How Trump Could Still Mount a Comeback

Donald Trump’s campaign for president is in freefall. After a disastrous third debate and a cringe-worthy turn at the Al Smith charity dinner, Trump’s prospects of winning the White House are worse than ever. He currently trails Clinton by over six points in national polling, and the electoral college map looks even worse.

Trump himself knows that he’s losing, which has dulled even his usual rambunctiousness at his rallies and campaign stops. And his insulting of every single constituency in America outside of white men seems to be leading to high voter turnout and excitement among Democrats. With no more debates, many Americans in swing states already voting, and only 17 days left until the election, it’s not clear that there’s anything Trump can even do at this point to turn the outcome in his favor. No presidential candidate in modern electoral history has ever come from this far behind this late in the race, opinions about the candidates have usually started to set in by this time, and there aren’t any significant opportunities remaining to Trump to change the narrative.

Of course, it’s still possible for some outside event to potentially alter the terrain. Though it’s not certain how much impact it might have–or whether it would even redound to Trump’s benefit at all–a sudden negative economic or national security event could change the state of the race. Some Wikileaks revelation could theoretically be massively damaging to the Clinton campaign (though it seems likely that given Julian Assange’s red-hot antipathy to Clinton anything more serious than the mild releases to date would have come out before now.) Clinton herself could become overconfident and make some gaffe or other. Or Trump could hope that the polls are all massively undercounting his support due to a 2016 version of the Bradley effect. But all of these scenarios are long shots, and not within the control of the Trump campaign.

Moreover, Americans seem to have started to tune Trump out. His shtick is getting tiresome, and he is losing the power even to shock Americans with his antics anymore.

That leaves him with two choices. He could limp pathetically to the finish line, continuing to stoke the flames of white male supremacy in the hope of creating an alt-right media empire. Or he could try to do something truly radical to reshape the race.

Given the diverse demographic realities of modern presidential elections, as well as the underlying economic anxiety facing Americans of all races, Trump’s best path to the presidency from the very beginning lay in a populist campaign that highlighted grievances on both sides of the aisle. After winning the GOP primary, Trump could have unshackled himself from Republican economic orthodoxy by running a campaign against Wall Street and the top .1%, pledging to reorient the tax code to benefit the middle class. He could also have dogwhistled to the xenophobia of the far right by promising to repatriate jobs from China and control the influx of low-wage competition from immigration, without turning himself into a dangerously racist caricature proposing impossible deportation schemes and advocating the execution of innocent African-Americans.

After all, the appeal of successful proto-fascist authoritarian leaders in trying economic times is national socialism. But without the socialism part, national socialism is just ugly bigotry without even the promise of a better future for the ethnic/religious majority. The danger of Trump early on was that he would recognize this, and win the presidency by melding some of the economics of Bernie Sanders with the xenophobia of Ross Perot (minus the deadly overt racism and misogyny that has seemingly doomed the Trump campaign.) There is still grave danger that some aspiring alt-right Republican candidate out there will use this formula against Hillary Clinton with success after a recession in 2020.

This formula is still Donald Trump’s best bet to win now. There has always been some question just how committed Trump is to orthodox Republican policies. He has already quite successfully broken with the GOP on trade policy, promising to renegotiate free trade deals that harm American workers and bring jobs back to the United States. He could break with the GOP on tax policy as well, and commit to reducing inequality and reinvesting in American jobs and infrastructure. He could promise to upend the tuition infrastructure and make college affordable, and he could claim the mantle of his knowledge of real estate to promise to address the housing affordability crisis. He could promise to decriminalize marijuana and put an end to overseas interventions. He could use the remaining days of a losing campaign to go full Bulworth, a liberated truth-teller exposing economic corruption on both sides of the aisle from the perspective of someone who fully took advantage of corrupt bipartisan loopholes himself.

Trump has already been shunned by the elite GOP donors who would hate all these things, and Romney-style Republicans have already deserted him droves. He doesn’t have that much to lose, and he needs to do something to earn some positive press in the closing days of the campaign. His opportunity to win votes from the college educated and people of color disappeared long ago, but the dispossessed who feel left behind by establishment Republican and Democratic policies are still up for grabs, including Johnson and Stein voters.

It’s highly unlikely that Trump will do any of this, of course. For starters, it probably wouldn’t work, anyway. People already know who Trump is, and there’s not much he can do to change their minds regardless.

More importantly, for all his faux populism, Trump is still a plutocrat who is unlikely to back any tax policies that don’t enrich him, nor is he empathetic enough to understand what he would need to do to have a prayer of winning over anyone not already in his alt-right camp. His personal fortunes are likely best enhanced by becoming the center of an alt-right media empire, rather than making a desperate play at changing the outcome of the presidential race. And he seems to be genuinely motivated by some of the ugliest misogyny and racism we’ve seen in modern American politics, which has prevented him from making the pivots he would have needed to stay competitive.

But there’s still a chance he could surprise all of us.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.