You’ll be forgiven a slight sense of déjà vu. When Donald J. Trump first announced he was running for President the news was greeted with knowing laughs. He would be quickly and roundly exposed, beaten into submission by more established and altogether smoother operators. In the end it would be JEB or Rubio – them’s the laws of political gravity.
Instead – riding a tide of newly engaged, rabid but ebullient supporters – Trump has taken on all comers and won. The establishment candidates, far from demonstrating classy durability, were swept before him. Various odd balls and obsessives fell by the wayside until, finally, the Grand Old Party was left to choose between a rock and a hard place; a weird, unlikeable crank…or ‘The Donald’. Just as Corbyn went from impossible to inevitable in a matter of months, so Trump has utterly dominated a contest that was supposed to swallow him whole and spit him out.
The similarities don’t end there. No one can argue that Trump hasn’t engaged new voters – and those who’ve opted out for years – in this process. One reason so many wrote off his chances was his appeal to demographics who just don’t turn out on the night – the sort of people who reliably register fringe opinions but never really show up in the numbers needed. Well they did this season. Just as a coalition of young people and ancient, long-quiet socialists defied decades of apathy to win it for Jeremy, so angry working class Americans were stirred to participate. And in Trump and Corbyn alike, the more creative corners of social media have found candidates they can get behind. The Leftist echo chamber of Twitter – with its (often completely mistaken and misdirected) memes of media bias and mass-resistance – is mirrored by Trump’s ‘alt-right’.
It is that ‘alt-right’ movement that makes Trump’s success such a 21st Century tale. These keyboard warriors are a hodge-bodge of white supremacists, intellectual ‘cultural libertarians’ and anti-PC satirists. A lot of what they produce is grotesque or unpleasant. But at the movement’s heart is a real anger at the betrayals heaped upon them by the Republican establishment. For years ambitious GOP star-turns have played with white, working class anger and resentment to shore up support before abandoning their base. Trump is that base’s revenge.
In another eerie retread of our domestic politics, those in the know confidently explain that Trump can’t win. He’ll be ‘smashed’ in the General Election. He might not win more than one or two states. He stands no chance against the sophisticated Clinton machine. Well, maybe. But many of the self-same voices talking down Trump’s chances of becoming President told us he’d never be the nominee.
They misunderestimated (to quote a Republican President many are now feeling nostalgic for) The Donald then and they may well be doing so now. Just as it is simply not true that Jeremy Corbyn ‘can’t become Prime Minister’, neither does it hold that Trump ‘can’t be President’. In politics, opportunity counts for a lot; being the nominee is being in the game. He’s got a hell of a better chance of moving into the White House than most people!
What’s more, the Democrat Trump is almost certain to face is a paradoxical blend of invincibility and extraordinary fragility. Hilary Clinton brings such strength to this election – experience, name recognition, money and respect. But she also lugs the kind of baggage no candidate wants to deal with – she’s distrusted, widely disliked and prone to awkward and embarrassing gaffes. She will probably beat Donald Trump. But, then, she lost the nomination in 2008 (to a black guy with the middle name Hussein) from a similarly powerful position. It’s a weird irony of the coming race that it represents a battle between a small-town girl whose spent her career pretending to be a New Yorker and an arch New York socialite whose spent his political life imitating a Southern gothic grotesque; this is an election that epically pits the two sides of the great city against one another.
So much political analysis and prediction is premised on the idea that – in the end – the centre will hold. For most of the last sixty years this has proven to be true. Betting on liberal capitalism (of one shade or another) has normally generated returns; it has been the political equivalent of investing in real estate. Maybe it will pay-out once again this time round, maybe Corbyn and Trump are minor blips who will sink as their parties correct back to the middle-ground. But only a fool would completely discount the possibility that this is the crash, the big one, that we hoped would never come.