Every so often, history dishes up an awful convergence of events that leave great nations with horrific leaders -- who then go on to create even worse crises. If you think Donald Trump is too bizarre, too reckless, too racist, too ignorant, or too contradictory to get elected, think again.
By the usual rules of politics, Trump should be lagging Hillary Clinton by twenty points. But he is down by less than five, depending on which poll you read.
Clinton just had a terrible week, and so did America. Collisions of racial catastrophe should not play into the hands of Donald Trump, but they do. Clinton's handling of emails should not offset Trump's lunatic pronouncements on foreign policy, but they could.
FBI Director James Comey, terming Clinton's handling of emails "extremely careless," hands Trump a ready made campaign commercial and undermines Clinton's claim to be a steady, reliable hand on national security. Comey contradicted several other Clinton assurances. He basically made a liar of her. Though Clinton escaped indictment, the email affair reinforced the broad perception that she chooses not to play by the rules, and is not a trustworthy person.
And there could be more to come. Comey, testifying under oath, was asked point blank whether the FBI had an open investigation of the Clinton Foundation, and declined to answer.
If there are more Clinton scandals, or a major terrorist attack in the fall, or more racial tensions leading Americans to yearn for a strongman president, the election could be a very close one.
There are reports that Trump could name a senior military man as his running mate.
One leading candidate is retired Lt. General Michael T. Flynn, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, a man who loathes President Obama.
That would make a ticket of two outsiders, a businessman and a general, in a year when politics as usual are broadly discredited. Flynn could plausibly claim to be at least as knowledgeable about national security as Clinton.
By running as an economic populist, Trump appeals to longstanding working class grievances that neither party had taken seriously enough, least of all the Wall Street wing of the Democrats. Fuse this with dog-whistle racist appeals, and you have a Republican candidate who can be competitive in several states that Clinton needs to win.
If Trump were to carry, say, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, and the rest of the states split along the usual lines, Trump would win the Electoral College and the presidency, 273 to 266.
Ohio and Michigan both have Republican governors, and in Pennsylvania Republicans control the state legislature. Recent polls show Clinton ahead by just 2.3 points in Pennsylvania, 2.5 in Ohio, and four points in Michigan.
In principle, the presence of a plausible third-party candidate, former New Mexico Republican Governor Gary Johnson, who is running on the Libertarian line, should hurt Trump. But in practice, Johnson seems to be hurting Clinton more, by giving a third option to Republicans who can't stomach Trump but can't quite bring themselves to vote for Clinton. In a 3-way match-up, Clinton's lead over Trump narrows.
So what is to be done, if the country is to be spared President Trump?
Message to Bernie Sanders Supporters: You make think that Hillary Clinton is an opportunist and a sellout. Think a little harder about which president brings you closer to the kind of America you want, and which presidency creates more space to organize a broad progressive left.
History is littered with leftists who expected that bringing the far right to power would be good for them. You can visit their graves.
Message to Bill Clinton: Spend the next four months playing golf or getting to know your grandchildren. Go on a long mission to check out the condition of the polar ice caps. Stop kibbitzing -- this is difficult enough!
Bill's impromptu tarmac visit with Attorney General Loretta Lynch forced Lynch to recuse herself and turn the issue of Hillary Clinton's emails over to FBI Director Comey. Some believe that Bill knew exactly what he was doing; and that he did his wife a favor by getting the email issue out of the way in July rather than having it surface in October. Others think that if Bill had not pushed aside Lynch, Hillary would have been spared the FBI director in a public speech testifying to her bad judgment and misrepresentations. Either way, the less we see of Bill, the better.
Message to Barack Obama: Right now, the country desperately needs some leadership on the subject of racial healing. You can be utterly eloquent when you rise to the occasion on this issue. The right sort of speech can appeal to the best in us -- and isolate the haters. Your approval ratings, and credibility, are far higher than those of either Clinton or Trump. Just do it.
Oh, and please stop pressuring Democratic delegates on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, your administration's parting gift to Wall Street. Were it not for your meddling, Sanders and Clinton delegates on the Democratic Platform Committee would have agreed to straightforward language opposing TPP. Instead, we have mush and the prospect of a divisive floor fight -- both gifts to Trump.
Message to Democratic Convention Delegates: This is your moment to be the grown-ups in this election. A week before you gather in Philadelphia, the Trump forces in Cleveland will seek to show what a totalitarian convention looks like -- no dissenters permitted at the microphones. Democrats have a chance to model democracy, deliberation, debate -- and then party unity.
Message to Hillary Clinton: You can't change your history, but you can campaign as a more convincing progressive. You simply can't let a fraudster billionaire outflank you to the left on the question of who cares more about working people.
Good start with your shifts on the minimum wage, TPP, and student debt.
Now, name a senior economic team without a single adviser from Wall Street.
Message to the Media: Do your job! When Trump pretends that he didn't know that an anti-Hillary message on a Star of David shape, against a sea of hundred dollar bills lifted from a neo-Nazi message board might be anti-Semitic, call him on it. And then call every leading Republican and ask them to disavow Trump. This times a thousand.
Message to America: Is this who we are?
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and professor at Brandeis University's Heller School. His latest book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility. He is author of Drumpf: the Musical.
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