A Trump Victory Suddenly Seems Possible, Though Still Unthinkable

American Jews fear the undercurrents of bigotry and resentment exposed in Trump’s tribal campaign.

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U.S. Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump takes the stage at a campaign rally in Canton, Ohio, U.S., September 14, 2016.
U.S. Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump takes the stage at a campaign rally in Canton, Ohio, U.S., September 14, 2016.Credit: Jeff Swensen, AFP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Political consultant Jay Footlik, once a White House liaison to the Jewish community, told an elections forum convened by the Open University in Ra'anana this week  joshingly, I presume  that if Trump wins, he’s going straight to the Israeli Embassy in Washington to register to make aliyah. Canada, he added in jest, will have built a wall by then to keep out the thousands of anxious liberals trying to escape Trump. You will hopefully excuse me for citing myself, but I couldn’t help but be reminded of a “nightmarish fantasy” I wrote back in March about a Trump victory that sends thousands of Jews packing to Israel. It seemed amusing and a bit outlandish at the time, but a bit less so now, at least the part about Trump winning the elections.

After all, this was the week in which dread enveloped many Trump-haters on the left and a feeling that anything is possible exhilarated his supporters on the right. Whether it will turn out to have been a dead end or a mere detour on her road to the White House, Hillary Clinton’s stumble on her way out of Sunday’s September 11 memorial ceremony punctured the self-confident bubble that many of her supporters  as well as many analysts in the media  had been living in. When you add in the intense media scrutiny of her health and her obsession with secrecy, her disappearance from the public arena to convalesce from the pneumonia she was diagnosed with, her unfortunate utterance on half of Trump’s voters being a “basket of deplorables” and, of course, her steady decline in the polls, one can well understand why, within a matter of days, many Democrats went from manic to depressive, from hubris to anguish, from complacency to cold sweat. 

Nate Silver wrote on Thursday that it’s still too early to tell whether and how Clinton’s evacuation, diagnosis, concealment and forced vacation have influenced the polls. The trend and atmospherics, however, are definitely leaning against her. Silver’s fivethirtyeight.com still gave Clinton a 64 percent chance of winning the elections on Thursday, but that’s plummeted from 89 percent only a month ago. The Real Clear Politics average still has Clinton at a 2-point advantage, but that’s down dramatically from 6 a short fortnight ago. Clinton still has a tiny lead in battleground states, including critical Pennsylvania, but polls show Trump pulling ahead in Ohio and Florida. And the New York Times on Thursday evening informed its worried readers that the race is now too close to call.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton waves after leaving an apartment building Sunday, Sept. 11, 2016, in New York.Credit: AP

Some of Clinton’s followers have reacted to the downturn in her fortunes since Sunday’s incident in typical right-wing fashion: they blame the media. Even though there is no doubt  at least in my mind  that news outlets are judging Clinton by far harsher standards than Trump, the claim that ascribing serious fallout to the videos of her evacuation from Sunday’s ceremony is proof of gender bias is, if you’ll pardon me, ridiculous. A male presidential contender, even one much younger than either Clinton or Trump, would be seriously dented, politically speaking, if he was photographed, like Clinton, as his body folded, his knees buckled and he was carried onto a Secret Service van waiting to whisk him off. 

Just as Richard Nixon’s sweat and five o’clock shadow hurt his chances after the 1960 television debate with John Kennedy, just as Michael Dukakis never really recovered in 1988 from looking like a little boy who was trying out a tank commanders outfit, just as Bob Dole raised serious concerns about his age when he fell off a podium in 1996, so Clinton’s show of feebleness, no matter what its origin, will continue to dog her throughout the rest of the 2016 campaign. If it turns out that the damage was severe, it will have had more to do with the instant proliferation and mass dissemination of the disturbing images of her stumble in the age of Twitter and smartphones than with anything to do with her gender.

Until Wednesday, Trump maintained silence about Clinton’s health concerns, allowing the media to bash her by themselves. Perhaps he was hesitant to focus on the issue before divulging his own lab test results, as he did partially to Dr. Mehmet Oz on CNN in a recording made on Wednesday. But a few short hours later. Trump was already mocking Clinton and wondering whether she had the “stamina” to stand on a podium for an hour. In a snarky campaign statement issued on Thursday night, Trump’s advisers said ”We are pleased to disclose all of the test results which show that Mr. Trump is in excellent health, and has the stamina to endure  uninterrupted  the rigors of a punishing and unprecedented presidential campaign and, more importantly, the singularly demanding job of President of the United States.” In North Carolina on Thursday night, Clinton gave a strong but short speech that showed she was on her way back to form. Whether it would be enough to recoup her losses is another matter.

At the same time, Trump continued to hammer Clinton for her “basket of deplorables”. As Israelis well know from their own experience, the right is expert at capitalizing on disparaging remarks made by Labor figures about Likud voters being mobs, riffraff, undesirables and “kissers of charms and prostrators on graves”, which worked well for Benjamin Netanyahu in 2015. Trump too is trying to use Clinton’s “basket” as a tribal call to arms and to depict it as a collective insult. When the sullied honor of the group is at stake, one is less inclined to examine or weigh the deficiencies and weaknesses of the man who is its leader.

The Pew Research study released this week highlights how this tribalism is taking hold in American politics. Twenty or thirty years ago, Israelis would compare their own bitterly contested political arena to the seemingly narrow range between center left and center right that governed the U.S., saying they could hardly distinguish between Democrats and the GOP. That changed with the rise of the Evangelical and conservative right, the election of George W. Bush and the hawkish, anti-Muslim backlash after 9/11, which showed that Republicans had lurched to the right ideologically. The Pew study shows that the polarization, which became more pronounced after the election of Barack Obama in 2008, is now increasingly reflected along lines of race, gender, age, education and economic situation as well.

Republicans are increasingly being supported by older white men with partial college education or lower, though the party still claims a small majority among those making $75,000 and up. Democrats are more of a rainbow, with whites comprising only 57 percent of their voters. Democrats are the overwhelming preference of Hispanics as well as Asian American and African-American voters, as well as millennials, which does not augur well for the future of the GOP. Republicans are rural, Democrats are urban, Republicans are Southerners and Midwesterners and Democrats are Northeasterners and Pacific coasters. Religiously, the divisions are just as stark: white Protestants prefer the GOP by a whopping 76-20 per cent majority, Catholics are divided evenly and Jews are deep inside Democratic territory, preferring or leaning in their direction by a 74-20 majority.

Like many Americans, Jews are increasingly concerned about the subterranean, tribal currents of bigotry and resentment exposed and now exploited by Donald Trump’s surprising success. They saw him first as a clown and caricature, then as a curiosity and a freak of political nature and then, to their surprise, as a presidential candidate of a major party. But it seems very few people realized that his conquest of the White House was also entering the realm of the possible, even if it remains unthinkable. In recent days, this theoretical if seemingly delusional scenario has turned into a clear, though possibly not yet present, danger. In and of itself that could spark a Clinton comeback, as more undecided voters, including those who had planned to squander their votes on whimsical third party candidates such as Gary Johnson the Libertarian and Jill Stein the Green, may come to realize that Clinton, warts and all, is the only obstacle that can still stop Trump and the tumult and mayhem that his victory will bring to America. 

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