"What the Hell Do You Have to Lose?": Trump's Politics of Despair

Can you imagine how well Jeb Bush would be doing right now? Jeb Bush would be crushing this thing. He’d be leading by double digits and we’d be talking about the possibility of a landslide. Instead the GOP has Trump. Which is the thought with which Democrats encourage themselves…except that I don’t think they should feel terribly encouraged at the moment.

The reason is, I think Donald Trump has found his message. The Wall, the exclusion of Muslims, “bomb ISIS”—that was all just decorative specifics. Trump has discovered the underlying message that holds it all together: “what the hell do you have to lose?” This is the motto of the Politics of Despair, the successor to Newt Gingrich’s 2012 Politics of Resentment.

Trump unveiled (if that’s the word I want) this message talking about African American voters. The reaction was immediate and negative, of course: the sentiment was insulting, demeaning, unworthy of a candidate, and above all certain to be completely counterproductive. Only…this week a new poll from the Boston Herald indicates significant increase in support for Trump among African-Americans and Hispanics, with double digit approval ratings for the candidate among both groups for the first time.

Now that’s only one poll (and not a particularly good one), and no one expects Trump to become the favorite of African-American voters (well, at least until he runs for reelection to a second term and carries 95%) But in this election a gain of just a few point among minority voters could spell the difference in a number of battleground states

And make no mistake, those battleground states are getting close. In Florida, Ohio, and North Carolina the candidates are essentially tied (here’s Quinnipiac, here’s CNN. In Pennsylvania Clinton holds a 5 point lead, but that was 10 points in July. Overall, Fivethirtyeight.com still gives Clinton a 62% chance of victory...but that’s compared with over 79% one month ago.

Why? Well we just watched NBC’s risible “Commander in Chief Forum,” so lets start there. The Politics of Despair might very well explain voters’ willingness to roll the dice with a Trump foreign policy; seriously, what do we have to lose? Trump proposes mindless bombing campaigns and cynical deals with temporary allies. Would that approach really produce worse results than the current situation? The answer, of course, is “yes, absolutely!”, but many voters don’t see it that way and Clinton has not really explained the grounds for confidence in a different strategy. Clinton was supposed to have a huge advantage here based on her security and foreign policy strengths. Trade is one thing; Trump’s approach to international trade deals always drew some support, and lately the TPP looks like a ship whose rats are taking shore leave. But still, voters who were concerned about Trump’s weightlessness were supposed to turn to Clinton to bring professionalism to the formulation of American foreign policy, starting with our relationship with Putin’s Russia.

Which would be great, except that the Obama administration has announced a new agreement with Russia to cooperate in Syria to cosponsor a truce, and the announcement that Russia is seeking to take a new role in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. That was Trump’s suggestion all along, wasn’t it? And Clinton’s performance on the Commander in Chief Forum was dismal in ways that cannot be entirely blamed on Matt Lauer. Her signals were mixed, she was particular where she should be guarded and guarded where she needed to be forthright and there was a distinct lack of what used to be called “the vision thing”. Her remarkably poorly considered public commitment never to send troops to Syria or Iraq on national television made her look ... well, unprofessional. Both candidates sound as though they are making it up as they go along, which is not a good position for Clinton despite the endorsement from Paul Wolfowitz.

So once again it’s the economy, stupid. And when people think about their economic futures, “what the hell do you have to lose” resonates in places well outside the African-American community. In coal country—West Viriginia, Kentucky—that sense that despair is driving a willingness to try anything is palpable. But it’s not just there. In Ohio and Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania Trump is running on the Politics of Despair. I was in Pennsylvania last week, and a man from a (white, middle-class) neighborhood in Wilkes Barre told me that in his neighborhood everyone he knows is supporting Trump. The explanation came down to Trumps question: “what the hell do you have to lose?” Clinton needs a good answer to that question, and I can’t say that I have heard one yet.

This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.