The first presidential debate was a disappointment. Half an hour into the big Trump-Clinton show on Long Island, many among the audience must have asked themselves why they weren’t watching The Real Housewives of Orange County instead. The strangest exchange concerned how to defeat Isis. Donald Trump said, ‘They’re beating us at our own game with the internet’ and Hillary Clinton agreed that winning requires ‘going after them online’. Hillary won by speaking in complete sentences, albeit brimming with bromides, while Trump lapsed into incoherence, apparently advised to sound calmer and more presidential. But Trump without his insults — of Mexicans, women and Muslims — just isn’t as much fun. He appeared as unhinged and juvenile as usual, but less entertaining.
Trump’s flat performance has come as a relief to most New Yorkers, who have been working themselves into an election panic in recent days. I sensed the first hint of real Trump fear at the New Republic’s relaunch party on Union Square West. The New York liberals I know had until then seemed pretty certain that the unthinkable couldn’t happen: the Donald is simply too self-destructive, too crazy to win. But the gathering in the New Republic’s well-appointed offices came two days after Hillary’s great stumble — the literal stumble, before she was whisked away from a 9/11 memorial, and the tactical stumble when, two hours later, she emerged from her daughter’s Manhattan apartment and declared, ‘I’m feeling great’, even though she was suffering from pneumonia. I greeted the veteran First Amendment lawyer and Democratic political operative Victor Kovner. Kovner is a principled man, but he understands the realities of party politics, and he’s all in for Clinton. Skipping the small talk, he told me: ‘My friends overseas keep asking me, is this the end of American civilisation?’ ‘Tell your friends not to worry,’ I replied. As if I knew.
Some liberals have figured out that Trump’s proletarian support stems from legitimate grievances against the Clintons, Bushes and others of their ilk: bipartisan trade deals that send their jobs to be performed by cheap labour in foreign countries; pointless wars that kill working-class kids; robber barons sleeping in the Lincoln Bedroom in exchange for campaign donations; etc. But a lot of liberals still can’t pin the blame on the donkey that symbolises the Democratic party. In the October issue of the born-again liberal New Republic, Jedediah Purdy attempted to answer the questions: ‘Who are these people? What are they thinking?’ Purdy evinced sympathy for ‘these people’ who would vote for a billionaire con man. But his point of departure was an overused and misleading paradox: lower middle-class white people are acting against their self-interest by abandoning the Democratic party, friend of the underdog, for Republican and populist candidates on the right who always side with the rich. The reality, however, is that Bill and Hillary Clinton, very much in their own self-interest, have spent the last 30 years pushing the Democrats into alliance with wealthy Wall Streeters and corporations that have screwed the bottom 70 per cent. I think ‘these people’ see that pretty clearly, although voting for Trump does seem a desperate lunge.
I guess I’m still in denial. At dinner with Ralph Nader, at Elio’s on the Upper East Side, I told him that I’m not afraid of Trump. ‘You should be,’ he reprimanded. The bête noire of mainstream Democrats (they still blame him, unfairly, for Bush’s election in 2000), Nader, perhaps unintentionally, made the best argument I’ve heard for voting for Clinton. Trump takes everything personally, he explained, and that’s a dangerous trait in a President of the United States. As a resident of New York State, which the polls say is heavily pro-Hillary, I have the luxury of casting a protest vote for the Green candidate, Jill Stein, without worrying about helping Trump in the Electoral College. This is exactly the logic that makes Clinton supporters furious. What if too many people do the same thing in swing states like Ohio and Florida?
The next day I headed to the Economic Club luncheon at the midtown Hilton to hear the very anti-tax Paul Ryan, Republican Speaker of the House and the most powerful US politician after Barack Obama. The atmosphere was tense, partly because of New York’s ‘Bumbling Bomber’ — nicknamed by the Daily News because of the terrorist’s low-detonation rate — who nevertheless managed to disrupt Manhattan for two days. But the elephant in the ballroom, among a crowd including Henry Kissinger and assorted financial barons, was Trump’s explosive disruption of the Republican party. Ryan, the party man, detests Trump, despite officially supporting him, and everyone knows it. Easily half of this largely Republican audience will be voting for Hillary, if they haven’t already given her money. The right-wing Ryan managed to deliver an entire speech without once alluding to ‘his’ candidate. During the Q&A, Peter Orszag, an investment banker and a Clinton Democrat, challenged the Speaker by asking what he will do if the White House and Congress remain divided by party. ‘No, I don’t want to talk about that,’ said Ryan, laughing. At my table, the wife of an Australian diplomat confidently predicted a Trump victory: ‘People go for the stronger person.’ I expressed surprise and she backed off a little. We agreed that we’d have to watch the first debate. Now, it seems, I was right to doubt Trump’s chances. But there are two debates and five weeks to go, and things can only get worse.