The Trumpocalypse: Democrats underestimating the Donald

Way back in September, I wrote a long opinion piece on why I didn’t think Bernie Sanders was a viable candidate. Re-reading the article now, I still stand by most of what I said—even if I underestimated Bernie’s longevity. However, what stuck out to me more than my focus on Bernie was my lack of focus on Donald Trump.

In my piece, I highlighted Trump’s “blatant xenophobia and devil-may-care rhetoric,” and his ability to electrify the most extreme Republicans. However, I ultimately came to the conclusion that “you can’t win an election in America based on pompousness and bigotry.” I dismissed him much like Jeb Bush did when he quipped, “You can’t insult your way to the Presidency.” Now, Bush has suspended his campaign and Trump is in first place.

So, what happened? I think there are two key factors that have led the GOP to their current Trump versus anti-Trump nightmare. First, there was the sheer number of candidates. On September 10, 2015, there were 17 men and one woman vying for the nomination. Nine of them were governors, five were senators, two were business leaders, and one was a neurosurgeon. With only so many issues to distinguish themselves, it should come as no surprise that the Donald’s unique brand of smug hyper-patriotism caught the public’s eye. With the exception of a few days last November when Ben Carson took the top spot, Trump has consistently led national GOP polls since July. It seems that no other GOP candidate can match Trump’s level of pomp and charisma, which has propelled him to the top.

The second factor behind Trump’s success stems less from Trump and much more from the electorate at large. While I don’t want to paint Trump’s popularity as being wholly based on reactionary voting, it would be naïve to dismiss it. The bulk of Trump supporters are white, male, and working class who want a candidate that “tells it like it is.” Many Americans have been shocked that his comments disparaging women, Muslims, Latinos and even the goddamned Pope haven’t meant a death knell for Trump. But, for many of his supporters, Trump is the best chance they have to “make America great again.” After eight years of a black president, the legalization of gay marriage, the Affordable Care Act, and a national demographic shift that’s turning against them, many conservative white males feel threatened. Any candidate that can make them feel justified in their fears is bound to do well. Sadly, even if Trump does lose, his electorate will persist. Don’t be surprised when there’s a Trump 2.0 in 2020.

Many Democrats may ask why Trump is a problem for them though. After all, many pundits have already discussed how Trump has a low voter ceiling, has zero executive experience, and is prone to statements that alienate citizens. According to polls by the Huffington Post, only 37 percent of Republicans have a favorable view of Trump. Even if Trump somehow wins the nomination, he’d lose by a historically embarrassing margin in the general, right? Right? As time goes on, I’ve become much more skeptical of a guaranteed Democrat victory, even against Trump. Part of this anxiety comes from the fact that the Democrats aren’t as solid as we may think.

I’ll quickly qualify that point. Even though Clinton and Sanders supporters have had their disagreements, they are nowhere close to the open warfare the GOP is currently engaged in. Nonetheless, a November Quinnipiac poll found that 60 percent of Americans thought Clinton was untrustworthy, a figure larger than those who thought the same of Trump (58 percent). While there aren’t statistics on what percent of that number are Democrats, it can be reasoned that a significant portion of Democratic voters are wary of the former Secretary of State.

With the primary season now underway, both the Clinton and Sanders campaigns have escalated their criticisms of one another as well. While this is normal, the ideological schism between the two may lead to some voters abstaining from the general election once their candidate drops out. In all likelihood, the nomination will go to Clinton, which makes this especially problematic. Much of Bernie’s base is made up of young people, a historically flakey bloc of voters. If their candidate loses, Hillary faces an uphill battle in trying to keep them engaged in the process and bringing them to the polls in November.  Once the specter of political revolution evaporates, why would they go to the polls?

More than anything else, I worry primarily because, since the beginning of this election cycle, the Democrats—much like everybody else—underestimated Trump. We can paint him as a racist, sexist, bully as much as we want, but he has proven himself as a skilled—if repugnant—politician. It is true that he is unlikely to win the presidency in his current form, but as Timothy B. Lee of Vox has argued, Trump does possess the skills to appeal to general election voters. Lee’s purported strategy: “stop saying racist and sexist stuff, pretend he never said racist and sexist stuff, and say whatever he has to appeal to swing voters.”

This may seem convoluted and near impossible, but not for the Donald. If Donald Trump had a spirit animal, it would be a morally-bankrupt chameleon. Think about this. In 1999, he told Meet the Press that he was “very pro-choice” and that same year he proposed a wealth tax on the top earners. In 2005, the Clintons attended his wedding to Melania Knaus. As recently as 2012, he described Hillary Clinton as a “terrific woman.” Trump has flip-flopped between being a Democrat and a Republican several times, even joining the Reform Party for a time. Yet now, most Americans see him as a poster boy for the far right akin to France’s Marine Le Pen or Australia’s Pauline Hanson. Not bad for someone who joined the GOP a mere seven years ago.

Now the question is, with someone as polarizing as Trump, how could he possibly attract moderate voters? First, he would have to dial his discriminatory comments back. By getting rid of the bigoted aspect of his persona, he has a much greater likelihood of attracting swing voters. Swing voters are often low information voters, so even if they’ve heard about Trump’s past comments, they may not see it during the general election and thus soften to him. While far right Republicans may be annoyed by this turn of events, they are still more likely to vote for Trump than live to see the day Hillary Clinton enters the Oval Office. Meanwhile, Clinton may be unable to rally young voters to her aid, especially if Donald Trump is no longer the monster he was seen a few months prior.

We are still eight months away from the election, and a lot can change in that time. Eight months ago, Jeb Bush was the frontrunner for the GOP and Bernie was still relatively unknown. I don’t know whether Trump will remain steadfast to his nationalist rhetoric or change course. Hell, we don’t even know if he’ll get the nomination. But for all of my new doubt, I still think Bush was right. You can not insult your way to the Presidency.

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