Thursday, October 20, 2016

Donald Trump: trial balloon or vaccine?

Let's assume that Donald Trump is about to lose the Presidential election. This seems overwhelmingly likely today, but there have been times when a President Trump looked like a real possibility.

538's polls-plus winning probability over time.

Donald Trump has run an incredibly racist, xenophobic, and misogynistic campaign; he's elevated to prominence a dark underbelly of US culture. This has been clear from the very start of his campaign. Unfortunately, this by itself didn't stop him from being a halfway viable candidate with a real chance to win. The reason this race got away from Trump is that he is a totally inept politician. He has no personal discipline or ability to stay on message. Even recordings of his bragging about sexual assault, and over a dozen women who have accused him of such actions, do not seem definitively to have shut him down as a viable candidate; among his base, there seems to be a widespread willingness to forgive and forget. A skilled politician who performed real remorse might conceivably have gotten similar favourable treatment from a decent number of middle-of-the-road Americans. People are surprisingly and depressingly fuzzy about a lot of these questions.
Numerous serious allegations of sexual assault would be damaging—perhaps fatal—to any candidate in 2016. But Trump certainly did himself no favours.

Fortunately for civilisation, Donal Trump is a disaster of a politician who will lose an election unlikely to be even close. But the Trump candidacy does raise a sobering question: what if he hadn't been such a blatantly repulsive specimen of humanity? What if he had the discipline and common sense to stay on message and employ more moderately-palatable spin against his unpopular opponent? What if someone with Trump's politics had a gentle face and a kindly voice?

I had a chance to visit the Johannesburg Aparteid Museum this past summer. One of the striking and disturbing things I saw there was footage of South African Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd smiling and cooing the most horribly racist sentiments behind a friendly and grandfatherly tone.

As I remarked to my friend at the museum, if Trump had looked and sounded like that, I think Clinton would have had very little chance in this election.

The thought of a modern-day Trump-like demagogue who knows how to dress up his racist, authoritarian demagoguery in pretty propaganda is a terrifying one. In the counterfactual world where we had that instead of Trump in 2016, running against the same unpopular Hillary Clinton, I am convinced that this hypothetical candidate would have won. It might have been the biggest disaster in American history.

What I'm unsure about is whether in the actual world, the prospects for such a future candidate are greater or lesser in the wake of Trump. One theory is that Trump has been a trial balloon. This was something of a test run, to determine what works and what doesn't work in a fascist, white supremacist candidate for US President. The alt-right learns its lessons from Trump, and comes back on another occasion with a candidate with similar politics, and similarly able to stoke its horrifying base, but who has never bragged on camera about sexual assault and who doesn't look and act like an impetuous 12-year-old when insulted. It's certainly a worrisome thought.

But here's the more optimistic possibility. The alt-right has learned a lot about the electorate this year—but so too has the electorate learned a lot about the alt-right. Given the resounding defeat Trump seems well on his way to receiving, it may be that his own disastrousness may tarnish the racist ideology itself. The future, more polished, version of Donald Trump may find himself much less viable than he'd otherwise be because he reminds people of Donald Trump. Rather than Trump as trial balloon, we have Trump as vaccine—after defeating the less dangerous version of this candidate, Americans are better-equipped to avoid succumbing to the sneakier one.

The latter, happier interpretation seems particularly plausible if Clinton runs up a big lead on Trump. Let there be no ambiguity about the disastrousness of this campaign. Let politicians be terrified for a generation or two of reminding people of Donald Trump. Here's hoping.

1 comment:

  1. I can envision a juvenile & disturbed Trump sending feces to his perceived enemies through the post once the election is over...