As if American politics were not scary enough, the prospect of President Hillary Rodham Clinton has once again reared its frightful head. The woman is a proven horror, politically speaking. One senior Democrat strategist calls her the ‘kiss of death’. She loses elections she ought to win because people don’t like her.
Just over a week away from the midterm elections, Democrat candidates in various states are said to be relieved that she isn’t conducting one of her vanity tours of the country. She has even fallen foul of the #MeToo movement, after she dared to say her husband, Bill, had not abused his power over Monica Lewinsky.
Still, like death, Hillary never goes away. Last week, one of her most trusted advisers, Philippe Reines, hinted that she may run in the next presidential election. ‘It’s curious why Hillary Clinton’s name isn’t in the mix — either conversationally or in formal polling — as a 2020 candidate,’ he said. ‘Is it a lack of support? She had 65 million people vote for her.’
Wiser heads may shake, but Clinton 2020 has a certain grim logic. If not her, who? In two years, Bernie Sanders, torchbearer of left-populism, will be 79. Joe Biden, Barack Obama’s vice-president, will be 77. Both have tried and failed before. Elizabeth Warren has for years been presented as the woman who could unite the left, but she has turned herself into a national joke with her insistence that she is Native American when she isn’t, at least not really. Trump calls her Pocahontas, which is funny.
The younger Democrat stars — Kamala Harris, Cory ‘Spartacus’ Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Kirsten Gillibrand — lack clout. There is a lot of hype around Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the pretty Hispanic congressional candidate from the Bronx, but she isn’t the brightest. Last week, she said that humanity must fight climate change like it fought the Nazis, which is sweet, but stupid. The other person everyone enjoys talking about is Michael Avenatti, the ‘creepy porn lawyer’ who represents Stormy Daniels but now has his eyes on bigger things. He says if he runs against Trump, he’ll ‘kick his ass’.
None of them — apart from Avenatti, perhaps — is able to match Trump’s turbulent charisma. They all find the President so odious that they can’t do anything but grandstand against him. They keep resorting to identity warfare and sneering at Trump’s thick, racist, sexist voters — which is exactly how they lost the last election.
For the past two years, commentators have been talking up the prospect of a Democratic ‘blue wave’ in the midterms. This is billed as the great correction to Trump; America expressing its disgust at the monster in the Oval Office. In March, Nate Silver, the liberal darling prognosticator, said that the ‘enthusiasm gap’ between Democrats and Republicans could lead to a blue ‘tsunami’ in November. Take that with a pinch of salt: in 2015, Silver told the media to ‘stop freaking out’ because Trump was not going to win the Republican nomination.
Nevertheless, the special elections of 2017 did go against Trump, and Democrat excitement seemed justified. The youthful anti-Trump ‘resistance’ movement was noisy and large. They could even be bothered to vote. The unhappy rust belt states, which Trump won in 2016, started to turn back towards the Democrats. Despite the thriving economy, Trump’s nascent working-class coalition looked unsustainable.
Fast forward to last month, and the President seemed to be floundering. He was dogged by the exhaustive Mueller investigation into ‘collusion’ between his election campaign and Russia. His foaming against the media, which is usually well received by everybody apart from journalists, started to sound a bit desperate. He managed to annoy large chunks of the public over Hurricane Florence: he had praised his administration’s emergency response to the hurricane before it had even struck. For good measure, he added that Hurricane Maria, which killed 3,000 people in Puerto Rico last year, was also an ‘incredible success’. His approval rating sank below 40 per cent.
Then something very strange happened: America went mad over Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court. Kavanaugh was accused of having sexually assaulted Christine Blasey Ford as a teenager at a house party 35 years ago. There was no evidence, beyond Ford’s moving but hopelessly vague testimony. Yet the Democrats seized on the story as a hideous example of the right-wing patriarchy. In doing so, they helped turn his confirmation hearings into a major culture war, and they lost. Judge Kavanaugh is now Justice Kavanaugh, and Trump is milking the victory for all it is worth.
The Democrats are indignant. They insist that Kavanaugh’s elevation has only further motivated their supporters. Women voters are angry about sexual injustice and desperate to show it. But if the polls are to be believed, Republican support is equally if not more fired up following l’affaire Kavanaugh. Perhaps ‘innocent until proven guilty’ is a more popular philosophy than ‘believe all women’.
Many voters who were not necessarily enthused by Trump have rediscovered their loathing of Democrats. Trump’s approval rating has duly shot up: it’s now at 47 per cent, according to the latest figures, which is higher than Barack Obama’s was at the same stage in his presidency.
As the midterms approach, Republicans suddenly have the momentum. Early voting figures this week suggested that Republican voter turnout is higher than expected in several key states. It now looks as if the Grand Old Party will gain several seats in the Senate. It’s most likely that they will lose the House of Representatives, but it will probably not be an anti-Trump flood. Besides, incumbents are expected to lose: the last leader to win seats in both houses in the midterms was George W. Bush in 2002, the year after 9/11. Before that it was Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934.
The American left’s problem is that it can’t calm down. Anti-Trump protestors are now regularly seen screaming, bullying, even hitting people in the streets. Activists have taken to abusing famous Republicans in restaurants; in the age of the camera phone, these incidents are always recorded, and always end up benefiting the person being shouted at. The joke in Washington is that some Republicans, realising the possible advantages, have been hanging out in liberal restaurants in the hope that a mob will attack them on camera.
Rather than appealing for moderation, senior Democrats are stoking the incivility. Former attorney general Eric Holder recently came up with a new party motto: ‘When they go low, we kick ’em.’ Hillary Clinton, not wanting to be outdone, told an interviewer that, ‘You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about.’
In other words, Trump has proved that he is, as everyone says, a rabble rouser. But the rabble he rouses most is the one that opposes him. The Democrats now find themselves all but advocating public disorder while fulminating about how dangerous Trump is.
That suits the Trump agenda perfectly. He has even invented a new Twitter meme, ‘#JobsNotMobs’. Like all Trump’s sayings, the phrase is at once moronic and brilliant. It speaks perfectly to his strengths — unemployment in America is close to a 50-year low — and the Democrats’ great weakness. Trump knows how damaging privileged white liberal unrest can be.
He is a far more formidable politician than most commentators realise. He understands that America is fighting a class war as much as a culture war. The Democrats, traditionally a party for blue-collar workers, now represent the well-educated and the well-off who don’t need low-income jobs. The Republicans are now the party of the working class. According to a new survey, 18 of America’s poorest 19 states are Republican controlled. The Democrats run the five richest state legislatures. The American poor aren’t socialist by instinct. They want jobs and better life prospects. Trump offers that, or at least appears to. The Democrats, meanwhile, are busy getting hung up on his ‘dehumanising’ proposals to prevent obligatory transgender lavatories in schools.
Trump has long sensed that, on immigration, Americans are far to the right of where the political class feels comfortable, and he’s been proved right. As the midterms get closer, he has been pleading with Republicans to talk less about tax cuts and amplify his rhetoric about strong borders. He’s also holding massive rallies all over the country, where he does what he does best, which is what people on social media call ‘owning the libs’. This means infuriating his enemies so much that they lose the plot. In recent days, for instance, he’s been spreading conspiracy theories about how Democrats are doling out cash to the caravan of illegal immigrants coming into America. To spice it up, he adds that ‘unknown Middle Easterners’ are among those trying to enter America. Naturally, the media screams racism.
None of this is pretty. Trumpism puts off as many people as it turns on, which is why this year’s midterms are so fraught. In these fevered times, small incidents can become election-changing. The bomb threats this week posted to various Trump opponents have neatly validated the idea that Trump is leading to extremism. Trump fans are more than capable of behaving so badly they generate a righteous backlash: look at the far-right rally in Charlottesville last year, for instance. Last weekend, the Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi was accosted by thugs calling her ‘a piece of shit’ and a communist. Trump doesn’t exactly discourage such behaviour at his rallies.
American politics has always been unpleasant; Trump has just removed the mask of civility. What is extraordinary, however, is the extent to which he has turned the Democrats into the nasty (or nastier) party. Trump’s enemies continue to fall into the silly traps that he lays out before them. Senior Democrats now compete to out-do him in the uncouth stakes, while still pretending to occupy the moral high ground. A party like that deserves Hillary Clinton.
Freddy Gray presents the weekly Americano podcast.