Does Donald Trump actually want the job of leader of the free world? It’s a question people have been asking ever since the Manhattan mogul entered the U.S. presidential race. He alienated a large chunk of the electorate with his very first speech. “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best”, he said in announcing his candidacy on June 16, 2015. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists”. Trump has managed to offend just about every other group of people since; his unfavourable rating among women – who made up over half of voters in the last election – is 77 percent. After securing enough delegates to become the Republican nominee, he joked he might leave the race if offered $5 billion; just this month, he told the New York Times he won’t rule out quitting – even if he’s elected.
A photograph of a smiling Donald and Melania Trump on their wedding day with guests Bill and Hillary Clinton has frequently circulated during the race, reminding voters that Trump donated to his rival’s past campaigns and family philanthropy and giving rise to a theory that he’s running as a spoiler to hand the election to Hillary. That might seem far-fetched, but it’s the simplest explanation of Trump on the stump.
Take how he was given his biggest opportunity of the election on July 5 and blew it. FBI director James Comey announced he was recommending no charges against Clinton over her use of a private email server while secretary of state even as he rebuked her for putting secret documents at risk. Instead of focusing on Clinton’s repeated claims, now discredited, that no classified information passed through her server, Trump gave the media an excuse to move on to other things: That night he praised Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and the next day he tried to pass off a Star of David as a sheriff’s star in a lame attempt to defend a seemingly anti-Semitic tweet.
Every major poll taken in June, with a single exception, had Clinton ahead of Trump, sometimes by double digits. The gap narrowed slightly after Comey’s announcement, but over half of Republicans still wish their party had chosen a candidate other than a four-times-bankrupt reality television star who trades in vicious personal insults, including mocking more than one disabled journalist. Powerful insiders haven’t given up trying to organize a revolt of delegates at next week’s convention to make that happen. Yet though he might not want the job – and daily seems determined to ruin his chances of getting it – Donald Trump still has an excellent shot at becoming America’s 45th president.
Robust policies and principles won’t get him the title. He doesn’t have those. But elections usually turn on passion, not reason, and events are beginning to make American passions boil over. A campaign fueled by frustration could give way to an election decided by fear. The increasing frequency and severity of terrorist attacks at home and abroad combined with rising racial tensions and violence across the country have Americans on edge. If the mayhem continues through the summer and fall and enough people mark their ballots based on one question – which candidate will best protect me from Islamist terror and racial unrest? – the once-preposterous idea of a President Trump could become reality. Donald Trump is not the only candidate willing to address Americans’ fears. But he’s the only candidate explicitly promising to keep them safe.
Flashback to ’68
Clashes between police and protesters are becoming increasingly fierce on the eve of the GOP gathering in Cleveland and the Democratic convention the following week in Philadelphia. America in 2016 is starting to look uncomfortably like America in 1968. Then it was Democrats in disarray, with cracks within the party and the country culminating in an ugly scene in Chicago, where police used tear gas and brute force against anti-war and civil rights protesters.
This year hasn’t seen disorder on the scale of the American race riots of the Sixties, yet. But a number of headline-making police killings of African-Americans, including one last year in Ferguson, Missouri, has produced an increasingly angry Black Lives Matter movement. After two black men were shot and killed by police officers the first week of July, one in Louisiana, one in Minnesota, tempers really flared.
During a Black Lives Matter march in Dallas, a black sniper shot and killed five policemen. That shocked the nation and added fuel to the fire. Days later, a protester threw something at a Baton Rouge officer, knocking out several teeth, while in St. Paul, one threw a Molotov cocktail at police and another dropped a piece of concrete on an officer’s head. Activists also blocked interstate highways in several cities in an attempt to disrupt more than just law enforcement.
Even before these events, Cleveland was expecting the GOP convention to get nasty. The city is bringing in an extra 3,000 police officers to aid its department, which itself is under federal supervision after an investigation found police too often used excessive force, some of it deadly. Members of the press for the first time have to go through Secret Service background checks to get access to all areas of the convention. That decision was made after violence broke out at a string of Trump rallies in the spring between opponents and supporters. Trump could have taken the high road and called for calm. Instead he goaded his fans, saying of one protester, “He was swinging, he was hitting people, and the audience hit back. That’s what we need a little bit more of.”
And, of course, at least since September 11, 2001, every large gathering in America has carried with it the threat of terrorism. Al Qaeda may be “on the run”, as Obama once claimed, but their progeny have graduated from what he called their “JV” status. The Montreal-based Centre for Research on Globalization called the period ending July 5 the “bloodiest Ramadan month in modern times”. ISIS suicide bombers killed 45 at the Istanbul airport, and an ISIS truck bomb killed 250 in Baghdad. Then on July 14 an apparent Islamist-inspired lone wolf terrorist killed at least 84 in Nice, France, by driving a huge truck into a mass of Bastille Day revelers. ISIS also took credit for the June 12 mass shooting in Orlando, where the Muslim son of Afghan immigrants killed 49 people at a gay nightclub. It was but the latest of a string of terrorist attacks on American soil since 9/11. Last year, a Pakistani-American couple killed 14 in San Bernardino, while in 2009, an American son of Palestinian immigrants killed 13 people at the Fort Hood army base.
The Obama administration laughably labeled that last attack a case of “workplace violence”, though it had proof the killer, who yelled “Allahu Akbar!” as he opened fire, had been in contact with Islamic terrorists. The president suggested the California killings might have the same cause – even after it came out that they were perpetrated by two Muslims carrying bombs along with their guns. Surviving witnesses were widely quoted as saying that the Orlando shooter had pledged allegiance to ISIS and its leader during the attack, but the administration redacted his references to “the Islamic State” and ISIS leader “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi” when it first released the attack’s 911 transcripts. Even in its programs ostensibly aimed at countering the threat to the United States from radical Islam, the administration refuses to name that threat, using the circumlocution “Countering Violent Extremism” without naming the ideology behind it.
Perhaps the famous example of the administration’s aversion to admitting the existence of Islamic terrorism comes from the woman running to preserve Obama’s legacy. As secretary of state when four Americans were killed in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012, Hillary Clinton initially claimed the violence was the spontaneous result of an anti-Islam YouTube video. Subsequent investigations found that it was a premeditated attack planned and carried out by a group affiliated with al Qaeda – and that Clinton knew it. To this day she remains reluctant to call a spade a spade. Last December, shortly after the San Bernardino attack, she told interviewer George Stephanopoulos she didn’t want to say “radical Islam” because “it doesn’t do justice to the vast numbers of Muslims in our own country and around the world who are peaceful people”.
Americans don’t feel any safer than they did eight years ago. Most think the Obama administration’s attempt at a realignment in the Middle East has been a failure, no matter how hard the president and his presumptive heir try to pretend otherwise. Clinton and Obama might deny the existence of Islamic terrorism, but Americans can see proof of it on their own shores, and Trump constantly reminds them of it.
The great divide on race
It’s an insult to voters’ intelligence when their leaders lie to them – especially in the cause of political correctness. “The suspect said he was upset at white people”, Dallas police chief David Brown said of the man who killed five policemen. “The suspect stated he wanted to kill white people, especially white officers”. Here’s Obama on the same subject: “I think it’s very hard to untangle the motives of this shooter. As we’ve seen, in a whole range of incidents with mass shooters, they are, by definition, troubled”. Clinton didn’t want to offend the Democratic base either, so she immediately shifted focus away from the five dead cops. The very next day, she said, “I’m going to be talking to white people. I think we’re the ones who have to start listening to the legitimate cries that are coming from our African-American fellow citizens”.
Donald Trump’s response was very different: He proclaimed the slaughter an attack on America, blamed Black Lives Matter for inciting anti-white hatred, and promised to be “the law and order candidate”. It is exactly the strategy Richard Nixon used to rally American voters in ’68, when it seemed the country was on the brink of an all-out race war.
Trump is a buffoon and a boor, and quite possibly a genuinely dangerous demagogue, but if Americans feel a (legitimate) fear for their safety, he can win – especially if Hillary Clinton is determined to repeat Hubert Humphrey’s losing campaign against Nixon. Humphrey thought the solution to the unrest of his time was continued expansion of the welfare state, including civil rights programs, as envisioned in Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.
“For every prison Nixon vowed to build, Humphrey pledged to build new schools”, Michael W. Flamm writes in Law and Order: Street Crime, Civil Unrest, and the Crisis of Liberalism in the 1960s. Flamm quotes an unnamed Democrat official: “‘If the election depends on law and order,’ he said bluntly, ‘we won’t win’.” Humphrey couldn’t talk about law and order, because it alienated too many of the Democrats’ core supporters, progressives and African-Americans. Nixon could, and did, and in his acceptance speech at the Republican convention in August, he attacked the idea that such talk was coded language aimed at white voters’ worst instincts. “It is the voice of the great majority of Americans, the forgotten Americans”, he declared. “They are not racists or sick; they are not guilty of the crime that plagues the land”. Images from outside the Democratic convention in Chicago shock us now. We forget that at the time, the police, brutal as they were, had substantial public support. It has been well understood that fear influences voter behaviour at least since Machiavelli. All the wishful progressive thinking in the world can’t change that.
A clear choice on terrorism
Elites on left and right were horrified when Trump declared the country should ban – at least temporarily – Muslims from traveling to the United States. Polls found that half of American voters – all voters, not just Republicans – agreed with him. Almost half also supported Trump’s endorsement of torturing terrorists to “beat the savages”. While Republicans, and conservative voters generally, are divided over their candidate’s protectionist economic policies, they find more agreement with some of his ideas on national security – especially compared with Clinton’s positions.
When Trump claimed, after the Orlando massacre, that Clinton wanted “a 500 percent increase in Syrian refugees coming into our country”, PolitiFact scoffed – but examined the claim and found it to be true. A week and a half later, Britain surprised the world by voting to leave the European Union, partly over concerns about Muslim immigration. Trump applauded, as did a lot of center-right Americans, while Clinton-Obama joined the elitist chorus in deploring the ignorance of the decision and warning of its apocalyptic economic consequences.
Many hostile pundits have been comparing Trump to segregationist George Wallace, the 1968 historical footnote known as the last third-party candidate to receive any Electoral College votes. But Trump has more in common with the two most successful North American politicians of that year – Richard Nixon and Pierre Trudeau. That may seem an odd coupling, but both positioned themselves as tough guys during a time of acute civil disorder. And Trudeau, like Trump, was a recent convert to his party, as well as the furthest thing from a conventional politician. The Maclean’s writers who summarized Trudeau’s win 30 years later could be talking about Trump in 2016, a mesmerizing and media-savvy – though far less shrewd – non-politician politician:
Trudeau knew nothing about ordinary voters but he could read the national mood. The contradictions in the country’s character had grown so acute, he reasoned, that no symbol of authority could reconcile them. That process required a master of ambiguity, a leader whose thoughts and aspirations remained as unknowable and as unpredictable as those of his subjects. That ambiguity helped create his personal magnetism; people could endow him with their own aspirations and fantasies. Trudeau thus became a mirror for Canadians’ neuroses, performing the indispensable psychic act of releasing our anxieties to the surface, where they belong.
Trudeau was an intellectual, unlike Trump, but he radiated similar insouciance. Asked during the campaign about the future of Liberalism, he responded, “An exciting political party should have both blondes and brunettes”. He was likewise unbeholden to party or dogma: “I do not feel myself bound by any doctrine or rigid approaches. I am a pragmatist”. Trudeau’s defining moment in the 1968 campaign was on June 24, the night before the election, when Quebec separatists started a riot at Montreal’s St. Jean Baptiste Day parade. “Trudeau au poteau!” (“Trudeau to the gallows!”) they bellowed as they threw rocks and bottles at the man who would be elected the next prime minister. His security team wanted him to leave, but Trudeau stood his ground. The aura of fearlessness in the face of anarchy would help carry him to victory the next day and for many years beyond.
There will inevitably be more civil unrest – and potentially another major act of terrorism – before the vote in November. Trump can only benefit from its impact on the campaign, while Clinton will have no credible answer to it. It may well produce an outcome that is nowhere apparent in today’s polling.
Kelly Jane Torrance is a Canadian writer and deputy managing editor of the Weekly Standard based in Washington, D.C.