A slight twist to the subtitle of the film Dr Strangelove, Peter Sellers’ darkling satire on nuclear war, would make it apt for United States presidential politics right now. How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Trump. Real estate tycoon and reality TV star Donald Trump is now just one Election Day away from the most powerful job in the world. And slowly but surely the mainstream, first of his own Republican Party, then of the US electorate as a whole and, finally, the rest of the world will come to, well, perhaps not love but at least accept the Trump.
Unless run over by the rhetorical bus, Trump will be officially crowned the Republican Party candidate at its convention in July. This is despite have registered as a Republican supporter only seven years ago, having regularly contributed money to Democratic candidates including Hillary Clinton, never having held elected office or done, as far as anyone can tell, a jot of public service in his entire life. His hosting 14 seasons of The Apprentice do not count.
Over the past several months, Trump has been vilified by Republican leaders, many of whom continue to avoid endorsing him and ruled themselves out for the post of his veep. The media has scourged him, but helpfully given him, by some estimates, two billion dollars worth of free publicity along the way.
Admittedly, Trump has had some luck along the way. When he began his race, he had a small but dedicated quarter of the Republican vote turning out for him. The much larger non-Trump vote was splintered among a dozen plus candidates. If that had ever found a single candidate to coalesce around, it is likely his candidacy would have been remembered only as a Wikipedia entry.
That didn’t happen. His opponents fought among themselves. Trump’s support base slowly expanded. The more he was pilloried, the greater merit voters saw in him and the more credible his declarations that “I am the anti-establishment candidate” sounded. That his economics are quite leftwing, he doesn’t mind gays and he wasn’t particularly religious were all swamped by that one label.
A similar revolt was taking place in the left-liberal space of US politics with the equally surprising run of Bernie Sanders. Sanders is everything a US presidential candidate is not supposed to be: socialist, non-Christian, septuagenarian and — echoes of the Donald — not even a member of the party he claims to represent until a few years ago. Who knows? If the Democratic field had been as crowded as the Republican one, Sanders might have been in the same position as Trump is today.
Trump’s emergence and Sanders’ ability to sweat someone like Clinton are two sides of the same story: a large portion of the US population feels the system that runs the country, along with the people who are part of that structure, have failed them. This is largely about economics and stagnant incomes, but also about a sense of national strength undermined — at least among Republicans, and a sense of E Pluribus Not So Unum — a greater Democratic concern.
It has happened before. Jimmy Carter, a peanut agri-businessman with no Washington connections, took the capital by electoral storm in the wake of the Vietnam War and Watergate. The 1970s and 1960s saw George McGovern, the closest thing to a hippie to run for the US presidency, and Barry Goldwater, the rightest of the rightwing, win the presidential nomination of the Democratic and Republican parties. Both were crushed underfoot by the avalanche of ballots against them.
The question is whether Trump will be different. Trump’s momentum would seem to indicate he has now moved well beyond his original base of intermittently employed, mobile home-living, rednecks. He won his last few primaries with over half the vote. The average Trump supporter is now more educated and wealthier than the American mean. The gap between Clinton and Trump in matchup polls has halved since late March, though the lady is still on top by a healthy six plus points. The Donald has also begun holding talks with key Republican leaders looking for some common ground — among other things, without their green light he will struggle to raise money for the actual campaign.
The most telling sign of the taming of the Trump is that he has begun reading his speeches from a teleprompter, foregoing his traditional ex tempore statements for rehearsed paragraphs that sound suspiciously like policy. This is both sad — no more remarkable lines like, “My fingers are long and beautiful, as, it has been well documented, are various other parts of my body” — and good because it means he is transmuting from a radioactive substance to the political equivalent of gray lead.
The point has been repeatedly made that outsiders are now the new insiders in large swathes of the world. Nigel Farage, Alternative for Germany, Podemos and, in a somewhat less extreme Asian way, Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe are examples of political voices who were not part of the in-crowd in their respective capitals even five years ago.
These and others have since emerged on the top of the greasy pole because their predecessors forget a simple thing: Establishments receive their legitimacy by delivering the goods to the larger population over a long period of time. Governing elites and institutions which come to earn the sobriquet “establishment” often do so by providing prosperity, security and symbolic sustenance to their people over decades. They can goof up some of the time, but once it becomes a habit it doesn’t take long for the crown to tumble — especially in a democracy like the US, where even the choice of candidates is decided at the grassroots level by passers-by strolling from the pavement into converted schoolhouses to mark bits of paper.
Trump now has electoral legitimacy. He has won more primary votes than any previous Republican candidate, though that’s partly because the US population is larger after every five years. Any talk of fixing the convention and bringing in a dark horse candidate is now limited to opioid users. The endorsements are slowly trickling in. Once his party leadership accepts him, which should take about four score and seven hours more, Trump will be the nouveau establishment.
As for the rest of the world, other than Mexican wall-builders, they should recall Dr Strangelove, stop worrying and come to, well, understand the Trump. They have just over six months to do so.