From the beginning of his candidacy, Donald Trump’s appeal was in his ability to communicate a critique. It was a criticism of elites, of political parties, of globalization, of imprecise language, and of racial and cultural norms. Trump’s style and methods were, as much as his policy prescriptions, a fundamental departure from traditional American office seekers. If he were to ascend to the presidency, it would mark the beginning of a new era in American politics. But seeking the presidency is a high-stakes game, and there are consequences for misjudging the moment. Just as Trump’s victory would have reshaped the political landscape in their favor, his loss will be equally hard felt by those who put their faith in him.
It is not hard to see precisely what Trump’s appeal is to his core supporters. The real estate mogul has promised his often overlooked voters that their economic woes are the result of global forces that can be reversed. He has pledged to take a harder-line stance on immigration than any Republican—an issue that has both political and cultural resonance. Trump has unashamedly thrown off the shackles of political correctness that prevent honest dialogue and serve too often as a blunt instrument by which liberal elites shame conservatives into silence. He has gravely wounded the bloated political consultancy by ascending to lead a major party without an expensive, top-heavy infrastructure. To the American populist, Trump has told the right people he doesn’t need them.
It’s a powerful message, but it’s being delivered by an awful messenger. As the convention season has ended and the general electorate tuned into this race, Trump’s support in the polls has reverted to roughly where it was in early May. In some recent surveys, Clinton is out-performing Barack Obama among minorities while also building on his strengths among white voters. If they held in November, Clinton’s advantages today would produce a bigger and broader victory than that which Democrats enjoyed in 2008. There are still three months left in which Trump can turn this around, but there are no more free throws. If Trump is to have a “moment,” he will have to make it happen for himself. That will require a level of discipline he does not possess.
If Trump loses to Clinton in November by the margins in today’s polls, his candidacy will have served to ratify all the aspects of the status quo his supporters loathe.
Trump boldly cast aside the Republican Party’s 2012 postmortem, which focused on rebuilding the party’s appeal among minorities, women, and student-age voters. Instead, he sought to build a coalition that doubled down on the party’s traditional strength among suburban and exurban white voters. But he has alienated as many whites as he has won. Trump’s prohibitive strength among white working-class voters came at the cost of whites with college degrees—a subset of the electorate Democrats appear set to win for the first time in 60 years. A deep national loss will confirm to Trump skeptics that the voters to whom Trump appealed can be safely ignored. Indeed, to cater to their appetites is to imperil the majority coalition that all presidential aspirants are obsessed with building. Trump’s core constituency will be rendered politically radioactive.
One of those appetites that have resulted in a Manhattanite multi-millionaire playboy becoming an unlikely working-class hero is his penchant for blunt talk. Republicans of a species that predates Trump have long lamented a liberal culture that conflates cultural sensitivity with inaccuracy. They were and remain frustrated by the idea that calling radical Islamic terrorism by its name somehow legitimizes terrorists. When a suspect’s race is conspicuously omitted from a report in the local crime blotter even if that hinders an investigation, they know what is to blame. They resent an ethos that insists gender is fluid while race is absolute when it is obvious to them that the opposite is true. There is something to be said for all of this, but the way in which Donald Trump has said it is counter-productive in the extreme. He has incautiously flirted with overt racists and anti-Semites, bigots and misogynists. He has been unclear about where he stands on the KKK and provides self-described “white nationalists” with comfort and authority. “PC culture” will not merely survive the Trump campaign but be confirmed as a necessary check on conduct reinforcing important taboos on overt racism.
And let’s not forget the political class, which is right now salivating over the prospect of its rebirth in the second Clinton administration. Remember how Mitt Romney was ruthlessly mocked for having a campaign apparatus in which it required 22 people to craft, inspect, and approve a single tweet from the candidate? In the post-Trump era, that will seem downright reckless. The Trump campaign that eschewed staffing, fundraising, advertising, polling, data analytics, and micro-targeting (to say nothing of the paid staff and infrastructure that makes up a traditional ground game) will become a cautionary tale. 2016 will be the control experiment demonstrating precisely why a national campaign cannot function without a billion dollar budget and an army of consultants who understand the craft of winning elections. Those who lent credence to the fantasy that celebrity and name-recognition were all that were required to win a national race will find themselves discredited. And rightly so.
Donald Trump promised his supporters all or nothing, and it appears likely that he’ll deliver. Those who saw him as a vehicle who could address their anxieties and punish their enemies were misled. Even if Trump manages not to lose in a landslide, there will be no clear lessons in his ascension. If a sweeping loss is in the offing, the effect of Donald Trump’s candidacy will be to consign his supporters and causes to history’s ash heap. That’s in many ways tragic, but it was also predictable.