Last week, the New York Times ran the page one headline ‘Pence Supports Ryan, Showing GOP Turmoil.’ There was turmoil in the Republican party because Mike Pence, its vice-presidential nominee, had endorsed the candidacy of Paul Ryan, its most powerful congressman. One wonders what the Times would have called it had the two men actually disagreed about something. The Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump had waited days before endorsing Ryan, a signal that he had not forgotten Ryan’s slowness to back him in the spring. And the whole press is now in a frenzy of negative reporting about the Trump campaign. These have been ‘weeks of self-inflicted controversies and plummeting poll numbers’ among Trump’s Republicans. It has been a ‘meltdown’, a ‘cascade of blunders’, a ‘panic’.To judge from the headlines, Trump cannot win, because he is disrespecting the families of America’s war dead, bullying babies and helping Vladimir Putin spy.
But there was no meltdown. Democrats got a polling ‘bounce’ after their convention that pushed Hillary Clinton back to the seven–point lead she had enjoyed at the start of summer. Trump has taken a few pratfalls, but it is well to remember that he is not
the worse off for the many he took earlier in the campaign.
Fights with the parents of Humayun Khan, a Muslim US army captain killed in Iraq, started the idea of a Trump collapse. The father, Khizr Khan, a Pakistani-born US citizen, appeared at the Democratic convention to attack Trump’s call for a temporary ban on Muslim immigration and berated him for his understanding of the constitution. Trump wondered aloud why Khizr Khan’s wife, Ghazala, who had stood silently beside him in a headscarf, hadn’t herself been allowed to speak.
Trump’s foes believe recent US political rhetoric has established a ‘rule’ whereby anything associated with patriotism and sacrifice gets turned into a popular commodity — even Islam. Trump himself believes a version of this and only 13 per cent of Americans think he was right to speak back to the Khans. Just because swing voters may honour Humayun Khan’s sacrifice, however, does not mean that on election day they will relish the memory of having been angrily lectured on their own constitution in
The primary strength of Donald Trump’s campaign is hidden in plain sight: he is genuinely funny. If elected he would be the first president since John F. Kennedy to possess a sense of humour. Those who cover his campaign seem eager to punish him for this distinction. When Wikileaks released internal emails from the Democratic national committee, Democrats, with no evidence, sought to blame the leak on Russian intelligence, implying that Russian president Vladimir Putin was trying to get Trump elected. Trump replied that, if that were indeed the case, perhaps Russia would be so kind as to share the 30,000 official emails that Hillary Clinton kept on a private server during her tenure as secretary of state. (Congressional investigators have sought them, but Clinton claims to have deleted them.) The Los Angeles Times news story began: ‘Donald Trump dared a foreign government to commit espionage on the US to hurt his
rival on Wednesday, smashing yet another taboo in American political discourse and behaviour.’
At a speech days later, Trump tried to put the mother of a crying baby at ease — when she left he joked, ‘I think she really believed me that I love having a baby crying while I’m speaking.’ Mother and baby soon returned. Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page wrote that Trump had ‘booted a crying baby from a rally’. It wasn’t so much a bad week for Trump as a week of bad press.
Jim Rutenberg of the New York Times has written that the confabulation and extremism of Trump are making journalists ‘throw out the textbook American journalism has been using for the better part of the past half century, if not longer’. Paul Waldman of The Week writes that the unusually negative coverage is not due to the media’s treating him differently but to ‘the simple fact that Trump is in fact such a different candidate’.
It goes deeper than that. Western elites are hardening into something like a class. Having little contact with other social classes, they may, on certain issues, never have met someone who disagrees with them. They cannot distinguish between wishes and facts, and see no need to. ‘This is a bad moment for Mr Trump, so a good one for America,’ wrote the Economist last week. ‘As Trump’s feud with his party deepens,’ the Los Angeles Times headlined, ‘some discuss what to do if he quits the race.’ An ex-speechwriter for George W. Bush encouraged Mike Pence, Trump’s vice-presidential pick, to repudiate him.
The Trump meltdown reports were far from reality. But they may yet become reality in voters’ minds. Part of the reason his campaign is alleged to be ‘melting down’ is that it has wound up in confrontations with elite institutions. But these have lost authority in recent years. This week four-dozen Republican foreign policy aides warned that Trump ‘would put at risk our country’s national security and wellbeing’. Trump correctly noted that the signatories included the people who brought the world the Iraq war. It was similar to the episode in June when Moody’s Analytics, a subsidiary of the agency that misrated the world’s derivatives on the eve of the financial collapse of 2007–08, warned that Trump’s economic policy would cause a recession and Clinton’s would create jobs. The report was written by Mark Zandi, a Hillary Clinton donor.
The road to the presidency for Trump is a narrow one. He does lag in the polls. He lacks experience and savvy electoral and policy personnel. But he ought to win it. He need take only Ohio and Pennsylvania away from Hillary Clinton.
Issues likely to arise in the coming months — immigration statistics, terrorism incidents, protests by Black Lives Matter — favour him. He will enter the 26 September debate with enviably low expectations. The myth persists that he is dumb. Even though Trump has shown a gift for vaulting ahead with every new debate. And even though, measured by the gap between the modesty of its beginnings and the heights it has already attained, his is one of the more effective campaigns any US candidate has run for anything.