Nearly every ‘normal’ person I’ve spoken to on my current trip to the USA is fed up by this election. And they’re stressed out and anxious about it too.
The latest twist in the saga has ensured that the contest will probably be a lot closer than envisaged – and it brings with it a fittingly seedy tinge to cap off an election in which most people feel that political culture has reached the gutter.
Up until last Friday, a landslide for Democratic Party presidential candidate Hilary Clinton over rival Republican Donald Trump looked a certainty.
Trump was trying to appeal to key demographic groups but his campaign seemed to be hitting the same old barriers.
Importantly, his standing amongst women has been consistently poor and last week it seemed to be business as usual. Take his daughter, Ivanka Trump, who owns a clothing brand. Her fashion line was last week hit by a Twitter campaign – #grabyourwallet – a play on her father’s incautious remarks about where he might like to grab women. Trump fought back by assembling the entire family for a television interview during which he insisted he didn’t care about his brand, he cared about the country. And he respects women, too. In fact ‘no one’, he claimed, respects them more than him. He then followed this up by surprising his wife Melania live on camera, telling the Slovakian former model she’d soon be giving 2 or 3 speeches. She looked shocked at the news. Hot on the heels of this came Newt Gingrich, former house speaker and prominent Trump supporter, telling a female news anchor she was ‘obsessed by sex’. The Trump campaign seemed to be stuck in the same old patriarchal ruts.
Republicans I met confessed that the election outcome may well be more disastrous for their party than anyone previously realised, worrying they’d not only lose the presidency, they’d lose control of Congress too.
Everyone’s focus last week seemed to be on what the next Clinton government would look like. It was reported that current Vice President Joe Biden was being lined up for the Secretary of State job. Such was the certainty of a Hilary victory that I popped into Biden’s local deli and tried his trademark sandwich: maple turkey, fresh aragula, champagne mustard.
As I munched on the ‘Joe Biden Special’ the champagne in the mustard seemed appropriate: a Democrat victory was assured.
Yet even before the latest scandal there came troubling signs for Democrats. By Thursday Trump was narrowing in on his rival in the polls.
And then on Friday, completely unexpectedly, the scandal around Hilary Clinton’s email was cranked up several notches by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) when it announced that an ongoing investigation into the husband of a top Clinton aide had yielded yet more emails from the private email account Hilary controversially used while Secretary of State.
This latest revelation is likely little more than a storm in a teacup, but the news comes as manna from heaven for what was a faltering Trump campaign.
Speaking on a whirlwind tour of midwestern states in the last two days, Trump has used the scandal as further evidence of what he says is the corruption of the Washington establishment. Speaking in Colorado, he did nothing to allay fears that his supporters will subvert the democratic process should he lose. The language was zero sum. ‘This is the last chance’ – he told supporters – to right the wrongs of a corrupt elite, a once in a-lifetime chance. To chants of ‘lock her up’ and ‘drain the swamp’, Trump called his ‘one of the great movements of all time’. And he returned to a familiar theme: his campaign’s financial support comes from him and his humble $61 donors alone; Hilary’s comes from ‘the politicians’ and her wealthy Wall Street donors.
Trump’s now outdoing Clinton on the road, putting in an eye-reddening rollercoaster tour of western states. He seems energised by the latest scandal and his party is breathing a collective sigh of relief. Trump is also playing the strongman. Joe Biden? Trump claims he’d blow at him and he’d fall over, for Biden is ‘almost as exhausted as Hilary’; Trump insists his rivals have no toughness, no strength, ‘no physical stamina’.
But we are also seeing a milder Trump. Today he reached out to African American voters – ‘give me a chance, what have you got to lose?’ was the message. In an effort to claw in those stubbornly opposing him he said he wanted ‘clean air’ (although he still backs fossil fuels) and wants to win over women. There’s been a consequent upsurge in ‘Women for Trump’ rallies organised by his daughter in law, featuring lots of women of all shapes, sizes and ethnic backgrounds in pink ‘Women for Trump’ blazers. In Colorado on Sunday Trump even held up a rainbow LGBT rights flag.
Despite the recent shot in the arm for Trump, Hilary Clinton should still win the election.
Hilary’s team claims that, in his recent intervention, the FBI Director was in breech of the Hatch Act which prevents FBI officials from attempting to sway an election.
But what is alarming for the Clinton team is that the polls had started to shift towards Trump before the FBI scandal. Twenty percent of Americans have voted already, but there are seven states where you can change your vote if you’ve voted as an absentee. The Hilary Clinton team, panicked by all this, will now up their game on the ground among minority voters.
Meanwhile, while Trump has surged in Florida, he is still behind in two states critical to any Electoral College comeback: North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
With a little over a week to go, however, the latest scandal to rock the Clinton campaign has ensured it is still all to play for.
When it comes down to it, the upshot of the recent brouhaha is likely to be a Clinton Presidency achieved by a narrower margin and tainted by the malodour of corruption and beset by legal challenges from the outset.
Therefore, while the majority of Americans may anticipate the coming end of a horrible race, as they do so there are ever more troubling signs for the future of US democracy