Our debt to Donald Trump

A barrage.
A barrage.
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
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By breaking so many conventions in his bid for the US presidency, Donald Trump is doing us a favor. But are we going to be wise enough to put it to good use?

I thought two weeks on the road, mostly Barcelona and Paris, would create enough distance from the US presidential campaign to make the stench go away. But there’s no escaping the internet, always ready to serve our prurient curiosity. We ended up watching the second debate at 3am in our Barcelona hotel. Still, there were quieter moments, such as the TGV (high-speed rail) trip back to Paris, where a disturbing thought experiment came to mind: What if Donald Trump were personally appealing?

Given the situation’s stored energy, stipulations are in order before we dive into this alternate, and fantastical, reality.

I have zero personal knowledge, as Counsel would say, of any of the facts behind the accusations thrown at the two candidates. Like most of us, all I have is media-say—a witches’ brew from which we ladle off whatever fits our sentiments.

While the latest FiveThirtyEight poll analysis tells us Hillary Clinton has an 85% chance of winning the election, I’d rather not take the matter as settled; this campaign has been too unpredictable. Instead, I’ll go back to what CNN commentator and former Obama advisor Van Jones said during the primaries: ‘“Something extraordinary is happening here; there is a full-on rebellion at the grassroots level of the Democratic Party…”

Jones pointed to both Bernie Sanders’ voters on the Left and Trump’s on the Right as equally angry at The Establishment—at a system that has ignored their hopelessness. The shared anger is confirmed by the following FiveThirtyEight graph:

Image for article titled Our debt to Donald Trump
Image: FiveThirtyEight | Provided by author

We’ve never seen candidates as disliked as both Clinton and Trump are in the 2016 campaign.

We now turn to the thought experiment.

Imagine an alternate reality in which Hillary Clinton as we (think we) know her competes with a Donald J. Trump doppelgänger, an alternate version we’ll call “Ronald J. Trump.” Ronald is just as charismatic and outspoken as Donald, he holds the same positions, he wants to Make America Great Again by retrieving jobs, limiting immigration, healing the “traumatized” Supreme Court, etc. But there are two important differences: Ronald is clean and competent.

In this alternate universe, Ronald pays taxes, releases his returns, and has no bankruptcies, sexual abuse accusations, or abused creditors, shareholders, or suppliers. Nothing.

On economics, foreign affairs, and social issues, Ronald has gathered a stable of established, respected experts—and he listens to them. He exudes competence and expresses his policies in rousing but coherent sentences. Ronald’s views are every bit as brash as Donald’s, but the xenophobia, racism, misogyny (and so on) are reworked as a justifiable hankering for a return to a proud American culture.

Without Donald’s baggage and incompetency, Ronald’s unfavorable rating collapses, particularly compared to Hillary’s after she (still) makes the unforgivable mistake of castigating Ronald’s enthusiasts as “a basket of deplorables” and “irredeemable.” Flinging names at one’s opponent is part of the game, but insulting his supporters, misguided as they may be, isn’t an effective way to position yourself as a healing president, especially in an antiestablishment climate.

In this scenario, the clean, competent Ronald easily vanquishes the disliked, distrusted Hillary. And thus we invite a ruthless authoritarian into the White House.

Back to reality, it now seems that Donald’s baggage will keep him out of our country’s highest office. We should be thankful to the real Donald Trump for the wake-up call, for defying conventional wisdom, for getting so close to the presidency—and for being so flawed that he is (one hopes) unelectable. In the future, we might not be so fortunate.

But…will we heed the warning? Trump’s (and Bernie Sanders’) supporters are angry at established politicians for failing to see how they were left behind as the world changed, as the old American Dream became unattainable. After the election, will the Clinton administration simply give lip service to our angry, abandoned family members and then revert to the ways that almost got Donald Trump to the White House?

If so, we might see Ronald in 2020.

This post originally appeared at Monday Note.