With Donald Trump all but wrapping up the GOP presidential nomination, many voices in the political landscape have already crowned Hillary Clinton as the next president of the United States (see here and here).
But after the absolute spectacle we just watched in the Republican primary, I’m much more hesitant to call this one over. Too many rules have been broken in this election season to take anything for granted. Donald Trump has revealed a number of truths about our country — truths that we really already knew but perhaps never realized their full depth or weight.
First, as many others have noted, there are strong currents of racism, xenophobia, and sexism in this country, just waiting to be tapped into and mobilized. This, of course, is no secret, but the conventional wisdom of the past 40 years or so has been that the best way to leverage these prejudices was not to say them out loud, but to hint at them. Instead of saying something homophobic or anti-lgbtq you instead lift up ‘family’ or ‘Christian values.’ Instead of calling black people criminals or lazy, you speak instead of ‘thugs’ and ‘welfare queens.’ To halt change and accountability from the federal government — you stand up for ‘states rights.’
But we all know that the Donald doesn’t do dog-whistles. As former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley put it, Trump’s more the carnival barker type. Holding press conferences to call Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals. Insulting journalists for being physically disabled. Calling for a national database of Muslim-Americans. Subtlety is not a word in Trump’s vocabulary.
Of course mainstream opinion was that voters wouldn’t respond to such blatant and explicit prejudice. And many predicted that as the quotes piled up his poll numbers would fall and he’d eventually fade. Instead he’s only gotten stronger as more and more people — mostly angry, largely male and nearly all of them white — rallied to support a man they saw willing to call it how they see it.
Second, (and again this was a fact blatantly obvious before the primary) media coverage is badly broken. Surprisingly, when cable news channels have a significant profit motive they don’t necessarily cover what’s most important from a journalistic viewpoint but instead what will drive ratings. According to a news article published in the New York Times, the Trump campaign, as of mid-March, had received nearly $1.9 billion in free advertising across cable outlets, social media and conventional news. That’s more free ad space than all of the other Republican primary contestants combined — and more than twice as much as Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
This is not to say that the coverage has always been positive. But that doesn’t really matter. The nature of Trump’s campaign is immune to negative press largely for the reasons stated above. To a man as unabashed in his views as Trump, regardless of whether you’re praising or denouncing the man, repeating his words is serving only to amplify them.
Obviously the dynamics of the general election are different from those of the GOP primary. And a Trump victory would take a series of unfortunate events that make his winning seemingly difficult. But it is not impossible. And by treating it as an impossibility, I believe that we open the door to a Trump victory just slightly more.
This political season reminds me of a scene from the movie Watchmen in which one of the main characters — a superhero named Rorshach — is framed for a crime he didn’t commit. After being sent to jail, a fellow inmate attempts to shank him in the lunch line. Rorschach fends off the attack and brutally maims his assailant. And as he’s being dragged out of the cafeteria by prison guards, Rorschach puts the rest of the inmates on notice; “I’m not locked in here with you,” he screams, “you’re locked in here with me!”
Conventional wisdom says that Hillary has this thing in the bag. But there’s nothing conventional about this electoral season. Trump’s not locked into our rules — we’re locked into his. We forget this at our own risk.