Human beings are creatures of habit. We don’t like change, and are discomfited by the idea that our world may be more of a precariously constructed house of cards than we had imagined. This is true not only of our everyday jobs and family lives, but also of our politics. It is disturbing to think that our nation was one scandal or terrorist attack away from putting an ignoramus like Sarah Palin a heartbeat from the presidency. Few of us want to believe that the dignity of the Oval Office and our nation’s nuclear arsenals could easily fall into the hands of a deranged lunatic with no knowledge of global affairs. This is especially true if one belongs to the Ivy-League-educated upwardly mobile creative class in the Acela corridor, for whom “temperament,” “seriousness,” “fitness” and “qualifications” are highly-prized cultural commodities.
So we (and the creative class in particular) tell ourselves that no such thing could actually happen: the United States would never really elect a Silvio Berlusconi–much less a Benito Mussolini–to our highest office. It’s just not possible. Columnists like Michael Cohen insist that Trump’s support will diminish toward election day in the mold of 3rd party candidates, or that he will lose in a landslide because he has already proven himself disqualified and unfit for office (as Ezra Klein reminds us daily in increasingly, almost amusingly alarmed tones.)
The mistake these pundits make is assuming that the American people are remotely as invested in the notions of temperament, fitness and qualifications as they are. Writers, wonks organizers and campaign types who live in the greater D.C. and New York areas, who went to the same schools, attend the same musicals, go to the same trendy bars and parties and share the same workaholic gossip-fueled lifestyles find it difficult to imagine that anyone but trailer-park-living mouth-breathers could possibly support a candidate like Donald Trump. These same mostly clueless elites are the ones who failed to predict the housing bubble crash and excused their failure by calling it a “black swan event,” the preferred Malcolm Gladwell-popularized term for any predictable event that the connected creative classes were too insular to see coming in their bubble of epistemic closure.
The latter-year version of this conventional wisdom was marked by hilariously wrong political predictions: that Bernie Sanders would be a joke candidate, that Donald Trump would flame out by the fall of 2015, that the “establishment lane” of the Republican Party was the only one worth winning, that a 74-year-old socialist crank couldn’t possibly win a single state outside of Vermont, etc. Complaints about Sanders and Trump from the Nate Silver/David Brooks/Matt Yglesias /John Podhoretz crowd mostly came to attitude: they just seemed too crazy to be taken seriously. Their policies weren’t practical. They were too angry. Too divisive. They didn’t share what they believe to be America’s fundamental optimism, and its belief in a Horatio Alger world where America’s original promise of a city on a hill with opportunity for all is still in effect–but updated for the modern era with equal access for all races, genders and orientations.
But that turned out not to be true. Wonkish quantitative objections notwithstanding, a large number of Americans are very anxious about the economy and many other aspects of society. Some of that upset is based on white male resentment at being displaced by other races and genders; some of it is due to middle-class economic decline; some of it is because of anger at elites who seem to do well no matter how insecure the other 95% of America becomes. Some of it is anger at the political system: liberals and conservatives hating and blaming each other for the failure of the country and its archaically divided government to be able to move in any direction at all, regardless of what happens in a given election. It’s all of the above.
It turns out that when times are tough and people are angry, they don’t care so much about temperament or qualifications. They want someone who will smash up the place. 25% of voters aren’t undecided or supporting 3rd party candidates because Bernie Sanders or Jill Stein or Gary Johnson or backstabbing Romney RINOs led voters off a cliff like some modern-day Pied Piper: they’re doing so because they’d rather throw away a vote in protest than give further support to the current system.
Moreover, Republican voters aren’t about to move en masse to Clinton, as the latest Public Policy Polling data suggests. Clinton leads Trump, but only by five points after the Democratic Convention. Republican voters simply despise Clinton too much, with supermajorities saying that Clinton should be in jail and that she presents a greater threat to the United States than Russia does. Over a third think she may be in league with Satan himself. Not a lot of crossover potential there.
Donald Trump is still very unlikely to win the election. But that’s mostly because of the same demographic trends and electoral college challenges that would have been a problem for any Republican candidate this year. In a presidential year nowadays there are just more liberal voters than there are conservative ones.
But it won’t be a blowout, and it won’t have much to do with seriousness, fitness or temperament. The likeliest scenario is that Clinton will win by 5 or 6 points, with 8 to 10 points going to third party candidates due to the high negatives of both nominees–particularly after a brutal slew of negative advertising.
That will be far too close for comfort among the elite creative class that can’t imagine anyone voting for Trump or Jill Stein. But that’s because the creative class is fairly disconnected culturally from the reality of most of the rest of the country, and has been for quite some time.