Why Donald Trump could snatch the political center from Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump won big on Super Tuesday, winning the majority of the delegates up for grabs. It's not remotely finished, but it looks increasingly likely that those two candidates will claim their parties' respective nomination. In her victory speech, Clinton took aim at Trump, saying: "We know we've got work to do, but that work is not to make America great again. America never stopped being great."
This has some Democrats anticipating an easy general election. Among presidential candidates, Trump is unpopular. (Clinton is also unpopular, though less so.) His favorability rating among minorities is hideously bad, due to him being a stark raving racist. In an increasingly diverse electorate, this is the kiss of death for any national campaign.
Some liberals therefore reason that she should be able to beat Trump without even trying hard, by simply reassembling the Obama coalition and letting Trump hoist himself on his own racist petard.
But Clinton should not underestimate Trump. While it might be a Democratic blowout, the party would be fools to count on it and not bother with a strong campaign. There are several reasons to fear this will be a tight race in November.
The first reason is the manifest instability of political formations. The fact that practically the entire political press beclowned themselves with repeated failed predictions of a Trump collapse is extremely funny, but it's also an indication that the usual traditions are cracking up. This is looking increasingly like a realignment election, where the basic ideologies of the parties undergo serious change. We simply can't know how things will shake out — and so Democrats should be prepared for the worst.
However, we can also draw some tentative conclusions from how the primary has played out thus far. One marked development is how Trump has utterly dominated the media. Previous Republican candidates, including Mitt Romney and George W. Bush, lied regularly and consistently. But they still felt some need to pay respect to the general norm that politicians should be honest. They could lie, but mainly about complicated policy effects that were hard for ordinary people to understand.
Trump, by contrast, lies constantly. He lies about his platform, what he's previously said, what his opponents have said, and how he's funding his campaign. He lies about his personal history. He lies about what's in his own books. And the media is totally incapable of making him pay a price for it. It turns out that no amount of limp, anxious hectoring from Chuck Todd can crack through Trump's bravado or constant changes of subject.
Neither have they been able to dent Trump's protean nature. As Republicans are now belatedly trying to point out, he is all over the map, ideologically speaking. He used to be a pro-choice Obama supporter, then he was a birther, and now he's passing himself off as an evangelical Christian. It's preposterous, but a pretty large fraction of the population is willing to either take him at his word, or overlook the changes as mere rhetoric.
These combine to give Trump enormous latitude for self-definition. Hence, after winning the nomination (barring some major upheaval), I very strongly suspect he is going swing hard to the center. The talk about mass deportation will subside, though he'll surely continue to support "securing" the border. The flagrant racism will melt away; he'll go back to traditional Republican dogwhistling, while cozying up to whatever minority conservatives are on hand.
But most importantly, I suspect he'll try to get to Clinton's left on social insurance. He'll point to Clinton's dishonest tax-baiting of Bernie Sanders' single-payer plan, and to Obama's attempted "grand bargain" in 2011 to cut Social Security and Medicare, arguing (with some justification) that Democrats can't be trusted to safeguard those programs.
This will be, of course, some mix of opportunism, lies, sheer BS, and Trump's savant sense of what is popular and will get him attention. But it's also generally in line with the mix of ethnic nationalism and "Herrenvolk" welfare state that other rightist parties, both today and in the past, have proposed.
A cynical, triangulating politician like Clinton would be vulnerable to such a challenge. Could Trump jack up poor white turnout to an unprecedented degree, and thereby win enough states to put him over the top? (Some 20,000 Massachusetts Democrats recently fled the party, presumably to vote for Trump.) Or could Trump 7.0, the reasonable non-racist conservative, eat into Clinton's margins among minorities?
It's hard to imagine. It's totally possible that Trump will not do this, and will go down to a catastrophic defeat barking racist nonsense. But Trump is as good at today's bizarre insults-and-social media-fueled campaigning as he is bad at being a businessman. He could win.