There is an old journalists’ story about a foreign editor who after some leftward lurch in Japanese politics cabled his Tokyo correspondent: “Is Japan going Communist? Need 1,000 words soonest.” To which the correspondent cabled back to London: “No, No, a thousand times No.”
One is tempted to respond in similar vein when asked whether Donald Trump will be the 45th president of the United States. Yes, this is a bizarre year: 5,000-to-1 outsiders Leicester City won the Premier League, while British voters could commit geopolitical hara-kiri in seven weeks time by voting to leave the EU.
So why not Trump rounding out a betting man’s treble by winning the White House in November? After all, Democrats have held the White House for eight years; in normal circumstances, the electorate’s desire for change would give any Republican a decent chance. And this is after all a one-off, one-against-one. If it gets hot at the right time, any baseball team can win the World Series.
Hillary Clinton – the celebrity mogul’s all-but-certain opponent in the general election – is moreover not the strongest of candidates. She’s experienced; but in a year of political insurrection, experience counts as a negative. Furthermore she’s not a patch on her husband as a campaigner.
She could also yet be derailed by an indictment over her use of a private email server while Secretary of State, an affair still under investigation by the FBI. And with voters apparently clamouring for change, she seems to have been around for ever; so long that the colossal historic first of a woman in the White House now barely rates a footnote. And, last but perhaps not least, do Americans want to risk a re-run of the Bill-and-Hillary psychodrama of the 1990s?
But set against the negatives piled up by Trump, her shortcomings pale. According to the polls, Ms Clinton is disapproved of by 55 per cent of Americans. In Trump’s case the figure is two thirds, 66 per cent. Not good, the latter’s advisers conceded, but after 25 years in politics, her negatives are set in stone. Trump is a political newcomer, they argue, who can still remake his image.
But it will be a miracle if he does. November is six months away, and a lot can happen. But as Trump has tightened his grip on the Republican nomination, he has if anything fallen even further behind in presidential match-ups. He trails Hillary by double digits in the most recent polls – and Bernie Sanders, her closest challenger and most likely alternative should an act of God or the FBI knock her out of the race, by even more.
Margins that size are difficult to overturn under any circumstances. This time it will be doubly hard, given the hostages to fortune Trump has given: his outbursts against women and minorities, not to mention his astounding and needless personal attack on election day in Wisconsin on his last serious rival Ted Cruz, when he regurgitated a story in the National Enquirer supermarket tabloid, suggesting that Cruz’ father was somehow involved with Lee Harvey Oswald and the assassination of JFK.
And this when polls already indicated Trump was heading for a blowout victory – prompting Cruz to describe him as “a pathological liar,” a “narcissist and serial philanderer.” That and other examples of Trump’s verbal intemperance will surely feature in a tidal wave of Clinton attack ads against him, to a general election audience.
Trump has thus far prospered by gaining a passionate following among a subset – large but a subset nonetheless – of Republican voters, most of them white, male and suffering from hard economic times, who feel betrayed by the party leadership in Washington. Now however, he must convince a majority of the American electorate, consisting not just of Republicans, but independents and Democrats too, that he is the man for the job.
Right now that looks well-nigh impossible. Two-thirds of women voters say they don’t like him. Ditto, minorities. Even many lifelong Republican males say they could never vote for him. That would nullify the advantage Trump hopes to gain by capturing rustbelt states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, traditionally Democratic, in a general election.
In today’s diverse and multi-hued US, there simply aren’t enough angry white males to elect him. In swing states like Florida and Virginia the picture is no better. Can Trump, boastful and bombastic, and thanks to TV shows like The Apprentice almost as well known to Americans as Clinton, really change his spots?
Nor should Hillary Clinton be underestimated. She is backed by America’s most formidable political machine, and – like her husband – she has a happy knack of inducing red mist attacks among Republicans who confront her. Reason goes out of the window; invariably her opponents over-reach, and succeed only in making the Clintons more sympathetic.
It happened with Bill’s impeachment by Congress in 1998. It happened again last year when she was subjected to a 10-hour grilling by a Republican-led House committee last October on the Benghazi affair. The panel never laid a glove on her. If Trump is not careful, the same could happen this autumn.
Then there is the small matter of Republican unity. Seriously divided parties do not win US presidential elections. The near certainty that Trump will secure an outright majority of delegates by next month means Republicans will avoid their worst nightmare, a potentially chaotic open convention in July.
But even the most deftly choreographed love-fest, a four day party info-mercial, will only paper over the divisions Trump has created, and the establishment’s deeprooted resentment at the property billionaire’s hostile take-over of their party. The fight between Clinton and Sanders may grow less pretty by the week. But their arguments are matters of degree. You can bet they will be largely forgotten come the Democratic convention in Philadelphia.
Once crowned, Trump will doubtless make a huge effort to get up to speed on policy, foreign policy in particular. Never has the country flirted with a potential president as illprepared for the job as Trump is right now. One way and other he does need a miracle. But then again, what about Leicester City?
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