacular, can have different meanings. This piece was written before the Clinton campaign was sending e-mails (as it did just last night) featuring lines like “the situation is changing” and "polls have shown a dramatic tightening of the race…some even show Trump winning”.

If you can set aside some time, Evan Osnos wrote a very lengthy, very detailed and tremendously disquieting piece for this week’s New Yorker about the shape Trump’s first term in office might take.

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