To be brutally honest, I’ve reached the point of despair with the US election. Both Clinton and Trump appear grotesque caricatures, and I’ve begun to resign myself to a four-year wait until 2020 to take an interest in US politics again, when the Republican Party can manage to nominate a sensible, principled candidate to defeat Hillary, if she wins this year.
That’s a big “if”, though. Trump has stolen a march on Clinton in several key battleground states, and his odds on betting markets are rapidly improving. Despite endless word salads in the Guardian and New York Times, trying to make the simple appear cerebral, Trump’s appeal is not difficult to understand. Many Americans feel left behind, aggrieved by a pace of change in societal values they object to – and they are sick of their social conservatism being pathologised solely as a symptom of economic decline, when, in most cases, it is forged by genuine belief. Trump’s bombast, and willingness that borders on intent to offend the politically correct, socially liberal elites who have engaged in this mass patronisation is bought into by many who feel they were never consulted on the rampant advance of said liberalism. If elected, Donald Trump will quickly disappoint them – but they’re angry, and they have every right to be.
Trump will weaponise that anger – and he’ll exploit its nephew, insecurity, too; Clinton supporters should be concerned that their candidate has given her opponent the impetus to do just this. Hillary’s mistake was to make this election about Donald Trump: for all the talk of her progressive platform, her campaign in recent weeks has turned to presenting her as little more than the lesser of two evils, by foregoing promotion of her policies and beliefs, in favour of a ruthless focus on criticism of Trump. Whilst many of Clinton’s attacks on Trump are entirely legitimate, the net effect of this strategy has been to fundamentally subvert the question, and turn this election into a referendum on Donald Trump.
On the face of it, that doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. But ultimately, it could fail for the same predictable reasons that the Remain campaign failed in the EU referendum just this summer past. During the hypnotic anaesthesia of that campaign, a focus was placed on the supposed “Leave lies”, including the infamous £350m figure that appeared on the side of the Vote Leave bus. It might have seemed superficially logical to present their opponents’ arguments as not just wrong, but deliberately dishonest – but this came at the crucially dear price of conceding that the battleground was on the arguments that Vote Leave preferred. As was discussed by a leading figure in the Remain campaign in the wake of the referendum, the effect of this tactic on how voters responded to the £350m campaign was not to instil in them a righteous fury at the alleged deceit, but rather to confirm to them that the amount the UK pays to the EU was a significant talking point in the debate. “I don’t believe the £350m,” focus group participants apparently responded, “but it’s still an awfully big number.”
Clinton risks making the same mistake with Trump, if she has not made it yet. Should she continue her recent strategy of attacking Trump instead of promoting herself, in the first Presidential debate on Monday evening, she will chastise him for his inflammatory comments on Mexicans and Muslims – and whilst her objections to much of what he has said are valid, she moves the goalposts of the debate away from the economy, competence and temperament, and onto the issues where Trump has been so successful in breeding anger, fear, and the attendant sense of insecurity. Rationally self-interested American voters won’t be captured by Clinton’s message of hope over hate. Instead, their minds will be invaded by memories of San Bernadino, the Pulse nightclub shooting, and, if Trump plays his cards right, 9/11. Enveloped by the visceral intrusions of memories that threaten their sense of security on such an instinctive, animal level, it should come as no surprise when they decide that they’re fine with intolerance, if it keeps them safe at night.
Therefore, the risk to Clinton is that the election becomes a referendum not on Donald Trump – which he would surely lose – but a referendum on whether the issues central to his campaign are legitimate. And this would, with equal surety, lead to a defeat for Clinton, and a Trump Presidency, as there is no doubt that American voters share many of the concerns Trump expresses, if being somewhat less inclined to agree with his proposed solutions.
Omarosa, a former contestant for Trump’s employ on The Apprentice, opined during the primary campaign that Trump vs Clinton would be the “greatest debate in history”. Certainly, with just hours remaining before they lock horns at Hofstra University, I’m inclined to agree. But, whilst it promises to pack a punch in terms of sheer excitability and entertainment, it is also likely to serve as a savagely caustic indictment of the level to which US politics has descended. The traditional slinging of mud will be replaced by a trebuchet-like, all-consuming barrage of it, but Clinton needs to avoid this, and stay on message. For all the talk of her campaign’s consultation with psychologists to determine how she can best rile Trump, she is best off not engaging, and exposing his lack of policy knowledge, without giving in to his agenda. This is a battle of the entertainer against the educator – and Clinton would do well to remember which of those she is.
Will Saunders is a third-year student of Politics at the University of Sussex, and is the editor of Mallard.