Ask a political professional about Donald Trump’s chances in a general election, and most will say the same thing: Trump doesn’t stand a chance. His unfavorable numbers are too high, there are too many establishment Republicans who will refuse to endorse him, endangered Senate Republicans will treat him like poison oak and run the other way, and both women and minority voters will turn out in droves to oppose him.
But there’s also another possibility: that there are just enough upset voters who just want to smash the current system that Donald Trump could cobble together an unlikely coalition of voters left, right and center large enough to win the presidency.
Consider the conservative side for a moment. At first glance, Trump’s support among conservatives and evangelicals seems bizarre. He doesn’t hew to many traditionally conservative principles, his temperament is outlandish, and his personal history is an insult to socially conservative values on sex, profanity, gambling and assorted other supposed sins. But evangelicals just don’t care: they’re so tired of losing the war against cultural liberalism that they’re willing to support the loudest, angriest voice against “political correctness” and ecumenical tolerance they can find.
Supposedly conservative voters are in the same boat. As Matt Taibbi eloquently wrote in the most brilliant and defining article yet written on the 2016 primary, most Republican voters don’t actually care that much about what is in the GOP platform. The desire to make sure that minorities and various “others” in society are starved of tax dollars doesn’t actually translate into a desire to allow hedge fund managers a carried interest tax loophole or to give corporations free rein to ship every possible American job to low wage sweatshops while sending all the profits to low-tax havens. Republicans today just want someone who is going to smash the system and make America great again.
It’s not just Republicans, either. There is a large group of angry middle-class American independents across the political spectrum who feel the same way. Many of these are part of the middle American radical demographic that backed Ross Perot, Jesse Ventura and similar non-traditional angry, tough guy celebrity candidates.
And then there are Democrats. Liberal prognosticators love to point out with glee how little the Republican establishment is being supported by its own voters. But the unexpectedly strong showing by the Sanders campaign should give them pause. Most Sanders backers are liberal progressives who are frustrated by the pace of change under the Obama Administration and want the Democratic Party to unequivocally support single-payer healthcare, financial speculation taxes, free college tuition and the like as a matter first of moving the Overton Window and then as a matter of real public policy.
But much Sanders support is also an outgrowth of a desire to break and destroy what they perceive to be an oligarchic duopoly in which the financial sector and the military-industrial complex control the levers of American public policy no matter which party is in power. It is a desire, in short, to supplant and destroy the bipartisan Washington Consensus. Especially for younger generations who grew up knowing nothing but rising inequality, the dominance of Wall Street and a series of failed wars, that call to arms is quite powerful. For white blue collar workers who have watched their factory jobs disappear in a wave of automation and globalization, the combined siren call of protectionism and anti-immigrant fervor can easily overcome the better angels of their nature and their more liberal instincts on, say, abortion or social security.
And then there is the left-libertarian coalition that sees its heroes in figures like Edward Snowden. Yesterday Snowden tweeted that the 2016 election was “a choice between Donald Trump and Goldman Sachs.” That’s an exaggeration of sorts, but don’t be surprised if a lot of otherwise liberal voters perceive the election in these terms and vote for Trump rather than simply stay home.
It may well be, in other words, that the Democratic establishment discovers later on this year what the Republican one already has: that many of its registered voters don’t care as much about the party’s overall platform as their party leaders thought, once the voters get a chance at some creative destruction.
As Zach Carter and Ryan Grim noted at The Huffington Post, there may be just enough of these voters–especially in the hard-hit Rust Belt–to give Trump the presidency. Trump already leads Clinton in Florida, and can give up almost every state with a major Latino population (except Texas) and still win the presidency as long as he cleans up the Rust Belt, particularly Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
All it will take is enough voters who just want to smash the current system to do it.
Hillary Clinton’s strength in the Democratic primary is coming not just from minority voters, but from those in the Democratic Party who want to continue the Obama Administration’s policies. These are generally status quo voters who feel that things are moving in the right direction, and we just need to keep moving the ball forward to increase opportunity to those still left behind. Clinton herself is running explicitly on that message. It appears for now that there enough of those voters in the Democratic primary electorate to secure her the nomination.
The question is whether there are enough of those voters in the general election to secure victory against an opponent who promises to smash everything in the establishment edifice regardless of ideology or common decency. That remains to be seen–but it’s probably no better than even odds at best.