Trump’s repeated ability to destroy himself and his general election campaign is matched only by his ability to sort-of recover.
There are two observations that help explain it.
First, he had a brilliant political insight: A significant portion of Americans feel that government and politics are run in the interest of elites, and ignore the harsh economic realities they face. Republicans had become the party of corporations and failed austerity economics. Democrats had abandoned the losers in a globalized economy and were focused on identity politics. In many ways, Trump was right.
Second, his primary campaign was almost flawless. He battered and punished 16 prominent Republicans. They had no effective response, being part of the elites and of failed economics, and lacking rudimentary political skills.
It took a while for Democrats to figure out how to counter this phenomenon. Eventually they stopped trying to argue policy and issues, and focused on disqualifying him personally. It’s worked well so far. Trump is losing not because he will lead the country in the wrong direction, but because he’s personally unacceptable to voters.
Unlike Swift-Boated John Kerry, outmaneuvered Al Gore, or hapless Mike Dukakis, Trump’s wounds are entirely self-inflicted. At least five times he’s done things that caused revulsion in swaths of voters. And it doesn’t seem to matter much.
Mocking Serge Kovaleski
Trump mocked a Times reporter with a genetic condition that makes one arm unusable. The image pierced the defense often used by Trump defenders that he’s a truth-teller not constrained by political correctness. It was unimaginably cruel and voters recoiled.
Attacking The Khan Family
After a poignant and effective appearance by a Gold Star family at the Democratic Convention, Trump assailed their religion and their character. It was again cruel and unnecessary and a different swath of voters were repelled.
The infamous tape was not only disgusting, it was an admission of criminal conduct. It morphed an inchoate feeling that Trump was disrespectful to women into a consensus that this person is unfit to lead the country.
Refusing to prepare, and refusing to learn the Nixon/Bush lesson about image over substance, Trump sniffed, scowled, pouted and interrupted his way to disaster. He seemed unprepared to be president, mean and unpleasant.
After a moderately improved performance in Debate 3, Trump stepped on himself by challenging the widely held view that we accept the election results and transfer power peaceably. He could have complained about the fairness of the campaign and the accuracy of vote counting, but went that extra and unnecessary step to de-legitimize the American system. Instead he de-legitimized himself to a chorus of boos from Republicans and Democrats alike.
And he’s still only five points behind in the polls. It doesn’t seem to matter.
This is a cautionary tale for Democrats especially. The broad progressive agenda that is emerging for the first hundred days of the Clinton administration will be ambitious. It will, in fact, incorporate policies that speak to the needs of the disenfranchised Americans who have flocked to Trump. It will be equally as important to include those folks in the rhetoric of a newly empowered progressive agenda.
Hillary will understand this, as will the emerging leadership of a progressive movement facing a country where over 40 percent of voters find acceptable a man who said and did things that no presidential candidate has ever contemplated. But the country needs an effort to build coalitions that go beyond an effective Left. That’s the task that will define Hillary’s first term.