A very solid read from today’s Guardian – barring a major shock or change in voter sentiment this will be the battle for the US Presidency – how on earth did the leadership of a great nation sink this low.
In his gilded age mansion by the sea, once intended as a winter White House for presidents craving Florida sun, Donald Trump watched television intently. News networks were calling state after state for him in the Super Tuesday primary votes for the Republican nomination. Then they cut to what was in effect a victory speech by Hillary Clinton.
The exultant Democrat voiced the deep frustration of millions of Americans whose incomes have stagnated, including “struggling rust belt communities and small towns that have been hollowed out by lost jobs and lost hope”. Minutes later Trump walked out to face the world’s media in a ballroom dripping in gold leaf, bedecked with three giant chandeliers and four white cherubs. Clinton had been in government with Barack Obama for a long time, he said. “Why hasn’t she done anything about it?”
The first shot in the duel to become 45th president of the United States had been fired.
Clinton versus Trump has all the makings of a rambunctious, vicious clash of styles. One is a former first lady, senator and secretary of state, a measured planner who appeals to the head but leaves some voters cold. The other is a brash tycoon and reality TV star who appeals to the heart by, in the words of many supporters, “cutting through bullshit” and “telling it like it is”. When the two come to debate, it will be an Olympic boxer versus a street fighter or, according to one Clinton friend quoted by The Hill website, “the smartest person in the room against the class clown”.
This is unchartered territory, even in a nation that has elected actors Ronald Reagan as president and Arnold Schwarzenegger as a governor. George Ajjan, a Republican strategist and consultant, said: “There’s no precedent for a head-to-head matchup between a traditional politician and a purely private sector tycoon on the national stage – let alone one who had his own top-rated TV show. But whether Trump’s campaign can provide enough substance and rigour to compete at a presidential level, or [will] collapse under the weight of its own bombast, remains to be seen.”
It is also a struggle between two discordant visions. Clinton has cast herself as the continuity candidate, in effect offering a third term of Barack Obama, albeit with some concessions to Sanders’s enthusiastic support on her left flank. Trump is all over the map, but has styled himself as a conservative and caused outrage with proposals to build a wall on the Mexican border and temporarily ban Muslims from entering the country.
The criticism he offered last Tuesday offers a foretaste of a line of attack against Clinton that has served him so well already in the campaign. Pointing to her time in the White House and the State Department, it is safe to assume he will portray her as the ultimate establishment figure to an electorate feeling betrayed by Washington. This will include an “abysmal” spell as America’s top diplomat, the lingering stench around her use of a private email server and, going further back, her husband’s scandalous entanglement with Monica Lewinsky.
Moreover, where Clinton offers hard-baked policies, Trump will play on the great man theory of history: trust him, his charisma, force of personality and entrepreneurial spirit can “make America great again”. His choice of venue for Super Tuesday spoke volumes. Built from Dorian stone shipped from Genoa, Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach was opened in 1927 as a private estate by one of the richest women in the world, Marjorie Merriweather Post, and donated to the US government in 1973 for use as the winter White House.
Trump bought the 128-room home in 1985 after typically aggressive wheeling and dealing. He added a Louis XIV-style ballroom with $7m worth of gold leaf on the walls and spent $100,000 on four gold-plated bathroom sinks. Michael Jackson stayed here and, when Trump married Melania Knauss at the venue, guests included Hillary Clinton. The swimming pool, beauty salon, spa, tennis courts and croquet court shout aspiration, wealth and success, a version of the American dream.
Mar-a-Lago invites comparisons with Xanadu, the palatial Florida retreat of Citizen Kane, the ego-driven newspaper magnate played by Orson Welles in the 1941 film. It reinforces the pitch that Trump is a winner like Kane, not a loser like Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Whereas Kane’s campaign for the US presidency is ultimately derailed by adultery, thrice married Trump’s private life appears bulletproof in the age of celebrity. Perhaps the key to the former Apprentice host’s popularity lies in an observation made by President Calvin Coolidge in January 1925: “The chief business of the American people is business.”
Trump told the latest issue of Time magazine: “I am the most successful person ever to run for president. I built an incredible business … I go on one of these shows and the ratings double. They triple. And that gives you power. It’s not the polls. It’s the ratings … I have always been a winner. If we have the delegates at the convention, there is nothing they can do about it … I am the last person on Earth [Clinton] wants to run against.”
But the bully, showman, party crasher and demagogue – as Time’s cover put it – is also the last person many Republicans want to see at the top of the ticket, though arch conservative Cruz comes close. In the past week alone, the previous two Republican nominees, Mitt Romney and John McCain, have launched unprecedented attacks on everything from Trump’s business records to his national security credentials. Numerous others have joined a #NeverTrump campaign and sworn that they cannot support Trump as the party’s standard bearer.
The morning after Super Tuesday, as smoke rose from the wreckage, MSNBC television host Brian Williams told viewers: “The Republican party is facing an existential crisis. We’re covering a moving history lesson.”
By thumbing his nose at the party elite, who waited too long to take him seriously, Trump has energised millions of people who usually do not vote or who are sick of electing Republicans to Congress only to find no change in their daily lives. Political biographer Jon Meacham told MSNBC: “Trump has managed to hijack an entire political party, and the pilots are asking why no one is on their side. The passengers are cheering for the guy who took over the plane.”
One such passenger is John Schlegel, a retired manager and Vietnam war veteran. “Donald Trump has touched a nerve,” he said. “I think he’s got America thinking again and speaking about things again that weren’t speakable until Trump started the dialogue. He’s saying a lot of things that people have got on their mind but are not secure enough in speaking them themselves, but they’re coming out now.”
Schlegel, 68, from Clinton, Ohio, added: “I think the Republican establishment is screwing the pooch when they turn on Trump. He’s the only one of them that has a chance against Hillary Clinton. I hope he wins and throws the whole establishment on their ear. They’re a bunch of spoiled kids right now: they’re not getting exactly what they want when they want it, so they’re trying to actually shoot themselves in the foot.”
Analysts suggest that the Republicans are reaping the whirlwind of a split between conservatives and moderates dating back to the 1950s, and a purge of moderates in the 1990s. Heather Cox Richardson, an academic at Boston College and author of To Make Men Free, a history of the Republican party, said: “The establishment has lost control of the beast they created through their own rhetoric and there’s no way they’re going to get it back, whatever Romney says.”
There have been ominous incidents of black people being pushed, shoved and ejected from Trump rallies dominated by a white working class hollering with the partisan passion of sports fans. Pre- and post-election violence is usually seen as a phenomenon of Middle Eastern and African countries, yet in the wake of riots in Ferguson and other cities, Richardson believes America is playing with fire.
“You can look at the fury that Trump and Cruz have incited, aided and abetted by Congress, and where is it going to go?” she asked. “Even if Trump is elected, he cannot produce what he promised. He has a lot of angry people and I don’t see where it goes apart from rioting.”
On Friday Cruz told the Conservative Political Action Conference near Washington that the Republican establishment would be making a huge mistake if delegates subvert the popular will on the floor of the convention. “If that happens, we will have a manifest revolt on our hands all across this country.”
But if Trump does manage to become the Republican nominee, he will still find standing in his way the formidable battle-tested Clinton machine. Some Democrats believe she would beat Trump by a landslide, the New York Times reported last week, not least because his comments about immigrants and Muslims would alienate the African American and Hispanic voters who have proved to be Clinton’s firewall against Sanders. But Bill Clinton reportedly warned that Trump has a keen sense of the electorate’s mood and should be underestimated at the Democrats’ peril.
Dannel Malloy, the governor of Connecticut, told the New York Times: “He’s formidable, he understands voters’ anxieties, and he will be ruthless against Hillary Clinton. I’ve gone from denial — ‘I can’t believe anyone would listen to this guy’ — to admiration, in the sense that he’s figured out how to capture everyone’s angst, to real worry.”
Indeed, one chilling statistic for Clinton stands out: more than 8m voters took part in the Republican Super Tuesday contests, while the Democratic turnout was around 5.5m. This is an almost exact reversal of the figures in 2008. Obama and Trump have absolutely nothing in common except their power to enthuse. What Clinton and Trump share is a power to inspire hatred and mobilise votes not for themselves but against each other. “Hope and change, not so much,” former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said, referring to the coming Clinton campaign. “More like hate and castrate.”
Clinton will be desperate to make peace with Sanders’s impassioned supporters, especially millennials, but it remains difficult to imagine her inspiring Obama-style fervour at the polls. Her strategy is likely to involve attack ads that highlight Trump’s misogynistic and xenophobic statements and question whether his temperament is suitable for commander in chief. Rich Galen, former press secretary to vice-president Dan Quayle and House speaker Newt Gingrich, said: “If I was advising the Clintons, I’d go back to that  ‘Who do you want to answer the phone at three in the morning?’ ad. Is this the guy you want going toe to toe with Assad? It’s one thing to make war; making peace is much harder.
“On the other hand, Trump gets to say she was Secretary of State during some of the worst foreign policy years in the country’s history. In a debate it would be pretty much a draw. They both have great presentational skills. It will be fun to watch.”
Galen acknowledged the crisis facing the Republican party and his own culpability. “I bear my part of the responsibility for getting it there. I work inside the Beltway. The words have come out out my mouth: ‘I know how to do this better than you know how to do it.’ The message my generation was offering has clearly run its course. I wasn’t smart enough to get that.”
Tone and vision
Trump is tapping into fear and anger; Clinton says America needs “love and kindness”. Trump’s campaign slogan is “make America great again”; Clinton insists: “America never stopped being great. We have to make America whole.” Trump has vowed to build walls; Clinton has promised to break down barriers. Trump is a New Yorker with a liberal past on issues such as abortion that worries some conservatives; Clinton is a former New York senator with political baggage and under pressure to appease the Sanders left. Clinton is compared to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama; Trump is compared to everyone from Benito Mussolini to Juan Perón to Silvio Berlusconi.
Jobs and wages
“The economy, stupid,” was campaign strategist James Carville’s phrase for Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign against president George H W Bush. Although unemployment is below 5%, it is now received wisdom that the slow rate of wage growth incubated the frustration and resentment that powers Trump’s campaign. Clinton may do better to associate herself with her husband’s 1990s achievements than the Obama post-2009 recovery. Trump says China, Japan and Mexico are “killing us” on free trade and he will bring jobs back to America.
Clinton boasts experience but Sanders raised questions over her judgment: she admitted making a mistake in backing the Iraq war and, as Secretary of State, in masterminding the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, now in chaos. Then there is the saga of her private email server, under investigation by the FBI. Trump has been fiercely criticised for lack of expertise and statements advocating torture, cosying up to Vladimir Putin, being neutral on Israel-Palestine and bombing the wives and children of terrorists. There have been suggestions that the military might disobey his orders.
The signature plan of Trump’s that everyone knows is the building of a wall along the Mexican border that he insists that Mexico will pay for (Mexicans say forget it). He has also declared that he will deport 11 million illegal immigrants, which opponents say is both heartless and impractical. Clinton has called for comprehensive reform with a path to full and equal citizenship as well as closing private immigrant detention centres. She is expected to trounce Trump among Hispanic voters and benefit from American’s changing demographics. In 1980, Ronald Reagan took 56% of the white vote and won by 10 points; in 2012, Mitt Romney won the white vote by 59% and lost.
Clinton has vowed to take on the gun lobby, just as her husband and Obama did, with varying degrees of success. She has pledged to enforce comprehensive background checks, crack down on illegal gun traffickers, hold dealers and manufacturers accountable “when they endanger Americans” and keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers and stalkers. Trump has said he owns a firearm and will defend the second amendment and roll back Obama’s recent executive actions. “Gun and magazine bans are a total failure,” his manifesto says.