Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
After the departure of Ted Cruz and John Kasich, Donald Trump is now the Republican candidate for president. For many in the party, this will be the “Trumpacolypse,” as a Twitter hashtag has it. His unfavorable ratings are at 65%––70% with women, and up to 80% with blacks and Hispanics. With those numbers, a Clinton victory is assured, according to three-quarters of Republican “political insiders” polled by Politico.
Such hysteria six months out from the general election is premature. Much of it reflects the Republican political class’s distaste for the New York real estate developer, reality television star, and braggadocios conspicuous consumer. Trump has violated every canon of presidential campaigning, and scorned all the received wisdom that pundits and prognosticators reflexively dispense. He says what “you can’t say,” and says it in a brutal manner ––“lyin’ Ted” and “crooked Hillary”––that gives many “political insiders” the vapors. In their darker moods, they brood over the possibility of fascism coming to America, or a return of Joseph McCarthy. His biggest offense, though, is that he wins without their help.
They may be right about Trump losing the general. But such a prediction at this point is a guess. Polls record the transient impressions of the people who are polled. Then there’s the “shy Tory” phenomenon, the reticence of people to state their true preference even to an anonymous pollster, leading to a mismatch between the poll numbers and the actual votes. In the last six primaries before Indiana, Trump’s percentage of the vote averaged eight-and-a-half points higher than the polls, according to the New York Times. Of course, if Trump’s favorability numbers are still as dismal on in Octoberr, his defeat will be more certain.
But Trump has consistently disproved conventional wisdom. The old electoral truisms may not apply. Take the clichés about Hispanics. For nearly a decade we’ve been told that the Republicans needed to cultivate this “fastest growing demographic group,” as Obama warned everyone in 2012. The party wise men counseled Republicans to drop the harsh rhetoric about illegal aliens and reach out to the 9% of voters who are Hispanic and allegedly “natural conservatives.” Heeding this advice, Senate Republicans toyed for a while with “comprehensive immigration reform,” which many voters decoded as “amnesty” for lawbreakers stealing their jobs. Yet in most polls, “immigration reform” is consistently low on the list of issues that concern Hispanics.
That didn’t stop some in the party from angering much of the white working class, 36% of the electorate, just to pursue this electoral will-o-the-wisp. About a third of those voters voted Democrat in 2012, but evidence suggests that many are shifting to Trump this year. So Trump speaks to their concerns about ICE’s “catch-and-release” of felons, the hundreds of Americans murdered by illegal aliens, the quality-of-life crimes making many neighborhoods and cities unlivable. Trump promises to put a stop to “sanctuary cities” that blatantly disregard federal law and get away with it. He gets their anger at seeing protestors, like those in Irvine last week, attempting to stop their right to assemble and waving Mexican flags, or the demonstrators in Indiana Monday arming their children with F-bombs to hurl at Trump supporters.
And he especially understands how sick many Republicans and Democrats are of the snotty rhetoric from some leaders and pundits of both parties. From their tony enclaves far from the daily disorder and mayhem caused by our immigration failures, they suggest that such complaints reflect bigotry and xenophobia. So Trump promises to round up the illegals, build a wall on the border, and make Mexico pay for it. And I’ll wager that the pollster’s net doesn’t catch significant numbers of voters who sit at home and shout their approval at the television screen and will pull the lever for Trump come Election Day.
In fact, despite his hard words for illegal aliens, there is growing evidence, much of it anecdotal at this point, that significant numbers of Hispanics and blacks like Trump and may vote for him. Here in the San Joaquin Valley, ground zero for Mexican immigration, one more and more frequently runs into working-class Mexicans who admire Trump for his macho bluster and willingness to slap down politically correct gringos with their superior airs and class snobberies. It’s not just white conservatives who have grown sick and tired of the credentialed class telling them how to live and then demonizing them for disagreeing. No one knows how many Hispanics will vote for Trump, but I’ll wager it will be more than voted for Romney.
But Trump is ignorant and incoherent when it comes to policy, the critics say. Contrary to the commentators cocooned in their social and cultural enclaves, elections are not about policy. The majority of voters don’t carefully study the issues, pore over policy papers, and objectively weigh various proposals in order to arrive at the best choice. They are motivated by their “passions and interests,” as Madison understood. “Interests” are about “property,” or in our time, jobs and the economy. Years of sluggish growth, lower workforce participation, and the investor class waxing fat the whole time have angered a lot of people, including Bernie Sanders’ supporters. Trump’s tirades against free-trade-agreements and China’s currency manipulation speak to these frustrations.
The “passions” we see seething through a Trump rally are the anger at elites of both parties who for years now have talked down to the people, dismissed their legitimate concerns, and sneered at their ignorance, even as they pander to privileged minorities or appease the Democrats. They see criticism of Trump, whether intended or not, as criticism of themselves, yet another patronizing dismissal of their grievances. The backlash against political correctness that Trump has brilliantly exploited is the obvious focus of this anger at politicians who are supposed to be on their side, but who always find excuses to cede the high ground to the other side. Why else would the Senate confirm Loretta Lynch as Attorney General, especially after she told the Judiciary Committee that she viewed Obama’s unconstitutional amnesties as “legal”? Was it because she was eminently qualified, or because she is a black woman?
Some will dispute these assertions as misleading or false, but whether they are true or not is irrelevant. Politics is about perception. How else did a cipher like Barack Obama get elected twice? In 2008 he was perceived to be a racial healer, the smartest president ever, a “no red state, no blue state” unifier, and a brilliant orator. None of these perceptions turned out to be remotely true. The second time it was partly because 81% of voters perceived him to “care about people like me,” while only 18% felt the same about Mitt Romney, one of the most fundamentally decent and kind men ever to run for president. Trump seems to get that perceptions and passions come first, and policy can be figured out later. To a greater or lesser degree, this has pretty much been true in all presidential elections. Trump has simply discarded the decorum that camouflages the truth about political sausage-making.
But can he defeat Hillary? Sure he can. A lot depends on events. A terrorist attack in mid-summer, bad economic news, telegenic violence a the conventions, the FBI report on the investigation into Hillary’s private server, the Attorney General refusing to follow the FBI’s recommendation to indict, or something else we can’t foresee could determine the election. Remember, in 2008 at the beginning of September John McCain was leading Obama in most polls, despite battling the headwinds from a media functioning as Obama’s press agent. And then Lehman Brothers collapsed.
Equally important for November is Clinton’s astonishing incompetence as a candidate. Fifty-five percent of voters view her unfavorably. Her Occupy-Wall-Street pandering to the left has been blatant, and will be hard to walk back in the general. It’s doubtful that she’ll get the turnout from minorities and millenials Obama got. At a time of a populist passion for change and new faces, she’s a tired, old, white professional pol, a habitué of the salons of the rich and powerful. Her campaign has nowhere near the enthusiasm of Bernie Sanders’, while Trump packs thousands into his rallies. The dopey protestors trying to disrupt Trump’s events remind everybody that Hillary’s party created and indulge these two-bit Robespierres. Each wave of the Mexican flag is a big campaign poster for Trump. The “woman card” so far appears a loser when played by a woman who viciously attacked her husband’s sexual victims, and is worth $31 million. Nor has that shriveled satyr Bill Clinton been able to help her out, and he remains a gold-mine of sordid scandal for the Trump campaign. Finally, Trump shows no indication that he will not rhetorically beat Hillary like a rented mule with every scandal and failure of her 25 undistinguished years in the public spotlight.
So yes, Trump can win in November. What he will do as president is another matter.