At the beginning of November 1980, one week before Ronald Reagan won a landslide victory in the presidential election, Henry Fairlie, then writing regularly for The Spectator from Washington, finally slid off the fence and made a firm prediction. ‘Jimmy Carter will be the next President of the United States,’ he wrote in the first sentence of his column. Carter, he went on, was ‘personally a not very agreeable man’ but had a more persuasive ‘political character’ than Reagan, so would win the election. Although a much-admired political commentator, who had made his name as a columnist at The Spectator in London, where he first gave the name ‘the Establishment’ to the social network running Britain, and who emigrated to the United States in 1965 when threatened with a libel action after insulting Lady Antonia Fraser on television, Fairlie got it all wildly wrong. But the opinion polls got it pretty wrong, too, for they predicted a very close result; instead, Carter was thoroughly trounced.
There are striking parallels between the 1980 election and this year’s one. Reagan’s campaign slogan, ‘Let’s Make America Great Again’, was shamelessly stolen and reused by Donald Trump as his own battle cry. Like Jimmy Carter, who had already served as president for four years, Hillary Clinton claimed far greater political experience — as a first lady, senator and secretary of state — than her opponent. (‘A Tested and Trustworthy Team’ was how Carter’s campaign promoted him and his running mate, Walter Mondale.) And Trump emulated Reagan by selling optimism to a dispirited electorate, while Hillary followed Carter’s example by accusing her opponent of stirring up hatred and racism.
The 1980 campaign also foreshadowed the one of 2016 by being unusually confrontational and featuring candidates widely disliked and distrusted. But it was very cosy by comparison to this one. In particular, Reagan would never have stooped to the vulgar personal abuse favoured by Trump; he was too much of a gentleman. Even so, many Reagan supporters misled pollsters about their voting intention; and if fans of the amiable actor were embarrassed to admit publicly their preference, wouldn’t there be even greater embarrassment among the fans of the outlandish Donald Trump?
The answer would seem to be yes: voters’ deceit fooled Fairlie and the pollsters in 1980, and it has duped the experts again this year. My fear was that the electorate would plump for Trump, and this prospect too awful to contemplate has come to pass.
I hoped I might be wrong; after all, the final polls still suggested a Clinton victory. But Trump is special. If Reagan became known as the ‘Teflon president’, Trump was the ultimate Teflon candidate. His public boasting of sexual assaults, which he dismissed as mere ‘locker-room talk’ but which several women came forward to confirm, would have sunk anyone else’s chances, but barely dented Trump’s popular support. Nor did last weekend’s claim by the Wall Street Journal that he had conducted a long extra-marital affair with a Playboy model stop the erosion of Hillary’s poll lead. Such is Trump fans’ hatred of the Washington ‘Establishment’ and their urge to humiliate it that they have prevailed over all doubts about the candidate’s unsuitability for the world’s most powerful office.
We now have a new president, but this ‘traumatic’ campaign, as the New York Times has called it, will have a lasting impact. It has left Americans more divided and disillusioned about politics than ever. A final pre-election poll found that eight in ten voters were repulsed by the campaign and that a majority saw both candidates as dishonest.
Democracy is in serious trouble — and more so now that Donald Trump has achieved what he calls ‘Brexit plus plus plus’ and is on his way to the White House. Poor America, what a plight!