Welcome to your nightmare
Something terrifying is about to happen.
Barring a calamitous natural disaster, the reveal of the greatest prank show in human history or a failure of polling so absolute that it would become an honorary Bush brother, some Americans are about to cast their votes to make Donald Trump president of the United States.
But since it’s happening it Iowa, it’s different than normal elections in that it’s purposely arcane, slow and unrepresentative. So it’s like voting always is for minorities—but for white people.
That’s why the turnout for the Iowa caucus is abysmally low—with 4 out of 5 residents skipping the entire process even though their state has been bombarded with candidates, campaigns and ads since back before Trump insulted a disabled man at a campaign rally.
So a tiny group of white voters from Iowa — a party’s winner generally represents at most 4 percent of the state’s eligible voters — could propel a billion dollar baby on a nearly unstoppable path to winning the nomination of the Grand Old Party that was created to stop the spread of slavery.
There are numerous reasons this should offend all decent Americans.
Foremost among them: the driving force of his campaign has been a willingness to evoke outright racism — or, as The New Republic’s Brian Beutler calls it “economic anxiety” — in order to persuade a third of the Republican party that the Trump brand is the miracle cure to their or their husbands’ impotency.
Invoking the specter of “political correctness” allows Trump to cast punching down at many of the most abused groups in America as a heroic punching up. He takes the right’s half-century old “Southern Strategy” of tactical racism to comic extremes, with rallies crafted to bring out America’s worst instincts and fashion choices.
Trump’s gift for exposing the venality of the GOP base is one reason many on the left are giddy about Trump’s rise. If someone created a tiny Macy’s Parade balloon to satirize America’s right wing—it would be Donald Trump.
Evangelicals drooling over a thrice divorced, bikini-contest-producing con man who has reveled in his affairs with married women reveals both their hypocrisy and lust for authoritarianism. And Trump’s eagerness to abandon ideology — mocking what were supposed to be inviolable conservative ideals — shows that the conservative movement has no allegiance to convictions or beliefs. Conservatism is just pig-headed pushback to progress, designed to preserve unjust privilege and keep “lower orders” in place.
But here’s the really terrifying thing: Donald Trump could possibly win the most important election of our lifetime.
To understand how to stop this nightmare from happening, let’s game out how it might happen.
1. Trump wins the nomination without dividing the party.
No “establishment” figure launches a third-party run. Evangelicals’ and nativists’ gag reflexes don’t kick in as Trump inevitably angles toward the center. (It’s especially insane that Trump is about to win a caucus dominated by fundamentalists without ever clarifying his position on abortion. This gives him freedom for the general election, which could unravel his appeal to parts of the far right.)
2. The Democratic nominee proves to be as vulnerable as analysts suggest s/he might be.
Either a manufactured scandal catches up with Clinton or the worst polling scenarios prove true for Sanders. Or the party is so divided by the primary that it can’t be put back together again.
3. Michael Bloomberg joins the race.
This billionaire has no chance of winning any red states but his campaign would force Democrats to spend even more on swing states and tens of millions defending states they can generally expect to win — like New York.
4. Trump is as good at running a general election campaign as he is at wooing the GOP base.
As despicable as he is, Trump’s charm and political talent are real and must be reckoned with. While it’s turned off a majority of Americans thus far, that’s exactly how you win the Republican primary. If he’s as successful at poking at the weaknesses of the general electorate as he has been at charming the Republican faithful, he could be a much more powerful candidate than anyone assumes.
There’s a reason that apostates from both parties — like Mickey Kaus from the left and Bruce Bartlett from the right — like Trump. And it’s not just because they are both of the age, race and gender most inspired by his promise of a return to utopia where service workers are all white and only wish you “Merry Christmas” all year.
Trump’s rejection of all orthodoxies has real appeal, possibly even to union members. And his deport-them-all stance has surprising resonance with black voters.
Trump needs to find a way to grow the white working class vote without losing the votes of college-educated white voters and not shrinking the party’s already scant minority vote. It’s a tough needle to thread but he’d proven able and ready to march through reports of his demise.
5. Democrats turn out to be as bad at running against Trump as Republicans have been.
So far the right’s best attacks on him are calling him a “jerk” or accusing him of once having believed sane things. Polls show that instead of his old policies hurting him, conservatives end up liking his old policies more. Republican voters like him because he’s strong and the kind of guy they want to be on their side, despite his record of exploitation, dirty dealings and a career built on vice.
GOP candidates have not taken on his racism, because they know that will only make him stronger in the primary. They’ve hinted at his un-electability but true believers think that’s what the “establishment” always says about a true conservative.
So how do you beat this guy?
Trump’s biggest mistake was including massive tax breaks for the rich in his plan to cut everyone’s taxes. While this has made the establishment far more comfortable with him, it undercuts his populist appeal. Giveaways for billionaires like him along with his long, checkered business history, make him vulnerable to Romney-izing. His famed bankruptcies on their own don’t do much damage but if you tie them to a thread of his reckless policy proposals and reckless statements, you may find a persuasive argument that you just can’t trust this guy with your Social Security. His daddy or the government won’t be able to bail him out when he busts your future.
With one brain fart about self-deportation, Mitt Romney doomed his candidacy with Latinos. Any attempt to dig himself out of his anti-immigrant ranting would probably hurt Trump more with his supporters that help him with those already offended by his outright hate. And his birtherism along with his long, unapologetic history of blatant PR-seeking racism should be deployed to blunt any appeal to black voters.
These may not be the best attacks but they’re better than anything Republicans have thrown at him.
6. We have a genuine crisis—a financial meltdown, a terror attack, or an epidemic—and Trump finds the perfect way to exploit it.
A demagogue is more virus than candidate. If a shock to our system weakens our collective immune system, or our immune system just proves to be as weak as it has been during off-year elections, the chances of a master manipulator of fears taking presidency increase exponentially.
So that’s your nightmare scenario. It requires not just one but an endless series of “black swan” events.
What’s the Republican nightmare scenario? Maybe the same exact same thing. Trump in office would probably do more to undermine conservatism than anything a Democrat could do.
Or perhaps Republicans have accepted that it’s better to win with Trump than see another Democrat in the White House.
In that case, their nightmare is just the 2016 election as we face it — without a candidate who can both magically outdo Mitt Romney’s awesome performance with white voters while somehow improving his dismal performance with everyone else.
[Image Gage Skidmore | Flickr]