The 2016 US presidential campaign has not lent itself to the making of definitive pronouncements or predictions about the fates of candidates. Yet we can say with some degree of confidence that this has not at all been a good week for Donald Trump. Could it also have been fateful for the future of the Republican Party and American politics as a whole?
Most of Trump's troubles of the past few days can be traced to the unnecessary and decidedly un-American criticism of the Khan military family, who spoke ill of the GOP presidential candidate at the Democratic National Convention. The results include a civil war Trump sparked with Republicans who dared to take him to task — most notably House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senator John McCain — and the confounding decision of a Trump spokesperson to lay the blame for the Khans' son's 2004 death at the feet of Barack Obama, who was at the time still four years away from the White House.
Compounding the Khan drama was the matter of an attempted ejection of a crying baby from a campaign rally and the still emerging drama over Trump's wife's possibly illegal employment status after moving to the US in the 1990s. Though this was an attack on a family member who is not running for office, this was a justifiable line of investigation considering the tenor of the candidate's anti-immigration campaign and Melania's own willingness to present herself as a counterpoint to supposedly violent, job-stealing migrants from other parts.
Trump has, of course, shown an uncanny ability to move on quickly from what seemed at the time to be huge missteps, but the level of pessimism around the candidate's ability to govern is now far greater than at any point during his short political career to date. One measure of this is that many commentators are now openly questioning his sanity, while several prominent Republicans are openly declaring an intention to vote for Hillary Clinton. Coinciding with recent events, Trump's poll numbers have diverted sharply from those of Clinton, who now enjoys about a five-point lead and is estimated to have near an 80% chance of winning.
We are yet to even witness a Trump vs. Clinton debate, so it's unwise to declare this as the week that killed off the former's chances. But there are a few factors that point to the extreme difficulties he will now face in pursuit of the presidency:
- First, Trump's Teflon-like veneer to date is largely irrelevant in the current crisis because he had no meaningful experience of being behind a competitor during the Republican primaries. He thus has no experience of clawing back a lead.
- Second, the New York businessman's success until now has been based on a policy of refusing to apologise or change tack. This behaviour, often construed as strong-willed and proudly politically incorrect by supporters, has continued in light of recent travails, yet remains untenable from a losing position.
- Third, Clinton and the Democrats — as well as large sections of the media, and perhaps even vindictive Republicans — now appear fully aware of his shortcomings and how to exploit them. Indeed, the Clinton campaign could have deliberately bated Trump with the well-constructed presence of the Khans at the DNC.
So, while still unwilling to make definitive predictions about the prospect of a Trump presidency, it might be fair to say that it looks the least likely it has since he emerged as the Republican frontrunner. Should the above factors prove decisive and current polling persist or even increase in favour of Clinton, he could be headed for a landslide defeat.
There is some evidence that Trump's unpopularity might also be affecting the chances of Republicans facing votes in the Senate, where a return to Democratic majority is a possibility. Retaking the House of Representatives is a much tougher ask, but, again, we're yet to even see a Clinton-Trump debate. Could things in fact get worse for the GOP?
Seemingly counting against the Democrats gaining anything other than the presidency in November is the reluctance of Obama, Clinton and other progressives to tar all Republicans with the Trump brush. While they could easily have driven home the message that the New York businessman is the true face of the party — white, greedy, racist, misogynist, the list goes on — they have instead attempted to focus on his departure from the acceptable GOP norm, even though the party has moved far to the right in recent years.
This could be nothing more than well-calculated politics designed to further the image of the Democrats as a force of positivity and productive government. Still, coupled with the increasing Republican rejection of Trump's platform, there is at least a sign that the yawning gap between the red and blue sides of American politics might one day be closed.
Trump has already shown the Republican establishment that many of their supporters don't care nearly as much about things like free market economics and constitutional minutiae as they envisaged. If he continues down the path of the past week and arrives at a massive defeat — again, not nearly a certainty — what has seemed to many observers a frightening rightward turn and part of a general global trend of illiberalism might ultimately reaffirm the opposite trajectory. That will be a safe enough distance to call this week a turning point.