Stand by for a hate-filled, polarising campaign ... and one Trump could win

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“There’s still a long way to go, yet what seemed unthinkable a year ago now seems thinkable: Donald Trump could be the Republican candidate. Donald Trump could be president. Donald Trump could be the most powerful political figure in the world.

“For when someone like Trump admits that he could stand in any American city and open fire on a crowd and lose no votes, then you really have to take him very seriously. He doesn’t care what he says anymore. He has calculated that a substantial number of voters – particularly Republicans – don’t believe a word that comes out of the mouths of politicians. So he tells them what they want to hear. He doesn’t do nuance or bother with facts. If this comes down to a straight race between a maverick and an elitist insider who isn’t much liked even within her own party then Trump could win.”

When I wrote that piece – back in February, when he had only 79 of the 1237 delegates required for victory – people thought I had lost the plot. I did lose track of the number of readers and Twitter followers who set out reasons why it was ‘impossible’ for Trump to survive more than a few weeks in the early primaries, let alone become the official Republican candidate.

“Common sense will prevail,” I was told and the “Republican machine will gather round a centrist, safe pair of hands.” It didn’t. The more bizarre and outrageous Trump became the greater the number of his 16 rivals fell off the perch. And last Wednesday he was confirmed as the Republican candidate for the White House.

Could he win on November 8? On paper the odds remain stacked against him: he has never held elective office, he is despised by key figures in his own party, he seems incapable of sticking to a script or settling on a message and he relies on family members rather than what he describes as ‘political experts who can talk but can’t win’.

Yet the odds have been stacked against him since he announced his decision to run in June 2015. Everyone, including the ‘experts’ he despises, told him he couldn’t win. The political establishment from both parties told him he couldn’t win. The mainstream media told him he couldn’t win. International pundits and politicians let it be known that they didn’t want him to win.

He responded with a brilliant tactic. He turned his campaign into a battle between those experts, pundits, party political establishments and ‘bleeding heart liberal media’ and the people he claims to champion: the poor, the ignored, the left behind, the ripped off, the angry, the dispossessed and ‘those ordinary folk who want to see America great again’.

And the more he was attacked by the experts, pundits, establishments and liberal media, the more he was endorsed by those ordinary people. The fact he’s a reality TV billionaire who had nothing in common with them is neither here nor there, because he is speaking their language: the language of the unpolished whinge, the brutal put down and the easy answer.

Those ordinary people haven’t voted for years because they didn’t think it was worth voting. There was no one who spoke their language. Obama beat Clinton because he persuaded enough coloured and ethnic minority voters – who hadn’t voted for years, either – that he spoke for them and could win for them.

The other thing Trump has in his favour is that the overwhelming majority of Republican voters – along with the base which helped him win the presidential nomination – hate Hillary Clinton. Hate her more than they worry about some of his eccentricities and outbursts.

The battle between now and November 8 isn’t just an ideological one. This is about two candidates who hate each other. It’s about two electoral camps, embracing upwards of 150 million, who hate each other. So it’s going to be one of the most bloody, unpleasant and polarising contests that America has seen since the Civil War era. It’s actually a battle about what it means to be an American and who is entitled to describe themselves as such.

We’ve just seen a similar battle here – one that remains unfinished in my opinion – over the UK’s membership of the EU. That, too, became a battle between people who hated each other and was won by Leave, unexpectedly, because people who hadn’t voted for years realised their vote would make a difference. They turned on an establishment which they believe had ignored them for decades and saw June 23 as their chance for revenge.

Clinton is an establishment candidate writ large. Everything they could ask for. Trump is her polar opposite: not so much anti-establishment as pro an establishment of his own creation. At this point no one is writing off his chances. When it became clear he would be the candidate the received wisdom was that he would swing to the centre to make himself more acceptable: but there’s no sign of him doing that. In fact, he’s doing the opposite.

In an era which is throwing up one political/electoral surprise after another and when groups like ISIS are sowing fear across democracies, Trump may look like a very attractive option for the already fed-up and dispossessed, as well as for a middle ground that’s beginning to think, “maybe we do need someone who is tougher and less tolerant”. He could win.