Earlier in the campaign, I would have disagreed with Daniel Larison that Donald Trump would be a disastrous general election candidate. (I would have agreed that he would be a disastrous president, but that’s another matter.)
I would have pointed out that while Trump’s favorability numbers are poor, so are Clinton’s; that while Trump might well lose women by a larger margin than any previous GOP nominee, he might rack up large totals among men to compensate; that while he’d do extremely poorly among recent immigrants and first-generation Americans, he might do better than a typical GOP nominee among African Americans; and that while he’d cause the GOP to lose ground in wealthy suburbs, and hence in swing states like Virginia and Colorado, he’d potentially gain ground in rust-belt states like Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania. I would still have bet against him to win the general election, but I wouldn’t have taken crazy short odds to do so.
I’m not inclined to argue that way anymore. The reason has nothing to do with Trump’s positioning on the issues and the potential coalition that could be assembled around those issues. It has everything to do with Trump as an individual candidate.
It turns out Donald Trump really is another Sarah Palin. By that I don’t mean that he’s ignorant, ill-prepared for the job, or incoherent in his opinions – all of those things were already clear months ago. Nor do I mean that he has no class, taste or manners – those things were also already clear months ago.
What I mean is that he has far less control over his own persona than I had previously assumed. Until fairly recently, I bought into the idea that Trump was a professional wrestler, putting on an outrageous show, breaking all the rules, and flummoxing all the traditional candidates who could neither win as the Marquess of Queensbury nor grab a chair and jump into the ring with him.
But I’m coming to the opinion, bit by bit, that, while Trump is indeed a wrestler, he’s also one of the saps who doesn’t know the fights are fake. He really believes he’s the character he’s been playing, and gets quite defensive when somebody expresses doubts about his actual prowess. This is a huge problem for Trump, because the core of his appeal is precisely that he’s the one who sees reality for what it is, and is willing to call a spade a spade.
The puncturing of that image is, I believe, the most fundamental reason why his general election poll numbers are cratering. The specific reasons – his outrageous misogyny most prominently – are secondary. The primary reason is that Trump – at the very moment that he most obviously needs to begin making a general-election argument – is instead driving the conversation back to himself, and to his peculiar obsessions and insecurities.
There’s no reason to do this. Trump no longer needs to be outrageous to get attention – he’s the clear front-runner for the GOP nomination; he has our attention. He needs to demonstrate that he has more than one arrow in his quiver, more than one play in his book. Instead, he’s demonstrating the opposite.
One of the major reasons so many Americans would rather not see Hillary Clinton in the White House is that those who remember the ’90s do not recall fondly the Clinton family psychodrama, and those who are too young to remember are not moved by Secretary Clinton’s persistent tendency to make her candidacy about herself: her readiness, her commitment, even, sometimes, the notion that the country somehow owes her the position as recompense for all she’s been through. Trump, like Clinton, is also running a very personalist campaign – he’s not running on ideas or ideology but on character, on himself as the personal catalyst for making American great again. The most effective way to undermine that argument, while simultaneously neutralizing what so many people dislike about Clinton, is for Trump to make his campaign about his own vanity. And yet, Trump can’t seem to stop doing exactly that.
Trump is riding a tsunami of revulsion by GOP voters against the leadership of their own party. But once we get into a general election, there’s no need to vote for Trump in order to obliterate the GOP as we have known it. Because you could also vote for Hillary Clinton – or, of you’re somebody who can’t imagine pulling the lever for Clinton, you can just not vote.
Hillary Clinton is a pretty lousy candidate, but she has months to turn Trump from somebody who tells it like it is and is beholden to nobody, to somebody who just won’t stop blathering on about the awesome succulence of Trump steaks. Once that transformation is complete, there will be no reason for most voters not to prefer Clinton to Trump, despite all her flaws and failures.