Thinking About President Trump

It appears that nothing Donald Trump says deflates his standing in the polls. The more outlandish his comments, the more his support grows.

The Washington Post recently reported on a focus group conducted by arch-Republican strategist Frank Luntz with 29 Trump supporters. Literally no argument Luntz could devise shook their faith in Trump -- but only reinforced it.

America has been a sitting duck for a figure like Trump for a long time. The combination of a deeply eroding democracy, the downward mobility of white men other than the top ten percent, and the fusion of shallow media celebrity with politics -- all this has created tinder as vulnerable to conflagration as a brittle forest after years of drought.

Combine these conditions with a real threat of terrorism that is bewilderingly complex, and the right celebrity bully -- and you have a perfect storm for an American Caesar.

The ruling GOP elite that commissioned Luntz's focus group is in panic mode, as it should be. And the Hillary Clinton campaign is no less alarmed.

Consider the deeper preconditions, one at a time.

First, more and more Americans are simply disconnected from government, politics and civic life. They are deeply cynical. Voting turnout keeps falling, especially among lower income people.

The collapse of civic life means that too many Americans don't pay attention, don't have well informed views, think all politicians are crooks and phonies anyway, and are habituated to view everything as entertainment. The more of anti-politician a figure like Trump seems, no matter how boorish or mendacious, the better.

What the hell, the regular crowd hasn't fixed the economy or saved us from terrorism. This guy at least talks tough and doesn't take any guff from either the PC people or wimps like Jeb Bush.

When citizens do not pay attention, they do not bother to disentangle fact from fiction. They are not competent to play the role of truth squad. If Trump's claims are outright lies, it doesn't matter as long as they are simple and reassuring.

Second, the working middle class has every reason to be deeply disaffected. And here, the corporate elite that is now so alarmed by Trump is getting what it deserved.

For three decades, corporate executives have taken advantage of every opportunity to better down wages, destroy job security, and turn good working people into disposable parts. At some point, people have had enough.

It would be lovely if their reaction were to fight back by joining unions. But the corporate war on unions has been so successful that the protest is not well focused. Instead, the result is rage against the machine in general, fitting a well-established pattern of support by long-abused working people in diverse countries for fascism.

Third, add to those ingredients an over-the-top media circus, where nothing is too outrageous -- and the audience that grew up on South Park and Survivor smoothly segues into the Trump candidate channel. The media have trained us to cherish hyperbole. It doesn't get more hyperbolic than Trump.

Oh, and add a black president who has been a lightening rod for hate from day one. He took his oath of office on the Koran, didn't you know?

Doesn't it matter that Trump makes things up? Don't Americans care whether their chief executive has a grasp on reality? Apparently, large numbers don't.

But could Trump actually be nominated and even elected president? Yes, I think he might.

Here are some ways:

The need to collect petition signatures would further energize his legions of supporters. Running as an independent, he could get elected in a three-way, with less than 40 percent of the popular vote.

Or, Trump could win the GOP nomination and panicked elites could enlist Michael Bloomberg to run as an Independent. Brilliant -- the guy wants to take away your guns and limit your cars -- a perfect foil for Trump. Another way for Trump to win in a three-way.

Or, Trump could simply win the Republican nomination and be the beneficiary of luck -- more terrorist attacks on U.S. soil and elsewhere, a sense that things are out of control, more embarrassing disclosures about the Clinton Foundation. He could name as his running mate a distinguished former military leader who actually knows a lot more about fighting terrorism than Trump does.

Is Hillary Clinton the ideal candidate to stand between us and American fascism? No, gentle reader, she is not. But she's probably what we've got.

Clinton is looking better lately -- more relaxed, more personable, more warm and funny off-the-cuff, and more of a defense hawk than President Obama. She actually knows whereof she speaks.

Yet the Clinton campaign is painfully aware that she is not exciting voters. Bernie Sanders could well do better than a lot of pundits predict, making Clinton seem even more vulnerable and less of a sure thing.

I would like to believe that, at the end of the day, most Americans will reject the know-nothing swagger of Donald Trump; that the campaign will actually educate the public on just how complex the threat of terrorism is; that even if Trump does win the GOP nomination, he will have alienated so many American women, blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, Asians, other immigrants and their children, not to mention men who bother to pay attention, that he can't possibly get elected.

There is an old saying that a special providence watches over children, drunkards, and the United States. Wartime leaders from Washington to Lincoln to Roosevelt were restrained in their use of quasi-dictatorial powers. The Republic held.

We've elected some real lu-lu's over the years. We've never elected a fascist. But as the Duke of Wellington famously said of his victory over Napoleon at Waterloo, this could be "the nearest run thing you ever saw."

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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.

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