We’re 79 days from the finish line in the race for the U.S. presidency, and Donald Trump is trailing badly in the polls. Within the Reality-Based Community, it’s beginning to look like a possible Clinton landslide. In Trump’s beloved home city, where we know him best, he would lose 71% to 18% if the election were held today. It is becoming increasingly clear that he cannot win in a traditional campaign scenario. His only hope is to knock over the table, scatter the pieces, and emerge heroically victorious from out of the ensuing chaos. He must become part of the disruptive political economy that gave him his only constituency.
This is the rationale behind the recent shake-up in Trump’s staffing. Paul Manafort has slipped back into the shadows of international intrigue. Stephen Bannon, the voice of Breitbart News, is the new CEO, pollster Kellyanne Conway is now Trump’s campaign manager, and Roger Ailes is his unofficial consigliere and media handler. Rather than striking out into new territory, these three “hires” signal a return to the origins of the Trump campaign, in alt-right conspiracy and hate mongering, Frank Luntz-style linguistic twisting and subterfuge, and the image-conscious conventions of the new age of rightwing radio and reality TV.
It is a brilliant, if desperate, move. Kellyanne Conway came out of the gate hard, appearing on every mainstream media outlet that would have her (and they would all have her). She is a highly skilled spinner and disciplined messager, a worthy disciple of Luntz. Bannon has held back for the moment, but his fingerprints are all over Trump’s new teleprompter speeches. And Roger Ailes, the undisputed Master of the Dark Arts of mass media manipulation, is working so far behind the scenes that even his lawyers can’t find him. But if anyone on earth can pull off a magical reversal of electoral fortunes for Donald Trump, Ailes is the one.
What makes a turn-around even remotely possible are the established voting patterns of Americans. Unlike other representative democracies, the U.S. has a shockingly low participation rate. The largest and most influential voting bloc in the U.S. has long been composed of those who choose not to vote. These are people who are so alienated from the political process that they freely abdicate their first right of citizenship. These most separated citizens are the Holy Grail of electoral politics. And in the recent history of American politics, the Right has been much more successful in awakening this sleeping giant, by appealing to their sense of alienation, resentment, and paranoia.
This group is also demonstrably, historically fickle. In the last go-round, some of them succumbed to the hope and change message of Barack Obama, and many of those now feel they were duped. Perhaps it’s time to turn the tables, they think. Or turn over the table.