Fewer than 100 days. That is all that remains in what will, perhaps, go down as the most unpredictable American presidential election in at least a century. The candidates—Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump—are the two most disfavored and distrusted aspirants for the office ever nominated by a major American political party. And yet, here they stand.
An article I wrote in March attempted to forecast how Hillary Clinton’s campaign would seek to ‘win the narrative game’ by defining the election as a choice between unity and division, love versus hate, hope over fear, and the like. By any objective comparison of the 2016 Republican and Democratic National Conventions, it seems that Mrs Clinton and the Democrats are well on their way towards achieving just that.
Several weeks ago, Cleveland, Ohio was host to the Republican Convention. Trump’s Republican Party spoke to two groups of American voters: the far right base of the GOP, and to the near two-thirds of Americans who feel the country is heading in the ‘wrong direction’—many of these will include America’s working families, steelworkers and coalminers, bridge-builders and road-pavers, retail workers and restaurant staff to whom the socio-economic forces of globalization and stagnant wages have been woefully unkind.
In speaking to these two groups, the Convention did two things exceptionally well: first, it gave them an enemy with a name, Hillary Clinton, and second, it personalized Mr Trump in a way that only his children could and did do to great effect.
To the average viewer tuning in to watch Trump’s ‘coronation in Cleveland,’ endless chants of “Lock Her Up!” (reference to Clinton) led on by official speakers at the Convention would have appeared a bit excessive, even disturbing. But, to those Americans, and there are many, for whom a dislike of Clinton is coupled with a revulsion of anything resembling the ‘political establishment,’ such moments reinforced the belief that the best way to ‘fix the system’ is to break it; thus, Donald Trump. This, in the end, is what Trump tried to sell many Americans on in his acceptance speech at the close of the Convention. He touted himself as the “law and order candidate,” who “alone can fix” the problems of a fearful nation in disrepair.
The Republican Convention was about one thing, and one thing only: hating Hillary Clinton, and loving Donald Trump
Here’s the issue: the entire four-day message of the Convention was not about expanding Trump’s base of support among minorities or women (the 2016 GOP platform says nothing about providing ‘equal pay for equal work’; it was not about proposing substantive solutions to problems facing the nation; it was not even about making amends with traditional conservatives and moderate Republicans to achieve party unity (the Republican governor of Ohio, John Kasich, the Bush family, and all former Republican nominees for president, except one, did not attend). The Republican Convention was about one thing, and one thing only: hating Hillary Clinton, and loving Donald Trump.
Compare the tone and scope of this message with that of the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia, which I was able to attend. The 2016 DNC was engineered to speak not just to the progressive base of the party, but also to moderate Democrats, independent voters, and yes, even moderate Republicans. Indeed, the success of the DNC is evident in its ability to have achieved three things: unification, diversification, and personification.
The Democratic Convention ended in Philadelphia having integrated much of Sanders’ progressive agenda into the Democratic Party Platform of 2016, and solidified a more than ninety percent rate of support from those who had voted for Sanders in the primaries.
Half of all Democratic delegates to the Convention were people of color compared to less than six percent at the RNC
Half of all Democratic delegates to the Convention were people of color compared to less than six percent at the RNC. Spotlights on stage were given to groups Trump has demonized: people with disabilities, undocumented immigrants, mothers of children lost to gun violence, and a ‘Gold Star’ Muslim-American family that publicly challenged Trump to a contest of who better represents American values. A parade of military generals and admirals, Methodist and Baptist preachers, and yes, even a few ‘Reagan’ Republicans each took the stage to give testimony as to why Trump is unfit to be president. It was highly unusual to witness the incredibly supportive reception that each of these groups got when they addressed the convention. Were there those at the DNC still chanting “no more war” or holding up signs calling for an end to drone warfare? Yes. But I did notice that each time a group of protesters raised their voices, the entire hall began waving American flags and entered into a chant of: “USA! USA! USA!”
Equally as unusual were the number of speeches given by exceptionally talented communicators: Michelle and Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, Bill Clinton, Michael Bloomberg, Cory Booker, and Joe Biden to name a few. Each of these speakers spoke not only to different segments of the American electorate, but they also each gave testament to who Hillary Clinton is as a person and what drives her interest in being president. This was a question the candidate herself went on to tackle in her nomination acceptance address, culminating in her adoption of the Methodist mantra of John Wesley (of Christ Church, Oxford): “To do all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, as long as ever you can.”
While I continue to believe that an opportunity was missed in her address to more directly confront and acknowledge the mistakes she has made in her long political career, Mrs Clinton did something in her acceptance of the nomination that Mr Trump did not do in his: she did not make her candidacy about her personal greatness, but about her policies and what she will do to help those Americans most in need. I think that speaks more to the character contrast of these candidates than anything I have seen or read this cycle.
As we pivot to the final stages of this historic election, the key barometer I will look to is not a set of polls, speeches, or debates, but rather to the questions that Americans seem to now be asking themselves. In the days following the end of the DNC, Trump has picked a fight with that aforementioned ‘Gold Star’ Muslim-American family; he has called on the state of Russia to ‘hack’ into the Clinton campaign’s email server; he has put into question America’s resolve to affirm its treaty obligations to its NATO allies; he has first refused, and then under pressure accepted, to endorse the highest-ranking official of his own party, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan; and he has even begun to state that the election results this November may “be rigged.”
To see the members of a major American political party publicly distance themselves from their nominee for president speaks volumes about the present state of the Trump Campaign.
These contentious episodes brought on by Trump’s own statements have led to open denouncements of his campaign by prominent Republicans including: Hewlett Packard CEO Meg Whitman, Senators Mitch McConnell, Susan Collins, Lindsey Graham, Mark Kirk, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, and fifty senior GOP national security officials who warned in a signed letter that Trump “lacks the character, values, and experience” to be president and “would put at risk our country’s national security and well-being.” To see the members of a major American political party publicly distance themselves from their nominee for president speaks volumes about the present state of the Trump Campaign.
As a result, the questions many undecided Americans, and even Republicans, now seem to be asking themselves are no longer about ‘establishment versus anti-establishment’ politics, but about more basic ideas such as: steady leadership versus poor temperament, qualified knowledge versus disqualifying ignorance, and an inclusive politics versus a mindless, endless bigotry. If these are the questions Americans are still asking themselves by month’s end, then these last hundred days may be the most anti-climactic of this entire campaign. Yet, presidential politics is rarely, if ever, as linear and predictable as what presently meets the eye.
As a leading political strategist for President Obama told me a couple of days following the DNC, “[Hillary] may very well win in November. It’s getting there that might scare the (expletive) out of you.”
In a presidential cycle that has featured nothing but big upsets, almost daily controversies, and a willingness by much of the American public to forgive and forget that which was once labeled as ‘out of bounds,’ it would not be surprising to see the pendulum of political polls swing once more. My advice? Hold on to your seats.