He has described all Mexicans as “rapists”; argued that terrorism can be overcome with looser gun control laws; proposed banning Muslims from the US; and bizarrely, even admitted he would “probably” date his daughter if she wasn’t, well, his daughter. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is a caricature of the world’s most fearful US president – think Stan Smith, American Dad, but with bad hair. He is entertaining and outrageous, but ultimately charismatic. And dangerously intelligent.
It is true he has suffered multiple business failures. But it is testament to his ambition that he has made repeated comebacks, and is finally at the cusp of becoming the most powerful person on the planet. His race for president was initially met with amused disbelief, but after securing the Republican nomination, the world has been forced to take note. The US electorate faces its toughest presidential choice in history on November 8th.
Trump and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton are the most unpopular presidential nominees ever. Clinton is perceived as corrupt and untrustworthy. Questions surround the funding of her election campaign. She has undergone an FBI investigation for using her private email for government correspondence. And she is viewed as a warmonger, having voted in favour of the invasion of Iraq in 2002.
Her opinions also sway with popular sentiment. Originally opposed to same-sex marriage, she changed tack as public support for the policy gathered pace. More controversially, she has stood by her lothario husband and disgraced ex-president Bill Clinton. That alone divides attitudes. But despite her sullied image, she is the safer choice. She is experienced, level-headed and progressive, compared to Trump’s vitriolic xenophobic bullshit. Yet it will take a lot of work to convince the US electorate to get behind her.
Clinton’s real edge is that she is a woman but that is not a reason to vote for her. The decision must be based on merit. Americans have to ask if their country would be bettered by her policies. And they need to weigh her policies against those of Trump, whose ideas are expressed through hate speech and hang largely on the single issue of immigration.
Trump’s edge is that he will say absolutely anything to frighten Americans. Just as the Bush administration manipulated public support for the Iraqi war by reiterating phrases like the “war on terror”, Trump is exploiting discontent by vowing to “make America great again”. Yet as a hardline capitalist, his isolationist ideas are contradictory. He is also fond of misogyny, unafraid to describe women as “fat” and “ugly” as if it mattered.
Behavioural economist Richard Thaler has nailed Trump supporters, telling The Economist they would be “voting with the primitive part of their brain”. Populist politics is a rising trend across Western democracies. The decision by the UK to leave the EU is the most extreme example of its success. Populism appeals, as Thaler points out, to the primitive side of electorates. It centres on the threat of the foreigner and promotes nativism. It would be little surprise if so-called natives started pissing on their own lawns to illustrate ownership, such is the ridiculous swing towards xenophobia that is being witnessed across parts of the rich world right now.
Yet like any half decent manipulator, Trump knows that repetition and volume are key to successful presidential campaigns. That means repeating the same ideas as loud as he can for as long as he can, creating sensationalist news headlines everyday until the election. For as Oscar Wilde said, “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
No such thing as bad press
Melania Trump joined the charade at the Republican National Convention (RNC) last week. She was slammed for lifting direct quotes from Michelle Obama’s 2008 DNC speech. But this was no mistake. Trump’s spin-doctors have made a conscious decision to perform an absurd campaign based on vacuous emotive sound bites rather than logical arguments. Melania’s speech epitomized that approach: it was devoid of sentiment but ensured that she caused an online raucous. And no press is bad press.
By comparison, Clinton has remained low key. Yet her opponent has no shame in battering her with insults despite being a former democrat and friend, even inviting the Clintons to his third wedding.
Trump’s megalomania is Clinton’s biggest threat. There are no limits to his ambition and what he is willing to say, and Clinton is at risk of being shouted out of the race. Her advantage is that strict Republicans don’t like Trump because he is not their form of conservatism. If she is fortunate, they will decide to abstain from voting. The flipside is that Bernie Sanders supporters could fail to back her at the polls too.
Clinton may be reasoned and even well-meaning, but Trump has a sharp tongue and an eye for trends. The result of the election will be determined by marketing and Trump is a delicious gamble compared to Clinton’s bland brand of status quo.
Recommended viewing: Michelle Obama 2016 DNC speech