The American presidential campaign has sorted itself out: the likely Republican nominee is Donald Trump, and the likely Democratic nominee is Hillary Clinton.
So how will this head-to-head contest play out in the general election?
A cautionary note for Democrats: don’t underestimate Trump. His weakness –– unpredictable sounding off an any issue –– is his strength. The fact that Trump is all over the political map makes him harder to pin down as a target, not to mention plan a campaign against. Couple that with the lack of enthusiasm, even among Democrats, for Hillary’s candidacy, makes this electoral race fascinating.
Trump’s nationalist populism appeals to the same demographic group that supports Bernie Sanders: those working and middle-class voters who are angry that the economy has left them behind, while the fat cats in Washington and on Wall Street collude to make piles of money.
And they are right. Wage stagnation and economic inequality in the United States is at its highest. If the federal government fails to step in and do something about this, things will only get worse. Trickle-down economics will not help.
The top five per cent are getting even more obscenely rich, while the rest are suffering. Besides, the biggest threat to American employment now is not the loss of manufacturing jobs to Mexico, China and so on, but the hollowing out of the job market by technology.
In the short run (2020) five million jobs will be lost to computerization in one form or another, and in the long run (2050) almost 40 million. As a result, many governments around the world (Canada included) are now taking a serious look at providing all their citizens with a guaranteed basic income, a notion that a few years ago would have been scoffed at.
But though the populism of Trump and Sanders appeals to the same demographic, Trump’s core (25 per cent) support also comes from white racists, primarily older Southern men, who apart from the economic populism, love Trump’s anti-immigrant and xenophobic rhetoric that demonizes Latinos, Muslims, Asians, and all foreigners. They see in Trump’s “making America great” slogan the restoration of a mythical pristine white America and an isolationist superpower willing to bomb the rest of the world back to the Stone Age if necessary.
It is this xenophobic but large minority that Hillary can isolate by casting Trump as a racist, and thus making sure that Latinos, African Americans and other minorities turn out in droves to vote for her. And in this case, demographics are on her side: Hispanics are the fastest growing group in the population.
Trump has given Clinton enough ammunition by his outrageous statements (“Mexicans are rapists”, “ban all Muslims from entering the US”) that he now cannot walk back.
It is not too far-fetched to compare the current American political situation, despite the obvious differences, to that of Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s when that country, following its defeat in World War I, was suffering prolonged economic malaise, aggravated by the 1929 Great Depression.
As a result there was widespread discontent throughout the country. Both the right, led finally by Adolf Hitler after he had defeated or co-opted his rivals, and the left, fought to capitalize politically on this popular malaise. Hitler, through his utter unpredictably, his convincing ability to lie, his willingness to stab his own comrades in the back, his utter ruthlessness and his scapegoating of the Jews, triumphed. He thus managed to outwit the left, which was split between the Social Democrats and the Communists.
Just as Hitler had his own book Mein Kampf, so does Trump have The Art Of The Deal. Just as Hitler scapegoated the Jews, Trump scapegoats Latino immigrants and Muslims. But Hillary has a great opportunity to drive a wedge between the white supremacist supporters of Trump and the more traditional economic populists to whom Bernie appeals. For this she will need to do two things:
One, get Sanders’ wholehearted support so that most of his supporters come on board her campaign (about a quarter is inevitably going to go to Trump). Sanders is still in the denial phase of defeat, but when he gets into the acceptance phase he will come around and campaign hard against Trump.
Two, bring an element of the inspirational to her general election campaign. All throughout the primary election Hillary has been waging a pedestrian and cautious wonkish campaign based on experience and competence. As Barack Obama characterized it at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, it’s like “come and trudge up the hill with Hillary”.
What she has to do now is adopt both a populist policy like Bernie’s free tuition at public colleges and universities, and a populist message. “Fighting for us” does not compare with “making America great again”. But whatever she does she has to inspire. Right now if you’re a Democrat it’s a “hold your nose and vote for Hillary’s election”.
That may not be enough. The American electorate, unlike the Bajan electorate, is a “low-information” electorate.
Hillary also has the “woman’s card”, and it is a powerful one. That’s precisely why Trump attacked her and doubled down on this issue, because he knows how lethal such a card is, if well played. There are a lot of women who may not like Hillary or her policies, but appreciate the historical significance of having the first woman president of the United States.
Besides, Trump’s comments on women give her lot’s of ammunition. So she ought to play the card: early and often.
Perhaps a fatal weakness of Trump is that he cannot tolerate women who are not submissive to him; so Hillary should get under his skin a lot and provoke him to make even more disgusting remarks.
This is going to be a wonderfully brutal and nasty general election race.
(Peter Laurie, a former Barbados diplomat, is a noted social commentator.)