Now that Donald Trump has clinched the Republican Party nomination for president, we as a nation need to ask ourselves some serious questions: What is the sickness in our nation’s soul that has placed this carrot-colored monstrosity so close to the most powerful office in the world, and what can we do to fix it? How many newscasters will kill themselves live on-air on Election Night if he wins? (I’m setting the line at three and taking the over.) What do we need to do to bury the Trump campaign so deep before November 8, searchers will need a methane probe and ground-penetrating sonar to find it?
But the most frightening question of all: He can’t actually win, can he?
Right now, the answer would seem to be “No.” Though it is wise to take head-to-head polls this far out with a huge grain of salt, all of them have Hillary Clinton ahead of Trump. All the Electoral College projections have Clinton crushing him there as well. State polling has his candidacy putting normally reliable Republican states like Arizona and Georgia in play for the Democratic candidate. His unfavorable numbers among various groups – African-Americans, Latinos, women, non-morons – are historically bad for a presidential candidate, and they are not going to get even remotely better. The stock market didn’t plunge after last Tuesday, nor did birds fall dead from the sky or animals flee en masse to higher ground.
Late last summer, I took a look at what was then one of the nascent Republican efforts that eventually turned into the Never Trump movement. One of the leaders of the effort, Republican operative Rick Wilson, had suggested there was a huge opposition research file on Trump just ripe for some enterprising enemies to drill into. Wilson and his partner in the enterprise, Liz Mair, were practically rubbing their hands together in anticipation.
The problem was, what dark secrets could possibly soil Donald Trump for the brigades of angry idiots flocking to him? When people are mad enough to follow a charlatan like Trump, there is very little that can dissuade them. Infidelity? Illegal business dealings? Texting during movies? Meh. Trump himself suggested he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue at high noon and people would still vote for him. Sure, why not? Eugene Debs also ran for president from a jail cell and got a million votes, and that was without Twitter.
Now, no doubt the Clinton team has been digging into Trump’s background. No doubt they have some juicy nuggets to roll out, and no doubt they have a schedule. They will hit Trump over and over, quickly, not giving him time to recover. As Alex Pareene pointed out, the way to beat Trump is to get under his skin, to wound his delicate and boundless ego. Get on him like spray tan on wrinkly skin and don’t let up. Have your surrogates get in the gutter – arguably a few of them already live there – and pound on the guy.
Hillary Clinton may not be a natural politician, she may be pretty bad at retail campaigning, but she has been part of a winning presidential race or two.
That’s one reason I found ridiculous some of the panic this week over the rather milquetoast statement from Clinton campaign manager John Podesta Tuesday night and the rollout of the nickname “Dangerous Donald” (which admittedly I hope will have been dropped back down the memory hole by the time you read this). It’s early and the campaign is testing out lines of attack. Don’t like this or that one? The team from Brooklyn will have 10 more by the end of the week.
There are still a million things that could go wrong. The economy could tank, or even just enter a mild recession. Trump may not have much of an economic plan, but a downturn hitting people who never recovered from the Great Recession could make his “We’re going to be winning” shtick look good. Especially if they associate Hillary Clinton with the economy of pre-2008, when she was in the Senate.
Or many of the Republicans who are saying “Never Trump” and burning their party registration cards could change their minds. Their legendary Clinton hatred could overwhelm them to the point where they make their peace with Trump in the White House and join the effort. It’s hard to imagine that bringing up some of the code words that have driven some voters to Clinton fatigue in the past – Monica, Whitewater, BENGHAZI!!!! – will have much effect, but who knows? The cumulative weight of all that garbage could turn out to be a back-breaker.
Or the Democrats could overdo it on the pummeling, leading to a voter backlash. At some point, there could be diminishing returns to attacks, people might get defensive, and Trump could start seeing his poll numbers turn around.
To be clear, I am of the opinion that the polls are right, that Trump will be too unpopular outside of a relatively narrow slice of the electorate to win. But I am also nervous because nothing is guaranteed, because the Democrats are still the Democrats, because none of the attacks anyone has tried so far have really stuck, because Trump has crawled through the sewer where America’s worst slime lives – the racists and misogynists and Grand Dragons of the Ku Klux Klan, the alt-right losers who power the MRA movement – and come out with his tailored suits still clean.
In short, I don’t see a clear weakness in Trump the way I did with candidates in past elections. And that makes me nervous.